The Accidental Terrorist
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.
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.
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."
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.
Nonetheless the FBI thought enough of Mohamed's tale to interview him repeatedly, and FIAC attorneys found his story believable. "Our staff hears a lot of stories from a lot of people," says FIAC executive director Cheryl Little. "In this case everyone who talked to him said he was very credible, and they don't always say that."
Here, based on his letters to attorneys, a transcript of his August asylum hearing, and a telephone interview from the Manatee County Jail on December 4 -- two days before he was deported -- is Mohamed's story:
Born in the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in 1960, Mohamed is the grandson of immigrants from India. As a member of the nation's Muslim minority, he grew up in a country that became an independent republic in 1962 but remains a member of the British Commonwealth. In recent years Trinidad has seen increased tension between a population that is almost evenly split between blacks of African ancestry and those of East Indian descent.
Mohamed says he left Trinidad, and his wife and two daughters, in 1987 to live in the United States. He entered the country legally and found construction work in upstate New York. But in 1989, Mohamed recounts, the man who employed him in Saratoga County reneged on a promise to help bring his wife and children to America. The employer seized his passport and withheld his wages, he claims, doling out only enough for Mohamed to live on. With his wife also pressuring him about sending money home, he says, he stole a check from his boss and cashed it.
Arrested and charged with fraud, Mohamed pleaded guilty, served six months in county jail, and was ordered deported. He arrived back in Trinidad in June 1990, in the midst of an attempted coup d'état by a violent Muslim splinter group called Jamaat al-Musilmeen (Society of Muslims). With the island convulsed by political turmoil, Mohamed found himself disgraced by his criminal conviction and deportation and shunned by his family and other Muslims. He managed to scrape by until October 1993, when, he says, he was arrested in connection with "all the bad debts I left when I ran away to the U.S."
Convicted again of fraud, he served two years and two months in prison. Upon his release in January 1996, Mohamed resolved to change his life. He joined a mosque, where he was offered a job as a courier. But members of the mosque, he discovered, were involved with Jamaat al-Musilmeen, and he soon realized that the boxes of fish and shrimp he picked up at the seaport often contained weapons, militant Islamic videos, or other contraband.
Frightened, he fled to the less-populated island of Tobago, but after a few weeks three men he recognized from the mosque forced him back to Trinidad. He resumed working as a delivery man for the mosque, but in February 1997, fearing another coup was brewing, he says he went to the attorney general of Trinidad and volunteered to inform on the militants for the special police. Days later he was deliberately run down by a car and hospitalized for weeks with a broken leg. But he continued to inform, and continued to be paid by the special police, he says. In September of that year he was accosted by thugs and stabbed in the neck. After a friend was murdered and Mohamed's father was assaulted, he decided to flee again.
According to Mohamed his next two years were an odyssey of danger and misadventure. He continued to collect cash as a government informant, all the while dodging militant Muslims who knew what he was up to. He got a job selling ladies' dresses, but when orders were slow in coming, he sold the samples for cash. His employer pressed charges and Mohamed was sentenced to 45 days in jail for theft. After his release he lived with drug smugglers and on deserted island beaches. Finally, in August 2000, he says, "I decided to leave the country for good."
After brief stays in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, Mohamed found work at a mosque in Brazil. But when Muslims there learned he had been an informant in Trinidad, he was on the run once more.
Without a passport, Mohamed says, he sneaked into Argentina and made his way to Buenos Aires. "As usual as a Muslim traveler, I went to the mosque for help," and spoke to the imam, the prayer leader. "I told him my problem," he says. "I told him that I have no family. I have nothing to live for. I just need work for a place to stay and food to eat. I was helped financially. The money was good. I did not have to work."
Based on what experts now know about the operations of independent terrorist cells, Islamic militants may have seen Mohamed as a perfect candidate for a suicide mission. He was single, estranged from his family, and penniless. More important, he professed to be a devout Muslim.
Before his stay at a Brazilian mosque, Mohamed claims he'd never heard of Osama bin Laden. Until he attended several militant meetings in Buenos Aires, "I thought going to jihad means like in Trinidad -- going from house to house and preach."
But the Muslims Mohamed met in Argentina had a different interpretation. "One guy even tells me: Shaheed [in Arabic] means martyr.' He then suggested to me I should go to the jihad, and die a real shahid. Die for Allah. Well, at that time I was so desperate I said, Yes, I am willing.'"
During one dinner at an Arabic restaurant, Mohamed remembers, he was asked "if I was serious about going in the jihad. I said yes. I then asked what I had to do. They said, If you are willing to die in the path of Allah, you have to do anything.'"
Then one night in April of last year, he was picked up in a van with dark-tinted windows. He sat in the back with two other men who urged him to join them in repeating an Arabic chant: "There is no God but Allah."
After an hour's drive, he recalls, the van pulled into a gated compound where he was led into a warehouse. Before pictures of bin Laden and posters proclaiming, "America, the Great Satan," he says they prayed, had refreshments, and then went over plans for bombing the U.S. embassy and a Jewish temple. The discussions were in Arabic; a friend from the restaurant translated for Mohamed.
At one point, he says, the speaker held up his hands about eighteen inches apart to indicate the thickness of a wall. "When I asked what's going on," says Mohamed, "the guy who brought me there said, We are going to blow up the U.S. embassy.' He said, We want America the great Satan out of here.'"
On the way back to Buenos Aires, Mohamed says he was told to return the next evening with all his belongings. And at that moment, he remembers, "I was thinking about getting out of here."
He ran for the Chilean border, but without papers he was denied entry. Broke and tired, he returned to Buenos Aires. Wary of trusting anyone at a mosque, he "decided I will go to the first church I see. I then ended up in an evangelist [sic] church. When I explain everything to the pastor, he told me to sit and wait. The next thing about six or seven police officers came and arrested me."
