Egypt's arrests take on spin of anti-terrorism

U.S. diplomats examine accusations that 83 men are linked to al-Qaida

War On Terrorism

The World

October 27, 2001|By Jeffrey Gettleman | Jeffrey Gettleman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAIRO, Egypt - At a time when America is desperate to identify terrorist threats, recent events here are showing how difficult it is to make sense of new leads - even when they come from an ally.

Western diplomats say that much-touted arrests in Egypt are perfect examples of how local politics, genuine security concerns and competing interests can confuse the battle against terrorism.

Two weeks ago, just as the United States was asking Egypt for more cooperation in the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, state-run media reported that Egyptian secret police had thwarted a strike against American interests. The reports said police rounded up 83 "extremists," including a pair of U.S.-trained pilots with possible links to Osama bin Laden.

Egyptian authorities, without commenting on details, quickly confirmed the gist of the accounts.

But when Western officials looked more closely, they had a hard time determining what had really happened.

"We're still plumbing the depths," said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "When we first heard about American-trained pilots, we were concerned. Then we were told this was old news and there was nothing to it."

Outside of Israel, Egypt is America's most reliable ally in the Middle East and can provide powerful backing for President Bush's war on terrorism. Egyptian security agencies hold extensive files on bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders, many of whom are Egyptian.

But Western officials say that Egyptians guard their information very closely and that they must be careful not to intrude on Egyptian sovereignty. Sometimes foreign investigators get no closer than observer seats at a military trial.

Human rights groups have accused Egyptian police of making mass arrests with little evidence and branding political opponents "terrorists" or "extremists," further clouding the issue.

Government critics have said that the timing of this month's news about the terrorist plot is mysterious; the 83 men have already been held for five months.

"This case has become an offering to the States," said Hazem Rushdi Mohammed, a lawyer who represents several of the accused. "Americans want so badly to stop terrorists. But under our system, nobody will ever know who is really a terrorist and who is an innocent man."

Nabil Osman, President Hosni Mubarak's top spokesman, said no charges had been fabricated. Osman would not discuss specifics of the case, and state security officials declined to be interviewed.

"Don't ask us where we stand on these issues," Osman said. "We have been fighting terrorism single-handedly for 20 years."

Partly because of Egypt's ties to the West, militant attacks intensified and peaked in 1997, when 58 tourists were machine-gunned in an ancient temple.

The attacks ceased, though the country is still under the same state of emergency instituted when President Anwar el Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Islamic groups, with their grass-roots networks of mosques and community organizations, are still perceived as the biggest threat to Mubarak's ruling party.

All this could help explain the roots of Case 640-01, involving the 83 suspects.

In May, authorities charged several Cairo sheiks and their followers with funneling money to Palestinian territories and to Chechyna. Such back-channel aid and unlicensed political activities are illegal in Egypt, and the case was slated for civil court.

A Cairo professor who knows one of the suspects arrested said the men were supposed to be released this fall. "There just wasn't any evidence to keep holding them, on anything," the professor said.

But that changed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.

Encouraged by their U.S. counterparts, Egyptian intelligence agents pored through old and pending court cases in search of links to al-Qaida, bin Laden's Afghanistan-based organization suspected of masterminding the attacks.

On Oct. 12, news broke that authorities had discovered an al-Qaida link to the group arrested in May.

State-owned Al Mussawar magazine said that among the suspects were two young pilots who had trained at the same Florida flight schools as Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian native thought to be a ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackings. The group was planning attacks on U.S. targets similar to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, it said.

Lawyers for the two pilots denied all terrorism charges but confirmed that the pair had trained in U.S. flight schools two years ago. The two pilots are Ayman Said Ibraheim Al Mansi, a university graduate in his early 20s, and another man of like age whose name has not been disclosed.

Al Mansi's name did not appear on the federal pilot databases or in any of the logs at the handful of flight schools where Atta trained.

A second Egyptian government publication, Al Ahram, then produced a richly detailed story about the foiled plot, including a specific list of bomb-making materials confiscated from the group. It also said the case had been abruptly transferred to a military court, where there is no chance of appeal.

The 83 men are now headed for military court as early as next month to face charges including "harming national unity and social peace." Long prison terms await them if convicted.

Jeffrey Gettleman is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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