Money-laundering experts from the FBI and Scotland Yard are tracking whether millions of dollars donated to Pakistani earthquake relief may have been siphoned to conspirators plotting to blow up American airliners.
"FBI agents have just arrived in the United Kingdom to help go through the books and try to track the money," said a source briefed on the U.S. investigation. "They're looking at several Islamic charities specifically involved with earthquake relief, but also at others."
One of those charities, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the political wing of a banned Pakistani group fighting to oust India from Kashmir, played a critical role in relief efforts after the October 2005 earthquake. It has also been linked to al-Qaida by the U.S. government. The group denied any connection to the terror plot yesterday.
Another group, Crescent Relief, was registered in East London by Abdul Rauf, the father of two brothers arrested in the plot - Rashid Rauf, 25, described by Pakistani authorities as "a key person" in the plot with connections to al-Qaida, and Tayib Rauf, 21, arrested in Birmingham, England.
The role that earthquake relief played as a cover for terrorist activities is also being examined more generally, since investigators say that several of the British plotters traveled to the Kashmiri region, ostensibly to answer the call for volunteers, but found their way to a terrorist training camp where they received explosives instruction, said the source.
While some members of the British Muslim community have speculated the men may have been "brainwashed" by people they met in Kashmir, U.S. investigators believe "they were not radicalized by their efforts in Pakistan, but that those who went there, went there to be trained," the source said.
Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann said al-Qaida has historically used charitable groups as a cover to slip below the radar of intelligence agencies, as well as a way to tap money.
"So anytime you have a cell with multiple connections to Islamic charities, they raise immediate alarm bells because that's a historic pattern," he said.
Kohlmann said that, generally, such charities do perform charitable works.
"But then, the money is skimmed off the top, either deliberately by someone at the top of the organization or someone at a mid-level, perhaps without the knowledge of the directors of the charity."
It could not be determined how many of those arrested Thursday went to Pakistan after the earthquake, which killed more than 70,000 people and left millions homeless in the Pakistan-administered region of Kashmir. Twenty-three men and one woman were rounded up in nighttime raids last week, with one released a day later. Another unidentified man was arrested in Britain yesterday.
The charity receiving the most attention so far is Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whose possible link to the plotters was reported by The New York Times on Monday. The extremist group, whose name means Islamic Missionary Movement, moved quickly into the vacuum created by the government's slow response to the earthquake, doing extensive rescue and relief work. The group is the successor to Lashkar-e-Taiba, ("the army of the pure"), which was banned by Pakistan as a terrorist organization. It is also one of the largest and best-trained groups fighting Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan province.
Besides money believed donated to the group by British Muslims, a subsidiary was set up to collect donations from Americans via a bank in Karachi, Pakistan, that has a relationship with the Bank of New York enabling it to accept deposits.
However, Bank of New York spokesman Kevin Heine said, "There have been no transactions in the name of that organization through our bank. And any attempt to transfer funds to this organization would automatically be blocked by our screening filters for organizations on the Treasury Department's list of terrorist groups."
In April, the subsidiary of the group was designated an alias for a terrorist group, according to a State Department Web site.
A spokesman for Jumaat-ud-Dawa in Lahore, Pakistan, denied any link to the terrorist plot in a statement on its Web site.
"Jamaa-ud-Dawa has no network in the UK and it never raised funds from Britain or any European country," he said in a statement. "... During last year's earthquake, Jama-ud-Dawa has done a great job for the victims, and individuals and organizations from across the world joined hands with JuD."