This morning’s Star Tribune reports that “Area man charged in terror case.” Because the Star Tribune makes the story inaccessbile after 14 days, I’m pasting in the story by Star Tribune reporters David Chanen and Greg Gordon below:
A Lebanese national who allegedly told Minneapolis FBI agents he trained with Al-Qaida and knew three of its leaders, including one of the most wanted terrorists in Iraq, has been charged in connection with an international terrorism inquiry.
On Friday, a federal judge in New York ordered the suspect, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, who has lived in Minneapolis, transported to Minnesota without bail on charges of lying to federal agents.
During a series of voluntary interviews in April, Elzahabi told Minneapolis FBI agents that while in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s, he knew Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaida figure now suspected of engineering several deadly kidnappings in Iraq; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abu Zubaida, a top Al-Qaida leader.
Elzahabi is charged with lying in denying that he sent walkie-talkies to Pakistan and that he helped get a Massachusetts driver’s license for a man later convicted of plotting to bomb American and Israeli tourists in Jordan.
Minnesota U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger wouldn’t say if Elzahabi’s actions are alleged to have contributed to any terrorist activities, but said the 10-page complaint “speaks for itself.”
Attorney Paul Engh, who is representing Elzahabi, said he will be “vigorously defended.”
Elzahabi came to Minneapolis in August 2001 after fighting in the war in Chechnya.
He is the latest of at least six men with ties to Minnesota who have been arrested or charged in Al-Qaida cases since the Sept. 11 attacks.
According to court documents, Elzahabi told agents that he associated with Al-Zarqawi, who U.S. officials said has masterminded the beheadings of Nicholas Berg and Kim Sun-il, a South Korean hostage.
Elzahabi, who appears to be in his early 40s, was living in Minneapolis at the time of the FBI interviews, but it isn’t clear if he had lived in the city the whole time since he arrived in 2001. Heffelfinger said Elzahabi was arrested in New York and will appear in a Minnesota court within two weeks.
He moved to Minneapolis in the same month that federal agents arrested suspected Al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested while taking lessons at an Eagan flight school.
Moussaoui now faces capital conspiracy charges in connection with Al-Qaida’s suicide hijacking plot. Heffelfinger wouldn’t comment on whether Elzahabi’s case had any connection to Moussaoui.
Buying a marriage
During the interviews with FBI agents, Elzahabi described himself as a Lebanese national who entered the United States in 1984 on a student visa and paid a Houston woman to marry him so he could be a permanent resident alien; they divorced in 1988 after he got his green card. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him and began deportation proceedings, the affidavit said.
On June 9, Elzahabi was transferred to New York, where the FBI’s counter-terrorism prosecution and interrogation operations have been centered, said Eric Sears, a New York attorney appointed Thursday to represent him there.
According to the affidavit, Elzahabi told authorities:
He first decided to travel to Afghanistan in 1988 after attending a religious conference in the Midwest, entering the country through Pakistan. He attended a jihad military training camp and fought in Afghanistan in 1988 and 1989, a period during which he knew Al-Zarqawi; Raed Hijazi, who later was convicted in Jordan for his part in a millennium bombing plot targeting American and Israeli tourists, and Bassam Kanj, who was killed by Lebanese troops in 2000 while leading a coup attempt aimed at installing a fundamentalist Islamic government.
In 1991, as Osama bin Laden was organizing Al-Qaida, Elzahabi returned to Afghanistan and stayed for about four years, training at the Khalden camp. He admitted that he “acted as a sniper in combat during this time” and that he served as a small arms and sniper instructor for other jihadists.
In 1995, he returned to the United States for medical care after he was shot in the abdomen during combat. He set up an axle repair business with a relative in New York City. In 1997, he moved to Boston where he stayed for two years, working as a cabdriver and again associating with Hijazi and Kanj.
In 1998, after leaving the United States, he got a call from Zubaida at the Khalden camp, seeking his help. Elzahabi said he declined to help.
He went home to Lebanon, where he helped provide small arms training to the group of fighters that Kanj formed to overthrow the Lebanese government.
He said he then decided to travel to Chechnya to join jihadists fighting the Russians.
Elzahabi said he reentered the United States in mid-August 2001 and came to Minneapolis. He had been living in a house near the University of Minnesota that is also home to a mosque.
Kathy Buckheit, Elzahabi’s ex-wife, said Friday evening that the FBI had contacted her about him about two months ago. She said she asked if the questions were related to terrorism, but the agents wouldn’t say.
Charged with lying
The two counts of making false statements to federal agents revolve around Elzahabi’s activities in the United States.
He is alleged to have lied in stating that he allowed a man from Afghanistan to use his New York business address to receive shipments, but never knew what the shipments contained. The FBI said it turned up evidence showing that Elzahabi knew the shipments contained walkie-talkies and other electronics worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Field radios of the same make and model … have been recovered in Afghanistan by U.S. military forces during military actions following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” the affidavit said.
The second count charges that he denied helping Hijazi obtain a driver’s license, although the FBI said it learned that Elzahabi drove him to the examination and that the license was mailed to Elzahabi’s address.
Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law, said he wasn’t familiar with Elzahabi’s case but said he suspects the government is going after the easiest charge to prove.
“They may feel they want to put this guy away as fast as they possibly can and this is a surefire way of doing it,” Greenberger said.
Prosecutors might then ask for his cooperation in other cases or take their time to build more of a case against him, Greenberger said.
By comparison, terrorism suspect Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, also detained in Minnesota, is accused of training at two Al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and then wiring money to a bank account in Pakistan for Al-Qaida associates. He was charged in January with conspiracy to provide material support to Al-Qaida.
HINDROCKET adds: As abbreviated as it is, this account raises some obvious questions. The Strib reports that “The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained [Elzahabi] and began deportation proceedings,” apparently in 1988. Elzahabi then left the country, engaged in various terrorist activities for seven years, and “returned to the United States for medical care” after getting shot in 1995, apparently without anyone noticing that he was supposed to have been deported. He then left the country again, and “reentered the United States in mid-August 2001″ after participating in terrorist activities in Lebanon and Chechnya, again, apparently, without encountering any immigration problems.
Great border control.
ONE MORE THING: Who do you suppose paid for his medical care when he returned to the US after getting shot in Afghanistan?