A former U.S. Army sergeant who trained Osama bin Laden's
bodyguards and helped plan the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in
Kenya was a U.S. government informant during much of his terrorist
career, according to sources familiar with his case.
Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen and longtime Silicon
Valley resident who pleaded guilty last year to terrorism charges,
approached the Central Intelligence Agency more than 15 years ago
and offered to inform on Middle Eastern terrorist groups, a U.S.
government official said.
Later, according to the sources, Mohamed spent years as an FBI
informant while concealing his own deep involvement in the al Qaeda
terrorist band: training bin Laden's bodyguards and Islamic
guerrillas in camps in Afghanistan and the Sudan; bringing Ayman
al-Zawahiri, who is bin Laden's chief deputy, to the Bay Area on a
covert fund-raising mission; and planning the 1998 bombing of the
U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, in which more than 200 people died.
The story of Mohamed's dual roles as FBI informant and bin Laden
terrorist - - and the freedom he had to operate unchecked in the
United States -- illustrates the problems facing U.S. intelligence
services as they attempt to penetrate the shadowy, close-knit world
of al Qaeda, experts said.
Mohamed "clearly was a double agent," Larry C. Johnson, a former
deputy director in the State Department's Office of Counter
Terrorism and a onetime CIA employee, said in an interview.
Johnson said the CIA had found Mohamed unreliable and severed its
relationship with him shortly after Mohamed approached the agency in
1984. Johnson faulted the FBI for later using Mohamed as an
informant, saying the bureau should have recognized that the man was
a high-ranking terrorist, deeply involved in plotting violence
against the United States and its allies.
"It's possible that the FBI thought they had control of him and
were trying to use him, but what's clear is that they did not have
control," Johnson said. "The FBI assumed he was their source, but
his loyalties lay elsewhere."
The affair was "a study in incompetence, in how not to run an
agent," Johnson said.
FBI spokesman Joseph Valiquette declined to comment on Mohamed,
as did a spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, whose
office prosecuted the case of the 1998 bombings of the U.S.
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
A law enforcement source familiar with the case said the FBI had
followed appropriate procedures in attempting to obtain crucial
information from Mohamed, whom he conceded was "double-dealing" and
"When you operate assets and informants, they're holding the
cards," this source said. "They can choose to be 100 percent honest
or 10 percent honest. You don't have much control over them.
"Maybe (the informant) gives you a great kernel of information,
and then you can't find him for eight weeks. Is that a management
problem? Hindsight is 20/20."
Mohamed, 49, is a former Egyptian Army major, fluent in Arabic
and English, who after his arrest became known as bin Laden's
"California connection." Last year, when he pleaded guilty in the
embassy bombing case, he told a federal judge that he first was
drawn to terrorism in 1981, when he joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a
fundamentalist group implicated in that year's assassination of
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
For almost as long as he was a terrorist, Mohamed also was in
contact with U.S. intelligence, according to court records and
In 1984, he quit the Egyptian Army to work as a counterterrorism
security expert for EgyptAir. After that, he offered to become a CIA
informant, said the U.S. government official who spoke on condition
"The agency tried him out, but because he told other possible
terrorists or people possibly associated with terrorist groups that
he was working for the CIA, clearly he was not suitable," the
The CIA cut off contact with Mohamed and put his name on a "watch
list" aimed at blocking his entrance to the United States, according
to the official.
Nevertheless, Mohamed got a visa one year later. He ultimately
became a U.S.
citizen after marrying a Santa Clara woman. In 1986, he joined
the U.S. Army as an enlisted man. He was posted to Fort Bragg, N.C.,
home of the elite Special Forces.
There he worked as a supply sergeant for a Green Beret unit, then
as an instructor on Middle Eastern affairs in the John F. Kennedy
special warfare school.
Mohamed's behavior and his background were so unusual that his
commanding officer, Lt. Col. Robert Anderson, became convinced that
he was both a "dangerous fanatic" and an operative of U.S.
Anderson, now a businessman in North Carolina, said that on their
first meeting in 1988, Mohamed told him, "Anwar Sadat was a traitor
and he had to die."
Later that year, Anderson said, Mohamed announced that --
contrary to all Army regulations -- he intended to go on vacation to
Afghanistan to join the Islamic guerrillas in their civil war
against the Soviets. A month later, he returned, boasting that he
had killed two Soviet soldiers and giving away as souvenirs what he
claimed were their uniform belts.
