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Pakistani charity under scrutiny in plot

New York Times

August 13, 2006

By Dexter Filkins and Souad Mekehennet

British and Pakistani investigators are trying to determine whether the group of Britons suspected of plotting to blow up as many as 10 commercial airliners may have received money raised for earthquake relief by a Pakistani charity that is a front for an Islamic militant group.

The charity, Jamaat ud Dawa, which is active in the mosques of Britain's largest cities, played a significant role in carrying out relief efforts after last October's earthquake in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

It is one of the most militant of the groups battling the part of Kashmir controlled by India. In May, it was labeled a terrorist organization by the United States government.

British and Pakistani investigators are looking into the possibility that the group, whose name means the Association of the Call to Righteousness, passed the earthquake donations raised in British mosques to the plotters, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

One former Pakistani official close to the intelligence officials there said Jamaat ud Dawa provided the money that was to be used to buy plane tickets for the suspects to conduct a practice run as well as the attacks themselves. The money is believed to have come directly from the group's network in Britain and was not sent from Pakistan, the former official said.

"The Pakistanis have been asked by the British to examine the links between Jamaat ud Dawa and the suspects in the airplane attack," the former Pakistani official said.

According to a former British security official familiar with the investigation, some of the money raised in British mosques also went to the group's militant activities in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Both the former Pakistani official and the former British official spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

On Wednesday, Pakistani officials detained Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the head of the organization.

On Sunday, a senior American law enforcement official said that the British police and intelligence officials had identified several suspected accomplices of the plotters who were believed to have provided support to the plot outside Britain. The new suspects were identified by checking the arrested men's computers, the official said.

After the earthquake, which killed some 73,000 people, Jamaat ud Dawa raised funds in British Pakistani areas in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The group also urged British people of Pakistani origin to go to the region to help in the relief efforts, and hundreds did.

Several of the 23 suspects still in custody after the arrests by British police on Thursday - most of them Britons of Pakistani descent - traveled to Pakistan last year, ostensibly to help with earthquake relief efforts, said Nasir Ahmed, a leader among Britain's Pakistanis and a member of the House of Lords.

Mr. Ahmed said he was not sure how many of the suspects rounded up last week had gone to Kashmir to help, but among those who had gone were the suspects arrested in High Wycombe, west of London. The former Pakistani official said several of the suspects had gone to Pakistan at the time of the earthquake.

The official declined to say whether the suspects were believed to have been organizers or people who had provided support, like passports and safe houses.

Mr. Ahmed said it was possible that those who went came into contact with the militant Islamic organizations that were doing the relief work on the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir, where most of the casualties were. Indeed, at the time, Jamaat ud Dawa was welcomed by people in the area for stepping in where the Pakistani government had failed. The group was praised as one of the few providing aid efficiently, while Muslims around the world complained that Pakistanis had been abandoned.

"In the first few days, it was only religious organizations, the militant organizations, that were prepared to dig out people and provide relief supplies," Mr. Ahmed said. "It is possible that young people, many people, who have gone from U.K., may have fallen into hands of organizations like Jamaat Ud Dawa."

As both a militant group and a social welfare organization, Jamaat ud Dawa resembles its brethren in other parts of the Muslim world, like Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States government shut down many Muslim charities that it said were financing militant activities.

No one from Jamaat ud Dawa could be located Sunday in Britain. Its Web site says the organization has provided food to some 54,000 families who were struck by the earthquake. It also claims to be "one of the most feared militant groups fighting in Kashmir." The Web site displays a photograph of Mr. Saeed leading a demonstration protesting the United States government's designation of his group as a terrorist organization.

The details of the suspected plot to blow up the airliners began to emerge Thursday, when the police in Britain detained 24 people. The authorities said the suspects, most of them British-born young men of Pakistani descent, intended to smuggle liquid-based explosives onto 9 or 10 commercial airliners headed for the United States and detonate them as they approached. British officials said the plot, had it been successful, could have killed thousands.

The day before, on Wednesday, the police in Pakistan had arrested a British-born man they said was linked to Al Qaeda. They say they have at least one other British man in custody and are looking for at least one other suspect.

American and Pakistani officials have long believed that Jamaat ud Dawa is the successor organization to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was banned in 2002 by the Pakistani government, under American pressure, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It has called for holy war against the United States, India and Israel. Although it has avoided direct association with Al Qaeda, links between the groups have often surfaced. Abu Zubaida, the senior Qaeda member captured by Pakistani forces in the city Faisalabad in 2002, was found hiding in a safe house for Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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