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.

But bureaucratic borders remain, as does what Washington attorney John O'Leary, who served as ambassador to Chile until last July, calls "a natural instinct to compartmentalize.

"How could something so well financed, so international, not get on our radar screen?" O'Leary asks. "What September 11 showed was a failure to gather, analyze, and act on intelligence in real time."

But was the intelligence Mohamed offered any good? "He could have fabricated the whole thing. It could have been partially true. Or maybe it was all the truth but people didn't judge it credible," says terrorism expert Dennis Jett, dean of the University of Florida's International Center. "There were a lot of indicators out there that Osama was going to do something, and frankly, nobody took them seriously."

Tom Bennett

Mohamed may have embellished his tale to enhance his chances for asylum, but his account was consistent, and he was persistent. For weeks before September 11, he told anyone who would listen about his hard-luck life, his picaresque adventures in South America, and his days in Buenos Aires, where "the most horrifying thing happened to me."

Argentina, along with parts of Brazil and Paraguay, has long been known as a crossroads of Islamic terrorist connections. In the last decade the Lebanese-backed terrorist group Hezbollah is believed to be responsible for two bombings that have killed 115 people in Buenos Aires. "Evidence is now emerging that links Muslim activities in the region to the September 11 attacks on the United States," the Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor newsletter reported in October. "And worse still, that an insider's attempt to issue warnings of the impending attack were ignored."

The insider Jane's refers to here is not Shaheed Mohamed but rather a 27-year-old Moroccan student arrested last year in Brazil. But the pre-September 11 warnings from each man about impending actions directed at the United States have a similar ring.

"I cannot explain everything that I have seen," Mohamed wrote in the fifteen-page July letter to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), a nonprofit group that promotes immigrants' rights. "But I know that America is the great target of the Muslim world of terrorism."

On August 23, two and a half weeks before hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mohamed told the same story to an INS judge.

Lawyers at FIAC deemed him "forthcoming, very credible," according to Charu Newhouse al-Sahli, one of several attorneys who met with Mohamed while he was in federal custody in Bradenton, south of Tampa, where the INS rents jail space from Manatee County. They also talked often with Mohamed over the phone. "His accounts of things are extremely detailed," she says. "He couldn't make up that much detail."

But immigration judge Jonathan D. Dowell was not impressed. At the conclusion of the August hearing, he immediately denied Mohamed's request for asylum and ordered him deported, either to Trinidad, Britain, or any other British Commonwealth country that would take him.

On December 6 Mohamed was removed from the Manatee County Jail, and under INS escort was flown to Trinidad, where he said Muslim militants intended to kill him. He has not been heard from since.

When the history of America's war on terrorism is written, Mohamed may be little more than a footnote. But his account of sitting in on terrorist planning sessions, his past as a police informant who infiltrated militant Islamic groups in Trinidad, and his July warning in which he mentioned three specific U.S. locations -- New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles -- now seem intriguing at the very least.

Since September 11 more than 1000 Muslims, Arabs, or others from the Middle East have been detained by federal authorities in an effort to reconstruct the movements of the hijackers and ferret out any hidden al Qaeda cells in the United States.

Shaheed Mohamed, however, was in custody long before the post-September 11 roundups began. He had been shuttled by the INS from Miami's Krome Detention Center to the Manatee County Jail, where other inmates, he says, taunted him by calling him bin Laden. He was frightened for his safety. "Everybody here came from prison," he wrote, "and I came from the airport."

Indeed Mohamed was different from the other prisoners, and from most of the other foreign nationals being held by federal authorities. Although he is a Muslim, he is not an Arab. He does not speak Arabic. He harbored no ill will toward the United States and in fact wanted to tell officials what he knew.

By his own account Mohamed has led a life on society's margins. He acknowledges a record of irresponsibility and bad choices. He served jail time in Saratoga County, New York, on a fraud conviction and was deported from the United States in 1990. He has been imprisoned three times in Trinidad, once for two years, and he admits he has not supported his wife and children for years.

At home he has been beaten up, stabbed, and run down by a car after Muslim militants discovered he had become a paid police informant. Hiding out in Trinidad and Tobago, he fell in with marijuana smugglers, worked as a courier for gun runners, and was only too happy to take refuge in mosques that did not require him to work in exchange for shelter and food. "He was known as something of a con man," according to the FBI's Judy Orihuela.

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