A suspect believed to be the “field general” behind the World Trade Center bombing was brought back from Egypt under tight security Wednesday to be formally charged today in one of the worst acts of terrorism in the nation’s history.
Mahmud Abouhalima, who was the focus of an international search by the FBI, was seized last week by Egyptian police in his hometown on the Nile delta as part of a crackdown on proponents of an Islamic state who are blamed for a wave of violence in that country.
Hours after Abouhalima’s return, a fifth suspect turned himself in at the FBI’s Newark, N.J., office, and he was arrested early today after questioning, an agency spokesman said. Bilai Alkaisi, 27, of New York, probably will be charged with aiding and abetting the bombing, the spokesman said.
FBI agents, informed of Abouhalima’s arrest, flew to Egypt Tuesday night to pick up the 33-year-old former cabdriver, who is said to be a one-time chauffeur, valet and bodyguard for Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, a radical cleric who has been seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government while living in the United States.
Abdul Rahman has denied any role in last month’s bombing.
Abouhalima arrived Wednesday afternoon aboard a small chartered jet that touched down at a military area of Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., located north of New York City.
The snow-covered airfield has been used for sensitive government flights in the past. In January, 1981, when Iran freed 52 U.S. hostages after holding them for 14 months, they landed at the field, near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
FBI agents and state police quickly formed a caravan of vehicles for Abouhalima’s 60-mile trip to Manhattan. A helicopter escorted the motorcade.
Abouhalima is the fourth person arrested in the case, and federal authorities said they believe he played a crucial leadership role in the plot.
More details of his involvement could be spelled out today when he appears in federal court in Manhattan, where an indictment against him is expected to be unsealed.
A top federal official, assessing the suspected role of Abouhalima, said the former fighter and fund-raiser for anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan might not have been the actual mastermind of the plot if it was directed and financed from abroad.
“Perhaps he was the field general, if the brains are in Germany or the Mideast,” the official said, referring to the still murky flow of cash from overseas banks to the New Jersey bank accounts of two previously arrested suspects.
Another source close to the case said Abouhalima, who has red hair, a full red beard and a freckled face, “was associated” on the day of the bombing with Mohammed A. Salameh, the first person seized in the case, who has been charged with renting the van allegedly used to transport the explosive device.
This source declined to comment on reports from witnesses that Abouhalima was not only seen riding in the van with Salameh but that he had been seen earlier near a storage locker Salameh allegedly rented and where explosive chemicals allegedly were mixed.
Abouhalima, Salameh and two others in custody--Nidal Ayyad, a chemical engineer, and Ibrahim A. Elgabrowny, a Brooklyn building contractor--worshiped in the mosque of Abdul Rahman, who was tried and acquitted in Egypt of plotting the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Neighbors in Kafr el-Diwar, Egypt, a dusty textile town near Alexandria, said Wednesday that Abouhalima was arrested 24 hours after he arrived last week at his family’s two-story concrete home on the grounds of the Egyptian Company for Spinning & Weaving. His family declined to comment.
Investigators said they believe that Abouhalima, his German wife and four children fled the United States through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 6, two days after Salameh’s arrest and eight days after the bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000.
At the time, the FBI had not circulated Abouhalima’s name and photograph to airports or even concluded that he was a suspect.
Abouhalima first came to the United States in October, 1986, with a German passport and tourist visa. Four years later, he became a permanent resident by claiming that he was an agricultural worker under a special exemption for such workers in the 1986 Immigration Reform Act. U.S. officials said this exemption has often been misused.
A former neighbor in Brooklyn told The Times that he often saw Abouhalima with Abdul Rahman over the years.
Abdul Rahman is blind and “needs someone to care for him, to help in the house--to cook and clean,” said the neighbor, who asked that his name not be used. “I believe that Abouhalima did it voluntarily, believing that God would reward him in the afterlife.”
Other neighbors said they saw Abouhalima chauffeuring the sheik in a limousine, which may have been rented. In interviews, Abdul Rahman has denied knowing Abouhalima or owning a car.
Still others in Brooklyn said Abouhalima raised money for the anti-Soviet moujahedeen in Afghanistan and sometimes disappeared for weeks, saying that he was going to fight in the resistance himself.
They said he spoke of being a “mercenary” and that he “strutted around like a general,” dressed in camouflage fatigues and combat boots.
Like the others in custody, Abouhalima has been an avid supporter of El Sayyid A. Nosair, who currently is serving a sentence of up to 22 years in New York’s Attica State Prison for crimes related to the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the militant Jewish Defense League.
Nosair was accused of shooting Kahane in a Manhattan hotel but was acquitted of the murder charges.
Authorities said that shortly after the Kahane assassination, a dispute took place between Abdul Rahman and Mustafa Shalabi, another Muslim who helped raise money for the moujahedeen.
They said the quarrel involved control of funds destined for Afghanistan and whether fund raising should be broadened to support revolutionary Islamic movements in Egypt and elsewhere.
Shalabi was found murdered in his Brooklyn apartment in 1991. Abouhalima’s home nearby was searched, authorities said, but no charges were brought against him.
Soon afterward, Abouhalima moved to Jersey City, N.J., where he continued to drive a cab. Co-workers said they remember him as an ill-tempered man who failed to report accidents involving his taxi and who fought with his superiors.
Last week, FBI agents searched an apartment near Woodbridge, N.J., that Abouhalima had vacated hurriedly. Agents carted away several boxes of materials. A source familiar with the results of the search said it “solidified our conviction that he is our man.”
Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow, Gebe Martinez and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story. Ostrow reported from Washington and Martinez and Shogren from New York.