Suspect Links Embassy Blast To Saudi Exile
By Pamela Constable and Kamran Khan
The sources said the man, Mohammad Sadiq Howaida, 34, was quietly turned over to U.S. officials here three days ago. Other sources said American officials flew from Pakistan to Kenya with Howaida on Saturday night and arrived there today.
During two days of questioning by Pakistani security agencies, the sources said, Howaida calmly and proudly claimed that he had provided technical, engineering and logistical support for the Aug. 7 truck bombing in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, as part of what he described as an Islamic crusade against the United States. The Nairobi bomb killed 247 people, including 12 Americans, while 10 people died in a nearly simultaneous bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Publicly, Pakistani officials confirmed today that Howaida was detained at Karachi international airport after landing on a flight from Nairobi. A statement issued by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry in Islamabad identified the suspect as "an Arab national by the name of Mohammed Sadik Howaida." It said he "was interrogated by our concerned agencies and on satisfaction about his involvement in these terrorist acts, he was sent back to Nairobi and handed over to Kenyan authorities for appropriate action under their law."
Sources at the four Pakistani intelligence agencies all said that Howaida had willingly made a detailed declaration of his role in the Nairobi bombing. In Washington, a senior FBI official said that Howaida had not admitted his involvement to U.S. interrogators and that U.S. officials had not been able to confirm the details of the Pakistani account.
Sources at Pakistan's military directorate of intelligence, the federal investigative agency, the civilian intelligence bureau and the interservice intelligence agency said Howaida reported that he had been one of seven operatives in Nairobi for bin Laden, a known sponsor of terrorism and sworn enemy of the United States who is based in a stronghold in Afghanistan.
The operatives traveled from Afghanistan to Nairobi some time ago, prepared the bomb and then flew to Karachi just before the bombing, carrying passports from various countries, Howaida reportedly said.
Howaida was detained at the Karachi airport because he was carrying a passport with a photo that did not resemble him. He said the other six all slipped through airport inspections here, giving false local addresses, then vanished.
The Pakistani sources described Howaida as a Palestinian engineer who was born in Jordan and speaks English. They said he is married to a woman from Kenya and is familiar with Nairobi, which was one reason he said he was chosen for the bombing mission.
The Pakistani sources said Howaida praised bin Laden as an "angel" to radical Islamic movements that have vowed to wage war against American targets. The two men apparently met during the 1980s, when both were involved in armed resistance against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Howaida told his captors that he and his associates, said to include Egyptians, Yemenis and Palestinians, had expected to be greeted and thanked by bin Laden after returning to Afghanistan through Pakistan after the bombing, the sources said.
But they said also that Howaida, a slight but muscular man, expressed some regret that more than 200 non-Americans had died in the attack. The Pakistani sources said Howaida prayed frequently while in custody, quoted from the Koran and tried to persuade his questioners, as fellow Muslims, to support his cause.
American officials have considered bin Laden a leading suspect in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings since the very beginning of the investigation, focusing on his obvious motive, wealth and strong organization. He has never concealed his hatred for the United States and called for attacks on American civilians as recently as June. He is backed by a $300 million fortune inherited from his father, a Saudi construction magnate, and has cells of loyalists in East Africa and around the world.
Bin Laden also has been accused of sponsoring previous terrorist acts. A federal grand jury in New York is considering evidence that could link him to the deaths of five U.S. servicemen and two Indians in a November 1995 truck bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; four of his followers publicly confessed to the crime the following year. He also has claimed responsibility for an attempted bomb attack on U.S. servicemen in Yemen in 1992 and is suspected of supplying weapons used to shoot down American helicopters in Somalia in 1993.
U.S. officials also are investigating whether the CIA's participation in the arrest of four suspected bin Laden operatives in Albania in June may have provoked the bombings at the two African embassies. On Saturday, normal activities at the U.S. Embassy in Albania were suspended after officials there received threats against Americans in that country.
Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA's counterintelligence unit, said he is aware of intercepted electronic communications among bin Laden associates in the aftermath of the embassy bombings in which they take credit for the attacks and exchange warm congratulations. He said investigators immediately considered bin Laden a suspect in the bombings and that subsequent intelligence information has only strengthened their suspicions.
"There is solid intelligence that overwhelmingly points to bin Laden," Cannistraro said. "You have an intelligence investigation, and you have a criminal investigation, but in this case, the two sides seem to be coming together."
But bin Laden is reportedly ensconced in a fortress-style hideout in the mountains of Afghanistan, and there is no obvious way to bring him to justice. American officials have urged leaders of the Taliban -- the ultra-conservative Islamic militia that controls most of Afghanistan -- to prevent him from fomenting terrorist actions, and there have been reports of U.S. commandos staking out the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Still, experts said any effort to capture bin Laden or strike at his interests would be fraught with peril. "As long as he's sitting in Afghanistan, there's diddly squat you can do," said Charles Englehart, director of international investigations for Kroll-Ogara, a business security firm. "If you're talking about a paramilitary operation, that's just a free-fire zone. You'll lose a lot of good men, and you probably won't accomplish anything. If you want to make yourself feel better by dropping bombs, you can, but I don't see how that works, either."
Official sources in Pakistan said the government there is concerned that it could now come under pressure from the United States, and possibly other governments, to acquiesce in the use of Pakistani territory as a base for a foreign military assault on bin Laden's heavily fortified compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Inside Pakistan, such collaboration would be widely condemned by the populace and could expose the government to terrorist attacks, the sources said. Some people in Pakistan, a Muslim country, sympathize with the Taliban, who have offices and members here. There are also numerous warring Islamic and political groups here, and outbursts of extreme sectarian violence are common. Wall posters praising bin Laden and his movement have been spotted in the city.
According to the sources, Pakistani officials were so pleased with Howaida's capture that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif personally congratulated security agents who were involved -- but they said the case is so politically sensitive that he did so in secret.
U.S. and Kenyan officials refused to say today how Howaida or the case would be handled. Under international law, the Kenyan government would have the first opportunity to prosecute Howaida. Relations between American and Kenyan officials on the matter have been cordial, but is not at all clear that Kenya would give up its right to prosecute, not when more than 200 of its nationals were killed in the attacks.
The Justice Department has often cooperated with foreign countries in terrorism prosecutions, but it has not always been satisfied with the resulting sentences, leading to diplomatic confrontations. Robert Blitzer, chief of the FBI's counterterrorism section, emphasized at a recent news conference that in the United States the murder of American nationals abroad is punishable by death, and his message was unmistakable.
"It's a capital crime," Blitzer said. "I think that's very important to note."
Staff writer Michael Grunwald in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company