BRITAIN'S most-wanted terrorist and the militant suspected of masterminding the 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives is believed to have died in a US missile strike in a remote area of Pakistan.
Intelligence officers said Rashid Rauf, who is linked to al-Qaeda, was killed along with an Egyptian and three others when their house was hit by a missile fired by an American pilotless drone before dawn in the North Waziristan tribal region.
Rauf, 27, from Ward End, Birmingham, escaped from custody outside an Islamabad court last December. He was wanted in the UK by West Midlands Police in connection with the 2002 murder of his uncle. After leaving Britain for Pakistan, he is thought to have been radicalised by an extremist Islamic sect.
Rauf is believed to have been the ringleader of the airline plot, uncovered with the help of Pakistani intelligence, which had the potential to kill on the scale of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks. The plot to blow up 10 airliners with explosives smuggled aboard in drinks containers was discovered before the militants had the opportunity to put the attack into motion but resulted in tighter controls on cabin luggage – particularly liquids.
A London jury convicted three men in the case in September. Intelligence officers in north-west Pakistan claimed Rauf had been killed in yesterday's attack, although there was no official confirmation. They named the dead Egyptian as Abu Zubair al-Masri. Arab casualties are usually taken as a sign of an al-Qaeda presence.
Arrested in Pakistan in August 2006, Rauf, of Pakistani origin, had travelled to the country in 2002 after the murder of an uncle, 54-year-old Mohammed Saeed, who was found stabbed to death in April, 2002. Earlier this year, the West Midlands force confirmed that it was liaising with both the Home Office and the Foreign Office about his extradition.
During his time in Pakistan, Rauf married a relative of one of Pakistan's most notorious militant leaders, Azhar Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-e-Mohammad. While the group has been principally focused on fighting in Indian Kashmir, some splinter groups joined al-Qaeda's cause. Pakistani authorities were embarrassed by Rauf's escape last year, and there was considerable speculation over the ease with which he made his getaway.
Yesterday's strike occurred in the North Waziristan region, part of the tribal belt from where militants are supporting the growing insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan and a possible hiding place for al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
The house was in the town of Mir Ali, and the attack came just two days after Pakistan lodged a protest with the US ambassador over missile attacks on its territory. The area has been a hive of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity in the past.
"According to our information two missiles were fired by the drone on a house," an intelligence officer in the region said. "We have confirmed reports of five people killed and six injured." Missile-armed drones are primarily used by US forces in the region.
Yesterday, Rauf's family had no comment to make at their terraced home in Birmingham. A man, believed to be a relative, told the media: "I am angry. For your own safety, all I can say to you is goodbye."
The fugitive Rauf took the first name of Khalid while living in Pakistan where he is said to have made contact with a senior al-Qaeda operative, Abu Obadiah al-Masri, to plan the airliner attacks. The police then became aware of his identity. By that time British security agencies had uncovered the airliner plot and the Pakistani authorities were requested to track Rauf but not arrest him as it would have alerted the UK players in the operation.
However, he was picked up and arrested on August 7, 2006. This was before British investigators had gathered what they considered enough evidence to successfully prosecute the plotters. Eight men went on trial at Woolwich Crown Court in April accused of conspiring to smuggle home-made liquid bombs on board a series of Atlantic passenger flights.
Three men were found guilty of conspiracy to murder, but they will face a retrial next year.
Intelligence officers said earlier this year that someone connected to Rauf in Pakistan had contacted the plotters to tell them to go ahead with the terrorist operation as quickly as possible.
However, the plotters were themselves arrested before they could act.
Britain had no extradition treaty with Pakistan, but the foreign minister said it might be willing to deport Rauf, who holds dual British and Pakistani nationality, if a request was made.
In December 2006, a judge in Pakistan threw out terrorism charges against Rauf but he was remanded in custody, accused of possessing explosives and forged identity papers, regarded as holding charges while details were being sorted out for him to be sent back to the UK.