While held in a military jail, Mohamed says, he was interviewed by Argentine anti-terrorism police, Interpol, and representatives from the British embassy. But after the first day of his chronological account -- and before he could get to the details of the bombing plots -- he says "a Pakistani guy, dressed in Pakistani clothes" and claiming connections to Hezbollah, was put into his cell. "And he knew everything about me," says Mohamed. "He said if I wanted to remain alive, I should not tell them anything." And so he did not mention the bomb plots.
A month later Mohamed was issued a British passport and put on an American Airlines flight to Miami.
Jack Wallace met Mohamed in July at the Manatee County Jail after the young FIAC attorney had completed a routine presentation to INS detainees about their legal rights. "Mr. Wallace, can you take a look at this?" Mohamed said as he gave Wallace the handwritten letter.
Two weeks went by before Wallace read Mohamed's letter. And when he did, he says, he found it "very shocking."
The next day he showed the letter to Rebecca Sharpless, his supervisor. She also found it alarming. But they did not mention it to Cheryl Little, their boss, or to anybody else. "I figured he was clear," says Wallace. "The FBI had talked to him. What more could I do?"
In August FIAC attorney Charu Newhouse al-Sahli met Mohamed when she and Wallace returned to the Manatee County Jail. In the following weeks Wallace, Newhouse al-Sahli, and Sharpless spoke to Mohamed by phone about his asylum plea, and all found him sincere. Says Sharpless: "Humble, understated, and I completely believe his story. He is not that sophisticated. He doesn't come across as someone who is intelligent enough to manipulate the system."
In a letter to Wallace postmarked August 14, 2001, Mohamed asks for advice about his pending asylum hearing. "Sir, if you cannot represent me, please come or send someone just to guide me because I don't want to say anything I shouldn't," he wrote.
He reminded Wallace that he did not want to be sent back to Trinidad "to be killed by the Muslims." He mentioned writing to the consulates of Panama, Chile, and Costa Rica and his plans to write to Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, along with "any[where] within the Commonwealth that will accept me as a refugee." He said he wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He also arranged for x-rays of his body to be taken to show his healed broken leg and the stab wound in his neck. "I really would like to get out of this situation and start back with my life," he wrote.
A hearing on Mohamed's asylum plea lasted two hours. According to the transcript, Judge Jonathan Dowell listened to Mohamed's detailed story patiently, at times interrupting the garrulous Trinidadian with questions about dates and sequences of events. Near the end of the hearing, however, Dowell seemed to indicate a growing incredulity, not about the meetings with terrorists in Buenos Aires but over Mohamed's account of being waylaid on a street in Port of Spain by the same two thugs who months earlier had run him down with a car and broken his leg.
"But ten minutes before the attack, when you hadn't been beaten and stabbed, you couldn't run away from them because of a bad leg?" asks the judge.
"Exactly, sir. Because at that point -- "
"That's an incredible recovery," Dowell interrupts.
In a closing statement, INS attorney Carlos Maury tells Dowell that Mohamed is not to be believed. "He's running for his life from his country, he stops in numerous countries, and yet doesn't ask for asylum anywhere?" asks Maury. "That's just inconceivable."
After denying his asylum request, Dowell advised Mohamed of his right to appeal.
Initially Mohamed did appeal, and during late August and early September FIAC lawyers spoke with him several more times on the phone as they weighed whether to take him on as a client. He told Sharpless in one conversation that if he were deported to Trinidad, he would immediately run to South America to avoid those who were out to kill him.
In a letter to Wallace written after September 11, Mohamed again included a synopsis of his travails in South America and in U.S. detention, and he said he had filed an appeal of the judge's decision to deny asylum. He also told Wallace that back in July, after he had been moved from the Krome Detention Center to Bradenton, a fellow detainee, a Muslim from South America, made threats to harm him after learning that Mohamed had informed on Muslims in Trinidad.
Mohamed said he was assaulted a second time by another inmate after he refused to give him his phone card. "I was lying on my bed, and he started punching me on my face," Mohamed wrote. "I got stitches and [am] supposed to do surgery tomorrow. I don't feel safe since the incident. Why they can't take me back to Krome, where the criminals is separated from the INS detainees?"
Days after September 11, Cheryl Little called a staff meeting to discuss the fallout settling over immigrants and their advocates. While honoring their moral and ethical obligations to clients, Little told staffers, they should also be alert for any information refugees might have about terrorism. At that point, Little recounts, someone mentioned Mohamed's letter. She asked to see it and added it to papers to take home.
Late that night, Little recalls, she finally got to it. "When I read that letter I said, Oh, my God!' I sat up in bed. I couldn't sleep that night."
The next morning Little called an FBI agent she knew from another case. She faxed the agent a copy of the letter. "I thought, My God, this guy may have important information," says Little. "But I never heard back."
Ironically as Mohamed was being deported, his island homeland was again in crisis. In elections last month the nation's two major political parties each won 18 seats in the 36-seat parliament, heightening tensions between those of African and East Asian descent. The stalemate over the next prime minister seemed broken when Trinidad and Tobago's president named opposition leader and former prime minister Patrick Manning to another term.
Efforts to reach Mohamed by telephone through a mosque he once attended were unsuccessful. But his tale of involvement with an Islamic terrorist cell planning violent attacks against the United States seems eerily foreboding in light of what is now known. In the July letter to FIAC, he wrote, "I'm willing to go as a state witness against the Muslims anytime anything of the sort happens because I've been close to them and I know their dirty tricks. All of it.
"I also know that bin Laden is the biggest hypocrite in the Middle East -- a coward who finances terrorist activities and then goes into hiding. Only a coward hides. His money cannot fool me to do his dirty work."
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