Middle East Governments Scramble to Make Most of Arrest in N.Y. : Bombing: Israelis see vindication in crackdown on Islamic militants. Mubarak, in a reference to attacks on tour buses in Egypt, says tourists around world face danger.
The arrest of a Jordanian-born Muslim extremist in the World Trade Center bombing created a sensation Friday across the Middle East with governments and other organizations scrambling to turn the case to their own advantage.
In Jerusalem, officials and commentators from across the Israeli political spectrum, cited the charges against Mohammed A. Salameh as a vindication of Israel’s crackdown on Islamic militants including the deportation of more than 400 of them to a no man’s land in southern Lebanon last December.
In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the New York blast demonstrates that terrorism is a worldwide scourge, not a problem confined to the Middle East. In effect, he said, tourists cannot escape danger by avoiding Egypt where the tourism industry is reeling as a result of attacks by Muslim militants on tour buses.
In Egypt, Jordan and Israel, intelligence organizations were searching their files for information about Salameh, seemingly a bumbling bomber accused by the U.S. government of “aiding and abetting” the attack. The suspect is said to be a Palestinian born in Jordan with apparent ties to a firebrand Egyptian mullah. He is a resident of Jersey City, N.J.
In Washington, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), a longtime advocate of the death penalty, introduced legislation making terrorist bombings a capital crime. He said the trade center blast is not now covered by federal death penalty statutes and that New York state has no death penalty.
President Clinton reacted cautiously, urging Americans “not to jump to conclusions.”
“When I know who was behind this and what happened, I will then determine what the appropriate course is for the United States,” the President told reporters. “But this is a delicate matter.”
But hardly any other leaders shared Clinton’s restraint. Israelis, smarting from worldwide criticism of the deportation of members of the militant Hamas organization and their generally hard-line handling of Islamic extremists, pointedly said: “We told you so.” They suggested that the rest of the world may now be more sympathetic to the Israeli crackdown.
“In Washington and New York, they are beginning to understand that Muslim fundamentalist terror is not a local problem of Israel, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan but it is a world problem,” Ron Ben-Yishai wrote Friday in Yediot Ahronot, the country’s biggest newspaper.
“The Americans act slowly, but when they recognize the existence of a problem they give it solid treatment,” he added. “Israel must offer its help to American law enforcement agencies and to continue to feed media organizations with a lot of information.”
Uri Dromi, director of the government press office, said: “There is a sense of, if not ‘we told you so,’ then at least of relief that we are not hallucinating about the threats of Islamic fundamentalist groups.”
Even environment minister Yossi Sarid, a member of the dovish Meretz bloc, said: “Sometimes, our problem and fears on this issue are not understood. Although (we view the New York bombing) with great sorrow, it was a good example of how the state of Israel was caught in a situation where it must deport 400 people. More understanding of our current situation cannot hurt.”
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is scheduled to begin a visit to the United States next week. Israeli officials said they hope the Salameh case will help him assert Israel’s role as the bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.
In his meeting with Clinton on March 15, Rabin will argue “the great threat to the Western world from Iran, its ideas, its subsidiaries and its affiliate organizations,” an Israeli official said. “We see ourselves as in this together. We face the immediate threat, but the long-term threat from Islamic fundamentalism to (the United States and the West) is no less.”
Mubarak also used the arrest to illustrate an appeal for greater sympathy to Egypt’s struggle with Islamic fundamentalists, including members of the militant organization that is thought to include Salameh.
“This proves that terrorism is becoming a plague spreading all over the world and it would call for international cooperation to resist this unhealthy phenomenon,” Mubarak said in a statement.
Salameh attended a storefront mosque in Jersey City headed by a blind Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, who has been accused of fomenting violence in Egypt and elsewhere.
The State Department confirmed Friday that Abdul Rahman was issued a visa to enter the United States in 1990 by mistake when diplomats failed to find his name on a list of people barred from the country because of links to terrorist groups. Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Abdul Rahman’s visa was revoked in November, 1990, when the error was discovered.
In both Israel and Egypt, officials underlined Salameh’s ties to Abdul Rahman. But the mullah denied that he played any part in the bombing.
“Islam is opposed to the destruction of life and property of the innocent,” he said in the statement issued by the National Council on Islamic Affairs. “The bombing of the World Trade Center could not have been done by a true Muslim.”
Kempster reported from Washington and Parks from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Cairo contributed to this story.