From Birmingham bakery to Pakistani prison, the mystery of Rashid Rauf

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The Independent Online

Before dawn most mornings, a van loaded with pallets of goods ­ from nan bread to muffins ­ leaves the Rauf family bakery to deliver to supermarkets and grocers in Birmingham.

Since it was established 25 years ago, the bakery in the Bordesley Green area has prospered through the hard work of its owners, meeting the demands of a diverse city by producing items from Asian sweets to iced sticky buns.

Until 2002, the delivery round would have been completed by Rashid Rauf, the eldest son of the firm's founder, Abdul Rauf, a devout Muslim who came to Britain from rural Pakistan in the early 1980s. Rashid's work was interspersed with visits to the nearby mosque, starting each day at 5am, and sessions at a gym. Like the rest of his family, he was unobtrusive and polite.

Rashid, 25, is now described with other labels ­ among them "Mr Talibrum". He has been variously accused of being the "key player", the "Mr Big" and the "mastermind" of the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners, foiled 10 days ago by the police and security services in Britain and Pakistan.

He was arrested on 7 August, two days before the operation that led to the detention of 24 people in Britain, including his brother, Tayib, as he tried to board a bus in Bahawalpur, a dusty backwater 300 miles south-west of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Under the headline "Bomb plot Mr Talibrum", one newspaper printed a hazy image of a bearded man in an Afghan-style hat, which purported to be Rashid. Suddenly, the former cake delivery man from the Birmingham suburbs had become a suspected kingpin of international terrorism.

Pakistani intelligence sources issued briefings that alleged Rashid had links with a senior figure in al-Qa'ida ­ possibly its number three in Afghanistan ­ and had sent money back to the UK to allow the alleged bombers to buy plane tickets.

Newspapers have reported he was arrested at five different locations, with eye-witness accounts at three of them.

But with British sources playing down suggestions that Rashid was the " controlling mind" of the alleged plot, the story behind the banner headlines reveals a more mundane ­ and potentially more disturbing ­ role for the father of two.

Some of the claims against the Rauf brothers seem to have been exaggerated. An outbuilding behind the family home, which was alleged to house an extremist mosque, has turned out to be used by their mother, Salma, to teach children the Koran.

Some of the allegations made in Pakistan about Rashid are rather graver. Investigators are delving into allegations of misdealing with a charity raising funds for Kashmiri earthquake victims, with which his family has been involved. Rashid is also under investigation as the link between Pakistan-based extremists and the alleged perpetrators of the airliner plot.

At the time of his arrest, one Pakistani intelligence source alleged of Rashid: "There is evidence of his contact with al-Qa'ida leaders. He is a British national who we have been interested in for some time, in particular concerning his links back to the UK. We see him at the heart of this [plot]."

There is reason to treat official Pakistani protestations with scepticism. Islamabad is highly sensitive to suggestions that Pakistan ­ rather than Afghanistan ­ is the major hub of extremist activity and, consequently, aims to play up the importance of its own anti-terrorism arrests.

Instead, British security sources suggest that while Rashid is an important suspect, he was suspected of being more of a "facilitator", providing links between the UK and extremist training camps and religious schools in Pakistan.

It is understood that at least seven of the 23 people under arrest in Britain had visited the country in recent months.

Certainly, Rashid was important enough to Operation Overt ­ the long-running investigation into the alleged plot ­ to have sparked the arrest operation in Britain 10 days ago when he was unexpectedly arrested in Pakistan.

On the streets of Bordesley Green, in Birmingham's south-eastern suburbs, the maelstrom of claims against Rashid were this week a source of incredulity. While his father and his brother, Tayib, 22, who is being held in connection with the alleged plot, were regarded as devout ("pure and hardworking" as one man put it), Rashid was considered to be interested only in his delivery job and football.

A family friend said: "He was not particularly religious, though he was a regular at the mosque. He was more into going to the gym or playing football.

"He was quite a bright kid but he never spoke about politics or 9/11 and Islam or anything."

Indeed, it is possible that Rashid ­ the product of a cosmopolitan community since he arrived in Birmingham at the age of one ­ would still be working as a deliverer of nan bread and muffins were it not for his departure to Pakistan four years ago. At that time his family suffered a tragedy when his uncle Mohammed Saeed was stabbed to death near his terraced house adjoining Alum Rock in April 2002. Detectives believed the 54-year-old delivery driver was attacked following a family dispute over an arranged marriage.

In Haveli Beghal, the village in the traditionalist district of Mirpur where the father Abdul Rauf was born, relatives insisted Rashid was innocent of the claims against him.

Rashid's uncle Liqat Zamil Qazi said: "He was a very silent person. He used to come for weddings and deaths. We cannot even imagine that the Rauf family is involved in this. They are very pious people."

It was doubtless this piety which in part persuaded Abdul Rauf, 54, who is a former religious judge in Haveli Beghal, to become involved in setting up Crescent Relief, a charity based in Ilford, east London, dedicated to education and health work.

The Charity Commission said last night that it was still assessing claims that money donated to Crescent Relief for victims of the Kashmir earthquake last October could have been diverted to extremist organisations in the region. A trustee for the charity confirmed that more than £100,000 had been sent to Kashmir this year to buy sheets and beds. There is no evidence that anyone connected with Crescent Relief in Britain, including Abdul Rauf, who stepped down as a director in 2003, knew that funds were being diverted for terrorist purposes. Investigators are trying to establish whether Rashid Rauf was at any time involved with distributing Crescent Relief money.

But concern at his activities has been heightened by the revelation that he is now related through marriage to the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Kashmiri militant group which is based in Bahawalpur.

The Briton, who has been living in Bahawalpur under the alias Khalid Rauf, married the sister of Maulana Masood Azhar, who is regarded as a key militant in Pakistan.

Indian authorities regard Jaish-e-Mohammed as responsible for the attack on its parliament building in 2001, an incident that nearly caused a war with Pakistan. In a statement, the group has denied that Rashid had ever been involved as a member.

The precise nature of the activities of Rashid Rauf in Pakistan, where his family say he has been selling refrigerators, is unlikely to be known before he is returned to Britain to face any charges arising from Operation Overt. The British high commission in Islamabad said this week that any such extradition was still "way down the track".