Human resources student who sparked alert

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The Independent Online

The man whose capture in Pakistan sparked the arrests of 12 al-Qai'da suspects in Britain, and is alleged to have revealed plans for attacks in Britain and America, studied at London's City University last year, it has emerged. Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan completed a 10-week evening course in human resources management starting in January 2003, the university said. The course cost £145.

It is one of six visits Mr Khan allegedly made to Britain in the last few years. All the latest developments in the hunt for al-Qa'ida operatives appears to lead back to Mr Khan. He has been cited as the source of new information that led to Tom Ridge, the US Homeland Security Secretary's now infamous orange alert speech.

A Pakistani who graduated from Karachi university, Mr Khan is said to speak English with a British accent. But a British link would be nothing new. Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man sentenced to death in Pakistan for the kidnapping and murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, was born and educated in Britain. And he may not be the only militant whose upbringing made him able to flit effortlessly between Britain and Pakistan.

The details of Mr Khan's arrest, and his exact role in al-Qa'ida, remain murky. When asked by The Independent the Pakistani Interior Minister, Faisal Salim Hayyat, denied reports that he is a "computer expert". Pakistan maintains that the name Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan may be an alias. Most al-Qa'ida suspects have them, and Mr Khan has at least one other: Abu Talha.

Reports about his arrest differ. Most now agree he was captured in Lahore, but some early reports said it was Karachi. He is said to have been briefing that he was a vital link in al-Qa'ida's communication network; American intelligence sources have been briefing that he set up a system for sending coded messages.

Mr Khan is believed to have received training at an al-Qa'ida camp in Afghanistan but, again, accounts differ. Messages are said to have been sent to him by courier from al-Qa'ida leaders on the run in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. He then sent them on by e-mail. But this contradicts the widely held view among al-Qa'ida watchers that the core group had been decimated, with its leadership unable to direct operations.

Recent attacks were said to have been the work of allied groups whose militants were trained at al-Qa'ida camps in Afghanistan, but were no longer receiving instructions from them. If the accounts of Mr Khan sending out orders across the globe from a computer in Pakistan are true, then al-Qa'ida's core may be alive and well in Pakistan.

But, just as the US government has been accused of deliberately issuing an orange alert to undermine the presidential challenger John Kerry, it is worth remembering that the timing of vital arrests of al-Qa'ida suspects in Pakistan is just as convenient for President Pervez Musharraf.

President Musharraf has been feeling the heat since Pakistan received unflattering mentions in the 9/11 commission's report. And he has been under pressure from the White House to help President Bush by delivering either troops for Iraq, or more arrests. Just as news of the arrests was emerging, Pakistan announced it would not be sending troops to Iraq.