Inside the Osama bin Laden Investigation
by Steven Emerson
Journal of Counterterrorism and Security International
September 1, 1998
At all relevance times from in or about 1989 until the date of the filing of this indictment, an international terrorist group existed which was dedicated to opposing non-Islamic governments with force and violence. This organization grew out of the 'mehktah al khidemat' (the 'Services Office') organization which had maintained offices in various parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan (particularly Peshawar) and the United States, particularly at the Al Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, New York. The group was founded by Osama Bin Laden…From 1989 until the present, the group called itself "Al Qaeda" ("the Base)…
"Al Qaeda opposed the United States for several reasons. First the United States was regarded as an "infidel" because it was not governed in a manner consistent with the group's extremist interpretation of Islam. Second, the United States was viewed as providing essential support for other "infidel" governments and institutions, particularly the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the nation of Israel and the United Nations organization, which were regarded as enemies of the group."
From the indictment issued by the Office of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, October 1998.
Following the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, the speed in which U.S. prosecutors were able to marshal new evidence against the Bin Laden terrorist empire was nothing less than spectacular. In early October 1998, federal prosecutors in New York released a 50-page indictment of four top aides to Bin Laden. The indictment outlines a terrorist conspiracy dating back to 1989 – a secret organization headed by Bin Laden called Al Qaeda. A month later, on November 5, prosecutors unveiled a superseding 238 count indictment, which also included Osama Bin Laden and his military commander Mohammed Atif, in addition to the four aides names in the earlier October indictment. The indictment cited (1) efforts by Bin Laden's aides to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States, (2) operations of a terrorist network in about 20 countries and (3) the active collaboration of other terrorist groups and movements in attacking American targets, including the Al-Gama's Al-Islamic (under the titular control of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman), the Sudanese Islamist government, and Hizbollah, in launching terrorist attacks on American targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia since 1992. The specifics of the terrorist conspiracy were laid out in a remarkably detailed document that cited specific meetings during a six-year period when Bin Laden and his lieutenants conspired to carry out acts of terror against the United States. U.S. Prosecutors began unfolding a criminal conspiracy case against the Bin Laden network that was stunning in the details so far amassed.
From August 7, 1998 – the date of the twin bombings-until two months later, the combined efforts of the FBI, the Justice Depart, INS, a special CIA task force, at least two dozen foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the prosecutorial leadership of Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, produced a picture of the hitherto unknown Bin Laden empire that was extraordinary in its scope. The information publicly released in the indictment demonstrated that investigators and prosecutors had collected a far greater amount of intelligence on the Bin Laden terrorist network; most of his data had not been released. But according to sources familiar with the investigation, investigators have amassed a vast amount of data connected to Bin Laden, including names of dozens of suspected operatives at various levels of the Bin Laden Pyramid, locations of bank accounts, names of front companies and Islamic charities that served as conduits for terrorists, types of weapons acquisitions, and even the reconstructed movements of Bin Laden during the last two years.
The primary keys to the dizzying unraveling of the Bin Laden network: the arrest of three top Bin Laden aides immediately after the bombings and who are in U.S. custody; intelligence provided by two top Bin Laden informants who have testified before the New York grand jury on their contacts and connections with Bin Laden; information provided by other informants; intercepts collected by electronic intelligence; information provided by foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies; and the retrieval of thousands of pages of Bin Laden documents, scores of computer disks, videotaped threats, and a host of other documentary evidence seized from raids on Bin Laden fronts in Africa, Albania, other areas of Europe and the United States. One of the biggest bombshells of the investigation was the revelation by New York Times that Ali Mohammed, a top aide to Bon Laden had been secretly arrested in the United States in September and held on sealed charges. Mohammed's credentials were rather unique: A one-time Egyptian Army officer, Mohammed acquired U.S. citizenship in 1985 and enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served as a sergeant at Fort Bragg between 1986 and 1989. During that time, Mohammed – himself a fundamentalist- began training Islamic militants in New Jersey in carrying out subversive warfare against the Soviets in Afghanistan; he also began leaking classified documents (see article page 28) to conspirators in the World Trade Center bombing jihad conspiracy.
