Reports Focus on Possible Bombing 'Mastermind'

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News reports have named a British citizen named Haroon Rashid Aswat as a key player in the July 7 London attacks that left more than 50 people dead. Some say he may be the "mastermind" investigators have been looking for. U.S. officials urge caution, but say Aswat tried to set up an al Qaeda training camp in Oregon a few years back.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As investigators in London pick through leads, they're trying to determine who may have provided financial, logistical and technical support to the July 7th bombers. One name is emerging as worthy of special attention: Haroon Rashid Aswat. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly tells us more about him.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

US and British officials say it's too soon to say whether Aswat may turn out to be the mastermind of the London attacks, but they do say he's of high interest in the investigation and that he had the training and international connections to have planned the operations.

Here's what's known about Haroon Rashid Aswat. He's 31, a British citizen from the town of Batley in northern England. Sometime in the '90s, Aswat became an aide to the radical blind cleric Abu Hamza Al Masri. Masri preached angry sermons urging jihad from the Finsbury Park Mosque in London. And in 1999, he sent Aswat and another aide to the US, specifically to Oregon, where they were to meet up with a third man, James Ujaama, and to try to set up an al-Qaeda training camp.

Haroon Rashid Aswat is never mentioned by name in the indictment US law enforcement later issued for Ujaama. But two US officials from different agencies say Aswat is, in fact, one of the unnamed co-conspirators mentioned in the indictment, and that he flew to New York on or about November 26th, 1999, then on to Seattle and finally to Bly, Oregon. According to the indictment, the co-conspirators spent their time getting firearms training, planning bunkers to hide ammunition and weapons, and watching a video on, quote, "improvised poisons."

After the Oregon episode, the trail for Aswat gets a lot murkier. The FBI is reported to have scaled back its search for him after intelligence emerged from Afghanistan that Aswat had been killed while fighting there for the Taliban. New evidence suggests he is alive. In fact, two British newspapers, The Times and the Guardian, have reported Aswat was arrested this week in Pakistan. Pakistan's information minister denies that. So the key questions now are: Where is he, and what role might he have played in the London attacks?

Today's Washington Post quotes security officials who say Aswat's cell phone received as many as 20 phone calls from the suicide bombers in the days before the July 7th attacks, but its not clear whether Aswat was the one using his phone at the time, or when he was last in London. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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