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
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
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 difficult.
"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
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 of anonymity.
"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 official said.
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. intelligence.
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
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
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 interview.
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
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
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 passport.
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
(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 affidavit says.
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 cell.
"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
E-mail the reporters at email@example.com
and lmwilliams@sfchronicle. com.