LONDON — A Briton of Indian descent who reportedly had telephone contacts with the four London transit system bombers just before the attacks has been apprehended in Pakistan, an official said Wednesday, as Britain moved to close its doors to extremist preachers and deport a prominent pro-Al Qaeda cleric.
The arrest of Haroon Rashid Aswat could be a break in the investigation of the July 7 bombings and could tie the events directly to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even though the four bombers were British citizens.
Aswat was previously sought by U.S. prosecutors, who have alleged that he was one of two "emissaries" Al Qaeda sent to the United States in an aborted 1999 effort to set up a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore.
Investigators have determined that three of the London bombers made extended visits to Pakistan in late 2004, returning to their homes in Britain in February. Authorities suspect the three received terrorist training during that period.
According to British media reports, investigators had been searching for a person linked to Al Qaeda who entered Britain in the weeks before the bombings and departed only hours before the attacks. That figure now appears to have been Aswat, the Times of London reported today, quoting intelligence sources who said that he had been to the hometowns of all the bombers.
U.S. authorities have alleged that Aswat was one of two emissaries sent to Oregon in 1999 by London-based Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza al Masri to create an Al Qaeda training camp.
According to the 2002 indictment of Earnest James Ujaama, an American who became a follower of Abu Hamza, Aswat and another man flew to New York on Nov. 26, 1999, then made their way to Seattle and Bly, where they met potential trainees, conducted firearms training "and viewed a video recording on the subject of improvised poisons."
The training camp, however, was never built. In a plea bargain last year, Ujaama admitted delivering materials and a recruit to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He agreed to assist U.S. authorities in investigating terrorist activities.
The developments in the London investigation came as Britain outlined a tougher attitude toward radical preachers and moved to deport Abu Qatada, often called Bin Laden's ambassador to Europe.
The Palestinian cleric is under house arrest because authorities deem him a threat under Britain's anti-terrorism laws, although they did not charge him with a crime. Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced that Britain had struck a deal with Jordan that would allow him to be deported there.
Abu Qatada, 44, who was first arrested in Britain in 2002, had been a spiritual advisor and preacher at the notorious Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, where he advised convicted "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and alleged Sept. 11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, among others. That is the mosque where Abu Hamza held forth until authorities shut it down in 2003.
Abu Qatada frequently has publicly praised the "morality" of the Sept. 11 attacks as well as Bin Laden and his movement. In his remarks, Clarke said the government planned to put together a list of suspected extremists who could be barred for radical preaching, running incendiary websites or otherwise fomenting terrorism. He said Britain would exclude people "more widely and systematically," including some who may have already received asylum.
He specifically mentioned a Syrian-born preacher, Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, who has publicly praised Bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks and Tuesday said that Britain had brought the July 7 bombings on itself by continuing to wage war in Iraq.
"I will follow the approach I have set out today in the case of Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed and other individuals whose names are in the public domain," Clarke said.
In the wake of the London bombings, Britain has been the target of renewed criticism from some of its allies for allowing Islamic radicals to take root and thrive in the country. Some have referred to the British capital as "Londonistan."
Authorities in several European countries have argued that Britain's relatively tolerant stance, rooted in its long tradition of individual liberty and giving asylum to political dissidents, has created security problems not only for itself but for its neighbors in the new era of global terrorism.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has already announced plans to introduce new anti-terrorism laws when Parliament reconvenes in October, and Clarke has been working to build consensus for the tougher measures across party lines.
Abu Qatada had already been labeled a danger to the public by British officials, but courts had previously ruled he could not be deported to a country where he might face the death penalty, which is banned in Britain.