The unmanned plane flew low over the mountains of Pakistan, controlled by a pilot in a darkened room thousands of miles away in the Nevada desert. He saw on his screen the target, a house on the edge of a village, and pulled the trigger that two seconds later told the drone aircraft to release a Hellfire missile.
The people in the house would not have known what was happening until it struck, just before dawn yesterday morning. Five of them died, reportedly including a man from Birmingham who was one of the world's most wanted, Rashid Rauf. How had a 27-year-old former bakery delivery boy, who once took iced buns around the streets of Bordesley Green, come to be regarded as the mastermind of a deadly al-Qa'ida plot? What was the truth about his mysterious escape from police custody a year ago? And what was he doing there in North Waziristan, meeting such an extraordinary end?
Rauf's lawyer says his family will not be sure he was killed until they see the body, if they ever do. British authorities yesterday said they were still trying to verify the death. But security forces in the area insisted Rauf was one of five people who died when two missiles from a drone aircraft struck a home in the village Ali Khel, near the town of Mir Ali. Eliminating such a high-profile suspect would be a great help to the Americans, who have faced bitter complaints from the Pakistan government about their attacks on the tribal areas bordering Pakistan.
Drones that can fly for 24 hours while their pilots sit safely at an air force base near Las Vegas are said to have dropped bombs and fired missiles killing children and civilians. The US says it is after militants. There is little doubt that Rashid Rauf had become one of those in recent years: he was accused of being the ringleader of a foiled plot to detonate liquid explosives on board transatlantic airlines in 2006, which a senior British policeman said would have caused "mass murder on an unimaginable scale".
So who was Rashid Rauf? The son of a baker called Abdul from a rural village in Mirpur, who came to Birmingham in the early 1980s. Abdul set up a bakery in the suburb of Bordesley Green, selling everything from muffins and iced buns to naan breads and Asian sweets. He had been a religious judge back home and was considered a devout Muslim by his neighbours. His eldest son, Rashid, was not irreligious, often going to the mosque at 5am before his delivery round, but he was mostly interested in his job, working out in the gym and playing football.
What happened to change him? Police believe the story starts with the murder of his uncle Mohammed, who was stabbed repeatedly on his way home from work in 2002. The 54-year-old staggered to the steps of his terraced house, then collapsed in front of his wife and children. Rashid Rauf was the main suspect. The motive has never been made public, but the attack was said to have followed a row about an arranged marriage.
Rauf fled to Pakistan, changed his first name to Khalid and made for the small town of Bahawalpur, several hundred miles south of Islamabad, where he knew a local imam who had stayed with his family in Bordesley Green. The 21-year-old fugitive soon became engaged to the imam's daughter. It would have been remarkable if his politics had not intensified dramatically at this point: his new wife was related by marriage to Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed – Army of Mohammed – which was outlawed at the urging of the US. It was alleged to have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, and in a number of suicide bombings. The roots of the group were in the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but after the 9/11 attacks a splinter group aligned itself with al-Qa'ida.
One teacher at the radical seminary used by the group said of the new arrival: "We were told his name was Khalid. A rich businessman, and very religious." He worked as a salesman for cosmetics or refrigerators, depending on reports. His wife and two very young daughters mostly stayed inside the house he bought in a smart area of Bahawalpur, in southern Punjab, where lawyers and other professionals live. They were not with him when he was arrested in August 2006, while trying to board a bus. A day later, two dozen further arrests were made in Britain. His grandmother, at least, was sure of his innocence. Fazeelat Bibi told the BBC: "He has no bad habits nor did he keep bad company. He is a humane and God-fearing person, obedient and punctual at prayers. Even a cat would scare him and he would not even crush an ant under his feet."
