Syria turns over ex-aide of bin Laden to Egypt

Taha's group blamed in 1997 tourist massacre

War On Terrorism

The World

November 20, 2001|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - Syria has turned over to Egypt a former aide to Osama bin Laden whose group was blamed for the massacre of 58 foreign tourists in Egypt in 1997, a U.S. congressman traveling in the region said yesterday.

The extradition of Rifai Ahmed Taha marks a dramatic move in the new and increasingly cooperative international climate that has emerged since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

A congressional report in September described Taha as part of bin Laden's "inner circle," and the Egyptian militant was seen in a video last year with bin Laden and another Egyptian aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Taha had joined bin Laden in 1998 in a declaration joining al-Qaida with other militant groups.

Taha had reportedly fled Afghanistan earlier this year, making his way to Sudan, then Syria, where he was arrested.

Nabil Osman, an Egyptian government spokesman, said he could not confirm Taha's extradition. But U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said Egyptian and Syrian officials had confirmed the extradition to him as he traveled the region as head of a four-person congressional delegation.

Issa said he believed Taha was turned over recently. An Islamic group in London that tracks such arrests said the extradition occurred last month.

"Over time, we're going to see a significant number of big deals in this sort of situation," Issa said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

"We're in a very interesting new set of grounds," he said. "The world is cooperating a great deal, not only because we're a world power but they're also saying, `Wow, an opportunity for someone to coordinate all this stuff.'"

Taha marks the most senior Muslim militant extradited to Egypt since Talaat Fouad Qassem, a spokesman for the Islamic Group who had asylum in Copenhagen, Denmark. Qassem was seized in Croatia in September 1995 by U.S. agents and turned over to Egyptian authorities, apparently at sea.

The raid, still a tightly guarded secret, was one of several believed to have been staged by Egyptian and U.S. intelligence in the 1990s. Egyptian officials have refused to disclose Qassem's fate.

U.S. officials say his detention in Syria may have kept him off the FBI's list of 22 "most wanted" terrorists issued after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"If he's in custody, he wouldn't be on the list," an FBI official said.

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