28 November 2001. Thanks to BW.
Source: Purchased from the archives of the New York Times.

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The New York Times
December 1, 1998, Tuesday

THE MASKING OF A MILITANT: A special report.; A Soldier's Shadowy Trail In U.S. and in the Mideast


In mid-1984, a former Egyptian Army officer with an engaging manner and a gift for languages approached the Central Intelligence Agency in Egypt with what seemed an intriguing offer: He volunteered to be a spy.

The agency tried him out, but the Egyptian flunked. He had made contact in Germany with a branch of Hezbollah, the Middle Eastern terrorist group, and told its members that he was working with the C.I.A., a betrayal the agency quickly discovered.

Soon after, C.I.A. officials branded him untrustworthy and cut off further dealings with him, suspecting that he wanted to help the terrorists spy on Americans, United States officials said.

The agency discovered the next year that the former officer, Ali A. Mohamed, was trying to enter the United States, and it put his name on a State Department "watch list" intended to prevent terrorists and other security threats from getting visas, an American official said.

When Mr. Mohamed evaded this precaution and persuaded an American Embassy official to give him a visa, the C.I.A. issued a second warning to other Federal agencies that a suspect character might be traveling to the United States.

The warnings were not heeded. Mr. Mohamed emigrated to the United States and in the next decade cultivated a range of useful relationships with the American Government. He enlisted in the American Army and served with one of its most elite units. Then, in the early 1990's, he became a cooperating witness for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Today, he is imprisoned in a high-security cell in lower Manhattan, on suspicion of conspiring with Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile suspected of masterminding a series of anti-American terrorist acts, including the August bombings of two American embassies in East Africa. Prosecutors filed the charges against him in secret, and law enforcement officials have declined to discuss the specifics of the charges, even though its existence was disclosed last month.

Because of the secrecy in the case, it was not possible to learn whether Mr. Mohamed has contested the charges or pleaded guilty. His lawyer, James Roth, refused to comment.

The story of Mr. Mohamed's dealings with the United States, based on interviews with associates, Government officials and former Army officers, suggests that he was inexorably drawn to intrigue and the shadowy gambits of espionage. Along the way, several officials said, the American authorities missed opportunities to grasp the depth of his allegiance to the cause of Islamic extremism.

United States officials said Mr. Mohamed forged ties with Mr. bin Laden as early as 1991. He was adept at obtaining false documents for Mr. bin Laden's organization, the officials said, and assisted with logistical tasks, like Mr. bin Laden's 1991 move from Afghanistan to the Sudan.

The State Department granted him a visa to enter the United States in 1985, only a year after the C.I.A. severed ties with him. State Department officials, reached late in the day yesterday, were unable to confirm or deny the circumstances surrounding Mr. Mohamed's entry into the United States.

While serving in the Army as a supply sergeant assigned to Special Forces, his aggressive support for Islamic causes and open curiosity about intelligence matters raised eyebrows among colleagues.

In the most notable of those incidents, Mr. Mohamed took a few weeks' leave from the Army base at Fort Bragg, N. C., and told friends that he planned to join the mujahedeen rebel forces in Afghanistan and "kill Russians."

After returning, he boasted of his combat exploits to colleagues at the Army's Special Warfare School, prompting two of his supervisors to file reports with Army officials at Fort Bragg and with Army intelligence.

An Army official, citing inaccessibility of the records, said last night that he could not address how the service had investigated the reports or whether it had taken any action against Mr. Mohamed. The official added that because the matter had entered the court system, comment would be inappropriate. American officials now believe that he did fight with the Afghan rebels.

A year later, shortly before he was honorably discharged from the Army, Mr. Mohamed began traveling to the New York City area and training a circle of Islamic militants in basic military techniques. Members of the group, which was centered in Brooklyn, were later convicted of plotting a series of terrorist attacks in New York, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

By the early 1990's, Mr. Mohamed was fully enmeshed in a dual life. He was simultaneously collaborating with Mr. bin Laden's organization and talking regularly with Federal agents about the Saudi exile and other issues, officials said.