Osama Bin Laden has been the focus of a federal grand jury investigation in New York since 1996, but there had been little momentum in the beginning. At least one top Bin Laden operative, Wali Khan Amin Shah (who had been arrested in 1995 in the Philippines, along with co-conspirator Ramzi Yousef, for their attempts to destroy 11 American aircraft), began cooperating with the grand jury following his and Yousef's conviction. (Yousef was later convicted of building the World Trade Center bomb.) There had been other Bin Laden defections and arrests, in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, but the intelligence gleaned from those interrogations was still limited. Although substantial pieces of information had been collected, federal prosecutors and FBI officials were struggling to piece together a comprehensive portrait of the Bin Laden terrorist empire.
In 1996, the State Department released a three-page, CIA-prepared "white paper" on Bin Laden, but intelligence agents clearly were unsure about how to configure the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. For example, the 1996 State Department "white paper" cited Bin Laden's role in forming the "Islamic Salvation Foundation, or Al Qaeda" for purposes of organizing Arab recruits for the jihad in Afghanistan. Federal officials determined only later on that Al Qaeda was in fact a secret organization and not a public charitable cover; moreover, it was not one and the same as the Islamic Salvation Foundation – one of Bin Laden's numerous Islamic charities – but rather the secret name (meaning the "base") used only by a limited number of Bin Laden operatives.
By 1997, the grand jury in New York had begun calling several key witnesses in an effort to indict Bin Laden and some of his top aides, including those who had lived on and off in the United States. One person called before the grand jury was Wad El Age, who had helped set up Bin Laden's terrorist infrastructure in the Sudan and Kenya and elsewhere. From 1987 through 1990, EL Age lived in Tucson, Arizona, and from about 1991 through 1992, in Arlington, Texas, where he returned in 1997 after having set up Bin Laden's terrorist front overseas. Before the grand jury, prosecutors asked El Age about his connections to Bin Laden and whether, for example, he was familiar with or had met Bin Laden's top military commanders, Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri – who had drowned suspiciously in Lake Victoria in 1996 – and al Banshiri's successor, known as Abu Hafs al Masry. El Hage denied to prosecutors that he was familiar with them or that he was aware of the code names used by Bin Laden's henchmen. In a bail hearing held in September 1998, Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that not only had El Age lied about his role in the Bin Laden organization, but that he was "being investigated for his involvement in attempting to obtain chemical weapons and for his involvement in providing logistical support to the people who were attacking people in Somalia."
At the time that El Hage was initially interviewed by the FBI and brought before the grand jury in the fall of 1997, officials say that El Hage had not been the main target of the grand jury but rather someone who was in a position to build a case against others and who had, according to federal officials, voluntarily provided nuggets of information to FBI agents. The purpose, at the time, was not to build an indictment against El Hage, but to pressure him to agree to cooperate more fully with the FBI. El Hage ultimately turned into a recalcitrant witness and provided false testimony to prosecutors. After the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, a search was conducted of Bin Laden's front groups in Nairobi where incriminating were found that showed additional incriminating references to El Hage. The information abetted by that provided by a confidential informant, showed that El Hage was much more a top Bin Laden operative than had been previously thought.
But before the new information was acquired about the Bin Laden network, a key source of critical information was provided by Wali Shah. He had testified about weapons acquisitions and finances. His testimony to the grand jury was considered pivotal in building a case against Bin Laden. But there were doubts about whether it was strong enough to be considered a smoking gun. Within the elite group of prosecutors and law enforcement agents working on the Bin Laden investigation, there was no consensus as to whether the evidence collected thus far had met the traditional threshold deemed necessary for a conviction. "Everyone wanted to indict the sob" recalled someone privy to the deliberations, "but there was a major gap between what we knew from the intelligence and what we could use as admissible evidence."
There were other considerations, as well. "There was no sense getting an indictment of Bin Laden if it wasn't going to stand up in court," recalled a person close to the prosecution. "We felt it would be a disaster if Bin Laden was indicted on weak evidence or if he could tie us under a lengthy discovery argument that would undermine the government's case against him." ("Discovery" is the right of the defendant to ask for and usually receive nay document that is considered exculpatory or pertinent to the defendant's case.) In Bin Laden's case, he would almost certainly request that the U.S. Government provide all records of U.S. assistance to the mujahideen, or holy warriors, during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Therefore, the case against Bin Laden would have to be airtight.
