In a surprising twist, the FBI informant in the terrorism case against a Lodi man and his father said in federal court Monday that he encountered Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader in the small Central Valley farm town a few years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Defense attorneys for Hamid Hayat and his father, Umer, said outside court that the statement by the government’s key witness raised serious questions about the informant’s credibility. And a former president of the Lodi mosque said terrorist leader Ayman Zawahiri was never there.
Naseem Khan, a convenience store manager turned government informant, said he told the FBI in late 2001 that he spotted Zawahiri at a Lodi mosque in 1998 and 1999.
“Every time I would go to the mosque, [Zawahiri] would be coming or going,” Khan said, according to the Sacramento Bee on Monday on its website. Khan, who said he lived in Lodi at the time, testified that he spoke to Zawahiri, but never had a conversation with him.
“He would quietly come to the mosque and leave,” Khan said.
Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top strategist and personal physician, is believed to have visited the United States on at least two occasions. In 1989, he came to Brooklyn, New York, to recruit fighters for the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. The FBI believes that Zawahiri returned in 1993 to raise money in Santa Clara, Calif.
In 1998, when Khan said the terrorist leader was in Lodi, Zawahiri was merging his Egyptian operation with Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. He became a wanted man in the United States and abroad. He has been accused of planning the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Johnny L. Griffin III, Umer Hayat’s attorney, said he would try to show that Khan was mistaken or fabricating the story.
“It’s my view that from Day 1 Mr. Khan has said whatever he could to convince the FBI to sign him up as an informant, and then said or did whatever it took to continue being paid,” said Griffin, adding that the FBI paid Khan more than $200,000. “He was padding his resume.”
Griffin said defense attempts to question the credibility of Khan’s account Monday were thwarted by prosecutors’ objections sustained by U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell.
Prosecutors could not be reached for comment after the hearing.
The head of the Lodi mosque from 1998 to 2000 told the Associated Press on Monday that Zawahiri, an Egyptian, would have been noticed by the mostly Pakistani members.
“It’s a small, close-knit community, and we know almost everyone who goes here,” said Nasim Khan, who is not related to the FBI informant. “This guy would have been an odd guy out.”
Hamid Hayat, a U.S. citizen who has lived half his life in Pakistan, is being tried on charges he attended a terrorist training camp in 2003 and then lied about it to the FBI. His father, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, is accused of lying to agents about his son’s terrorism training.
A pivotal part of the prosecution case is the testimony of Khan, a 32-year-old Pakistani native who was recruited by the FBI as an informant in late 2001.
Recounting Khan’s testimony in court Monday, Griffin said that Khan said in an early interview with FBI agents that he was asked if he knew Osama bin Laden. Khan told them he did not know the Al Qaeda leader, but had seen a photo of him on the news with Zawahiri, who he recognized from Lodi.
Zawahiri has been implicated in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt.
Times staff writer Terry McDermott contributed to this report.