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An Investigation in Egypt Illustrates Al Qaeda's Web

Richard Rothstein Oriental Rugs  Hagop Manoyan Antique Rugs

Publication: New York Times
Date: 11/21/2001
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 Western Europe.

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 ability.

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 arranging communications.

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 Conference.

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 1980's.

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."



Organizing Terror

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 its members.

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 Taliban."

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 1993.

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 lieutenants.

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 letter bombs.

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 tourists.

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 Islamic Jihad.

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 bin Laden."

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 recalled.

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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