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Suspects Held Without Charges in UK-U.S. Airline Bomb Plot

August 16, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: British authorities have arrested their 24th suspect in the alleged plot to bomb planes headed for the United States. The investigation, which now stretches to Pakistan and to Germany, is still under way.

For more on what officials now say they know, we turn to Sebastian Rotella of the Los Angeles Times. He joins us from London.

Welcome, Sebastian. With this additional suspect now under arrest, how extensive is this investigation into the plot at this point?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Los Angeles Times: It’s quite extensive, with all the suspects arrested here, another 17 in Pakistan, including someone who seems to be a very important figure, a lot of searches still going on, very meticulous searches of dozens of properties and cars. And the police have spent a long time following and watching these people, but, in these kinds of cases, there’s always a lot left to do once they’re arrested.

GWEN IFILL: Tell me about the very important figure arrested in Pakistan that you just alluded to?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Well, the exact title, whether it’s “mastermind” or one of the planners, remains to be seen, but his name is Rashid Rauf, and he’s been living in Pakistan for some years. He has brother who was among the people arrested in London.

And the Pakistani authorities who arrested him say that he was significant to the plot, that he was in communication with a group here, and that he in turn in Pakistan had been in touch with senior people of al-Qaida, so that he was a driving force in the plot. It’s always difficult in these cases to identify one mastermind, but he certainly seems a central figure anyway.

GWEN IFILL: We’ve also seen in your reporting that there have been some links suspected, at least, to the 9/11 attacks?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: There’s a slim but intriguing lead that could connect one of the plotters in this case — we don’t know which one it is — to one of the few fugitives remaining from the 9/11 case, an accomplice of the Hamburg cell, a German-Moroccan named Said Bahaji who fled to Pakistan.

And the Germans are helping the British investigate apparent contact, probably e-mail, between one of these plotters and Bahaji’s wife, who continues to be in touch with him from Hamburg. It’s significant because Bahaji is believed to be hiding with al-Qaida in Pakistan and may well still be involved in plotting. And it could be an interesting connection, in terms of potential involvement in the planning of this plot, but it’s too early to say definitively because there just isn’t that much information yet.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, but one of the reasons it strikes such a chord for people is we remember very well the Hamburg element of the 9/11 plot and wonder whether we’re seeing some of the similar — at least that’s what they’re investigating, which is that there is a cell in Hamburg which involves people who go back and forth for training to Pakistan, and in this case to London, as well.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Here, yes, you definitely have some similarities in the terms of a cell in London that seems reliant, if not dependent, on activity in Pakistan, whether it’s training, expertise, orders. The difference would be that, in Hamburg, they were immigrant students, and in this case we’re talking about British-born suspects of Pakistani descent.

So the combination is different, but if, in fact, what we’re hearing is true, we’re talking about a plot that would have attempted to at least match the horror of 9/11, so that connection or that suspected connection certainly adds another worrisome and interesting element to this.

Connection to London bombings

GWEN IFILL: Do investigators also say whether they are trying to establish a connection between this plot and the London subway bombings or any other of the attempted foiled, aborted plots we've seen in the last year or two?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Yes, they are. There are suspected connections to the London subway bombings of last year and to an aborted plot the year before that. The pattern is the same in each case, or similar, where you have largely homegrown cells, mostly Britons of Pakistani descent, some converts who, through contact with Pakistan, going and training at camps, some of them, advance their plots.

And that seems to be the case here, and what they're looking at is to see if some of these suspects may have trained in the same places or gone to the same places and had the same contacts as some of the July 7th bombers.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we talked a bit on this program last night about why British investigation techniques and laws are different than they are here in the United States, and it's important to note that these 24 have not been charged. Did they move any closer to filing charges? They've got, what, 28 days to do that?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: That's right, a bit less than 28 days now, 28 from the day they started. I think they're going to take as much time as they can. Because, you know, this was an aborted attack, it remains at the stage of planning, they have to develop as much evidence as they can under the rigorous British system.

I think most of these people will probably be charged, certainly the 19 whose finances were frozen. That's a sign that they have a pretty strong case against them. But I think that they're going to take just as much time as they can.

They have to pour through a lot of material. Even though there was a great deal of surveillance beforehand -- they were watching them for months and months and months -- they have to go through computers, they have to test materials. And I think they feel some pressure to give more information to the public that justifies this operation and the consternation that it's caused, but at the same time they were also thinking down the line about proving that case in court.

GWEN IFILL: After these months and months of surveillance that you were just talking about, do officials, do authorities feel that they have found suspects who actually have the expertise to pull off the kind of plot they're talking about?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: That's the great question that remains to be seen, and we'll need details about that. They are convinced that they did have both the intention and the expertise, and they would -- I think some of the indications would be that the significance of the Pakistan connection and, if it follows the previous pattern, training and expertise developed in Pakistan.

We're told that they did, but, you know, it's a difficult thing to do, luckily, to put together a liquid bomb and blow it up in midair. So we'll see. Certainly in past cases, like the subway bombers were able to pull it off.

But I think that's still a fundamental question, as they certainly had the plan, and it sounds creative, and massive, and ambitious. It would be interesting to see what the level of expertise of these guys was.

Racial profiling

GWEN IFILL: You know, as you remember, after 9/11, much of the civic debate in this country turned to the question of: How do you catch these people in advance? And then this debate about racial profiling. It seems like the same debate has now been kicking up and kicking around in the public sphere in London.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: That's right. I mean, particularly as it has to do with airports and airport screening, because so much of the focus of this is on airports. And there's incredible chaos and crowds that have been going on the past days, and just the efficiency, what's the best way to screen people?

So there's this debate, as happens I think all over the world about, to what extent, if you're assuming that Muslim terrorists are likely to be Muslim young men, do you factor that into your screening? Of course, it would be a mistake for many reasons to do ethnic profiling, particularly because, in this case, as in others, there are also converts of different races.

But, yes, there is obviously attention because there are some logical people who are going to be more likely to be suspicious than others. And I think, though, that the British police -- and it's striking even within Europe -- are among the most publicly careful and sensitive about these kinds of issues and really take them to heart.

And we saw that after July 7th, and we're seeing it again this year. So I think that's an important debate but one that will be treated very carefully by the authorities here.

GWEN IFILL: Sebastian Rotella, covering this in London for the Los Angeles Times, thank you very much.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Thank you very much.