On February 23, 1998, the urgency among law enforcement to do something soon suddenly increased. Bin Laden issued a fatwa (an Islamic religious ruling) calling for Muslims to kill Americans and Jews anywhere in the world. It was the first time, the CIA noted in a memorandum released to Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) on the morning he was chairing a Senate hearing examining the scope of foreign terrorism in the United States on February 24, 1998, Bin Laden had authorized terrorist attacks on American civilians throughout the world.
The fatwa concluded with a plea to the faithful, "We – with God's help – call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it." Bin Laden was not the only one to sign the farwa. He was joined by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of Egyptian Jihad; Abu-Yasir Rifa'I Ahmad Taha, a leader of Egyptian Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya; Sheikh Mir Hamzah, secretary of the Jamai-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan; and Fazlul Rahman, Amir of the Jihad movement in Bangladesh. In eliciting the official collaborative sponsorship of this fatwa with these other terrorists, Bin Laden showed that he could easily extend his reach.
Although Bin Laden had collaborated with these terrorist leaders (and others as well) since 1991, Bin Laden clearly was intent on taunting the United States, who he had accused of being a "paper tiger." In the Fall of 1996, Bin Laden had issued a 60-page fatwa – which he dubbed the Ladanese Epistle – that formally constituted a formal declaration of war against the United States. The Epistle was – and still is – a remarkable tome because of his hitherto unexpressed articulateness and knowledge of militant Islamic theology. The Epistle dripped with rage against "crusaders" (the Christian West) and Jews, invoking violent incendiary citations from Islamic militant theology that mandated a war to avenge the "attack on Islam." (In fact, the Epistle was considered so "brilliant" that Bin Laden was forced to defend himself from charges raised publicly by others in the Islamic community that he had not personally written the opus but rather had used a ghostwriter.) The Epistle, albeit paranoid showed that Bin Laden's rage against the United States included nearly every adverse event suffered by the Muslim Ummah (nation) since its inception.
The American media had virtually ignored the 1996 Ladenese Epistle, a fact that had apparently not gone on unnoticed by Bin Laden himself. As a result, he began giving interviews to Arab and Western journalists from his hideout in Afghanistan in which he carefully repeated his avowed threats to attack the United States. The February 1998 fatwa, not unlike earlier declarations, did not receive a lot of attention in the American media. Some media outlets, like CNN, conspicuously avoided any reporting at the time of the fatwa to kill Americans and Jews, a decision stemming, according to dissident CNN insiders, from CNN's notorious tradition of self-censoring reports and news that might adversely affect the image of Muslims worldwide. But inside the government, there was keen interest and a deep abiding concern that Bin Laden was a very dangerous person who was determined to unleash considerable death and destruction on American targets. The only question was when!
Through foreign intelligence channels, timely analysis of electronic intelligence overseas, and the information gleaned from several informants, federal officials' worst fears were confirmed: Bin Laden intended to strike against the United States in a series of bomb attacks, although the identity of the targets could not be determined. The New York grand jury moved into higher gear, meeting more frequently. Protected by a phalanx of U.S. Marshals, Wali Shah would be shepherded into the grand jury meeting room; his testimony became more critical in outlining the components of a possible indictment against Bin Laden. The Bin Laden supported plan of attacks on American aircraft in the Philippines could provide one set of charges, but the evidence directly tying Bin Laden to the terrorist master plan was circumstantial. As for other terrorist attacks, such as the lethal bombings of American servicemen in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the evidence gathered thus far was weaker. In 1997, the arrest of Hani al-Sayegh, suspected of participating in the 1996 attack on U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, and subsequent extradition to the United States, had provided prosecutors with additional hope that another link in the chain in the Bin Laden network had been established. But the case against al-Sayegh-and presumably against Bin Laden – soon fell apart after he recanted his confession and withdrew his guilty plea.