Anderson said he wrote detailed reports aimed at getting Army
intelligence to investigate Mohamed -- and have him court-martialed
and deported -- but the reports were ignored.
"I think you or I would have a better chance of winning Powerball
(a lottery), than an Egyptian major in the unit that assassinated
Sadat would have getting a visa, getting to California . . . getting
into the Army and getting assigned to a Special Forces unit," he
said. "That just doesn't happen. "
It was equally unthinkable that an ordinary American GI would go
unpunished after fighting in a foreign war, he said.
Anderson said all this convinced him that Mohamed was "sponsored"
by a U.S. intelligence service. "I assumed the CIA," he said.
In 1989, Mohamed left the Army and returned to Santa Clara, where
he worked as a security guard and at a home computer business.
Between then and his 1998 arrest, he said in court last year,
Mohamed was deeply involved in bin Laden's al Qaeda. He spent months
abroad, training bin Laden's fighters in camps in Afghanistan and
Sudan. While in Africa, he scouted the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, target
of the 1998 bombing. In this country,
he helped al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's top aide, enter the country
with a fake passport and tour U.S. mosques, raising money later
funneled to al Qaeda.
According to Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert and author who
has written about the case, Mohamed by the early 1990s had also
established himself as an FBI informant.
"He agreed to serve (the FBI) and provide information, but in
fact he was working for the bad guys and insulating himself from
scrutiny from other law enforcement agencies," Emerson said in an
One particularly troubling aspect of the case, Emerson says, was
that Mohamed's role as an FBI informant gave bin Laden important
insights into U.S. efforts to penetrate al Qaeda.
The case shows "the sophistication of the bin Laden network, and
how they were toying with us," he said.
Some information about the nature of Mohamed's contacts with the
FBI and other law-enforcement agencies is contained in an FBI
affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in New York at the time of
his 1998 arrest. The document describes contacts between Mohamed and
the FBI and Defense Department officials.
At times, Mohamed made alarming admissions about his links to the
al Qaeda terrorists, seemingly without fear of being arrested.
Mohamed willfully deceived the agents about his activities,
according to the affidavit.
In 1993, the affidavit says, Mohamed was questioned by the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police after a bin Laden aide was caught trying to
enter the United States with Mohamed's driver's license and a false
Mohamed acknowledged traveling to Vancouver to help the terrorist
sneak into the United States and admitted working closely with bin
Laden's group. Yet he was so unconcerned about being arrested that
he told the Mounties he hoped the interview wouldn't hurt his
chances of getting a job as an FBI interpreter.
(According to the affidavit, he had indeed applied for the FBI
position but never got it.)
Later that year, Mohamed -- again seemingly without concern for
consequences -- told the FBI that he had trained bin Laden followers
in intelligence and anti-hijacking techniques in Afghanistan, the
In January 1995, Mohamed applied for a U.S. security clearance,
in hopes of becoming a security guard with a Santa Clara defense
contractor. His application failed to mention ever traveling to
Pakistan or Afghanistan, trips he had told the FBI about earlier. In
three interviews with Defense Department officials, who conducted a
background check on him, he claimed he had never been a terrorist.
"I have never belonged to a terrorist organization, but I have
been approached by organizations that could be called terrorist," he
told the interviewers.
According to the affidavit, he told FBI agents in 1997 that he
had trained bin Laden's bodyguards, saying he loved bin Laden and
believed in him. Mohamed also said it was "obvious" that the United
States was the enemy of Muslim people.
In August 1998, after the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
were bombed, he told the FBI that he knew who did it, but refused to
provide the names.
Two weeks later, after lying to a U.S. grand jury investigating
the embassy bombings, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty last year,
but he has never been sentenced and is once again believed to be
providing information to the government -- this time from a prison
"There's a hell of a lot (U.S. officials) didn't know about Ali
Mohamed," said Harvey Kushner, a terrorism expert and criminology
professor at the University of Long Island. "He infiltrated our
armed services and duped them."
Yet, Kushner said, such duplicitous interactions may be a
necessary component of intelligence work.
"I hate to say it, but these relationships are something we
should be involved in more of. That's the nasty (part) of covert
operations. We're not dealing with people we can trust."
E-mail the reporters at email@example.com
and lmwilliams@sfchronicle. com.