His story, American officials say, is a modern espionage parable in which Mr. Mohamed was trying to manipulate American investigators even as they were using him to gain a window into the activities of Mr. bin Laden.

Mr. Mohamed's arrest surprised some, but not all those who have known him in the United States.

"He told me on several occasions that he would never betray the United States, as far as breaking United States law or trying to undermine the Government," said Lieut. Col. Steven L. Neely, former director of Middle East studies at the Army's Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg. "He was in many, many ways as loyal a soldier as you'd find coming off the farm in the Carolinas or out of New York City."

Another United States official familiar with his career disagreed, saying his loyalty to America was always less important than his devotion to Islamic fundamentalism. "You could sit and have lunch with him, and he'd be as nice as pie. But if the call came in to blow you up, there is no question in my mind that Ali would blow you up."

In Egyptian Army
Strong Sympathy For Sadat's Killers

Mr. Mohamed was born in Egypt in 1952, and quickly gravitated toward a military career. After graduating from high school in 1970, he enrolled in a Cairo military academy and then joined Egypt's Army.

About 10 years later, he made his first visit to the United States when he was sent to Fort Bragg for training by American soldiers. United States intelligence officers often use such programs to spot possible recruits, but Administration officials say the C.I.A. did not approach Mr. Mohamed.

American officials say his duties with the Egyptian Army included recruitment of informants for his country's intelligence service.

His later years in the military coincided with a time of great turmoil in his native land.

The 1981 assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat by Islamic radicals in the Egyptian military was followed by brutal crackdowns on local extremists and their followers. Among the targets were Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric who eventually emigrated to Brooklyn, where he was convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and other New York landmarks.

Mr. Mohamed later confided to friends in the United States Army that he was deeply upset by the Egyptian Government's hard-line stand, and that he felt aligned with the Islamic radicals who carried out the assassination of Mr. Sadat.

One of his superiors, Lieut. Col. Robert C. Anderson, recalled a disagreement he had with Mr. Mohamed about the legacy of Mr. Sadat, an American ally who was killed after signing an historic peace agreement with Israel.

"I said to him, 'Anwar Sadat was a true patriot, and he gave his life,' " Colonel Anderson recalled. "And he said, 'Anwar Sadat was a traitor and had to go.' "

The Egyptian Army, Mr. Mohamed would later tell his American friends, was hostile to devout Muslims. In March of 1984, having attained the rank of major, he left the army, according to what he told the American military.

According to Government officials, it was in roughly this period that Mr. Mohamed made his first overture to Egypt-based officers of the C.I.A.

The offer was tentatively accepted by the agency, which was gearing up for a global war against terrorists. The bombings of the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 put pressure on the agency to recruit more agents in the Middle East.

Those demands were stepped up in March 1984, when terrorists linked to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah kidnapped William F. Buckley, the C.I.A. station chief in Beirut.

After the C.I.A. agreed to work with him, Mr. Mohamed made contact with a group of Hezbollah adherents in Germany, according to American officials.

Within weeks, the agency learned that Mr. Mohamed had taken that opportunity to reveal to the terrorists that he was working for the C.I.A.

It is not known whether Mr. Mohamed set out to be a double agent on his own, or whether he was at this point acting under the influence or instructions of an Islamic group. The C.I.A., however, decided to have nothing more to do with him.

United States officials now say Mr. Mohamed knew he had been cut off by the agency, which never gave him a reason. After he came to the United States, he told friends that he had worked with the C.I.A. in Germany and hoped to do so again.

In American Army
Taking a Leave With the Afghans

After leaving the Egyptian Army, Mr. Mohamed went to work briefly for EgyptAir as a security adviser. Then, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear, he decided to emigrate to the United States. Explaining the decision later at Fort Bragg, he told other soldiers that he had come to this country for its religious freedom.

