A Chicago-area man under investigation for operating an Islamic charity to benefit terrorists used leaked intelligence information to help a leading al-Qaida operative escape arrest in Bosnia, prosecutors here said Tuesday.
The alleged 1998 dealings between Enaam Arnaout, head of the Benevolence International Foundation, and the al-Qaida lieutenant provide the most direct link to date between the Palos Hills-based charity and a key member of the terrorist group.
The new allegation by Bosnian authorities appears to contradict Arnaout's claim that his group had no knowledge that Mamdouh Mahmud Salim was an alleged al-Qaida lieutenant when in May 1998 Benevolence International helped Salim travel through Bosnia.
On Sept. 16, 1998, four months after leaving Bosnia, Salim was arrested in Germany on a U.S. warrant following al-Qaida's near-simultaneous attacks on two U.S. Embassies in East Africa. Salim is now in a New York jail awaiting trial on charges that he was a high-ranking participant in Osama bin Laden's worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans.
U.S. prosecutors say Salim was a founding member of al-Qaida, that he issued one of the group's first decrees proclaiming religious justification for murdering civilians and that he worked with bin Laden to obtain nuclear materials--all before his alleged involvement with Arnaout in Bosnia.
Chicago attorney Joseph Duffy, who represents Arnaout, said Tuesday that he was unaware of the Bosnian prosecutor's claims that Arnaout used secret intelligence to tip Salim in 1998. "I seriously doubt the veracity of any of this," Duffy said.
He also said Arnaout was unaware that Salim was involved in terrorism when in May 1998 Benevolence International sponsored Salim's trip to Bosnia, where it had one of its busiest overseas operations. As Arnaout's lawyers have argued in court, Duffy said the trip involved legitimate business interests.
Arnaout, a 40-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen born in Syria, is being held in a federal jail in Chicago pending trial on perjury charges. U.S. prosecutors allege he lied in a sworn declaration proclaiming that his group did not support terrorism, military activity or violence.
The group's assets were frozen in December as part of the Bush administration's attack against al-Qaida's suspected financial network, and Benevolence International has since emerged as a key focus of that probe.
The allegation about Arnaout's role in helping Salim escape authorities, if only temporarily, comes as prosecutors in Bosnia prepare for an espionage trial against one of their own former agents. That man, Munib Zahiragic, later headed Benevolence International's Bosnian operation.
In a written statement Tuesday, the Bosnian prosecutor said Zahiragic obtained intelligence files and passed the information to Arnaout from September 1996 through June 2000.
Without providing details, U.S. authorities previously had said a search of Benevolence International's Bosnian properties turned up stolen intelligence files detailing the activities of Islamic extremists.
Prosecutor Mustafa Bisic said in his statement Tuesday that the files leaked by Zahiragic gave Arnaout information about suspects wanted by Bosnian authorities for crimes at home and abroad. He did not elaborate on his claim that Arnaout used leaked information to help Salim elude authorities.
In a handwritten chronology of Salim's movements that he gave to German officials after his capture in Munich in 1998, Salim did not mention his travels in Bosnia, according to a copy of the document.
He claimed that he went to Germany to buy a used Mercedes and find a wife, though German intelligence officials have since speculated that his trip may have been linked to activating the Hamburg-based cell that played a crucial role in carrying out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Salim, an Iraqi-trained electrical engineer, is known in al-Qaida as "Abu Hajer al Iraqi." While awaiting trial on terrorism charges, Salim pleaded guilty in April to attempted murder for using a sharpened comb to stab a New York jail guard through the eye, which prosecutors said was part of a failed plot to take over the high-security Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.
Believed by U.S. authorities to be bin Laden's key financial deputy, Salim is one of the highest-ranking and the most compelling al-Qaida figures captured to date.
Roots of relationship
Newly obtained information suggests that Salim's relationship with Arnaout stretches back much further than previously known and that it may have been Salim who first brought Arnaout into bin Laden's circle during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Tribune first reported earlier this year that Arnaout's time with bin Laden in Afghanistan was chronicled in an Arabic-language book published by the founder of Arnaout's charity in 1991. The book details the exploits of several Islamic fighters at a bin Laden camp called Al Masada and quotes them extensively, including a man known as Abu Mahmoud the Syrian.
Federal investigators say Arnaout was the man known at Al Masada as Abu Mahmoud the Syrian, a claim Arnaout's lawyer denied during an interview with the Tribune before Arnaout's arrest. His attorneys have since admitted in federal court that Arnaout's relationship with bin Laden in those days "may have been of a deeper nature than what he described to the Tribune."
The same book details how Salim headed an office in Peshawar, Pakistan, for bin Laden to facilitate the recruitment, travel and training of Arab fighters. The so-called Services Office is widely regarded as the precursor to al-Qaida.
In the book, the man now identified as Arnaout recalls how it was Salim who first told him about Al Masada, bin Laden's original camp in Afghanistan.
"At that time I had learned from Abu Hajer the Iraqi [Salim] that there was a new front called Al Masada," Abu Mahmoud recalled to the book's writer. "He told us of it upon his return on his way to Peshawar."
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington research group, said those early days were critical in al-Qaida's formation. "Everything goes back to the late 1980s when they were together there" in Afghanistan, she said. "This cell was highly important. Osama bin Laden doesn't trust everyone; he has his own group of people."
When al-Qaida was formed after the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan, Salim was a founding member, U.S. authorities have alleged. According to court records, he was a member of bin Laden's shura council, which approved virtually all of al-Qaida's major operations.
Decree on civilian deaths
Relying on obscure and centuries-old religious texts, Salim also issued one of the earliest fatwas, or decrees, proclaiming that it was acceptable for Islamic fighters to kill innocent civilians in their struggle against infidels, prosecutors allege. According to court records, Salim rationalized that any innocent people slain in an attack would immediately go to heaven, justifying their deaths.
Federal authorities also say Salim was important enough to bin Laden that the al-Qaida leader sent him a special message just weeks before the Oct. 12, 2000, attack against the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. The bombing killed 17 U.S. sailors.
In a tape aired on Al Jazeera television network weeks before the Yemen bombing, bin Laden was shown meeting a group of extremists and pledging that Al Qaeda would "work with all our power" to free fellow fighters imprisoned in the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Salim was jailed at the time.
In the background of the tape, U.S. investigators say, is a separate recording of Salim singing Koranic verses. U.S. investigators say his singing was so moving that it would bring Islamic fighters in Afghanistan to tears.
Special correspondent Viola Gienger reported from Bosnia. Tribune staff reporters Cam Simpson and Laurie Cohen contributed from Chicago.Copyright © 2015, CT Now