N.Y. bomb plot probe shows radicalism might be on the rise among Terroristani elite
By Karin Brulliard and Shaiq Hussain
Sunday, May 23, 2010; A10
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A crescendo of violence has steadily cramped the lifestyles of well-heeled Pakistanis and expatriates in this tidy city by targeting elite hotels and eateries. Now militancy may have infiltrated one remaining social reserve of those groups: private, canapé-laden parties in manicured compounds.
A Pakistani intelligence official said Saturday that the U.S.-educated co-owner of a catering firm to swanky events, including American Embassy functions, might have given money to the suspect in the Times Square bomb plot and been asked to aid attacks on diplomats’ gatherings. Salman Ashraf Khan, 35, is among several detained in a widening Pakistani probe into the attempted bombing in New York that has netted a former army major, a computer salesman and other professionals.
Khan’s suspected involvement prompted the U.S. Embassy to warn Americans to avoid the catering company. The arrests added to evidence that the terrorism threat in Pakistan emanates not just from cave-dwelling radicals but also from the Western-oriented upper crust — and that those groups might overlap.
“It’s not just an individual pulling strings,” a Western official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There are an awful lot of people connected.”
The precise ties between those recently detained in Pakistan and Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani American accused of the New York bomb attempt, have not been established, and the intelligence official said none had confessed to roles in the bomb plot. But Khan and at least two of them knew Shahzad — a product of Pakistan’s urban elite — and all had lambasted “anti-Muslim” U.S. policies during interrogations, the official said.
In the United States, investigations of Shahzad, an American citizen, and other terrorism suspects have prompted concern about extremism among “assimilated” middle-class Muslims. Muhammad Amir Rana, a terrorism researcher in Islamabad, said his recent surveys indicate that radicalization is rising among privileged Pakistani youth, who relate neither to the West nor to Pakistan’s impoverished masses.
“They feel alienated,” said Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, who added that such feelings have rarely led to violence. “So they try to identify themselves through religion.”
Combating Islamist radicalization is a focus of a new surge in U.S. aid money to Pakistan, where polls repeatedly reveal deep anti-Americanism.
The Pakistani intelligence official said Khan and Shahzad were friends and probably met during Shahzad’s trip to Pakistan earlier this year. Another man detained, Shoaib Mughal, owns a small computer-sales firm in Islamabad and is suspected of linking Shahzad with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas. A third is Khan’s business partner; the two provided food to the cafeteria of the headquarters of Mobilink, a cellphone company, according to Khan’s father.
The official said a former army major was also arrested on suspicions of links to the plot. But another senior intelligence officer, echoing military statements, said that arrest was unrelated to the Shahzad probe. The senior officer played down the Islamabad detentions, saying investigators were questioning and releasing many people.
But the rare U.S. alert on Friday about terrorists’ ties to Hanif Rajput Catering Services, Khan’s firm, indicated that investigators were looking at him more seriously. The family business caters more than 200 events a month for military, government and diplomatic circles in the Islamabad area, and the intelligence official said militant organizations might have sought to “use” Khan for access to them.
In an interview Saturday, Khan’s father, Rana Ashraf Khan, called that idea “absurd.” He said it was possible that his son, who graduated from the University of Houston in 2001, met Shahzad in the course of business. The elder Khan said his son was religious but displayed no extremist tendencies, nor did he have any connections to the Western regions populated by militants.
He said his son, who lived at his parents’ home with his wife, also had no relationship with Mughal, the computer shop owner whom the Pakistani intelligence official said was the key focus of investigators. Merchants near the shop, Infinix Quality Services, described Mughal as devout but gentlemanly.
“He is a regular prayer-offering guy,” said one business owner, who said he feared being quoted by name. “To me that doesn’t suggest he is a militant.”
Salman Khan vanished on the morning of May 10, and his father said the embassy alert confirmed the family’s suspicions that he had been picked up by security agencies. The father said Khan’s business partner “disappeared” the same day.
Rana Ashraf Khan said his son occasionally expressed a belief that American policies in Pakistan caused “suffering,” but that he was “full of praise” about his five years in the United States and enjoyed Western movies.
“We are educated people. Not extremists. Not fanatics,” the elder Khan said of his five children, who include two physicians living in the United States. “There was nothing in Salman that could have tempted him to even be sympathetic to people bent on the destruction of the United States.”