Yet, as the aggregated weight of useable evidence increased against Bin Laden by the spring of 1998, federal officials finally felt confident in pursuing an indictment against him – although the indictment would have to be sealed to have any hope of actually arresting him. A spirited debate erupted among officials at FBI Headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza, the U.S. attorney's Office at 1 St. Andrews Place in lower Manhattan, the Justice Department in Washington and other national security offices. How could Bin Laden be arrested? Was he not, by virtue of his refuge of Afghanistan, totally beyond the reach of American law enforcement? What about interdicting him as he traveled? Was their intelligence available on his travels? What about sending a team of commandos into Afghanistan to arrest him? And if an arrest were not feasible, why issue an indictment prematurely?
Following his departure from Sudan in 1996, Bin Laden had received sanctuary deep in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan territory, protected by his own well-armored militia and hundreds of holy warriors who trained in his terrorist camps. The notion of a successful "snatch" operation in neutral or allied territory-like the capture of Lebanese hijacker Fawaz Younis in the Mediterranean in 1989, or the arrest of Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan in 1995 – was not considered feasible. Younis had been lured into the Mediterranean in a classic sting operation and flown back to the United States. Ramzi Yousef was brought back to the United States with the direct support of the Pakistan government. For Bin Laden, there was no chance of luring him away from his safety in the mountains of Afghanistan, nor was U.S. intelligence able to track his travels on a real time basis. Thus, there were only two remaining ways that Bin Laden could be arrested: either the Taliban could be persuaded to hand him over to the United States, or U.S. Forces would have to go in to Afghanistan and get him. The choices were stark and not encouraging. Given the Taliban's financial hatred of the West and its proclamations of support to Bin Laden, the odds of the first option being successfully realized were not good. As for the latter option, the only person that the U.S. had sent an army into arrest was Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Though far more difficult than arresting Noriega, launching a successful raiding party into landlocked Afghanistan to arrest Bin Laden was not beyond the realm of the military capabilities of the United States. Some officials argued that from a political perspective, any number of America's casualties would pose a potential nightmare. The casualty-wary American public would not support a bloody military operation unless its necessity could be easily and persuasively justified. Even when American casualties were not at risk, the American public did not automatically support military intervention overseas. Still, this was not an issue of launching cruise missiles from off the coast of Pakistan, but of bringing in commandos to fight an adversary on enemy territory with a difficult terrain that overwhelmingly favored the Afghan denizens. That lesson was learned painfully by the SOVIETS. The Option of bombing Bin Laden but cruise missiles or other types of delivery systems was not considered because of the Executive Order prohibiting assassinations and because of the imprecision of such attacks.
The decision about whether to use American forces could not be authorized at the Justice Department: it could only be decided at the presidential level. Within the internal governmental debate, some argued that spilling American blood to arrest Bin Laden would have been a pyrrhic victory if, at the end of the legal process, Bin Laden would eventually walk in the event of an acquittal. Others argued that a commando style arrest operation should be aggressively pursued. And others argued against any action at all.
That decision was up to the President and his foreign policy advisors. According to knowledgeable sources, the President opted to pursue a two-track policy: preparations for a commando extrication team would be authorized territorial insertion into Afghanistan, while at the same time, the Administration would try to get the Taliban to cooperate in forcing the surrender of Bin Laden to the United States. In mid-April of this year, Bill Richardson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was dispatched to Afghanistan and Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban for the handing over of Bin Laden. Discussions with key Taliban officials in the United Nations and with other visiting Taliban officials had proved to be encouraging. Some factions in the Taliban wanted to elicit American goodwill to end its international isolation and prosecute American investment and technology. At the same time that Richardson went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, American military and counterterrorist teams were secretly sent to Peshawar, in the event that the commando operation were launched or a hand-over of Bin Laden were facilitated by the Taliban.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, rumors of the U.S. counterterrorist force abounded throughout the press and media. Obviously exaggerated, reports of "one-thousand men commando teams" sent in to arrest Bin Laden appeared in Pakistani papers. In several interviews, Bin Laden himself declared that he was the target of American commando teams, but scoffed at the notion that he would ever be captured.
