By Josh White and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 19, 2008
When U.S. authorities got their hands on terrorist Mohammed Mansour Jabarah in May 2002, he agreed to inform on some of the most influential al-Qaeda leaders. So instead of being sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or a high-security CIA detention facility, Jabarah was housed with relatively lax security at Fort Dix, N.J., where he was allowed to watch television and movies, speak to his family in Canada by telephone, go for walks and even make his own meals, all under 24-hour FBI watch.
That arrangement soon proved to be a major problem for the bureau.
In court papers filed in relation to the terrorism case against Jabarah -- who was sentenced to life in prison yesterday in a New York federal courtroom -- prosecutors allege that he duped federal authorities into believing he was no longer a threat, and began squirreling away weapons and hatching a plot to kill his captors.
Federal authorities wrote that Jabarah collected steak knives, a long piece of nylon rope and instructions on how to make explosives. Jabarah also allegedly wrote a litany of angry Arabic passages in a notebook he kept in his room, vowing to die as he avenged his slain al-Qaeda comrades.
"These writings make clear that Jabarah had secretly disavowed cooperation and was affirmatively planning further jihad operations, including in all likelihood the murder of government officials in some sort of suicide operation," U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia wrote in a court document dated May 7, 2007, and unsealed this week. The discovery of Jabarah's pledge of martyrdom prompted federal authorities to move him into a high-security area at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center in November 2002.
The case illustrates how the FBI's relatively relaxed handling of a serious terrorist such as Jabarah led to "a considerable amount of valuable intelligence," including information about training camps in Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda network and some of the most sought-after terrorism suspects, according to court documents. Jabarah had direct contact with Sept. 11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed and an Indonesian operative known as Hambali, the mastermind of Jemaah Islamiah, a terrorism network in Southeast Asia that, with Jabarah's help, was plotting to bomb U.S. embassies in Singapore and the Philippines.
But the unusually lenient custody also apparently gave Jabarah the means to plot an attack on federal agents and gather potential weapons for weeks without drawing notice.
Jabarah's general role in the Southeast Asia plots was previously known, but many of the details of his close ties to al-Qaeda leadership and the events surrounding his captivity were shrouded in secrecy until now. Even the fact that Jabarah had pleaded guilty to terrorism crimes five years ago was a state secret until late Thursday, when a raft of documents were unsealed in federal court in advance of his sentencing.
Jabarah's attorney, Kenneth Paul, said the allegations that Jabarah was plotting to kill FBI agents while pretending to be an informant are "just ridiculous." He said his client had the knives because he was worried about his own protection.
Jabarah, now 26, has maintained that his writings were a way for him to vent anger about the death of a very close childhood friend -- Anas al-Kandari -- who introduced him to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden associates during summers in Kuwait. Kandari died while attacking a U.S. Marine outpost in Kuwait just months after Jabarah entered a secret guilty plea to terrorism charges in July 2002. Federal authorities allege that his friend's death in October 2002 sent Jabarah's behavior and mood into a tailspin.
According to court documents, Jabarah cut out a newspaper article about Kandari's killing and wrote, "By Allah I will revenge your death." He also cut out a newspaper article with a photograph of Mohamed Atta, a hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and asked that God bless his soul.
In addition to writing a "will" and mentioning martyrdom numerous times, Jabarah jotted down a list of initials corresponding to the FBI agents and prosecutors assigned to his case, as well as detectives assigned to secure him. Prosecutors said this was akin to a hit list. He also collected a Fort Dix installation map and directions for making explosives, and he wrote about his future, according to a translation of his notes: "If they release me then I will kill them until I am killed."
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said he believes Jabarah's alleged plot against U.S. officials demonstrates less a failure on the FBI's part than the success of al-Qaeda indoctrination. Hoffman said that because Jabarah was raised as a Westerner, it made sense for the FBI to try to win him back.
"He was giving them gold in terms of information, so it certainly made sense," Hoffman said. "These are the kinds of chances we have to take to get this kind of information. This one paid off until a traumatic event wrenched his mind back to a jihadi orientation."
Jabarah became an al-Qaeda operative after training in Afghanistan and vowing allegiance personally to bin Laden in May 2001. He admitted working with Mohammed and Hambali on separate missions, traveling to Singapore and the Philippines to engage in financing attacks on U.S. interests and planning potential bombings. After the plots fell through, Jabarah fled to Oman, where Mohammed ordered him to set up an al-Qaeda safe house. Jabarah was arrested by local authorities in February 2002 and was deported to Canada, where he cooperated with Canadian intelligence officials. That May he agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities and was turned over to them.
U.S. officials began to grow suspicious of Jabarah in the weeks after Kandari's death. While he was out for a walk on Nov. 8, 2002, agents searched his room and found a knife and rope hidden in a suitcase, and discovered his writings. Four days later, while in a federal jail cell, Jabarah wrote to the FBI apologizing for lying to agents about the knives, and saying that it was all a "misunderstanding" and that he would like to sit down and talk about his writings "like gentlemen."
"If you or any of your bosses thought that I was trying to hurt somebody that is totally crazy!" Jabarah wrote in English on Nov. 12, 2002, explaining that he believed he had a strong relationship with his captors. "I still consider you guys friends."
In U.S. District Court in Manhattan yesterday, Jabarah made a 20-minute plea for leniency, arguing that he had been brainwashed by top al-Qaeda leaders. "I am not a ruthless, infamous and notorious terrorist," he said. "I do not believe in terrorism, violence and killing."
U.S. officials yesterday hailed Jabarah's life sentence.
"Jabarah was a deadly serious terrorist," said Mark Mershon, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York office. "He swore allegiance to bin Laden and lived with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, took orders from Hambali and planned to kill Americans in Manila and Singapore. Fortunately, he did not succeed in his plans, the consequences of which would have been devastating."
Richburg reported from New York. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.