Airstrike Kills Qaeda-Linked Militant in Pakistan
By ISMAIL KHAN and JANE PERLEZ | November 22, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A British militant who was a liaison to Al Qaeda and was a main suspect in the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners in 2006 was killed Saturday in a missile strike by an American aircraft in northern Pakistan, senior Pakistani and American officials said.
The militant, Rashid Rauf, was among the five people killed in the attack by a remotely piloted aircraft in North Waziristan, close to the Afghan border, the officials said. He is perhaps the best-known of the figures killed in an American airstrike campaign there that has intensified since August and has caused increased strains between the United States and Pakistan.
In August 2006, Mr. Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani descent, was detained in Pakistan, leading to the arrest of 25 suspects in Britain in connection with what prosecutors said was a plot to destroy seven airliners headed for the United States and Canada. This September, a British jury convicted three of eight defendants of conspiracy to commit murder, failing to reach verdicts on the more serious charge of using beverage bottles filled with liquid explosives to blow up the aircraft.
But Mr. Rauf was not among those defendants. All terrorism charges against him in that case were dropped in December 2006. A year later, he slipped out of his handcuffs and ran from his guards after a court hearing in Islamabad, Pakistan, on a separate case in which he faced extradition to Britain.
Pakistani officials confirmed on Saturday that Mr. Rauf was the main target of the American missile strike, with Abu Zubair al-Masri, an operative of Al Qaeda. “Rashid Rauf and al-Masri were the targets and have apparently been killed in the missile strike,” a senior government official said.
In Washington, an American official confirmed the death of Mr. Rauf. “There are good reasons to believe, as the Pakistanis have said, that this major terrorist is gone,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Residents in the village of Alikhel, in the Mirali area of North Waziristan, said two missiles hit the well-guarded compound of a Taliban commander, Maulvi Khaliq Noor, Saturday morning. Three children were wounded in the attack, the residents said.
Brought up in Britain by parents who were Pakistani immigrants from Kashmir, Mr. Rauf, 27, settled in southern Punjab Province in Pakistan in 2002. He married into a family at the center of the Army of Muhammad, an outlawed Islamist group.
When Pakistani authorities arrested him in August 2006, the interior minister at the time, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, called him “a key Al Qaeda operative.” Mr. Rauf was described at the time as being instrumental in devising the airline plot.
The British police, who had the group in Britain under surveillance at the time, complained that the Pakistani police arrested Mr. Rauf too early and forced them to round up the suspects in Britain before enough incriminating evidence had been gathered.
Mr. Rauf’s escape was particularly embarrassing to the government because it showed police laxity a day after Pervez Musharraf, who was president then, had announced that the security forces had thwarted the militants and that stability was returning to Pakistan.
Mr. Rauf was wanted in Britain as a suspect in the murder of an uncle who was stabbed in Birmingham in April 2002.
The missile strike in North Waziristan on Saturday was the third by the Americans in almost three days. Since August, there have been more than two dozen strikes by remotely piloted aircraft, including one last week that hit a settled area in the North-West Frontier Province outside the tribal region.
American military commanders have declared the strikes successful in eliminating important Qaeda and Taliban figures.
But the Pakistani authorities have protested that the strikes are an infringement of national sovereignty and harm the government’s efforts to persuade the Pakistani public that the war against the militants is in the country’s interest.
Many Pakistanis argue that the American missile strikes are responsible for the suicide bomb attacks that have struck law enforcement targets, funerals and politicians in the North-West Frontier Province and in Islamabad, the capital.
After the strike on Saturday, a Taliban spokesman, Ahmadullah Ahmadi, said that no foreigners had been killed.
“Americans have killed innocent people and none of them were foreigners,” he said in a statement issued on behalf of a top militant commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, in Miram Shah, the main town in North Waziristan.
Mr. Ahmadi said the militants would seek revenge. “We will avenge the death of innocent people by striking in settled areas” against security forces, he said.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.