Al Qaeda terrorist worked with FBI / Ex-Silicon Valley resident plotted embassy attacks
A former U.S. Army sergeant who trained Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards and helped plan the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya was a U.S. government informant during much of his terrorist career, according to sources familiar with his case.
Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen and longtime Silicon Valley resident who pleaded guilty last year to terrorism charges, approached the Central Intelligence Agency more than 15 years ago and offered to inform on Middle Eastern terrorist groups, a U.S. government official said.
Later, according to the sources, Mohamed spent years as an FBI informant while concealing his own deep involvement in the al Qaeda terrorist band: training bin Laden’s bodyguards and Islamic guerrillas in camps in Afghanistan and the Sudan; bringing Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is bin Laden’s chief deputy, to the Bay Area on a covert fund-raising mission; and planning the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, in which more than 200 people died.
The story of Mohamed’s dual roles as FBI informant and bin Laden terrorist – – and the freedom he had to operate unchecked in the United States — illustrates the problems facing U.S. intelligence services as they attempt to penetrate the shadowy, close-knit world of al Qaeda, experts said.
Mohamed “clearly was a double agent,” Larry C. Johnson, a former deputy director in the State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism and a onetime CIA employee, said in an interview.
Johnson said the CIA had found Mohamed unreliable and severed its relationship with him shortly after Mohamed approached the agency in 1984. Johnson faulted the FBI for later using Mohamed as an informant, saying the bureau should have recognized that the man was a high-ranking terrorist, deeply involved in plotting violence against the United States and its allies.
“It’s possible that the FBI thought they had control of him and were trying to use him, but what’s clear is that they did not have control,” Johnson said. “The FBI assumed he was their source, but his loyalties lay elsewhere.”
The affair was “a study in incompetence, in how not to run an agent,” Johnson said.
FBI spokesman Joseph Valiquette declined to comment on Mohamed, as did a spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, whose office prosecuted the case of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
A law enforcement source familiar with the case said the FBI had followed appropriate procedures in attempting to obtain crucial information from Mohamed, whom he conceded was “double-dealing” and difficult.
“When you operate assets and informants, they’re holding the cards,” this source said. “They can choose to be 100 percent honest or 10 percent honest. You don’t have much control over them.
“Maybe (the informant) gives you a great kernel of information, and then you can’t find him for eight weeks. Is that a management problem? Hindsight is 20/20.”
Mohamed, 49, is a former Egyptian Army major, fluent in Arabic and English, who after his arrest became known as bin Laden’s “California connection.” Last year, when he pleaded guilty in the embassy bombing case, he told a federal judge that he first was drawn to terrorism in 1981, when he joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist group implicated in that year’s assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
For almost as long as he was a terrorist, Mohamed also was in contact with U.S. intelligence, according to court records and sources.
In 1984, he quit the Egyptian Army to work as a counterterrorism security expert for EgyptAir. After that, he offered to become a CIA informant, said the U.S. government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The agency tried him out, but because he told other possible terrorists or people possibly associated with terrorist groups that he was working for the CIA, clearly he was not suitable,” the official said.
The CIA cut off contact with Mohamed and put his name on a “watch list” aimed at blocking his entrance to the United States, according to the official.
Nevertheless, Mohamed got a visa one year later. He ultimately became a U.S.
citizen after marrying a Santa Clara woman. In 1986, he joined the U.S. Army as an enlisted man. He was posted to Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the elite Special Forces.
There he worked as a supply sergeant for a Green Beret unit, then as an instructor on Middle Eastern affairs in the John F. Kennedy special warfare school.
Mohamed’s behavior and his background were so unusual that his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Robert Anderson, became convinced that he was both a “dangerous fanatic” and an operative of U.S. intelligence.
Anderson, now a businessman in North Carolina, said that on their first meeting in 1988, Mohamed told him, “Anwar Sadat was a traitor and he had to die.”
Later that year, Anderson said, Mohamed announced that — contrary to all Army regulations — he intended to go on vacation to Afghanistan to join the Islamic guerrillas in their civil war against the Soviets. A month later, he returned, boasting that he had killed two Soviet soldiers and giving away as souvenirs what he claimed were their uniform belts.
