Sunday, August 20, 2006


EXCLUSIVE: Maz on terror trail

By Mazher Mahmood

IT is 2pm. I am sitting on an unsteady wooden bench at a street cafe in Rawalpindi.

An unshaven waiter pours tea and fennel seeds from a large metal pot into a thick, cracked glass and slaps it on the table. An old Vespa races past firing a salvo of grit and dust over the table.

Opposite me is a well-built man in his 40s. Despite the 32° heat, he insists we sit at the roadside, with people bustling past, rather than attract attention by appearing secretive and seeking the haven of the cafe's interior.

"There will be more bombs. Jihadis (holy warriors) will take action against Britain and the West," he whispers. "It's Bush, Mush (Pakistan's President Musharraf) and Blair that are to blame. They are responsible for terrorism. It is their foreign policies that are causing such pain to Muslims."


I am in Pakistan to find out what led to the liquid explosives scare that all but paralysed Britain's airports. The words are those you'd expect to hear from the head of a terror cell.

Except the man I'm talking to is a Pakistani intelligence officer, tasked with tracking down terrorists.

His views are all too common in these parts.In a country where family and connections are everything, I only got to interview him because my late father's friend is a barrister whose son is an officer in the ISI (the Pakistan Intelligence Service).

No Westerner is going to get anywhere close to this access.

"We know that, since 2003, 24 men from Britain trained at an al-Qaeda camp on the Afghan border," he says.

"Sixteen of these are still missing. We have good information that they have all returned to the UK. But what is making it difficult to track these men is the fact that they all used fake names while they stayed in Pakistan."

The inference is obvious. That would mean 16 ‘sleepers'...terrorists, possibly suicide bombers, waiting to be activated in Britain.I have visited Pakistan, where I have many relatives, several times. The last was just four months ago. Even in the short time since then the atmosphere has changed. Once this place felt welcoming. Now, even as my photographer pictures me with innocent people in the street, there is anger in the air.

Educated people discuss anti-Muslim policies and worry about the country's coalition with Britain and America. Many of the middle classes believe that 9/11 and 7/7 were Jewish conspiracies and had nothing to do with Islamic extremists, while the poor daub graffiti and burn effigies of Bush and Blair.

Despite Musharraf's desperate attempts to put a lid on extremism, he is fighting a losing battle. It takes me just one phone call, for example, to secure a place at a leading madrassa or Islamic school.

The head of the Jamia Binoria school in Karachi, Mufti Naeem, is keen to help when I tell him my two sons want to attend. He promises to convert them into ‘proper' Muslims.

"We can provide accommodation as well," he says. "It's 3,000 rupees (about £26) per student per month. That includes food and everything."

Following the 7/7 atrocity, when it was revealed that two of the suicide bombers had undergone Islamic studies in Pakistan, President Musharraf banned all foreign students.

His order is effectively ignored. "We have lots of foreign students here, including several from Britain," Naeem smiles. And in this mix of conflicting loyalties are the many relatives of those arrested over the alleged terror plot — 23 in Britain and seven in Pakistan.

What do they think? To find out I travel to Mirpur, in north Pakistan, to meet Mian Naseer. He is the uncle of Rashid Rauf, the Birmingham man suspected of being the main figure behind the plot, and Rashid's brother Tayib, arrested in Birmingham.

"This is all just to divert attention from the atrocities being committed against Muslims in Israel," he seethed, his long white beard quivering in the sun. "These political tactics are beyond all us simple people."

Except Naseer, in his late 40s, is anything but simple. He lived in Birmingham until eight years ago and now runs a thriving business exporting sweetmeats known here as reveries to Britain. Rauf's family in Birmingham distribute a range of Asian sweetmeats and other food to shops across the Midlands.

Naseer's home is lavish, with a large drive and green lawn in a mountainous area which provides two-thirds of Britain's Pakistani population.

The area, once poor and populated with shacks, is now dotted with fashion able shops, hotels, car showrooms and pillared mansions that wouldn't be out of place in Beverly Hills.

The area has been transformed by vast sums of money being sent home by Mirpuris living in Britain.

Although these are religious people, life in Britain has made many very materialistic. But set against this is an atmosphere of bitterness among those who haven't been fortunate enough to have family in Britain who might transform their lives.

They feel that their old traditional way of life has been invaded by Western culture—and this contributes to a feeling of hatred towards Western values.

But Naseer is adamant that his family are innocent. "We are religious but we are not extremists," he tells me. "Our family have done a lot of charity work."

Indeed they have.

Rashid and Tayib's father, Abdul, is one of the founding trustees of the Crescent Relief charity that collected funds after last year's cataclysmic earthquake in Kashmir—though he left in 2001. Yesterday it was revealed that the Charities Commission is investigating reports of links between Crescent Relief and other British-based charities and the alleged bomb plot.

And last night Pakistani intelligence sources confirmed that they have arrested Abdul. He was picked up as he headed to Islamabad airport from his family home in Mirpur.

As sun sets it is now another stiflingly hot evening. I hear the call to prayer. For many it remains the sound of peace.

But for others, shuffling their way to imams of hate, it's a clarion call to Jihad.

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