Shopkeeper denies involvement in plot

Egyptian native says he knows nothing about tunnel threats

October 21, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Speaking for the first time since he was swept up in a terror probe, the owner of a Southeast Baltimore convenience store said yesterday he knows of no plots to blow up a Baltimore tunnel, and he criticized federal authorities for acting on a tip about which they have become increasingly skeptical.

"I've been in America 23 years. I would never let anybody harm here in America," said Maged M. Hussein, a U.S. citizen from Egypt.

Hussein spoke from behind the counter of Koko Market shortly after being released from Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, where he had been held on a gun charge unrelated to terrorism.

On Tuesday, more than a half-dozen federal authorities walked into his store on Dundalk and Eastern avenues in Highlandtown, and ordered it closed, Hussein said.

They were investigating a tip that at least six local Egyptian men were plotting to detonate a truck full of explosives in one of the tunnels that carry traffic under the Baltimore harbor.

During its investigation, the FBI was told that plotters had gathered at Koko Market, a federal law enforcement official said yesterday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, because of the ongoing probe.

Authorities have charged four men with immigration violations, but have made no arrests related to terrorism.

Hussein, 41, was very cooperative with agents, the federal official said.

"There is sort of disappointment out there that he received a lot of negative attention," the official said. "It looks like he was just caught up in this because he was in the same community."

Authorities say the man who tipped them off is an Egyptian who used to live in Baltimore.

Wim de Bruin, a spokesman for the Dutch national prosecutor's office, confirmed that a man being held by Dutch immigration authorities tipped the FBI. The man's name was not released because he is in custody as an illegal alien and is not suspected of any crime, de Bruin said. He apparently contacted the FBI directly and then the FBI went through formal channels to interview him for more information, leading to the Baltimore arrests.

Ahmed Barbour, an Egyptian native, and his wife, Carol Barbour, say they believe the informant is a man who used to work for them at a Dundalk pizzeria. They say he came to the country with a group of Egyptians five years ago and was deported last year. He has repeatedly called members of the group to help him get back into the country and he now has a grudge against them, the couple said.

Hussein said he knows the man as a former customer.

"It's just all lies and he should be punished for that," Hussein said.

"How can you believe somebody like that, somebody that has been deported from the country?" he said. "You still take his word?"

Hussein said he is friends with the man's wife, who lives in the area. Pointing to a picture of the woman he keeps taped to a wall behind the counter in his store, Hussein denied that the relationship is anything more than a friendship.

The FBI official said agents have no information that Hussein was involved in a romantic triangle involving the informant and a Baltimore woman. The woman declined to comment yesterday.

Hussein, who is from Cairo, said he came to the United States 23 years ago, and is an American citizen. He said one of his first jobs in America was as an assistant manager in The Sun's delivery department.

Hussein, who is known as "Mike" to some of his customers, operated two stores in Baltimore before opening the Koko Market nine years ago. There, baskets next to the counter contain bags of flour from Tunisia, beans and prunes from Egypt, and candies from Syria.

Hussein, a Muslim, said he openly denounced the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001. In the weeks after, he displayed flags and other patriotic symbols in his store's windows, according to a Baltimore Business Journal story published that year.

"I love America," the story quoted him as saying. "This country has given me everything."

Yesterday, Hussein recalled that the FBI visited him shortly after the terrorist attacks and asked him for any information he might have on suspected terrorists. He said they were not accusatory toward him, and he did not mind cooperating and telling them that he had no information.

The Koko Market, his third store to be opened in Baltimore, is a gathering place for local Egyptians. A television above the counter displays Arabic-language programming, and he's known to serve delicacies, such as quail with okra and rice, in the back.

Yesterday, he said none of his customers would have a reason to plot a terrorist strike.

"Everybody here is a working-hard guy. They don't need this kind of stuff," Hussein said. "Everybody's making money, so why ruin the country? ... It's better than being home."

Eventually, Hussein moved to a home in White Marsh with his wife and two children.

He questioned how authorities handled Tuesday's events. "They should have checked it more," Hussein said, but he said, "I guess they [were] doing their jobs."

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