Cleric who financed al-Qaida terrorism is held in Germany

Yemeni allegedly raised cash from Muslims in U.S.

extradition being sought

March 05, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department announced the arrest yesterday of an important financier for al-Qaida, a Yemeni cleric who once boasted of handing Osama bin Laden $20 million in cash for use in terrorist operations in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The cleric, Mohammed al Hasan al-Moayad, and a Yemeni cohort, Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayer, were arrested Jan. 10 in Frankfort, Germany, based on sealed complaints issued in Brooklyn, N.Y. The U.S. government unsealed the complaints yesterday and announced that the United States is seeking the extradition of the two men, who are being held in Germany.

The Justice Department said the men raised much of their money from Muslims in the United States and gave it to bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and to the Islamic militant group Hamas.

The cleric's arrest was the second revealed in the past few days of figures considered to be important in al-Qaida. On Saturday, American and Pakistani officials arrested Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is said to have planned and directed the Sept. 11 attacks. President Bush described him as "al-Qaida's general when it comes to plotting attacks on America."

"I told the American people that this is a different kind of war against al-Qaida and that we would have to hunt them down one at a time," Bush said. "Over the weekend they saw what I meant."

Politically, the arrests come at a convenient time for the Bush administration, which has been the object of harsh criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans who complain that the war against al-Qaida seems to be languishing while the administration appears wholly preoccupied with the buildup toward war with Iraq.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said: "The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed by Pakistan authorities, in coordination with the CIA, is a severe blow to al-Qaida that could destabilize their terrorist network worldwide."

Aides to several senators on the committee said their bosses had intended to excoriate Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Tom Ridge, the secretary of Homeland Security, over what had seemed to be the flagging fight against international terrorism. Instead, several complained at the hearing about the low level of federal funding for anti-terror enforcement nationwide.

"We can find billions and billions and billions and billions to give to countries that help us fight the war against Iraq," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, apparently referring to the money offered to Turkey in exchange for permission to stage troops there. At the same time, Leahy said, the government is giving little if any money to local and state police to prepare their communities for possible terrorist attacks.

Bush acknowledged last month that domestic anti-terror budgets were underfunded and promised to correct the problem.

Also yesterday, a French judge issued an arrest warrant for Mohammed, saying that he played a role in the suicide bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia last year. That attack on the resort island of Djerba killed 21 people, and Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere is leading the French investigation. Mohammed is accused of speaking to the bomber, Nizar Nawar, by satellite phone moments before the man drove a gas tanker into the synagogue and blew it up.

Mohammed is being held in a detention and interrogation center at the American airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan. It seems unlikely that the United States would extradite him to France before he is interrogated and, perhaps, tried for the Sept. 11 attacks and others for which Mohammed is believed to have been involved.

In the arrest complaint unsealed yesterday, federal authorities charged that al-Moayad supplied al-Qaida and Hamas with arms, equipment and money. He boasted of several meetings with bin Laden, the complaint said, adding that much of the money came from "contributors in the United States, including Brooklyn."

In one meeting with an informant, the complaint said, "al-Moayad said he received money for the jihad that was collected at the Al Farouq mosque in Brooklyn."

The United States is still searching for several other important al-Qaida figures, in addition to bin Laden. Along the southern border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. military aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets yesterday offering a reward for information that leads to the capture of another important bin Laden deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The pamphlets, written in Arabic and Pashtu, showed al-Zawahiri's picture under the caption "wanted," alongside images of dollar bills.

Al-Zawahiri, founder of the Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad, has long been viewed as one of bin Laden's top deputies.

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