In the end, Ambassador Richardson failed in persuading the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden. Although he showed them some of the evidence revealing Bin Laden's direct hand in international terrorist, the Taliban would not play ball. Bin Laden would remain a protected "guest" of the Taliban, although they said that he would not be allowed to carry out activities against the interests of the Taliban. As for the possibility of a direct commando-style operation, strategies deemed the operational difficulties and risks too high and the possibility of a surprise operation too low for any chance of success.
The U.S. Prosecutors, the FBI, and the U.S. National Security apparatus would have to return to the proverbial drawing board in devising new ways to arrest Bin Laden. As the grand jury continued efforts to build a stronger case against Bin Laden, his devastation was visited upon the United States by the two simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania where more than 200 people were killed. On August 20, the United States struck bask, launching cruise missiles at Bin Laden's camps in Khost, Afghanistan and the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plants in Khartoum, Sudan.
Osama and the Al Kifah Center It had been more than five years since Bin Laden had come under government security immediately following the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993. Bin Laden's name came up as one of the associates of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and as the financial backer of the Martyr Azzam Hostel in Peshawar where Ramzi Yousef had stayed. Bin Laden's name, along with names of more than 118 others (plus the Sudanese mission to the United States), was included on a list, distributed by federal prosecutors, of potential unindicted co-conspirators.
On one level, the efforts to unravel Bin Laden's empire struck an errie parallel with the efforts of the prosecutors in 1993 to unravel the jihad terrorist organization secretly operated by Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Then, as now, prosecutors painstakingly revisited and reexamined existing documents and materials in their possession in the belated realization that they possessed some of the answers to their questions but were unable to see how the pieces had fit together. In 1993, immediately following the World Trade Center bombing, federal prosecutors and FBI agents reexamined raw materials, documents, and data they had collected since the assassination of right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane by El Sayyid Nosair in November 1990 and the murder (still unsolved) of the fundamentalist head of the Al Kifah office in Brooklyn, Mustapha Shalabi, in February 1991. Although it was too late to prevent the bombing, the boxes of material seized from Nosair's apartment following his arrest in 1990 contained the very seeds of the World Trade Center explosion. In 1993, the same materials seized in 1990 were found to be a roadmap to the jihad conspiracy in the United States of the previous three years.
Similarly, the documents and materials seized in 1990 – many of which have been reexamined immediately following the twin embassy bombings – have now provided at least a partial roadmap to understanding and reconstructing the Bin Laden network. In particular, new attention has been focused on the Al Kifah Refugee Center, known in Arabic as the Office of Services of the Mujahideen, that gave birth, as prosecutors laid out in their complaints and indictments, to Bin Laden's secret terrorist organization.
The Al Kifah Center was established in the early 1980's in Peshawar, Pakistan by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian fundamentalist who spearheaded the jihad, or holy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Azzam mobilized the Arab youth with the call to participate in a modern day jihad against the "enemies of Islam,"Azzam started off in one storefront in Peshawar, but, by the end of the decade, had succeeded not only in establishing scores of jihad recruiting centers around the world in addition to the network of mosques and Islamic centers that he pulled into the jihad orbit, but has activated tens of thousands of Arabs from all over the world to volunteer for jihad.
By 1985, according to Azzam's own statements and acounts published by Al Kifah, Azzam had teamed up with the person who would bankroll the Al Kifa organization, Saudi financier Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden would soon emerge in his own rights as the largest single financial backer of the Office of Services of the Mujahideen and of the "Arab-Afghar jihad movement. Having heard the spell-binding call of Sheikh Azzam to join the jihad, Bin Laden left the comfort of his family's multi-billion dollar construction company in Saudi Arabia to participate in the jihad against the Russians. During the 1980's, unlike the overt role Bin Laden has assumed today as head of a self-declared jihad against the United States, Bin Laden scrupulously stayed behind the scenes, far away from the glares of publicity.
Azzam built up the Al kifah Center to be the most effective jihad recruiting ground in the world, with officers in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and throughout the Middle East. Al Kifah opened dozens of centers throughout the United States, mostly at mosques and Islamic community centers. Major Al Kifah Centers were set up in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Pittsburgh, and Tucson, while 30 other American cities were the sites of subsidiary Al Kifah offices.
The call to participate in the jihad against the infidel Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan resonated throughout the Muslim world, in the Middle East and the West. Indeed, the jihad in Afghanistan became the battle cry heard in mosques around the globe.
