NEWS ANALYSIS : Overshadowing N.Y. Inquiry: Rise in Activism : Bombing: A multinational Islamic community has begun to coalesce around a common set of issues, including anger at West.


Anyone confused by the myriad Arab nationalities suspected of involvement in the World Trade Center bombing perhaps need look no further than Mohammed Farid Hassanein, an Egyptian millionaire and an old supporter of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nasser was no friend to Islamic fundamentalism: He crushed the supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, jailing thousands of followers and executing their most revered leaders. He preached a message of secular nationalism that left no room for religious fanaticism. His political heirs, in Egypt and around the Arab world, have waged war against Islamic movements for two decades.

But last year Hassanein, a leader of the Nasserite Party in Egypt, opened a tentative dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Every day, the Muslim Brothers are getting more and more support, and when I have time to read, I find the Muslim Brotherhood have some good ways of thinking," he said recently. "They are against America, they want to get Palestine free, they are no longer against Arab unity and they have their own literature asking for social justice."

He lowered his voice. "And don't forget we have the same enemy: the military mafia (dominating the government)," he said. "We have to throw them away, even if we have to work with the devils. We have to work with the Muslim Brothers. They are the only ones that can throw them a stone or shoot them with a rifle."

Hassanein, the owner of Egypt's largest water-pump manufacturing company, is far from being a terrorist, or even seriously advocating violence. But he reflects the extent to which intellectual sentiment all over the Arab world has begun to coalesce around a common set of issues, with an increasingly common theme: Islamic activism.

Investigators seeking to piece together clues from the trade center bombing, many of which seem to lead toward a multinational community of Islamic activists in the United States, are faced with an array of questions about how the suspects are linked and what group, if any, might have been behind the attack.

Two of the suspects are Palestinian immigrants to the United States; a third, not yet charged directly with aiding the bombing, is an Egyptian relative of El Sayyid A. Nosair, also an Egyptian, who was convicted on charges relating to the murder of Jewish right-wing leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York.

All were worshipers at a storefront New Jersey mosque where Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, a blind fundamentalist cleric and open advocate of toppling the Egyptian regime, has preached since he fled Egypt in 1990. U.S. authorities have been seeking to deport the sheik since last year.

Traditionally, Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalist groups have operated with relative autonomy, each with different agendas, different organizational structures and varying sources of support.

Egypt's Gamaa al Islamiya, for example, which grew out of the Jihad Organization that assassinated former President Anwar Sadat, has launched terrorist attacks within Egypt aimed at toppling the government.

The Palestinian fundamentalist group, Hamas, has launched operations against Israeli military targets and suspected collaborators. In Tunisia, members of the outlawed An Nahda organization were accused by the government of plotting to assassinate several Tunisian government officials, and in Algeria, Islamic fundamentalists have launched a series of attacks on Algerian soldiers and police.

If the trade center bombing proves to be linked to an Islamic fundamentalist agenda, it may reflect the extent to which the Islamic movement is developing international contacts--both organizationally and financially--that are crossing national boundaries, according to a variety of intelligence officials and analysts.

"It's something that a lot of us are trying to figure out, and so far, it's something that's very murky: Are there international connections, and is there going to be a direct link to Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman?" said one terrorism analyst.

"Historically, there haven't been a lot of connections, and if there are some strong ties developing, they probably developed in the U.S.," he said. "It probably has to do with the nature of the Muslim community in the States. Since there's very few of them, they often attend mosques that are very cosmopolitan in nature."

Throughout Europe, exiled Islamic organizations from the Middle East do have political contacts. Groups like Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, Tunisia's An Nahda and Sudan's National Islamic Front have offices in several European capitals and hold regular meetings once a month in London. International Islamic organizations have strong presences in both London and Bonn.

Few of these organizations advocate the use of violence against civilians not caught up in their national conflicts. But in many respects they share a common agenda, which is often highly critical of the United States and the West, seeks to unseat regimes in the Middle East that are seen as dictatorial and not popularly elected, and is overwhelmingly critical of Israel's presence in the region.

As demonstrated by Hassanein, the Egyptian Nasserite Party official, this agenda is not unique to Middle Eastern Islamic groups but has support within a growing segment of the Arab public, particularly in recent months.

It is not difficult to find on any Arab street citizens who are angry about the U.S. bombing of Iraq and sanctions against Libya, compared to its failure to take any decisive action to protect the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The peace process with Israel is widely perceived to be going nowhere. And Israel's deportation in December of more than 400 Hamas activists fueled Islamic fervor all over the Arab world.

As Egyptian columnist Hani Shukrallah explained last week in Cairo's Al Ahram newspaper, "In a way, Hamas expresses the vengeance of our repressed and denied collective memory of Palestine, that most devastating trauma suffered by the modern Arab psyche."

Thus, say some analysts, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Palestinian activists--who made terrorism a household word with the plane hijackings and bombings of the 1960s--have established links with other Islamic-oriented activists elsewhere in the Arab world.

Hamas has already joined a front of radical Palestinians in Damascus, Syria--secular opponents of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat--in opposing the current peace talks with Israel.

Some of those organizations include George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), responsible for a wave of airline hijackings in the 1960s and 1970s, and the PFLP-General Command, a highly militant terrorist organization with close links to Iran.

Most analysts say they believe that the pact is little more than a marriage of convenience: Most of the Damascus-based "rejectionists" are highly secular nationalist organizations whose history is in Marxism, an anathema to the Islamists. Habash is a Christian.

Rather, they say, it is more likely to be Iran and Sudan--two countries that already have Islamic fundamentalist governments--that are a more important common denominator among Islamic organizations, in terms of funding and logistics.

Arab governments fighting the fundamentalists have widely accused Iran of financing extremist groups and Sudan of setting up training camps for them. U.S. intelligence analysts have found no proof for either assertion, but note that this does not mean that they do not have a common agenda.

"The Egyptian government thinks they are training activists in Sudan, and my gut feeling is there is a lot to those allegations," said one analyst. "It's no secret that Iran is trying to extend its influence in Sudan as well. It's clear the Iranians are trying to establish ties with all sorts of Islamic groups all over the region. That's not to say they're directing them, but I think they believe it's in their interests to have very active Islamic groups all over the region. The Iranians are just looking for targets of opportunity, wherever they may be."

Sudan's Islamic leader, Hassan Turabi, is one of the intellectual godfathers of the modern Islamic movement and has frequently said he hopes to see what he considers the illegitimate leaders of the Arab world fall to a new union of popular Islamic governments all over the Middle East.

"All of these groups have one constitution and one set of principles," said an Egyptian intelligence source who has long studied Islamic activism in the region. "It is a unification not of organization, but of ideas, and it doesn't matter whether it is in Cairo, or London, or Bonn, or New York. They feel injustice, wherever it comes from. They feel injustice with the Egyptian government. They feel injustice with the Palestinian problem. And maybe, they feel injustice with the immigration police in New York."

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