A Tanzanian man whose house was allegedly used as a bomb factory was arrested in South Africa this week and brought into federal court today to face charges of murder and conspiracy in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 26, pleaded not guilty to all the charges. He apparently had been living in Cape Town, South Africa, since a few days after simultaneous bomb blasts on Aug. 7, 1998, destroyed the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans.
U.S. officials have linked those bombings to a "global terrorist organization" led by Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, who remains at large.
Mohamed is the first person in custody who is believed to have had "direct operational responsibility" for the Tanzanian bombing, Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference today.
Mohamed rented a house in the Indian Ocean port city of Dar es Salaam "that was allegedly used as the base of operations and bomb factory," White said. "He is also charged with purchasing the white Suzuki Samurai that was allegedly used as a utility vehicle by the conspirators during the preparation stage of the plot."
U.S. officials learned less than a month ago that Mohamed was in Cape Town, and he was apprehended there Tuesday in a joint operation of the FBI and South African police, who have been investigating numerous bombings in the Cape Town region over the past two years.
He is the latest of nine suspects who have been arrested in an international dragnet by White's task force and cooperating governments. Six are being held in New York and three in London.
In a massive federal indictment in June, the Justice Department brought charges against 17 defendants, of whom eight are still at large. The FBI has compiled evidence of direct involvement in the bombings against several of the defendants. But the indictment linking bin Laden and a key lieutenant to the bombings is largely circumstantial.
The indictment never explains how bin Laden masterminded the bombings, and it is unclear what role, if any, Mohamed played in al Qaeda, the terrorist organization allegedly run by bin Laden. In many cases, the links between suspected members of al Qaeda are tenuous. For example, a senior U.S. official today described Mohamed as "tied to people with ties to bin Laden."
Mohammed's arrest came as a result of a paper trail. The alias he used to apply for a Tanzanian passport in May 1998, Zahran Nassor Maulid, is the same name he was using in South Africa.
White and Lewis D. Schiliro, assistant director of the FBI's New York office, declined to speculate on whether Mohamed's arrest would lead to other suspects. But a U.S. official said his links in South Africa are being actively probed.
Cape Town's small Muslim community includes a radical faction that may be linked to bombings in that region, including an explosion last year at a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Cape Town that killed one person and injured dozens. That blast came as U.S. installations and businesses around the world were on alert in the wake of retaliatory U.S. airstrikes against training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that were allegedly linked to bin Laden. But no clear connection between the embassy bombings and the Planet Hollywood attack has been found.
Staff writer Vernon Loeb contributed to this report from Washington.