(THE TIMES) An Al-Qa’ida communications specialist was forced to take part in a “sting” to trace the whereabouts of some of Usama Bin Ladin’s most dangerous agents. Watched over by his captors, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan sent scores of coded e-mails to key Al-Qa’ida figures around the world demanding that they get in touch with him. Pakistani intelligence officers had kept the arrest of the 25-year-old computer engineer a secret while Western security services waited to see where Mr Khan’s electronic trail would lead.
Some of his contacts were in Britain, at least six were in the United States and all were told there were new orders from Al-Qa’ida’s high command. An intelligence source told The Times last night: “He repeatedly sent e-mails to important Al-Qa’ida figures.”
While Mr Khan was on his laptop, experts in Islamabad examined computer disks containing coded lists of agents and plans of possible targets for attack. A senior Pakistani source told The Times that the plans included “meticulous details” of Heathrow.
There were photographs of terminal buildings, the airport’s fuel farm and tunnels used by passengers and freight companies inside the security perimeter. This suggests that the British cell had someone with an airside security pass who was able to record precise measurements of roads, buildings and underpasses.
The source said that the planning was so detailed and up to date that it recorded how long traffic lights remained on red around the Heathrow perimeter and inside the security cordon. It included figures for traffic flow on roads to Heathrow, and details of escape routes.
The source said that the information was constantly updated and the strategies for attack refined by Al-Qa’ida planners. Investigators were astonished at the detail recorded on computer disks and the code that Mr Khan appears to have invented to link the hideouts of Al-Qa’ida’s leaders with cells worldwide.
There are reportedly the numbers of mobile phones but the code never uses the digits 0, 2 and 3. The codenames of agents are taken from holy books, including the Bible and the Koran. What police in Britain are trying to establish is whether Mr Khan took part in reconnaissance missions during the half a dozen trips he made to the UK in recent years. Pakistani sources say that Mr Khan also has Canadian citizenship making travel to the West easier.
His father, Hayat Noor Khan, works as a purser for Pakistan International Airlines, which allowed him to obtain tickets for his son. On at least two trips to Britain he was given permission to stay for three months — including one trip to further his education.
He is known to have enrolled at City University in London in November 2002 to take a course in human resource management. Staff at the university said Mr Khan was due to take a ten-week course of night classes beginning in 2003.
A university spokesman said staff on the course run by their continuing education programme recall Mr Khan attending four lectures. He told interrogators in Pakistan that he dropped out of the course “after losing interest”.
Mr Khan also spoke of having two cousins living in Britain who were arrested in 2000 on terrorism charges after they allegedly visited Chechnya and Bosnia to join in militant activities. Counter-terrorism officers are trying to discover who Mr Khan was in contact with during his trips and whether he attended any mosques known to recruit young British Muslims to attend terrorism training camps in Afghanistan.
Mr Khan spent 25 days at such a camp in June 1998 where his talents were spotted by Al-Qa’ida’s agents. He was 6ft 2in, and powerfully built, but it was his flawless English accent, his academic background and computer skills that made him so valuable.
He was able to visit the United States and Germany for study, though intelligence officials now suspect he was making contact with Al-Qa’ida agents and evaluating targets for possible attack. He has told intelligence agents how he has met some of Al-Qa’ida’s most experienced logistics and planning officers, including Khalid bin al-Attash.
The pair met in Karachi in January last year. Mr Attash reportedly planned the attack on the American warship, the USS Cole, in Yemen.
It was Mr Attash, now in American custody, who allegedly tutored the gifted young computer specialist into how to finesse surveillance operations and collate a comprehensive intelligence dossier.
Another of his alleged mentors was Ali Mohammed, a terrorist suspect with joint American and Egyptian citizenship who served in the US Army and who was involved in plotting attacks on two US embassies in East Africa in 1998. He told Mr Khan how Bin Ladin personally inspected the plan for that operation.
It was Mr Khan’s undercover operation since his arrest on July 13 in Lahore which led Pakistani police to Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted for the East Africa embassy bombings. Pakistani authorities said last night that they have seized important documents from another Tanzanian citizen containing plans for a terrorist operation in South Africa.
Mohammad Salman Eisa, also known as Ibrahim, a senior Al-Qa’ida operative was arrested at Lahore airport last week just before he boarded a flight to Dubai on his way to Johannesburg. “He was carrying information including plans to attack tourist sites in the South African city,” a senior Pakistan Government official said.
Two senior members of a mosque were reportedly arrested in New York yesterday on suspicion of plotting to buy shoulder-held missiles. The FBI claimed the mosque’s Imam, Yassim Muhhidin Aref, 34, and its founder Mohammed Mosharref Hoosain, 49 are connected to the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam.