Investigation in Egypt Illustrates Al Qaeda's Web
Publication: New York
Author: Susan Sachs
CAIRO, Nov. 20 To support their terrorism, they
skimmed money from a charity for Muslim orphans in
Albania and robbed an Italian diplomat's home in Jordan.
They acquired or forged seals from universities, border
guards and the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry.
They brooked no dissent or deceit: suspecting that the
15-year- old son of one member in Sudan was an informant,
they murdered the boy.
These were the hard-hearted, often itinerant men of Al
Qaeda at work, according to thousands of pages of
documents produced for a 1999 trial of the Egyptian
Islamic Jihad, the terror group whose members became foot
soldiers for Osama bin Laden.
These men used the Muslim pilgrimages to Islamic holy
sites in Saudi Arabia as a cover for recruiting new
members or passing cash from one member to another. They
moved money around the globe to bail members out of jail
in Algeria or Canada, and to finance applications for
political asylum and thus implant terrorist cells in
The merger of Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, gradual at
first over a decade, then completed in 1998, vastly
enhanced Mr. bin Laden's reach and organizational
In 1981 members of Islamic Jihad joined other terrorists
in assassinating President Anwar el- Sadat. But after
that attack, before moving under Al Qaeda's umbrella,
Islamic Jihad rarely scored successes on its own.
Still, the network that the two groups have developed has
ranged across the world, extending from the United States
to Yemen, from Azerbaijan to Britain. The headquarters in
Afghanistan has been damaged, but not yet destroyed, by
the American- led attacks.
American officials accuse Jihad leaders and Mr. bin Laden
of conspiring to plot murders, including the bombings of
United States Embassies in Africa three years ago, where
224 people died.
The confessions and investigative reports, provided to
The New York Times by Montasser al- Zayat, the lawyer in
Cairo who represented most defendants in the trial, show
that the Egyptians provided the tactical support for Al
Qaeda by forging travel documents, transferring money and
In early 1998, when the two groups announced that they
had formed the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews
and Crusaders, the focus of Islamic Jihad shifted from
overthrowing the Egyptian government to attacking
American interests. The merger also appeared to increase
the Egyptians' sense of purpose, according to the
confessions of defendants in the trial.
"Osama wanted to launch a guerrilla war not only in
the Arab and Islamic world, but in the whole world,"
one Jihad member, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Sayed al-Naggar, said
during his interrogation by Egyptian security agents.
"He believed these attacks would force America and
its allies to change their policy in the Middle East and
the Islamic world, and this would fulfill the ultimate
goals of the Front. It would show the weakness of these
Arab and Islamic leaders compared to the Front."
Dozens of Tentacles
It is not clear what role Islamic Jihad or its leaders
may have played in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon. But its fate is now
intimately linked to Al Qaeda; earlier this month, Dr.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Jihad's leader and now Mr. bin Laden's
second in command, was at Mr. bin Laden's side in a
mud-hut hideout somewhere in Afghanistan, according to a
Pakistani journalist who met with them.
The scope of the Jihad network is illustrated by the
countries where the 107 defendants in the 1999 trial were
arrested Albania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, the United
Arab Emirates and Egypt. It was Egypt's biggest terrorism
trial since that of Jihad members in 1981 for the
assassination of Sadat. In what became known here as
"the trial of the Albanian returnees," the
court convicted 87 people and sentenced 10 of them to
death, including Dr. Zawahiri, who was tried in absentia.
Mr. Zayat, the lawyer, said the defendants were
"certainly" tortured by Egyptian intelligence
agents before they confessed to being Jihad members and
gave up the names of their contacts. He declined to
speculate on whether the content of the confessions may
be less credible because of the presumed torture.
There have also been reports that the police in Albania
used torture to extract confessions from suspects
arrested there. Albania, whose chaotic transition from
Communist rule after 1990 made it a magnet for the
fugitive terrorists, was the first European state to join
the 50-plus members in the Organization of the Islamic
However the confessions were obtained, they both
corroborated and amplified descriptions of the terrorist
network from previous Egyptian trials, the New York trial
of the embassy bombers and more recent investigations in
Europe of Al Qaeda.
Many defendants in the 1999 trial said they had been
members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad for nearly 20
years. They had served time in Egyptian prisons together
after the killing of Sadat, as did Dr. Zawahiri, and had
gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invaders in the
But many were also younger recruits, in their early 30's.
They arrived in Afghanistan after the fighting against
the Soviet occupiers stopped, when the anger of men like
Dr. Zawahiri and Mr. bin Laden turned on the United
States and its Arab allies. They were drawn to the
movement by conviction.
"It has nothing to do with age or era," said
Mr. Zayat, who has defended thousands of Islamic
militants over the years and served time in prison for
his youthful involvement in an extremist movement.
"It is ideology. These groups have their own
literature that is passed down from generation to
generation. This literature promotes the idea of `jihad'
and the use of violence to overthrow those who do not
rule according to God's law."
The defendants in the 1999 trial described a network of
isolated cells throughout the Middle East and Europe,
staffed by people who kept in contact with Al Qaeda and
Jihad leaders in Afghanistan.
Several men said they had acquired forged passports,
including a forged Saudi Arabian passport, from contacts
in Damascus and Latakia in Syria during the 1990's. They
made frequent reference to Mr. bin Laden as the
organization's financier and some spoke of a safe house
he financed in Sana, Yemen, the country where the
American destroyer Cole was rammed by suicide bombers in
a boat in October 2000, with 17 sailors killed.
The network maintained bank accounts in many countries
England, Germany, Poland and Albania, among them
and sent small amounts, less than $2,000 at a
time, through the accounts to support the activities of
Several defendants also referred to men living in
Britain, Austria and Germany who worked with Jihad.
Mr. Naggar, the Jihad member, tied Mr. bin Laden directly
to the network in Albania.
He said he once received a phone call there from a Jihad
leader. "He told me that in case the situation gets
complicated in Albania, Osama bin Laden said he is ready
to sponsor any member in Afghanistan," Mr. Naggar
said in his confession. "He said Osama can give each
family $100 a month through his contacts with the
Mr. Naggar also described punishment for those who
strayed. The 15- year-old son of Muhammad Sharaf, a
prominent Jihad member living in Sudan, was believed to
be collaborating with Egyptian intelligence. The boy was
killed on the orders of Dr. Zawahiri, he said.
Descriptions of Mr. bin Laden's role also came from one
defendant, Ahmed Salama Mabrouk, who spoke to reporters
in the courtroom. In a boastful interview warning the
United States of the network's power, Mr. Mabrouk said
Mr. bin Laden had purchased chemical and biological
weapons in Eastern Europe.
During the 1990's, according to the court documents, Dr.
Zawahiri appeared to be on the move almost constantly. In
1995 he went to the United States under an assumed name,
and presumably a counterfeit passport, to raise money for
Jihad operations. Khaled Abu el-Dahab, an
Egyptian-American who said in his confession that he had
helped put together the California leg of the trip, said
his main contact in Jihad was Ali Abul Saoud.
Mr. Saoud, using the name Ali A. Mohamed, was a defendant
in the embassy bombings case and is believed to be
cooperating with the prosecution in New York.
He has been a figure of some mystery. A former Egyptian
Army officer, he married an American woman, acquired
American citizenship and served in the United States Army
in the late 1980's. American authorities said he began
talking to the F.B.I about Mr. bin Laden as early as
Mr. Mohamed, however, figured prominently as a trusted
bin Laden aide in the confessions of several defendants
in the Cairo case.
Mr. Abu el-Dahab said that Mr. Mohamed had provided
topographical maps for remote places in Egypt to help
Jihad fugitives escape the country, and that he took part
in attacks on American troops in Somalia in 1993.
(American officials say Mr. bin Laden's followers helped
to orchestrate those attacks.)
He also said Mr. Mohamed was "on assignment"
for Islamic Jihad in Algeria in 1994 when Mr. bin Laden
sent him money to bribe Algerian officials to free an
accused terrorist from jail.
Mr. Mohamed was dispatched on a similar mission to Canada
to pay the lawyer for Essam Hafez Marzouk, an Egyptian
traveling on a false Saudi Arabian passport who had asked
for refugee status. According to Mr. Abu el-Dahab's
account, the money for Mr. Marzouk's Canadian case came
from Mr. bin Laden.
Canadian authorities have since said Mr. Marzouk was the
contact point for a bin Laden terrorist cell in Canada.
He was arrested in Azerbaijan in 1998 and convicted in
the "Albanian returnees" case in Cairo.
Mr. Abu el-Dahab said Mr. Mohamed ran afoul of the bin
Laden organization after 1995 because of a murky dispute
involving money and was no longer trusted by bin Laden
One defendant, Essam Abdel Tawwab Abdel Alim, described
how Islamic Jihad trained recruits in Yemen, which became
a base after 1990, when Egypt blocked the return of
mujahadeen who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan,
realizing that they had not abandoned their goal of
attacking the Egyptian government.
Recruits in Yemen took courses in Islamic law, the
ideology of Islamic Jihad, the political history of
militant Islamic movements, passport forgery and
surveillance. Others said they were taught how to make
The letter-bomb training was put to use, according to
Egyptian investigators. In documents presented to the
prosecutors, the investigators said Jihad members were
responsible for sending letter bombs from Egypt to
"news organizations outside the country."
That apparently was a reference to a spate of letter
bombs sent in 1997 from Alexandria, Egypt, to the London,
New York and Washington offices of the newspaper Al
Hayat. The paper, owned by Saudis, is the leading
international Arabic-language newspaper. Two people were
injured when one bomb went off in London.
Despite its reputation as the shrewdest of the Egyptian
terrorist groups, Jihad actually failed to achieve most
of its targets. A suicide bomber failed in his attempt to
kill the Egyptian interior minister in 1993. A car bomb
later that year that was meant to kill the prime minister
instead killed a child who was standing nearby.
Two years later, Jihad did manage to carry out a dramatic
slaughter by bombing the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan,
killing 17 people and wounding more than 60. But in 1997,
the group was foiled again when 85 of its members were
arrested and charged with planning to bomb the Khan
el-Khalili bazaar, a Cairo attraction usually filled with
On to Sudan and Albania
After the failed 1993 assassination attempts, Yemen
became less hospitable, and many Jihad members moved to
Sudan, where Mr. bin Laden had established a base and
provided them work, and then to Albania.
According to the trial documents, the Albania cell's
members, most employed at Islamic charities in Tirana,
were forced to transfer 26 percent of their salaries to
Some defendants said they were also instructed to find
money to set up a training camp "to serve the
purposes of Jihad" in Albania. The instructions,
they said, came from Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of
the Jihad leader.
Despite such connections, the network was not always
well-oiled or in any way lavish. One defendant who was
working for a Kuwaiti charity in Albania recalled that he
was told by a Jihad leader that money was urgently needed
to support the families of Jihad prisoners in Egypt. The
defendant said he diverted $800 a month money
intended for Albanian orphans from the charity's
funds to Jihad.
Some of the most detailed information came from Jihan
Hassan, the wife of Shawki Salama Mustafa, the Egyptian
who ran the Albania cell. Mrs. Hassan was interrogated
but not charged in the case.
After their marriage in 1987, the couple first moved to
Saudi Arabia, then to Afghanistan, where her husband
became very secretive about his work.
"I noticed that his pockets were always filled with
pieces of paper that proved he was doing military
training in the camps there," she told
investigators. "When I confronted him with this, he
told me he had nothing to do with the camps and was just
working in a workshop for cars that was owned by Osama
Mrs. Hassan read her husband's diary, and realized that
he was being trained to make bombs to be hidden in
everything from suitcases to alarm clocks. When her
husband locked the door to one room in their house, she
broke in, she told investigators, and found a cache of
apparently fake documents birth certificates,
university diplomas and border stamps from Egypt, Sudan,
Jordan, Yemen and Syria.
In Sudan in 1994, the ground floor of the couple's house
was occupied by loud, rumbling machines. "Shawki
prevented me from going to that floor, but I knew this
machinery was for the forgery business," Mrs. Hassan
Once the couple moved to Albania, Mr. Mustafa was
churning out passports. "I saw a passport with my
name on it and it said I was Albanian," Mrs. Hassan
said. "And I saw different passports for him, with
five different names."
Asked by Egyptian interrogators how she knew so much,
Mrs. Hassan replied simply, "The wives were sitting
together talking while our husbands were spending so much
time in the camps."
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