In 1985, the C.I.A. learned that he was trying to obtain a visa, and it put his name on the State Department list of people who should be kept out of the country. American officials overseas have extensive authority to reject visa applications, particularly if security concerns are raised.

Mr. Mohamed got his visa, and when the C.I.A. found out, it sent a second warning to Federal agencies about the possible security threat, American officials said.

Mr. Mohamed arrived in New York on Sept. 6, 1985, and eventually settled in California.

A year later, he enlisted in the American Army, and was assigned to the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, where the Army trains its Special Forces. The base is also home to the elite anti-terrorist commando unit known as the Delta Force.

Although Mr. Mohamed was not a member of the Special Forces, the powerfully built Egyptian worked as a company supply sergeant, trained as a paratrooper, and received high grades for his abilities.

"You have separated yourself from your peers, and I have taken notice," Capt. Brian R. Layer wrote in a December 1987 commendation letter praising Mr. Mohamed's performance on a physical readiness test.

Fellow soldiers recall Mr. Mohamed as a rigorous and dedicated soldier who seemed eager to learn and who joked about having gone from being a major in the Egyptian Army to a "lowly sergeant" at Fort Bragg.

Fluent in Hebrew, French and English, as well as Arabic, he would assist other soldiers in translations, friends there said. He went for long runs and listened to the Koran on his Walkman.

There were signs that Mr. Mohamed was no ordinary immigrant soldier.

In 1988, he told his colleagues of his plans to take several weeks of leave and fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet forces. It was an audacious proposal for an active-duty Army soldier.

American intelligence agencies were in the midst of a multibillion-dollar program to aid the Afghan rebels, and the C.I.A. had taken considerable pains to conceal the American role. The capture or death of an American serviceman in Afghanistan would have been a major international embarrassment to the United States.

Mr. Mohamed's superior, Colonel Anderson, said he told him not to make the trip. But Mr. Mohamed replied that he planned to circumvent the Army's restrictions by flying to Paris on his American passport and then using other documents to travel from the Middle East to Afghanistan.

Colonel Anderson said he and another officer had written a detailed intelligence report to their military superiors, but heard nothing.

About a month later, Mr. Mohamed returned, bringing with him what he said was war booty. Colonel Anderson said he had shown him two belts purportedly taken from Soviet special forces soldiers he had killed in an ambush.

Although American officials are convinced that Mr. Mohamed fought with the rebels, there is no specific evidence that he killed Russian soldiers. Such belts were widely available in local bazaars.

Colonel Anderson and his colleague were deeply troubled by his statements, and they wrote another intelligence report that provided further details about what Mr. Mohamed had told them about his time in Afghanistan.

The other officer said he had no doubt Mr. Mohamed had fought with the rebels. "He had probably lost 20, 25 pounds," the officer said, "which indicated to me that he had done something fairly strenuous."

The officer, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the allegations of terrorism in the case and other security concerns.

Mr. Mohamed made no secret of his trip, and even boasted of his dealings with Afghan rebel leaders. He thanked another officer, Capt. Michael W. Asimos, for providing him with some unclassified maps of Afghanistan before he left.

"I remember Ali coming back at some point in 1988," Captain Asimos recalled, "and telling me how much Ahmad Shah Massoud was pleased that I took him some maps." Mr. Massoud led one of the mujahedeen groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

It is not known whether Mr. Mohamed had a relationship with any terrorist organization while in the Army. In retrospect, some of his colleagues say, he had an unusual interest in classified matters.

Captain Asimos ran a classified war game at Fort Bragg in 1988 that involved military and intelligence officers from all over the country. He said he had told participants to be careful of what they said in front of Mr. Mohamed, who they said did not hold a security clearance.

"I can specifically remember Ali coming down and saying I want to be involved in this, I want to help, I have a great deal of knowledge here," Captain Asimos recalled.

