What was the top leadership of Al Qaeda doing in Brazil during the mid-1990s?
This is the million-dollar question American and South American security officials are trying to answer since it became known that Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the top Al Qaeda operative snagged in Pakistan on March 1, spent three weeks at the end of 1995 in Brazil — in a region where Osama bin Laden is speculated to have visited that same year.
Brazilian officials confirmed to the Forward that Mohamed, a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani considered the chief of Al Qaeda operations and the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks, entered Brazil on December 4, 1995, from Pakistan. He departed for the Netherlands 20 days later, on Christmas Eve, according to Armando de Assis Possa, general coordinator of the Brazilian federal police. The news was first reported by CNN.
The leading Brazilian weekly Veja reported over the weekend that bin Laden spent three days in 1995 in the tri-border area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet and where several Middle Eastern terrorist groups are known to be active. The magazine, citing a Brazilian intelligence agent, claims that an Egyptian man who was recruited as an informer by Brazil during the mid-1990s said he filmed a bin Laden visit to a mosque in the area. The paper said bin Laden was coming from Argentina.
While Brazilian and regional authorities cast doubt on the Veja report, Mohamed’s foray in the region has put pressure on Brazil, which has consistently downplayed reports of a terrorist presence in the region and expressed concern about American meddling in counterterrorism operations.
“The Brazilian government reiterates that it has found no evidence of the presence of Middle Eastern terrorist cells in the tri-border area or elsewhere in Brazil,” the Brazilian security ministry told the Forward in a written answer to a query.
Brazilian officials said the information about Mohamed stemmed from a passport — bearing a Brazilian tourist visa — that was found on him by Pakistani and American investigators. At the time, Mohamed was not listed as a terrorist and traveled under his real name, which may explain why Brazilian authorities did not bother him.
However, Mohamed is now believed by American officials to have already been involved in terrorist activities when he came to Brazil. They point to his involvement in plans to bomb 12 American jetliners over the Pacific Ocean and to attack a plane in Manila in 1995. Both plans failed.
Argentinean and Paraguayan sources blasted Brazil’s attitude. There was no official American reaction, and State Department officials did not return calls seeking comments.
Investigators in South America are now trying to find out what bought Mohamed to Brazil. They believe he spent most of his time in the tri-border area. American and regional intelligence officials contend the region is first and foremost a financing hub for the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah and to a lesser extent for Sunni groups like Hamas and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. They have consistently said that evidence of Al Qaeda presence in the region was scarce.
Mohamed’s visit, however, is forcing them to reconsider. The most plausible scenario is that he came to the area to set up a radical Sunni cell linked to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian regime that formally merged with Al Qaeda in 1998. The group’s leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is now bin Laden’s deputy.
There are some indications of Al-Zawahiri’s interest in the region. In October 2001, the Argentine daily La Nacion showed a picture extracted from a video of Al-Zawahiri with a map of South America hanging on a wall behind him on which arrows point to several locations. In addition, there were reports that American troops in Afghanistan found a poster of the Iguazu Falls, located on the border between Brazil and Argentina, in a safe house in Afghanistan.
Mohamed’s presence is seen as a definite indication of terrorist activity in the region. Paraguayan and Argentinean intelligence sources believe he could have played a key role in the creation of an Islamic Jihad cell that was dismantled during the late 1990s by the arrest of its alleged leader, an Egyptian called El Said Hassan Ali Mokhles.
Mokhles has been sitting in a jail in Montevideo, Uruguay, for the past four years, awaiting a decision by the country’s Supreme Court on an Egyptian extradition request. Cairo claims that he participated in a 1997 attack on tourists in Luxor that killed 58 people and that he spent 18 months in a training camp in Afghanistan run by Al Qaeda, a charge his lawyer has told local media was fabricated to keep him in jail.
According to a senior Argentinean security source closely involved in his arrest, Mokhles, who was living on the Brazilian side of the tri-border, had been under regional intelligence surveillance for some time.
Because Brazilian authorities refused to arrest him, the source said, he was “harassed” by regional security forces under American coordination and forced to leave. He was arrested with his wife and two other persons in January 1999 as they were crossing the border to Uruguay with false passports and flight tickets to London, the Argentinean source and another regional law-enforcement official said.
They contend that just before his departure, Mokhles had several phone conversations with people in London and that the wiretap records show his main interlocutor was likely Al-Zawahiri, the group’s leader.
Moreover, the Argentinean source said his country’s intelligence has records of calls between Mokhles and Mohamed between 1996 and 1998. The information could not be corroborated.
“Khalid Sheikh Mohamed provides the missing link between Mokhles and Al Qaeda,” he said. “When we arrested Mokhles, we did not know about the coordination between Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda…. It is obvious that bin Laden came to the tri-border at the time to recruit personnel and later decided to back the installation of the Egyptian terrorists who were his friends, starting with the presence of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed in the region.”
A Paraguayan official warned that the bin Laden tale was still unconfirmed, but he said Brazil would have to be more forthcoming if it wants to avoid an open confrontation with the United States on terrorism.
“I think the Americans are going to be fed up at some point if evidence keeps coming out,” he said.