By the mid 1980's, Azzam's call for jihad was heeded throughout the Arab world, with thousands of young Muslim men volunteering for the opportunity to partake in a real jihad. Resurrecting the doctrine of an earlier Islamic era long time gone, Azzam represented a new type of Muslim leader, the first modern-day transnational fundamentalist, who inspired an entire generation to rally to the cause of jihad. Azzam provided a sense of empowerment to Muslim youth. His talents were beyond that of a religious leader; he was a military leader and an indefatigable orator who could give mesmerizing religious speeches for hours on end.
Al Kifah published a monthly magazine called "Al-Jihad," a full-color Arabic language magazine that detailed the battle stories from the front lines of the Mujahideen. The issues were frequently full of gory pictures of young men whose limbs had been severed as well as inspiring culogies to the shahids (Martyrs) who gave their lives for jihad. In its heyday, "Al Jihad" reached 50,000 people, at least half in the United States according to interviews with "Al Jihad" leaders conducted by this writer in 1994. "Al Jihad" soon became a vehicle by itself in mobilizing support for the worldwide jihad. Articles frequently contained incendiary attacks and conspiratorial allegations against the United States, Europe, Christians, and Jews, exposing their "crimes" against Islam. From Palestine to Bosnia, "Al Jihad" called for Muslims to pick up the gun and wage jihad to kill the infidels and "all enemies of Islam."
As the mujahideen realized victory in their jihad against the Soviets, the duty of jihad against the Soviets, the duty of jihad was expanded around the globe – any place that the enemies of Islam were deemed active. Al Kifah soon became an umbrella organization for worldwide jihad movements. Beyond mobilizing support for the jihad in Afghanistan, internal documents show that Al Kifah members in the United States became involved in shipping bombs, timers, and explosives to Hamas in Gaza; counterfeiting tens of thousands of dollars for purchase of weapons; reconfiguring passports to enable Muslim volunteers to visit the United States as well as enter jihad battle fronts; and raising money and enlisting new recruits for the jihad in the Philippines, Egypt, Bosnia, Algeria, Kashmir, Palestine, and elsewhere.
In November 1989, Azzam, along with two of his four sons, was killed in a sophisticated car bombing in Pakistan. In the wake of Azzam's death, a power struggle soon developed for control of Al Kifah, not in Pakistan but in the United States, where Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman – who came to the United States in 1990 from the Sudan – vied with Mustapha Shalabi, an Egyptian-born militant appointed by Azam. The sheikh settled in Brooklyn and New Jersey where he had developed from his base in the Sudan and Pakistan an intensely loyal following among a cadre of Islamic militants. One of them, El Sayyid Nosair, had carried out the assassination of Meir Kahane in November 1990, an act that apparently was sanctioned by Abdul-Rahman.
At stake in the battle over Al Kifah was a transnational Islamic militant power base – the de facto control over hundreds of thousands of dollars and a network of thousands of jihad veterans and future jihad volunteers. Shalabi wanted to plow the money back into the Afghanistan effort, while Sheikh Abdul Rahman wanted to expend the funds on jihad in Egypt and new jihad fronts around the globe.
Shalabi, who by all counts resented the intrusion of the Sheikh, tried to stand up to the Sheik and his supporters, especially Mahmud Abuhalima, an Egyptian veteran of the Afghanistan jihad and loyal follower of the blind Sheikh. By early January 1990, Shalabi had received threats from the Sheikh's followers, but still would not agree to hand over control of the funds. Shalabi decided to move back to Afghanistan where he could count on the protection of Mohammed Yusof Abbas, who took over the Peshawar-based side of Al Kifah and editorship of "Al-Jihad," following Sheikh Azzam's death in 1989. The man who was supposed to take over the Al Kifah offices in BROOKLYN AS SUCCESSOR TO Shalabi was Wadih El Hage.
Wadih El Hage, born in Lebanon in 1960, had come to the United States in the late 1970's to attend school at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. In 1987, he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he became an active member of the Al Kifah office at the Islamic Center. He soon became caught up in the jihad fervor, catching the attention of senior Al Kifah officials in both Tucson and in New York.
