ISLAMABAD (AP) – The co-owner of a catering company that organized events for the U.S. Embassy is among six men detained by Pakistan for allegedly helping the failed Times Square bombing suspect, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said.
In a statement on its website, the U.S. Embassy warned the catering company was suspected of ties to terrorist groups and said American diplomats had been instructed to stop using the firm.
Like Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American accused in the failed New York bombing, the six Pakistani detainees were all members of their country’s urban elite, including several who were educated in the United States.
One was a former major who bought his way out of the army because of a “disagreement with its policies,” the Pakistani official told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.
The suspects were part of a loose network motivated by hatred of America and the West. One of the men often traveled to the tribal areas close to the Afghan border where U.S. officials have said Shahzad received explosives training under the Pakistani Taliban, the official said.
At least two allegedly helped Shahzad with funding, the official and another Pakistani security officer said, although the exact nature of their link to the Times Square bombing suspect was still being investigated.
The co-owner of the Hanif Rajput Catering Service, Salman Ashraf Khan, was recruited because two other suspects “wanted him to help bomb a big gathering of foreigners” whose event his company was catering, the Pakistani intelligence officer said. He said a U.S. tip led to the first arrest, a computer engineer, Shoaib Mughal, who runs a large computer dealership in Islamabad.
Mughal is accused of telephoning Shahzad soon after the failed May 1 bombing in New York’s Times Square and urging him to return to Pakistan. He also visited the Afghan border region several times to meet with top Taliban commanders, including Hakimullah Mehsud, and give them money, the official said.
In New York, two U.S. law enforcement officials close to the Times Square probe said Friday that Shahzad told U.S. investigators he received financial support from the Pakistani Taliban for the failed bombing.
U.S. authorities believe money in the U.S. was channeled through an underground money transfer network known as “hawala.” However, investigators don’t believe anyone in the U.S. who provided money knew what it was for, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.
Several of the suspects arrested in Pakistan were educated in the United States.
A biography on the website of the Hanif Rajput Catering Service said company co-owner Salman Ashraf Khan attended college in Houston, Texas before returning home to help run his family’s business. The company founder is his father, Rana Ashraf Khan.
“I am shocked at what I am hearing,” Rana Ashraf Khan told the AP in an interview Friday. He said his son was a devout Muslim who went to the United States in 1997, first to study hotel management in Florida and then to Houston, where he majored in computer science.
“If there is any suspicion about my son of some links, put him on trial, but do not blame my company for involvement in this kind of heinous crime,” Rana Ashraf Khan told a local TV station.
The catering company works for foreign embassies and many of Pakistan’s wealthiest companies and individuals. The website features inspirational quotes by basketball star Larry Bird and poet John Keats.
The U.S. Embassy warning about the company was e-mailed to all Americans registered with the embassy under rules that require threat information to be shared with the wider American community, said Rick Snelsire, an embassy spokesman.
It was unclear when the six suspects were arrested. All but one was picked up in the capital, Islamabad, said the intelligence official, who was involved in the interrogations. He said one suspect had an MBA from the United States and knew Shahzad from his time there. He was working for a cell phone service provider in Pakistan at the time of his arrest.
Also picked up as a result of the other arrests were a former army major and his brother, a computer engineer, the official said. He said investigators had yet to determine what role the major and his brother had played in the botched bombing.
The ex-major is from Rawalpindi, where the army headquarters is situated. Last week, an army spokesman denied anyone connected to the army was arrested in the probe, saying only a retired major had been arrested on disciplinary grounds and was being investigated. The link to the army is noteworthy because of the Pakistani military’s past support for Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and Shazad’s family ties to the air force. It was unclear whether the suspect’s ties to Shahzad were ongoing when he still served.
The suspects are believed to be in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which has been known to hold people for months, if not years, without trial. It cooperates closely with the CIA, which is often given access to detainees.
Shahzad is accused of leaving an SUV rigged with a homemade car bomb in New York’s Times Square on May 1 that failed to explode. The 30-year-old was born in Pakistan and moved to the United States when he was 18. The son of a former air force officer, he led a privileged life. He has family roots in the northwestern city of Peshawar and grew up in at least one other city, Karachi, relatives and officials have said.