Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Suspected operative for al-Qaida held at center in El Paso

Diana Washington Valdez / El Paso Times

EL PASO -- A Lebanese man who was part of a complex federal investigation into a suspected U.S. terrorist network with ties to al-Qaida is in custody at the El Paso immigration detention center facing deportation, officials have confirmed.

According to court documents, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, 44, told the FBI he was a freedom fighter in 1988 and 1989 against the Soviets in Afghanistan, where he also attended a jihad military training camp, provided small-arms instruction and was a sniper. Elaine Komis, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review in Falls Church, Va., said her office could not discuss anything about the case due to a "non-disclosure order" by the Department of Justice. She said that the Department of Homeland Security initiated the case, and that it's now up to the Justice Department to decide Elzahabi's immigration status.

Adelina Pruneda, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, in San Antonio, said Elzahabi is being held at the El Paso federal detention center. No other details, including his hearing date and name of his new lawyer, will be released as long as the non-disclosure order is in effect.

Elzahabi caught the attention of authorities in Canada, Minnesota, New York and Massachusetts, who learned he and three other men fought in Afghanistan and all became cab drivers in Boston. Elzahabi has continually denied he was part of a sleeper cell or terrorist group.

A sleeper cell is a group of covert operatives inside a target population that is dormant until members receive orders to act.

"Elzahabi (alias Abu Kamal al Lubnani) stated that he was a Lebanese national who entered the United States in 1984 on a student visa. (He) admitted that he thereafter paid a woman in Houston, Texas, to enter into a marriage with him and help him obtain legal permanent resident alien status," according to a federal complaint filed in Minnesota.

The federal complaint also states Elzahabi decided to travel to Afghanistan in 1988 after he attended a religious conference in the U.S. Midwest. Elzahabi said that while in Afghan istan, "he knew Musab al Zarqawi, Raed Hijazi and Bassam Kanji, aka Abu Aisha, (and) identified photographs of each of these persons."

The document further states he told agents of "knowing of Khalid Sheik Muhammad," who U.S. authorities later said had masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The others mentioned in the documents:

· Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian al-Qaida associate accused of directing terrorist attacks against U.S. and coalition members in Iraq. He was killed by U.S. forces in 2006 during an air raid in Iraq.

· Raed Hijazi, born in California, who was convicted in Jordan for his part in the failed "Millennium" bombing plot that targeted American and Israeli tourists in that country. He was sentenced to death and has appealed.

· Bassam Kanj, who was killed by Lebanese soldiers in 2000 while leading an attempted violent coup that sought to replace the Lebanese government with a fundamentalist Islamic state.

Elzahabi also told U.S. federal agents that he returned to Afghanistan in in 1991 and remained there until 1995. He also admitted acting as a combat sniper and being a small-arms instructor for jihadists at the Khalden training camp in eastern Afghan istan.

Military officials said the camp near Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden was thought to have hidden, was used by al-Qaida to train terrorists. Hoping to strike bin Laden, U.S. forces bombed the camp.

The complaint also states Elzahabi admitted knowing Abu Zubaida, a senior al- Qaida associate.

Elzahabi told FBI agents he traveled to Lebanon and Chechnya and returned to the United States in 1995 "because he was in need of medical care after suffering an abdominal gunshot wound in combat," records state.

Elzahabi and his brother operated an axle-repair business in New York from 1995 to 1997 before he moved to Boston, where he worked as a cab driver "and he again associated with Raed Hijazi and Basam Kanj," who were employed by the same cab company.

The 2004 complaint signed by FBI Special Agent Kiann Vendenover alleges Elzahabi lied about not knowing the contents of packages he helped ship from his axle business to Pakistan and other countries -- packages that contained radios and other communications equipment.

The FBI also alleged he lied about helping Hijazi obtain a Massachusetts driver's license, and about letting him use Elzahabi's U.S. address for that purpose.

Elzahabi, who has been in custody since May 2004, was convicted last year by a Minnesota court of possessing fraudulent immigration documents based on his marriage to a dancer who worked at the Pink Pussy Cat Club in Houston (he and the dancer had divorced in 1988). He was sentenced to time served and two years of supervised release.

After the trial, the Department of Homeland Security turned him over to the Department of Justice for deportation proceedings.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at; 546-6140.

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