Toward the end of his service in the Army, Mr. Mohamed asked to be introduced to the C.I.A.'s representative at Fort Bragg, a former Army officer said.

The Army officer, unaware that Mr. Mohamed already had a history with the agency, recalls telling the C.I.A. official that Mr. Mohamed "has this burning desire to be utilized as an intelligence operative, and you're the logical guy to look at him."

The meeting lasted about an hour, the Army officer recalled. Afterward, he said, the C.I.A. official joked that Mr. Mohamed might already be a "spook," using the slang term for a foreign espionage agent.

"I just kind of laughed," the officer said. "How ridiculous that this guy could possibly be a spook matriculating in this sort of bastion of special operations activity."

With Militants
Shuttling From U.S. And the Mideast

In 1989, officers at Fort Bragg cast Mr. Mohamed as the star of a series of training videotapes intended to give soldiers a taste of how Islamic radicals view the world.

On one tape, he says of Israel, "From the Islamic perspective, nobody can recognize Israel has the right to live, because Israel stole an Islamic territory."

"We do not accept no peace," he adds. "No international conference. Nothing. No compromise."

That same year, Mr. Mohamed apparently began working more closely with Islamic extremists in the United States.

He disappeared from Fort Bragg on weekends, traveled to the New York area and offered military training to several militants associated with a refugee center in Brooklyn. He often stayed with El Sayyid A. Nosair, the Egyptian immigrant convicted of killing Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League, in 1990.

Prosecutors now assert that the refugee center was the principal base in the United States for Mr. bin Laden's group, Al Qaeda.

Mr. Mohamed met the local Muslims at an apartment in Jersey City, and taught them survival techniques, map reading and how to recognize tanks and other Soviet weapons, according to testimony by one of his students at Mr. Nosair's 1995 Federal trial.

Mr. Mohamed left the Army in November 1989, obtained his United States citizenship, and spent the next few years shuttling between New York, California, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

It is not known when he first met Mr. bin Laden. According to American officials, however, at some point in 1991 the Saudi exile asked him to help with a crucial task: moving his base of operations from Afghanistan to the Sudan.

American officials said this was a complex operation, involving the transfer through several countries of Mr. bin Laden and at least two dozen of his associates. At the same time, Mr. Mohamed frequented mosques in the United States, and American officials now suspect that he was recruiting operatives for Mr. bin Laden.

For Bin Laden
Complicated Dance With the F.B.I.

In the fall of 1992, Mr. Mohamed returned to fight in Afghanistan, training rebel commanders in military tactics, United States officials said.

At the same time, the officials said, a series of bizarre incidents brought him to the attention of the F.B.I. In 1992, Mr. Mohamed was detained by the authorities at the Rome airport whose suspicions were piqued by his luggage, which had false compartments.

He assured interrogators that he was on their side in the war on terrorism, and claimed he was involved in security for the Summer Olympics in Spain, officials said.

The next year, he was stopped by the border authorities in Canada, while traveling in the company of a suspected associate of Mr. bin Laden's who was trying to enter the United States using false documents.

Soon after, Mr. Mohamed was questioned by the F.B.I., which had learned of his ties to Mr. bin Laden. Apparently in an attempt to fend off the investigators, Mr. Mohamed offered information about a ring in California that was selling counterfeit documents to smugglers of illegal aliens.

Thus began a complicated dance. In the next few years, United States officials say, Mr. Mohamed provided some information about his movements and about Mr. bin Laden, who was becoming a focus of a New York-based inquiry touched off by the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and other plots.

The Government tracked his movements and phone calls, officials said, as they assembled evidence that suggested that Mr. bin Laden was a far more important figure in international terrorism than had previously been understood.

Shortly after bombs exploded outside the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last August, killing more than 200 people and wounding more than 1,000, Federal prosecutors in Manhattan subpoenaed Mr. Mohamed to testify before a grand jury.

He flew to New York in September, made his appearance, and was arrested.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company