In December 1988, according to federal documents, El Hage met other Islamic fundamentalists, including Mahmud Abuhalima (later convicted in the World Trade Center bombing) and top officials of the Al Kifah Center at a major radical Islamic conference held at the convention center in Oklahoma City. The conference was sponsored by the Muslim Arab Youth Association, a militant Islamic group in the United States and the Islamic Association for Palestine, a front group for Hamas in the United States, (then headquartered in Tucson). The major speaker at the event was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the Al Kifah Center. According to videotapes of the conference and other records, Islamic militants from around the globe converged in Oklahoma City to raise the banner of Jihad not only in Afghanistan but in Palestine and elsewhere. Feverish exhortations to carry out terrorist attacks were made by Azzam and the other guest speakers, which included Ilamas leader Muhammad Siyyam, militant cleric Ahmed Al-Quattan, radical cleric from Lebanon Sheikh Muharram Al-Aarifi, and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustapha Mashhout. According to records of the conference, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant Islamic groups set up stands for recruiting and fundraising. Hamas leaders, according to intelligence sources, also set up training sessions at which various terrorist techniques were taught to a select group of designated recruits.
The Oklahoma Conference, like later ones (including a much larger one held in Oklahoma City in December 1992), allowed Islamic militants from around the globe to network and coordinate fundraising, political strategies, and terrorist planning. According to federal records, the December 1992 conference in Oklahoma City provided a venue for several of the World Trade Center conspirators to get together again with their brethren who visited from outside the United States.
In early 1990, a black Muslim cleric named Rashid Khalifa was murdered in Tucson. Khalifa had practiced a sect that was deemed heretical by fundamentalist Muslims. He was soon marked for death.
According to federal prosecutors and to information volunteered by El Hage in interviews he gave to FBI agents, a still unidentified man was sent to Tucson to do surveillance on Khalifa. This person visited El Hage at his home, had lunch together and then was driven by El Hage to Khalifa's mosque where the visitor recorded the movements of Khalifa. El Hage admitted before the grand jury that he never reported this visit to the authorities even though Khalifa was later found murdered. Federal records show that Kalifa was killed by a member of the Al-Fuqra organization, a black Muslim fundamentalist group that has engaged in a series of murders, robberies, and other attacks in Colorado and Canada. Members of AlFuqra were also indicted and convicted in the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy trials. Sources familiar with the investigation say that Al-Fuqra as early as 1988 in acquiring weapons and recruiting volunteers for the jihad in Afghanistan.
From Tucson, El Hage, sometime in 1991, moved to Arlington, Texas, where he went to work for a tire store. At the same time, according to federal prosecutors, El Hage stayed very active with Al Kifah and in the expanding jihad battlefront. El Hage would rise to such a senior position that he was anointed the successor to Al Kifah Director Shalabi, who had planned on leaving Al Kifah in Brooklyn and returning to Peshawar in March 1991. Shalabi would never make it. On February 26, 1991, police would later determine, Shalebi opened the door to someone he knew. His body was found five days later with a bullet hole to his head and multiple stab wounds. No one was ever charged in the killing, but federal officials believe that Shalabi was killed pursuant to a fatwa issued by Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. For reasons still unknown, El Hage did not ultimately take over Al Kifah in Brooklyn as had been expected. But, according to El Hague's statements provided to investigators, he showed up in New York on the day Shalabi was killed; the length of his stay is unknown. Phone records of Al Kifah show a series of phone calls between Al Kifah and El Hage's residence in Arlington, Texas on March 2,3, 5, and 6. It appears that El Hage was calling his home from Brooklyn. Prison records cited by the Dallas Morning News show that on March 11, 1991, El Hage visited El Sayyid Nosair in jail. Nosair, prosecutors later determined, had been secretly plotting to carry out additional terrorist attacks and murders while meeting with various visitors in his jail cell in 1991 and 1992.
El Hage left the United States in late 1992 or early 1993 and moved to the Sudan where he went to work directly for Bin Laden and with Bin Laden's military commanders. In 1995, he set up the Help Africa Foundation in Kenya, which served as a cover group for Bin Laden. In 1997, El Hage returned to the United States.