The plot allegedly involved chemicals that were harmless on their own but which could be carried on board a plane and combined in mid-air to produce a huge explosion, detonated by an electronic device such as an iPod. Up to a dozen aircraft would be destroyed, killing thousands of people. In London earlier this year three men were convicted of conspiracy to commit mass murder. But the courts in Pakistan did not uphold terrorist charges against Rauf, only those relating to forgery and possession of explosives. Then, in remarkable circumstances, he escaped. On the way back to jail from a court hearing last December his police drivers apparently stopped their van and visited McDonald's for a bite to eat, allowing Rauf to enter a mosque to pray. They never saw him again.
There were suggestions yesterday that Rauf never actually got away, that he was instead taken off to a cellar somewhere to be questioned vigorously and that the missile strike may be a way of covering this up, by allowing his death to be reported without any trace of a body. The only way to tell would be to send in troops to test the DNA of the victims, as the US has done before. But a source with experience of such matters at the highest level said: "This guy was a scrote responsible for a plan that went wrong. The Americans would never risk going into Pakistan to verify the body of someone like that."
Nonetheless, intelligence agents in north-west Pakistan insisted yesterday that Rauf was one of those killed at the home of a Taliban commander. America believes the area is a haven for militants, although some in Pakistan say the local tribes have been pushed into fighting by the heavy-handed US approach. There have reportedly been at least 20 drone attacks in three months.
Rauf was most likely killed by an MQ-9 Reaper plane, which can spend 24 hours in the air, moving at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. They fly as high as 25,000 feet, but can come in very low to their targets. Driven by propellers, a Reaper is about the size of a small private jet. It can carry four Hellfire anti-tank missiles and two 500lb bombs. The aircraft take off from a runway closer to the target, probably Kandahar in Afghanistan, but are piloted remotely in Nevada via satellite link. Rotating "eyeball" cameras in the nose of the aircraft show the terrain below in great detail. One US pilot said he liked flying them because he was in no danger, could enjoy being near Las Vegas, and could hand over the controls to someone else on a break from his shift, and collect his children from school.
The RAF also has pilots from 39 squadron in Nevada flying Reapers and the older Predators in support of British troops in Afghanistan, which presents the remote chance that Rauf – who had joint Pakistani and British citizenship – could have been killed by a British pilot.
The number of such strikes has increased markedly since August, after the US took a decision that these attacks – as opposed to the use of troops on Pakistani soil – was the most effective way of targeting militants. Foreign journalists are prohibited from travelling to the tribal areas, and there is a serious problem with verifying the details. The Taliban and local villagers often say that civilians are among the dead. But what does seem fairly certain now is that one way or another – and probably at the hands of an American sitting comfortably in Nevada – the life of a bakery boy from Birmingham who turned bad has finally come to an end.
Target in the war on terror: From failed student to one of the world's 'most wanted'
Abdul Rauf, a baker, arrives in the UK in the early 1980s from rural Pakistan. Rashid Rauf, 27, is one of five children. He is thought to have been radicalised by a sect in Birmingham in his late teens.
Sept 1999 Rauf enrols at Portsmouth University but leaves in the summer of 2002 without graduating.
2002 Leaves Britain for Pakistan. Is wanted by police for questioning in relation to the murder of his uncle.
Aug 2006 Is arrested in Pakistan after a tip-off from US intelligence over an alleged plot to explode liquid bombs aboard aeroplanes. The plot causes chaos and delayed flights for days. Passengers remain restricted in what they can carry.
Aug 2006 Twenty-three suspects are arrested in and around London, 16 charged with terrorism offences.
Dec 2006 Court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, finds no evidence Rauf had been involved in terrorist activities and downgrades charges to forgery and possession of explosives.
Dec 2007 Rauf escapes from police custody after being allowed to enter a mosque to pray.
Apr 2008 The "liquid bomb plot" trial starts at Woolwich Crown Court.
Sept 2008 After more than 50 hours of deliberations, the trial jury in the liquid bomb plot trial finds three men guilty of conspiracy to murder.
22 Nov 2008 Rashid Rauf is reportedly killed in a US missile strike in Pakistan.