As part of their effort to track down a suspected mastermind of the London terrorist attacks, British, U.S. and Pakistani authorities are turning their focus to a British citizen with extremist ties who was once sent to the United States on a mission to establish a terrorist training camp, according to senior officials and court documents.
U.K. and Pakistani officials say Haroon Rashid Aswat is emerging as an important figure in the attacks who may have given support to the four London bombers.
The officials, who have knowledge of the investigation, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Aswat, a British Muslim of Indian descent, first came to the attention of U.S. authorities after he made a visit in 1999 to Bly, Ore., where he conspired with a U.S. citizen to set up a “jihad training camp,” according to a 1999 indictment against James Ujaama.
Ujaama, a Seattle resident, cooperated with law enforcement authorities in exchange for leniency. A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said authorities were questioning Ujaama again in an effort to learn new information about Aswat.
A further U.S. indictment links Aswat directly to Abu Hamza al-Masri, a radical Muslim cleric who is now on trial in Britain for possessing al-Qaida literature and for inciting the killing Jews and of non-Muslims.
That 2002 indictment accuses Abu Hamza of sending Aswat, whom U.S. officials said is referred to in the document as “co-conspirator #3,” as an “emissary” to set up the terror camp.
The U.S. officials say Aswat’s suspected involvement in the London bombings could link Abu Hamza to the July 7 attacks.
Abu Hamza, who preached at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London until his arrest in April 2004, gained a reputation for fiery rhetoric. His sermons frequently encouraged young Muslims to join jihad movements in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2002 U.S. indictment seeks his extradition to face terrorism charges.
Among British Muslims influenced by Abu Hamza was Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who attempted to detonate an explosive device on a transatlantic flight in December 2001. The U.S. indictments indicate that Aswat was a close associate of Abu Hamza.
Not seen in years
Little is known about Aswat’s whereabouts. His family in northern England issued a statement Wednesday that he had not been seen in nearly 10 years.
Pakistani intelligence sources told NBC News in recent days that they were searching for Aswat. Other government officials, however, denied reports that Aswat had been arrested.
It is not known what connection Aswat may have to Pakistan, where radical militant groups operate with relative impunity. Since the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, several have formed loose links with the al-Qaida terror network.
Three of the four London bombers were of Pakistani descent, leading investigators to examine trips by all three to the country in the months before the attacks.
In recent days, Pakistani authorities have rounded up hundreds of suspected militants. But officials say no arrests have yielded a clear link to the London bombings.