A Minnesota man who has allegedly told the government of his long history of participating in jihadist activities with senior al Qaeda leaders was arrested yesterday on charges of lying to the FBI.
Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, 41, a Lebanese national, is accused of lying when he denied shipping hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of field radios to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, when he ran a business in Long Island City, N.Y., according to court papers released yesterday.
Elzahabi is also accused of lying to the FBI about assistance he allegedly gave to Raed Hijazi, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Jordan for his role in the failed millennium bombing plot. Elzahabi is accused of allowing Hijazi to use his address in Everett, Mass., in 1997 and helping him obtain a driver's license.
The government contends that Elzahabi told the FBI he traveled to Afghanistan in 1988 and remained there until 1995, serving as a sniper in combat and an instructor of other jihadis at the Khalden training camp during this time.
During his years there, he allegedly told the government, he was in contact with Abu Musab Zarqawi, "the Jordanian al Qaeda associate" believed to be directing the terrorist attacks in Iraq, according to an FBI affidavit in the case.
Elzahabi told the FBI he was also associated in Afghanistan with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, self-confessed architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Abu Zubaida, a senior al Qaeda leader captured in 2002.
Elzahabi was approached by the FBI in Minnesota three months ago and "was willing to talk right away," said a senior Justice Department official who agreed to discuss the case only if granted anonymity. Elzahabi agreed to be taken to New York for further interviews and was subsequently held on a 90-day warrant as a "material witness" to a grand jury terrorism investigation. He was charged with two false statement counts yesterday and will be returned to Minnesota.
The senior official said the Elzahabi case illustrates the difficulties law enforcement officials face at a time when the intelligence community warns al Qaeda is planning a major attack on the United States in the coming months. "He's a jihadist," the official said. "We have a responsibility to be very careful with individuals who have devoted their lives to jihad."
On the other hand, the official said, there are many obstacles to building terrorism cases, including the unwillingness to compromise valuable intelligence by bringing it out in a criminal trial.
Eric Sears, an attorney for Elzahabi, declined to discuss the case but noted that the government had charged his client only with making false statements, and had not alleged an underlying criminal act.
The court documents say Elzahabi has been in the United States since 1984 and is facing deportation proceedings for obtaining a green card through a fraudulent marriage in 1988.
The documents say he decided to go to Afghanistan after attending a Islamic conference held in the Midwest in 1988. He returned to the United States for treatment in 1995 after he was shot in combat. He subsequently opened an axle repair business in New York for two years before moving to Boston, according to the documents.
While running the repair shop, Elzahabi allegedly shipped packages containing walkie-talkies and other electronics to Lahore, Pakistan. The government said that "field radios of the same make and model . . . have been recovered in Afghanistan by U.S. military forces."
Elzahabi told the FBI that a friend from Afghanistan asked him to receive shipments at his business. He agreed, he said, but never opened the boxes, according to the court papers.
In 1998, he told the FBI, Zubaida called him and asked him to help train al Qaeda fighters at the Khalden camp. Elzahabi said he turned down Zubaida but "became inspired to return to the fight in Afghanistan as a result of the call."
But Elzahabi was waylaid instead, according to the documents, traveling to Lebanon, where he helped provide small-arms training to a group formed to overthrow the government there. He also told authorities that he went on to Chechnya to join the mujaheddin under Ibn Khattab. As a sniper, he allegedly told the government, he shot several people in Chechnya, including a man driving a bulldozer.
He reentered the United States in mid-August 2001 and went to Minneapolis.