An untimely diplomatic spat erupted between Pakistan and the United States yesterday after it emerged that an FBI sting to snare two leaders of a mosque on terrorist-related charges in Albany, New York, was built around a purported plot to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations.
The two suspects, Mohammed Hossain, the founder of the small, shop-front mosque, and its prayer leader, Yassin Aref, were arrested last week. Prosecutors said that they were lured by an FBI informant into agreeing to launder money after being told it would later be used to buy a shoulder-launched missile to kill the UN envoy.
But the plot against the ambassador, Muneer Akram, never existed and was purely a concoction of the FBI to trick the suspects. However, Pakistan officials said the notion of setting up their diplomat in New York as the purported target of the plot was "mind-boggling". The row comes at a time when both governments have been anxious to trumpet improved relations. In recent days, Washington has been at pains to applaud Pakistan's leadership for stepping up co-operation on countering terrorism. It was information seized by Pakistan that exposed new information about purported al-Qa'ida reconnaissance on financial buildings in the United States and triggered the recent elevation of America's terrorist alert.
But there was no attempt by Pakistani officials in Islamabad to disguise their astonishment at the nature of the Albany sting, which is not connected to the new terror alerts. "It is mind-boggling why they could not use the name of an American functionary," Masood Khan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference.
The government said it had made a formal complaint to Washington. "We have made a démarche to the US embassy here," Mr Khan added. "We hope that the US will realize its mistake and give instructions for rectifying this faulty methodology." The two suspects in Albany are in custody and will face a court hearing today.
American officials said they fell for the sting after being told by the FBI informant that he worked for a Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish e-Mohammed, and that he needed them to launder cash that would be used to purchase the missile.
The men have been charged with money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to conceal material support for terrorism. Both could face up to 70 years in prison and a $750,000 (£400,000) fine.
* The US government was preparing last night to issue new security requirements on tourist helicopter companies operating in New York after analysis of seized al-Qa'ida computer disks showed that the terrorist network has considered using the helicopters in a possible terror attack.
Officials are also studying indications that the terror network has also considered packing limousines with explosives to attack specific buildings.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd