Supermarket owner Mohammed Nazam said he was chatting with one of the key suspects in the trans-Atlantic airline terror plot less than two hours before the young man was arrested in a pre-dawn raid.
Nazam, a close friend of the family of 22-year-old Tayib Rauf, described an ordinary youth who delivered buns and cakes from his father’s confectionary shop — and had visited Nazam the night before the raid to pick up a check for a delivery.
“The day he got caught he was with me till 2:30 in the morning. We chatted about business and other ordinary things, nothing to do with politics,” Nazam told The Associated Press on Sunday.
“He probably still had my check in his pocket when he was picked up — around four in the morning — from his home. If he were a person involved in a gang, he wouldn’t be sitting with me chatting, would he?”
Nazam’s description of Rauf, who was arrested Thursday, matches that of many suspects in the alleged plot: friendly, young men whom neighbors and friends have difficulty imagining in the role of terrorist.
Links to al-Qaida?
Authorities say Rauf’s brother Rashid — who was arrested in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan — had links to al-Qaida and was a leader in the plot to blow up jetliners bound for the United States with liquid explosives.
He moved to Pakistan shortly after his maternal uncle was stabbed to death in April 2002. Rashid Rauf was reportedly a suspect in that murder, and police raided his Birmingham home as part of the homicide probe.
Friends say the family cut ties with Rashid Rauf after he moved to Pakistan — but authorities believe he maintained close contact with Tayib and his 19-year-old brother Maroof, who also was detained but has not been named in the list of those arrested.
Pakistani officials say Rashid Rauf’s arrest prompted an accomplice in the southern city of Karachi to make a panicked phone call to a suspect in Britain, giving the signal for the airliner plot to move forward urgently. The intercepted call was instrumental in foiling the bombing plot, officials say.
Nazam said the brothers hail from a long line of respected religious judges in Kashmir’s Mirpur region.
“I’ve known the family for a long time. They are a religious family back home, known as qazi” or religious judges and leaders. “The kids are religious. I knew his father and grandfather,” said Nazam.
Nazam said Tayib went to his supermarket once a week in his white delivery van to take orders and drop off cakes and buns.
He and others in the neighborhood said they didn’t know Rashid Rauf. A business associate who said he has known the Raufs for five years said the family had not been in contact with Rashid since he left Birmingham after the death of his uncle, Mohammed Saeed.
The business associate, who identified himself only by his first name, Mohammed, said Tayib had recently mentioned he thought he was being followed by police for the past four or five months.
Three vans, including the white one Tayib used to deliver sweets, were parked over the weekend outside the Raufs’ two-story family home. Neighbors said no one was in the house.
The father, Abdul Rauf, is in his native village of Haveli Beghal in Mirpur in Pakistani Kashmir, attending a wedding. His wife and daughter are believed to be staying with relatives or friends. Neighbors described the family as quiet, normal and friendly.
Tassawar Haq, the imam of the Tayyabah Mosque near the Rauf home, said Abdul and Tayib Rauf prayed regularly at his mosque. “Abdul Rauf is a good person,” said Haq.
Nazam said Abdul Rauf left Kashmir in the 1960s to settle in England. He said he spoke with the father Saturday by telephone in Kashmir.
“He was shocked by what has happened,” said Nazam, adding that he was trying to get a flight back to England as soon as possible.