When Osama bin Laden wanted help training troops and raising money for his al-Qaida terrorist network, he enlisted the same man, known as ”Abu Mohamed ali Amriki,” or ”Mohamed the American.”
By TOM HAYS and SHARON THEIMER
Now in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location, the Egyptian-born Mohamed, 49, ranks as one of the most puzzling figures in the war on terrorism.
His story shows how a terrorist managed to infiltrate American society and join the Army, then turn his military training against his adopted country. In the end he also betrayed bin Laden, supplying the FBI with inside information on al-Qaida as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors in the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.
”He is one of the people who lurks in the background of this whole conspiracy,” prosecutor Kenneth Karas said at the embassy bombing trial in New York earlier this year.
Court records, including Mohamed's own admissions in his guilty plea last year, portray a man who mixed easily with civilians in California, soldiers in Fort Bragg, N.C., and terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya.
The trail of double-crosses can be traced to 1981. That year, as an Egyptian army captain fluent in English, he completed a program for foreign officers offered by the Special Forces school at Fort Bragg.
There, Mohamed learned unconventional warfare - the same training given Green Berets, minus classified classes. He has admitted that around the same time, he became involved with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant Muslim group eventually absorbed by al-Qaida.
Mohamed left the Egyptian Army in 1984 and contacted the CIA, offering to be a spy, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The CIA learned he was boasting of a relationship with the agency, judged him unreliable and dropped him as a source, the official said. He was later placed on a U.S. government watch list, according to U.S. officials.
Mohamed moved to the United States in 1985, settling in northern California and becoming a U.S. citizen. He married Linda Lee Sanchez of Santa Clara, Calif., that year in Reno, Nev. Sanchez, on advice from her attorney, has declined to comment on Mohamed.
In 1986, at age 34, Mohamed joined the U.S. Army in Oakland, Calif. Army officials said they did not know to what extent his background was checked.
He returned to Fort Bragg as an enlisted man in 1987, working as a supply sergeant for Special Forces. He never became a Green Beret or received security clearance, but he gave briefings on Islamic fundamentalism and the Middle East at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
During one lecture, he told soldiers they had nothing to fear from devout Muslims, court records show.
”The word fundamentalism scares people in the West,” he said. ”The word fundamentalism does not mean extremism.”
At the same time, Mohamed was moonlighting as a trainer for soldiers of a different stripe: militant Muslims in Brooklyn hoping to join the fight against a Soviet puppet government in Afghanistan.
One member of the group, Khalid Ibrahim, testified at a 1995 trial that Mohamed trained them to fire AK47 assault rifles at a Connecticut shooting range. The witness also told how Mohamed gave classes in a Jersey City, N.J., apartment on ”how to find your way by looking at the stars” and ”how to recognize some of the weapons if you see them, like tanks.”
Some of Mohamed's students were later found guilty of plotting terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a plot to blow up New York City landmarks.
Seized from the apartment of one of the convicted terrorists were manuals from the Kennedy school swiped by Mohamed, including an ”enemy weapons guide” describing the Soviet arsenal, according to court testimony. Defense lawyers have said other documents included ”top secret” plans for a Special Forces training exercise for an attack on a section of Pakistan.
Army officials and prosecutors declined to discuss the specifics of the documents Mohamed had. But a Special Forces spokesman, Maj. Gary Kolb, called the value of a late-1980s training manual in today's Afghanistan ”debatable.”
Back then, no breach of security was evident at Fort Bragg. Kolb said an officer who worked with Mohamed ”did have some suspicions about what he did, but nothing came as a result of it. It really depended on who you believed.”
Mohamed received at least two medals for ”meritorious achievement” before being honorably discharged in 1989.
After he left the U.S. Army, Mohamed took up al-Qaida's cause. Ibrahim recalled encountering a westernized Mohamed at a mountain training camp in Afghanistan in 1992. L'Houssain Kherchtou - a former bin Laden follower who testified in the embassy bombings trial - remembered meeting Mohamed at a training session in Pakistan in the early 1990s. Known as ”Amriki,” or ”the American,” Mohamed was ”very, very strict and not gentle” while giving explosives and reconnaissance training.
Trainees were warned in advance that Mohamed ”was a severe man” who was ”not a good practitioner of Islam,” Kherchtou said through an interpreter. ”You can hear from him some bad words.”
Mohamed, during his plea, admitted teaching al-Qaida foot soldiers how to create cell structures that could be used for operations. He also trained bin Laden's security detail.
The plea provided one of the most direct links between bin Laden and the bombings that killed 231 people - 12 Americans and 219 Africans - at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mohamed claimed bin Laden in late 1993 asked him to conduct surveillance of American, British, French and Israeli targets in Nairobi. His diagrams and photographs were reviewed by bin Laden, who ”looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber,” he said.
Returning to California in the mid-1990s, Mohamed helped a top aide to bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, raise money for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He also monitored the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman - the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in the 1995 New York terrorism trials - for bin Laden.
Once terrorists had struck the embassies, Mohamed said he planned to return to Egypt and then join bin Laden in Afghanistan. But prosecutors have said he also contacted the FBI, telling agents that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks.
Mohamed was subpoenaed to testify before a New York grand jury before being indicted on conspiracy charges. He pleaded guilty in October 2000.
”Abu Mohamed ali Amriki” has not been seen in public since.
It remains unclear how Mohamed managed to enter the United States and join the Army in the 1980s, despite the CIA's misgivings. Equally unclear is how he was able to maintain his terror ties in the 1990s without being banished by either side, even after the Special Forces documents he stole turned up in the 1995 New York trial.
The State Department, CIA and FBI declined to answer questions about Mohamed. Officials have refused to discuss how much he has helped in their investigations as he awaits sentencing, which has been postponed indefinitely.
Given what's known, Mohamed fits the profile of a double agent, said Larry Johnson, former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the State Department. He believes Mohamed was an FBI informant before the embassy bombings.
”I just see it as the FBI screwed up,” Johnson said. ”They didn't do a good job of information management.”
Rusty Capps, a retired FBI agent and president of the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, said Mohamed seemed too interested in ”trying to impress people” to be reliable.
”If I were al-Qaida, if I were the CIA, if I were the FBI, I would not want to have a person like this anywhere within a thousand miles of me,” Capps said.
In the Army, Mohamed ”was doing what was asked of him, and there was no reason to suspect anything differently,” Kolb said. ”Would we like to go back and change things? Definitely. Then maybe a lot of this would never have happened.”
EDITOR'S NOTE - AP reporter Larry Neumeister in New York also contributed to this story.