LONDON — Zambia will extradite to Britain an alleged Al Qaeda operative suspected of having links to the bombers who struck London last month and of attempting to start a terrorist training camp in the U.S., officials said Wednesday.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa told reporters in the capital, Lusaka, that after discussions with British and U.S. officials, his nation had agreed to hand Haroon Rashid Aswat over to British authorities.
Authorities in Zambia said Aswat, 30, a British citizen of Indian descent, was believed to have entered the southern African country July 6, one day before bombs on three London subway trains and a bus killed 52 commuters and the four bombers.
Zambia captured Aswat on July 20, an arrest first reported by the Los Angeles Times, and British and U.S. counter-terrorism agents questioned him in custody there, Western officials said. The agents held discussions with Zambian authorities about where Aswat should be prosecuted, officials said.
Although the British government sought to have him sent to London, officials here continued to be cautious about Aswat's possible involvement in the bombings. He piqued the interest of investigators after they found that as many as 20 calls were made between at least one of the bombers and a cellphone associated with Aswat, officials said. But it remains unclear whether Aswat was using the phone at the time and whether the calls were related to the bomb plot, U.S. and British officials said.
Investigators also want to interrogate Aswat here about his alleged involvement in other terrorist activity, a British official said Wednesday.
"It seems that Zambia will send him here," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Not because he's thought to be some kind of mastermind of the London bombings, as some newspapers have suggested. We are being very cautious about such allegations. He is wanted for questioning in regard to Al Qaeda terrorism."
The official said he did not think there had been serious tensions with Washington about where Aswat should be sent. Aswat might still be sent to the U.S. to face charges if British investigators cannot build a case against him, the official said.
"I guess it's more straightforward to have him sent here because he is a British citizen," the official said. "I don't have the impression that the U.S. tried to have him extradited from Zambia. We and the Americans both agree that we would like to have him questioned."
Aswat is a well-traveled figure who has been under U.S. and British scrutiny for several years. He has been living in South Africa and traveling extensively in Africa at a time when Western counter-terrorism agents are increasingly concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism on the continent.
South African intelligence agents had Aswat under surveillance in the months before his arrest in Zambia at the request of American and British counterparts, officials said Wednesday.
At one point after the July 7 attacks, Pakistani officials said they had captured Aswat, but it turned out to be another Briton with a similar name.
Aswat grew up in the same area of northern England as three of the four bombers. A gaunt man with an unruly beard, he allegedly became a close associate of Abu Hamza al Masri, a radical Muslim cleric, in the late 1990s when Abu Hamza's Finsbury Park Mosque in North London was allegedly an international crossroads for extremists.
Like others active at the mosque, Aswat is alleged to have spent time at one of Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, U.S. and British officials said.
Further feeding suspicions about his possible role in the London cases, several suspects in the follow-up transit bombings that were attempted July 21 worshiped at Finsbury Park Mosque, a senior Italian anti-terrorism official said.
But despite similarities in the targets, methods and explosives used, investigators have not disclosed concrete evidence, involving Aswat or otherwise, linking the July 7 and July 21 incidents.
"We just don't know about his role, if any, in the July 7 and July 21 attacks in London," said Charles Heyman, a defense expert with Jane's Information Group. "What we do know is that a number of attacks have been thwarted in London, at least five and possibly 10 [in recent years]. He may have been involved somehow.... The London police are just trying to put a few more pieces into this jigsaw puzzle."
Aswat's family has expressed concern that he might end up at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. agents are investigating him in connection with the prosecution of Abu Hamza and others in a plot to set up a training camp near Bly, Ore., about six years ago. Aswat allegedly traveled to the U.S. to meet with prospective militants and prepare a rural training site for them, although the project was abandoned, U.S. investigators say.
During visits to the U.S. in 1999 and 2000, Aswat allegedly described himself as Bin Laden's "hit man," according to court records.
In other developments Wednesday, British police filed their first charges in connection with the two attack plots. Ismael Abdurahman, a 23-year-old resident of South London, will go to court today to face charges that he withheld information that could have helped police catch suspects, authorities said.