NEW YORK - A British murder investigation closing in on Altaf Hussain has “visibly rattled” the Muttahida Qaumi Movement supremo, according to an in-depth report published by a leading American newspaper on Friday.

“For two decades, Altaf Hussain has run his brutal Pakistani political empire by remote control, shrouded in luxurious exile in London and long beyond the reach of the law,” wrote Declan Walsh, the New York Times correspondent, who reported from Pakistan for years before his sudden deportation last year.

But, the Times’ dispatch said, Altaf’s luck started to turn in September 2010 after Imran Farooq, a once-influential leader in the movement who had split from the party, was stabbed to death near his house in northeast London town of Edgware.

“Soon after, Altaf Hussain appeared on television, mourning Farooq with a flood of tears,” the Times said. “But over the past year, the police investigation has turned sharply in his direction.”

“His (Altaf’s) London home and offices have been raided, and the police have opened new investigations into accusations of money laundering and inciting violence in Pakistan,” according to the report.

The police also impounded $600,000 in cash and some jewellery under laws that target the proceeds of crime.

“The scrutiny has visibly rattled Altaf Hussain, who recently warned supporters that his arrest may be imminent. And in Karachi, it has raised a previously unthinkable question: Is the end near for the untouchable political machine that has been the City’s linchpin for three decades?.“

Altaf Hussain fled to London in 1992, when the MQM was engaged in a vicious street battle with the central government for supremacy in Karachi, the dispatch said. The British government granted him political asylum and, 10 years later, a British passport.

But the MQM leader shows no sign of going back, it said, adding, that these days he is mostly at home, in a redbrick suburban house in Edgware protected by high walls, security cameras and a contingent of former British soldiers he has hired as bodyguards.

“From there, he holds court, addressing his faraway followers in a vigorous, sometimes maniacal style, punctuated by jabbing gestures and hectoring outbursts. Occasionally he bursts into a song, or tears. Yet, on the other end of the line, it is not unusual to find tens of thousands of people crowded into a Karachi street, listening before an empty stage containing Altaf Hussain’s portrait, as his disembodied voice booms from speakers,”the dispatch said.

“In Karachi, his overwhelmingly middle-class party is fronted by sharply dressed, well-spoken men — and a good number of women — and it has won a reputation for efficient City administration. But beneath the surface, its mandate is backed by armed gangs involved in racketeering, abduction and the targeted killings of ethnic and political rivals,” the Times said, citing the police and diplomats.

“Other major Pakistani parties indulge in similar behaviour, but the Muttahida Qaumi Movement frequently brings the most muscle to the fight.

An American diplomatic cable from 2008 titled ‘Gangs of Karachi,’ which was published by WikiLeaks, cited estimates that the party had an active militia of 10,000 gunmen, with an additional 25,000 in reserve — a larger force, the dispatch notes, than the city police.”

Many journalists who have criticised the party have been beaten, or worse, driving most of the news media in Karachi to tread lightly, according to the dispatch.

“In the West, the party has avoided critical attention partly because it has cast itself as an enemy of Islamist militancy,” the Times said. “In 2001, Altaf Hussain wrote a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, offering to help Britain set up a spy network against the Taliban.”

Critics of the party have frequently questioned the role of British officials in facilitating its unusual system of governance, it said.

“But Britain is not the only node of Altaf Hussain’s international support network. Through the Pakistani diaspora, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement has active branches as far afield as the United States, Canada and even South Africa, which has become an important financial hub and a haven for the group’s enforcers”, the Times said, citing Pakistani investigators.

Two police interrogation reports obtained by The New York Times cite militants from the movement who say they travelled to South Africa in between carrying out political assassinations in Karachi. One of those men, Teddy Qamar, confessed to 58 killings between 2006 and 2012, the police say. In an interview, Anis Hasan, the party’s joint organizer for South Africa, denied any link to organised violence.

Correspondent Walsh said Altaf Hussain was not available for an interview. But a senior party official, Nadeem Nusrat, speaking at the movement’s London office, denied any link to Farooq’s killing. “Our conscience is clear,” Nusrat was quoted as saying. “We have nothing to do with it.”

Nusrat said the impounded money had come from political donations. And he rejected accusations, also the subject of a police inquiry, that Altaf Hussain has directly threatened political rivals, in some instances by warning that he would arrange for their “body bags.”

“It’s all taken out of context,” Nusrat added.

“Altaf Hussain has receded from public view during the recent furor. There have been rumours about mounting health problems, which Altaf Hussain’s aides deny. But he cannot return to Pakistan, they state because the Taliban could kill him.”

Then there are the legal threats: over the years, dozens of murder charges have been lodged against Altaf Hussain in Pakistan, the dispatch said, noting that some have been quashed in court.