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March 19, 2004

Zawahiri Was Within FBI's Reach During 1995 U.S. Visit

By J.M. Berger

Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, visited California to raise money for terrorist activities right under the noses of federal authorities in early 1995.

Regardless of whether Al-Zawahiri was anywhere near the early March siege in Pakistan, the latest mishap was only the latest in a decade-long series of missed opportunities.

Much has been made in recent days of a 2000 CIA spy plane image showing Osama bin Laden at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

But the opportunity represented in that video pales in comparison to the investigative failure that missed Zawahiri in California, in early 1995.

According to court records and extensive media reports, Ayman al-Zawahiri came to the U.S. in early 1995 on a fundraising trip for al Qaeda. He stayed near San Jose, Calif., with bin Laden's chief of security, Ali Mohammed — who had been subpoenaed by the Justice Department about his connections to terrorism only weeks before.

Zawahiri was in the country for a fundraising trip that may have been connected to an Egyptian embassy bombing in Pakistan later that year, according to a 2001 special report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The FBI was already well aware of Ali Mohammed, whom the Justice Department had interrogated in December 1994, according to trial testimony and published accounts. Mohammed had links to known terrorists dating back to 1989, when the FBI photographed him training some of the World Trade Center plotters in firearms (see Peter Lance's "1000 Years for Revenge" for details).

A former sergeant in the U.S. Special Forces, Ali Mohammed had even volunteered himself to the CIA and the FBI as an informant. According to a 2001 report in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mohammed's Army superiors suspected that the Egyptian native had been sponsored to Special Forces by the CIA.

FBI officials had already captured one top al Qaeda operative in the same part of California. In December 1994, officials arrested Mohammed Jamal Khalifa in nearby Mountain View (See story, 1995 Deportee Tied To Al-Zawahiri, Uranium Plot, Terror Finance Network and Even 9/11), a brother-in-law of bin Laden.

While the CIA spy plane video of bin Laden is indeed dramatic and makes for good television, its value as an actual opportunity to capture the al Qaeda leader is negligible. Aside from the fact that bin Laden is shown in what was then a sovereign country outside of a wartime footing, the terrorist leader was highly mobile and may not have stayed in one place long enough for a strike to be mounted.

On the other hand, there is every reason to think that an effective FBI investigation of Khalifa and Ali Mohammed could have led to a real opportunity to capture Zawahiri on U.S. soil without bloodshed. Although Zawahiri was not as high-profile in 1995 as he is today, he was clearly a "high-value target" at the time.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, Ali Mohammed and Khalifa were high profile candidates for surveillance and investigation in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing and the January 1995 exposure of the Bojinka plot (see story, INS Deported bin Laden Kin Just Days After OKC Bombing).

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