Friend of Terrorist Is Kept in Jail

Times Staff Writer

A San Diego man who was a friend of one of the Sept. 11 skyjackers was called a flight risk Friday by a federal prosecutor, who noted in court that the pair had contact just weeks before the East Coast terrorist attacks.

After the two-hour immigration court hearing, Mohdar Abdullah, 24, was denied bond by a judge who ruled that the former San Diego State University student was a danger to the community because of his murky past.

Abdullah has been behind bars since late September 2001, when he was initially arrested as a material witness in the terrorist attacks. He was later convicted of immigration fraud after authorities learned that he had lied on a political asylum application that had allowed him to enter the United States in December 1998. On the form, he had written that he was a member of a minority Somali tribe and had seen his father murdered and sister raped. In truth, his father is a physician in Yemen.

Abdullah, who now faces deportation to Yemen, has said that he plans to renew his request for political asylum and meanwhile is seeking to be released on bond.

Abdullah's name has surfaced in ongoing terrorism investigations, and he once boasted that he came to the United States with a purpose that one day would make him famous, Immigration and Naturalization Service attorney Kathleen Zapata said in court Friday.

Zapata said an informant told FBI agents that Abdullah had said that it was important that he blend in with Americans and that he came here for a reason. The prosecutor identified the informant as a co-worker at a Texaco station where Abdullah worked as a cashier for three years and where skyjacker Nawaf Alhazmi briefly worked.

Abdullah was perhaps the closest friend Alhazmi had when he and fellow terrorist Khalid Almidhar lived in San Diego in 2000. Alhazmi and Almidhar, both Saudi Arabian citizens, were among the five skyjackers who crashed an American Airlines passenger plane into the Pentagon.

Zapata, contesting Abdullah's release request, alluded to Abdullah's ties to Alhazmi and Almidhar at Friday's court hearing. She said Abdullah received a telephone call from Alhazmi in late August 2001, just weeks before the terrorist attacks. But she did not say what they may have talked about.

Late Friday, Abdullah's attorney, Randy Hamud, denied the phone contact.

"My client never received any phone calls from Alhazmi in August 2001. The last contact he had with him was in December 2000," Hamud said. "The government presented a case of misinformation, disinformation and mendacity in court today. In short, they lied."

Abdullah has consistently denied having prior knowledge of the attacks.

The information Zapata presented from the government informant about Abdullah blending in is similar to what Abdullah said about Alhazmi and Almidhar in a recent interview with The Times in the Otay Mesa prison, where he is being held pending deportation.

Abdullah said that when he first met the men in January 2000 at a dinner party in El Cajon, Alhazmi and Almidhar spent most of the evening talking to him about how to blend in and interact with Americans.

Abdullah said that when he asked the pair why they didn't have beards although they were fundamentalist Muslims, Almidhar predicted that the world would soon enough know why.

In the interview with The Times, Abdullah said that as his friendship grew with Alhazmi, the Saudi told him of having radical fundamentalist beliefs but never expressed a dislike of the United States or revealed plans of terrorist attacks.

"I understand why they did it even though it was wrong," he said in the interview. "I understand why they had such hatred. And I understand why they would have the courage to do what they did."

Abdullah said Alhazmi "trusted me with a lot of stuff." Abdullah, who speaks fluent English, has previously acknowledged having made phone calls to a Florida flight school for Alhazmi and having advised him and Almidhar on how to obtain Social Security cards and driver's licenses.

He said in the interview that Alhazmi often talked about martyrdom to further the Islamic cause and expressed hatred of the West and the Saudi royal family.

"I knew Alhazmi had ties to fundamentalists. Some of his ideas were radical, and he believed in violence. His opinion of Osama bin Laden was that we need a person like him to fight the Israelis and stand up against all Westerners trying to conquer our lands," Abdullah said.

Alhazmi, he said, often listened in his car to audiotapes containing radical Islamic messages.

Abdullah said he was the only person Alhazmi bade farewell to when he left San Diego in December 2000. At the time, Abdullah said, Alhazmi was bound for Oakland with Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have flown the plane that struck the Pentagon.

Abdullah said he asked Alhazmi as he left when they would see each other again and Alhazmi responded, "In the garden of heaven."

Abdullah's attorney objected that Zapata was attempting to demonize Abdullah when all he was convicted of was lying to the INS on a political asylum application. "I see the government using the national security juggernaut to crush my client," he said.

But Immigration Judge Zsa Zsa DePaolo appeared to disagree. She said, "If the government thought this young man was a terrorist he wouldn't be sitting in my courtroom," meaning that Abdullah would be facing more serious charges.

Zapata told the court that Abdullah frequently used prepaid phone cards to make calls to Europe, but he stopped making international calls on Aug. 25, 2001. She said the cards utilized an 800 number that made them difficult to trace.

Zapata also said Abdullah spent the night before the Sept. 11 attacks in a motel with a 16-year-old girl, whom he married in a Muslim ceremony on Sept. 12. Hamud said Abdullah has agreed to plead guilty in San Diego County Superior Court to a misdemeanor count of soliciting sex from a minor. The pair were later divorced.

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