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Officials seek to close visa loophole

LONDON -- Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the thwarted London bomb plot who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Monday, showed the potential for disaffected young men to be lured as terrorists, a threat that British officials said they would have to contend with for a generation.

But the 25-year-old Khyam, a Briton of Pakistani descent, also personifies a larger and more immediate concern: As a British citizen, he could have entered the United States without a visa, like many of an estimated 800,000 other Britons of Pakistani origin.

US officials, citing the number of terror plots in Britain involving British Pakistanis, expressed concern over the visa loophole. In recent months, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has opened talks with the British government on how to curb the access of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.

At the moment, the British are resistant, fearing that restrictions on the group of Britons would incur a backlash from a population that has always sided with the Labor Party. The Americans say they are hesitant to push too hard and embarrass their staunch ally in the Iraq war, Prime Minister Tony Blair, as he prepares to step down from office.

Among the proposals that have been put on the table, according to British officials, was the most onerous option to Britain -- that of canceling the entire visa waiver program that allows all Britons entry to the United States without a visa. Another option, politically fraught as it is, would be to single out Britons of Pakistani origin, requiring them to make visa applications for the United States.

Rather than impose any visa restrictions, the British government has told Washington it would prefer the Americans simply deport Britons who failed screening once they arrived at an airport in the United States, British officials said. The British also screen at their end, and share intelligence with the Americans.

But Washington feels strongly, Chertoff has said, that it has the right to build controls against terrorists from Britain who do not have a prior criminal record -- precisely the kind of man Khyam was until he was arrested in early 2004 and put on trial for plotting to blow up targets like a major London nightclub and a popular suburban shopping mall.

For its part, the British government looks with dismay at the frequency with which Britons travel to their ancestral land of Pakistan -- an estimated 400,000 trips a year -- where a small minority, like Khyam, make contact with extremist groups and acquire training in weapons and explosives.

Foreign office officials have said they have discussed measures with the Pakistani Embassy in London, which grants Pakistani passports to Britons of Pakistani descent, to consider tightening the rules for Pakistani travel documents.

In Washington, a specialist on terrorism and Pakistan, Bruce Riedel, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and in the early Bush administration, and who recently retired after 30 years in the CIA, said that Khyam had been perfect material for Al Qaeda.

"He is the classic UK-Pakistani connection that Al Qaeda has focused on since 9/11," said Riedel, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "His UK passport gives him international mobility. His training at a camp run for Kashmiris by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency gives him expertise. Al Qaeda gives him direction."

The trial that ended Monday with the conviction of Khyam and four other Muslim men on conspiracy charges did not establish whether Khyam or his colleagues belonged to a Qaeda cell.

But the head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, Peter Clarke, said after the verdict the investigations into the fertilizer plot had given "a new understanding of the Al Qaeda threat to Britain."

At his sentencing, the judge, Sir Michael Astill, described Khyam as "the energy behind the conspiracy."