U.S. Probes Blasts' Possible Mideast Ties
By R. Jeffrey Smith
But a serious problem cropped up almost immediately afterward: The euphoric Albanians leaked a sketchy account of the raid, including an accurate statement about the CIA's prominent role in its planning, to Albania's largest circulation newspaper. By the time a second raid was conducted two weeks later -- in which two more suspects were arrested -- any hope of keeping Washington's fingerprints away from the operation had died.
A possible connection between this sequence of events and last Friday's bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania has provoked officials here and in Washington to begin investigating whether the attacks might have been revenge by Bin Laden's organization for the CIA's role in the arrest of four of its alleged members here.
The gravity of the inquiry is demonstrated by the fact that several senior U.S. intelligence officials have quietly visited here in the past several days to pursue the matter, according to local sources who said they could not provide details.
One reason for Washington's interest is that several Arabic newspapers considered close to Islamic radicals had complained before the bombings that the suspects -- who are Egyptian nationals -- were taken out of Albania by the CIA and subsequently turned over to anti-terrorist officials in Egypt.
Officials note that Bin Laden, who reportedly now resides in Afghanistan, has not claimed credit for organizing the bombings. But he was quoted in July by one newspaper as saying that U.S. decisionmakers needed to be taught not to battle "the Islamic nation." Several independent Western security experts also say they suspect Bin Laden may have struck an alliance with Islamic militants linked to the Egyptian-based Jihad group, which had faxed a statement to news organizations before the bombings threatening retaliation for the four arrests.
The publicity has cast an unusual spotlight on the CIA-Albanian operation, which was meant to undercut the use of this economically poor and generally lawless country as a safe haven and base of operations by Bin Laden's alleged accomplices. The State Department previously has described Bin Laden, a former construction magnate, as "one of the most significant sponsors of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups" and accused him of establishing terrorist cells in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Tajikistan. But it has not drawn any public link to activities in Albania.
During the early 1990s, some Albanian government officials established close ties with radical Muslims, but more recently the official policy has been to oppose the establishment of such groups, said a U.S. official here.
Roughly 65 percent of Albania's 3 million or so citizens are Muslim, but most do not adhere to strict Islamic religious and social guidelines, officials say.
The ease with which Albania could be penetrated, however, was demonstrated when each of the four men arrested entered the country without proper documents and worked and traveled widely here, several local sources said. At least one, Ahmed Ibrahim Nagar, 35, was wanted by the Egyptian government on charges of involvement in a previous terrorist attack.
At the home of another man, religious scholar Maged Mostafa, 36, security officials found a bag of faked documents and official Albanian government stamps needed to get past customs and police checkpoints, certify legal documents and otherwise circumvent an already shaky government security apparatus, the sources said.
"We found evidence of illicit activity in Albania . . . and so we declared them persona non grata," said an official here, explaining the government's decision to release each suspect to CIA custody and allow them to leave the country without formal extradition papers.
Other details of their activities in Albania, including how and why they first came to the CIA's attention, remain shrouded in mystery. But at least three of those arrested -- Mohamed Fouda, 39, an accountant; Muhamed Hasan, 38, an engineer; and Mostafa -- once were associated with an independent Islamic charitable organization that official sources here say provided a useful cover for the men's alleged efforts on behalf of Bin Laden.
The organization, the Islamic Revival Foundation, aids poor Muslim families and orphans in Albania, said employees interviewed at two central offices in apartment buildings here. But the foundation also is closely linked with several other Islamic charitable and educational organizations located in Tirana and other Albanian cities, and it obtains all its funds from the same source they do: a group known as the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee.
Several officials of the group, who asked not to be identified, said the local office spends tens of thousands of dollars each month in Albania that it obtains from private Kuwaiti citizens and funnels through a Kuwait bank. The committee also has offices in Somalia, Djibouti, Bosnia and Bangladesh, and finances a sizable Islamic educational institute in the city of Elbasan, 25 miles southeast of here, they said.
Hasan, one of those arrested in July, had directed the foundation for the past four years from a third-floor office in a new apartment building in a Tirana suburb called Laprake. The office is closed now, one of at least five sites raided by members of SHIK, the Albanian secret police, and a group of "English-speaking men with translators," according to one employee.
Mostafa had directed the group's orphans project until he quit several months ago, while Fouda had managed the group's books in the same office as Hasan, another employee said.
"I'm not believing these accusations," said Muhammed Abdul-Kereem, who now directs the aid to orphans. He added that "we are not taking advantage of the humanitarian assistance to make some other things," and said that the United States is powerful enough to have fabricated evidence against the group's members.
Hasan's job temporarily has been filled by Ibrahim Meki, a citizen of Sudan who has directed the educational institute for several years. Located in four buildings surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire, the institute has a sign on its guardhouse stating that only five cars are allowed to pass the gate, including four listed as holding Kuwaiti diplomatic license plates.
According to Sulejman Kurani, the institute's general secretary, its professors are from Sudan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Kurani said it has donated $80,000 to help refugees in the northern Albanian town of Tropoje -- a town that also is a key locus of arms stockpiling and smuggling by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla group fighting to win Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
"We have no links with fundamentalist sects," Kurani said. But officials say the activities of these interlocking groups are still being investigated by the Albanian secret police, and one added, "It is still early in this matter."
Since a government ban on religious observances was lifted in 1991, the number of Albanian Muslims has increased, "but not in the sense of being more fundamentalist," a senior Albanian official said.
A former senior government official cautioned, however, that "for years this has been a topic to be worried and definitely looked at closely."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company