Anderson said he wrote detailed reports aimed at getting Army intelligence to investigate Mohamed — and have him court-martialed and deported — but the reports were ignored.
“I think you or I would have a better chance of winning Powerball (a lottery), than an Egyptian major in the unit that assassinated Sadat would have getting a visa, getting to California . . . getting into the Army and getting assigned to a Special Forces unit,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen. “
It was equally unthinkable that an ordinary American GI would go unpunished after fighting in a foreign war, he said.
Anderson said all this convinced him that Mohamed was “sponsored” by a U.S. intelligence service. “I assumed the CIA,” he said.
In 1989, Mohamed left the Army and returned to Santa Clara, where he worked as a security guard and at a home computer business.
Between then and his 1998 arrest, he said in court last year, Mohamed was deeply involved in bin Laden’s al Qaeda. He spent months abroad, training bin Laden’s fighters in camps in Afghanistan and Sudan. While in Africa, he scouted the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, target of the 1998 bombing. In this country,
he helped al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top aide, enter the country with a fake passport and tour U.S. mosques, raising money later funneled to al Qaeda.
According to Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert and author who has written about the case, Mohamed by the early 1990s had also established himself as an FBI informant.
“He agreed to serve (the FBI) and provide information, but in fact he was working for the bad guys and insulating himself from scrutiny from other law enforcement agencies,” Emerson said in an interview.
One particularly troubling aspect of the case, Emerson says, was that Mohamed’s role as an FBI informant gave bin Laden important insights into U.S. efforts to penetrate al Qaeda.
The case shows “the sophistication of the bin Laden network, and how they were toying with us,” he said.
Some information about the nature of Mohamed’s contacts with the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies is contained in an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in New York at the time of his 1998 arrest. The document describes contacts between Mohamed and the FBI and Defense Department officials.
At times, Mohamed made alarming admissions about his links to the al Qaeda terrorists, seemingly without fear of being arrested. Mohamed willfully deceived the agents about his activities, according to the affidavit.
In 1993, the affidavit says, Mohamed was questioned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after a bin Laden aide was caught trying to enter the United States with Mohamed’s driver’s license and a false passport.
Mohamed acknowledged traveling to Vancouver to help the terrorist sneak into the United States and admitted working closely with bin Laden’s group. Yet he was so unconcerned about being arrested that he told the Mounties he hoped the interview wouldn’t hurt his chances of getting a job as an FBI interpreter.
(According to the affidavit, he had indeed applied for the FBI position but never got it.)
Later that year, Mohamed — again seemingly without concern for consequences — told the FBI that he had trained bin Laden followers in intelligence and anti-hijacking techniques in Afghanistan, the affidavit says.
In January 1995, Mohamed applied for a U.S. security clearance, in hopes of becoming a security guard with a Santa Clara defense contractor. His application failed to mention ever traveling to Pakistan or Afghanistan, trips he had told the FBI about earlier. In three interviews with Defense Department officials, who conducted a background check on him, he claimed he had never been a terrorist.
“I have never belonged to a terrorist organization, but I have been approached by organizations that could be called terrorist,” he told the interviewers.
According to the affidavit, he told FBI agents in 1997 that he had trained bin Laden’s bodyguards, saying he loved bin Laden and believed in him. Mohamed also said it was “obvious” that the United States was the enemy of Muslim people.
In August 1998, after the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, he told the FBI that he knew who did it, but refused to provide the names.
Two weeks later, after lying to a U.S. grand jury investigating the embassy bombings, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty last year, but he has never been sentenced and is once again believed to be providing information to the government — this time from a prison cell.
“There’s a hell of a lot (U.S. officials) didn’t know about Ali Mohamed,” said Harvey Kushner, a terrorism expert and criminology professor at the University of Long Island. “He infiltrated our armed services and duped them.”
Yet, Kushner said, such duplicitous interactions may be a necessary component of intelligence work.
“I hate to say it, but these relationships are something we should be involved in more of. That’s the nasty (part) of covert operations. We’re not dealing with people we can trust.”
E-mail the reporters email@example.com and lmwilliams@sfchronicle. com.