Pakistan has told the U.S. military that an Arab al-Qaida operative who masterminded the London jetliner terror plot is hiding in mountainous terrain in northeastern Afghanistan, an intelligence official said Friday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the investigation, said the al-Qaida member is believed to be moving between Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces, which border Pakistan.
The information, he said, was obtained by interrogators questioning a British suspect in the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic passenger planes, Rashid Rauf, who was arrested in eastern Pakistan and is regarded as a key figure in the foiled plot.
The information already has been shared with the British and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan, the official told The Associated Press.
Plot OK’d by senior al-Qaida?
The official declined to identify the wanted al-Qaida operative and did not provide his nationality, but said he was a close aide to Egyptian-born al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. Detained terror suspects have told interrogators al-Zawahri likely approved the plan to blow up passenger planes leaving London for the United States, the official said.
Several hundred U.S. soldiers from the Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th Mountain Division are based in Kunar and Nuristan provinces hunting al-Qaida fighters and supporters of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Rauf was in touch with the al-Qaida operative through a courier from Afghanistan who would cross the porous, mountainous frontier separating Afghanistan and Pakistan to deliver messages, the official said.
Region a safe haven
The official said the operative, an Arab, had developed links with several Pakistan-based militants, including Rauf.
A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said Pakistan routinely shares terror-related information with American counterparts, but he could not comment on whether Islamabad had notified U.S. authorities about the al-Qaida operative.
Rauf, who officials claim once belonged to the outlawed Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, is among at least seven people detained in Pakistan in a roundup that helped foil the jetliner plot.
Some 23 people have also been detained in Britain, including Rauf’s 22-year-old brother Tayib.
The Afghan-Pakistan border has long provided sanctuary for Afghan insurgents allied to Hekmatyar and the toppled Taliban regime, along with foreign fighters belonging to al-Qaida. Al-Zawahri and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden are believed to be hiding in the region.