The Accidental Terrorist

He stumbled into a group of Muslim extremists with plans to attack America. Then he stumbled into Miami. Today Shaheed Mohamed is nowhere to be found.

When he stepped off a plane in Miami, Shaheed Mohamed says, he was running for his life. At the airport he immediately reported to immigration officials and asked for asylum. Within hours he was telling FBI agents all he knew about a plot by Islamic militants to bomb the U.S. embassy in Argentina and carry out other acts of terrorism in New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles.

The date: May 25, more than three months before September 11.

During June, July, and August, the FBI, along with immigration officers, met at least three more times with Mohamed, a 41-year-old ex-con from Trinidad with a history of what he describes as accidental involvements with Islamic extremists in the Caribbean and South America. He was fleeing, he told authorities, from followers of Osama bin Laden who had tried to recruit him in Buenos Aires for a suicide-bombing mission.

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett

U.S. officials confirm interviewing Mohamed several times. But an official with the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, who spoke on condition he not be named, says Mohamed's story "was not believed to be credible."

So far U.S. intelligence experts have traced most of the known September 11 hijackers to cells of bin Laden's al Qaeda network in Europe, not South America. Nonetheless Argentina is one of three South American nations U.S. officials have identified as major recruitment and fundraising centers for Islamic extremists.

And Mohamed's detailed account of clandestine meetings with Arabic-speaking Islamic radicals represents yet another instance in which U.S. authorities may have had some advance warning -- however vague -- of what would prove to be the deadliest enemy attack ever on American soil.

In a July 14 letter to a lawyer at Miami's Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, Mohamed says that "if I were to get the chance I will expose [the terrorists'] dirty activities" planned for the three American locales. He offers no details, and it is unclear when he learned of the plans and how much he knew. Also unclear is whether Mohamed's encounters had any connection to the September 11 attacks.

But in a telephone conversation last month from the Manatee County Jail, where he was being held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, he added: "I was not surprised when [the September 11 terrorist attacks] happened. I didn't know a date; I just knew that something terrible was going to happen."

What Mohamed did know in detail, he insists, were the plans of Muslim militants to blow up the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, as well as a Jewish temple in the Argentine capital. He told the FBI of being driven to a secret meeting held in a warehouse near Buenos Aires, where he saw expensive cars, carpeted offices, banks of computers, and posters of bin Laden.

He prayed with the fifteen to twenty other Muslims there and then watched videos about bin Laden, suicide bombers, and militant Islamic groups including Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. He listened as the leaders discussed what they called their religious duty to kill Americans and Jews.

At one meeting, Mohamed says, a man with thick glasses and a black beard posted on a blackboard maps and cardboard cutouts of a FedEx courier van and a truck to illustrate the bombing plans. Mohamed provided the FBI with hand-drawn street maps of what he recalled.

Eventually, Mohamed says, he realized he was being recruited for a role in the attacks, "to go in the jihad [holy war] and die a real shahid, a martyr, die for Allah. I know that this [is what] they wanted me to take part in when they ask me to go in the jihad. Well, now I thought it was time to run away, because I did not want to get involved in killing innocent people."

Miami FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela says Mohamed was interviewed "numerous times" by agent Mark Hastbacka, a veteran of the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force. "The information was passed on to the appropriate authorities, through the State Department," relates Orihuela.

In Washington the State Department official says that after receiving a report on Hastbacka's interviews with Mohamed, "we shared it with folks in Buenos Aires at the embassy." But, he adds, since the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, "we receive lots of threats against [American] facilities. I am not aware of any arrests or any other actions by terrorists" against U.S. interests in Argentina.

Did Mohamed have credible information about a plot to carry out bombings in Argentina, or any real inkling of plans that led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the loss of some 3000 lives? Did federal agents take him seriously? Did they take him seriously enough?

Those questions are difficult to answer. But the inability of U.S. intelligence agencies to track and assess a welter of global terrorist threats is now widely acknowledged. A bill signed into law by President George W. Bush in October expands the powers of intelligence agents and police officers to monitor threats and is designed to promote sharing of information.

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