(13:50) Egyptian agent worked with Green Berets, bin Laden
By Ton Hays and Sharon Theimer, The Associated Press
NEW YORK - When the Green Berets needed insight on the Middle East, they turned to one of the US Army's own: Sgt. Ali Mohammed.
When Osama bin Laden wanted help training troops and raising money for his al-Qaida terrorist network, he enlisted the same man, known as "Abu Mohammed ali Amriki," or "Mohammed the American."
Now in US custody at an undisclosed location, the Egyptian-born Mohammed, 49, ranks as one of the most puzzling figures in the war on terrorism.
His story shows how a terrorist managed to infiltrate American society and join the United States Army, then turn his military training against his adopted country. In the end, he also betrayed bin Laden - supplying the FBI with inside information on al-Qaida as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors in the 1998 terrorist bombings of US embassies in Africa.
"He is one of the people who lurks in the background of this whole conspiracy," prosecutor Kenneth Karas said at the embassy bombing trial in New York earlier this year.
Court records, including Mohammed's own admissions in his guilty plea last year, portray a man who mixed easily with civilians in California, soldiers in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya.
The trail of double-crosses can be traced to 1981. That year, as an Egyptian army captain fluent in English, he completed a program for foreign officers offered by the Special Forces school at Fort Bragg.
There, Mohammed learned unconventional warfare - the same training given Green Berets, minus classified classes. He has admitted that around the same time, he became involved with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant Muslim group eventually absorbed by al-Qaida.
Mohammed left the Egyptian Army in 1984 and contacted the CIA, offering to be a spy, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The CIA learned he was boasting of a relationship with the agency, judged him unreliable and dropped him as a source, the official said. He was later placed on a US government watch list, according to US officials.
Mohammed moved to the United States in 1985, settling in northern California and becoming a US citizen. He married Linda Lee Sanchez of Santa Clara, California, that year at The Chapel of the Bells in Reno, Nevada. Sanchez, on advice from her attorney, has declined to comment on Mohammed.
In 1986, at age 34, Mohammed joined the US Army in Oakland, California. Army officials said they did not know to what extent his background was checked.
He returned to Fort Bragg as an enlisted man in 1987, working as a supply sergeant for Special Forces. He never became a Green Beret or received security clearance, but he gave briefings on Islamic fundamentalism and the Middle East at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
During one lecture, he told soldiers they had nothing to fear from devout Muslims, court records show.
"The word 'fundamentalism' scares people in the West," he said. "The word 'fundamentalism' does not mean extremism."
At the same time, Mohammed was moonlighting as a trainer for soldiers of a different stripe: militant Muslims in Brooklyn hoping to join the fight against a Soviet puppet government in Afghanistan.
One member of the group, Khalid Ibrahim, testified at a 1995 trial that Mohammed had trained them to fire AK47 assault rifles at a Connecticut shooting range. The witness also told how Mohammed had given classes in a Jersey City, New Jersey, apartment on "how to find your way by looking at the stars" and "how to recognize some of the weapons if you see them - like tanks."
Some of Mohammed's students were later found guilty of plotting terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a scheme to blow up New York City landmarks.
Seized from the apartment of one of the convicted terrorists were manuals from the Kennedy training center, swiped by Mohammed - including an "enemy weapons guide" describing the Soviet arsenal, according to court testimony. Defense lawyers have said other documents included "top secret" plans for a Special Forces training exercise for an attack on a section of Pakistan.
US Army officials and prosecutors declined to discuss the specifics of the documents that ended up in the hands of America's future enemy. But a Special Forces spokesman, Maj. Gary Kolb, called the value of a late-1980s training manual in today's Afghanistan "debatable."
Back then, no breach of security was evident at Fort Bragg. Kolb said an officer who worked with Mohammed "did have some suspicions about what he did, but nothing came as a result of it. It really depended on who you believed."
Mohammed received at least two medals for "meritorious achievement" before being honorable discharged in 1989.
After he left the US Army, Mohammed took up al-Qaida's cause. Ibrahim recalled encountering a westernized Mohammed at a mountain training camp in Afghanistan in 1992. L'Houssain Kherchtou - a former bin Laden follower who testified in the embassy bombings trial - remembered meeting Mohammed at a training session in Pakistan in the early 1990s.
Known as "Amriki," or "the American," Mohammed was "very, very strict and not gentle" while giving explosives and reconnaissance training.
Trainees were warned in advance that Mohammed "was a severe man" who was "not a good practitioner of Islam," Kherchtou said through an interpreter. "You can hear from him some bad words."
Mohammed, during his plea, admitted teaching al-Qaida foot soldiers how to create cell structures that could be used for operations. He also trained bin Laden's security detail.
The plea provided one of the most direct links between bin Laden and the bombings that killed 231 people - 12 Americans and 219 Africans - at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mohammed claimed that bin Laden had asked him in late 1993 to conduct surveillance of American, British, French and Israeli targets in Nairobi.
His diagrams and photographs were reviewed by bin Laden, who "looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber," he said.
Returning to California in the mid-1990s, Mohammed helped a top aide to bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, raise money for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He also monitored the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman - the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in the 1995 New York terrorism trials - for bin Laden.
Once terrorists had struck the embassies, Mohammed said he had planned to return to Egypt and then join bin Laden in Afghanistan. But prosecutors have said he also contacted the FBI, telling agents that bin Laden had been responsible for the attacks.
Mohammed was subpoenaed to testify before a New York grand jury before being indicted on conspiracy charges. He pleaded guilty in October 2000.
"Abu Mohammed ali Amriki" has not been seen in public since.
It remains unclear how Mohammed managed to enter the United States and join the Army in the 1980s, despite the CIA's misgivings.
Equally unclear is how he was able to maintain his terror ties in the 1990s without being banished by either side, even after the Special Forces documents he had stolen turned up in the 1995 New York trial.
The State Department, CIA and FBI declined to answer questions about Mohammed. Officials have refused to discuss how much he has helped in their investigations as he awaits sentencing, which has been postponed indefinitely.
Given what's known, Mohammed fits the profile of a double agent, said Larry Johnson, former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the State Department. He says he believes Mohammed was an FBI informant before the embassy bombings.
"I just see it as: The FBI screwed up," Johnson said. "They didn't do a good job of information management."
Rusty Capps, a retired FBI agent and president of the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, said Mohammed had seemed too interested in "trying to impress people" to be reliable.
"If I were al-Qaida, if I were the CIA, if I were the FBI, I would not want to have a person like this anywhere within a thousand miles (kilometers) of me," Capps said.
In the Army, Mohammed "was doing what was asked of him, and there was no reason to suspect anything differently," Kolb said, "Would we like to go back and change things? Definitely. Then, maybe a lot of this would never have happened."
(AP reporter Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this story)