The Secret Life of Mahmud the Red

  • Share
  • Read Later
It was 4 o'clock on a cold, neon-lit morning in New Jersey last Feb. 26 when a yellow Ryder rental van pulled into a Jersey City service station. A blue Honda sedan was right behind it. The attendants were more alert than usual at that hour because the station had recently been robbed. But these customers wanted only gas. The Honda's driver, a tall, red-haired, freckled man, paid for both vehicles with a $50 bill. A curious attendant tried to peer into the van. The driver, a younger, wiry man with a full beard, suddenly hopped out and planted himself in front of a side window, blocking the view.

Eight hours later, the van made history. It disintegrated into thousands of pieces as the 1,200-lb. bomb it was carrying thundered through the parking garage of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, tearing a 200-ft.-wide crater in the basement of the world's second tallest building. Six people were killed, and more than 1,000 were injured. The worst terrorist attack on American soil sent federal agents scrambling on a global manhunt. One of the suspects, a 33-year-old redhead, was captured in his native Egypt by government agents, brutally tortured until he confessed to the bombing and then flown back to America to stand trial. His name: Mahmud Abouhalima. Prosecutors say Abouhalima, a former New York City taxi driver, was the ) motorist who paid for the fuel on that February morning in Jersey City. But his significance doesn't end there. The U.S. contends that he is the epitome of the modern terrorist, a self-made commando pursuing a homemade agenda to disrupt Western civilization.

Today Abouhalima and three colleagues sit quietly in Courtroom 318 in downtown Manhattan, six blocks from the Twin Towers, watching intently as their lawyers and the prosecutors joust over the selection of jurors. So prominent is the case that U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy rounded up 5,000 citizens in his effort to assemble an unbiased jury -- 10 times the number called for last year's sensational trial of Mob chieftain John Gotti. Opening arguments in the bombing case are expected to begin next week. The trial will probably take three to four months, all the while under heavy security provided by dozens of extra police officers.

The proceedings are the first of at least two trials in which 22 Islamic fundamentalists -- including Mahmud's younger brother Mohammed -- will be tried for taking part in a massive plot to undermine the U.S. government. The catalog of charges, according to New York University law scholar Stephen Gillers, amounts to "the gravest allegations to come out of any American court in this century." Among the accusations: bombing the Trade Center, murdering the militant Zionist Rabbi Meir Kahane, plotting to kill Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, and scheming to blow up two major highway tunnels and other New York City landmarks.

Federal agents contend that the ginger-haired Abouhalima, known to friends as Mahmud the Red, was a mastermind of the tower explosion. They portray him as a commando leader who relied on his guerrilla training in Afghanistan to instruct his colleagues in bomb testing and other military techniques. Compared with his bumbling co-defendants, who left their fingerprints on rental-car receipts and explosives splattered on their walls, Abouhalima is an elusive target for prosecutors. His alleged ability to play a central role in such a wide-ranging conspiracy yet leave so little physical evidence has made him seem like a kind of Teflon Terrorist.

There is still much that is mystifying about Abouhalima. The allegation would seem comical if a bomb had not actually ripped through the World Trade Center: an immigrant cabdriver tries to blow up a world-famous symbol of the American Dream. So much of Abouhalima's past seems humdrum that to read his $ story and believe in his guilt is to be reminded of Hannah Arendt's line about Adolf Eichmann embodying the banality of evil. Look at pieces of his life, however, and one finds a growing religious fervor that could have transformed Abouhalima into a man with a motive for destruction in the name of a higher goal. Says Wayne Gilbert, who retired in July as the FBI's assistant director of intelligence: "In terms of his background, Abouhalima may be the prototype for the kind of terrorist we're going to see in the future." This is his story.

EGYPT, LAND WITHOUT HOPE

The graffiti on the side of a house in Kafr al-Dawar, where Abouhalima spent his childhood, capture some of the conflicting cultural forces that have buffeted this Nile Delta town in the past few years. The mural shows a grinning Mickey Mouse pointing his white-gloved hand to a familiar Koranic text: GOD IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL.

Kafr is at a crossroads, trapped between an old world and a newer one. This ramshackle suburb, 15 miles south of Alexandria, is dominated by a state-owned textile factory, an industrial fortress decorated with bunting in the Egyptian national colors of red, white and black. Meanwhile, the families of workers are housed in a sprawling walled enclave of cramped, featureless concrete bungalows. The streets, mostly unpaved, are overflowing with 250,000 people. Unemployment is high, and most of the young people flee overseas to find work elsewhere. Kafr al-Dawar's civic history is marked by a bloody strike in 1952. Today Islamic militancy is on the rise, while the police and the national government are despised. The slogan on political posters is explicit: ISLAM IS THE SOLUTION.

Abouhalima was born here in 1959, the first of four sons of a mill foreman. Villagers remember him as an ordinary, well-rounded and cheerful youth who found comfort in religion. He prayed hard and shunned alcohol. "Mahmud has a loving personality," says Uncle Ali. Another uncle, Ibrahim, insists that his nephew never attended any Islamic meetings as a youth and was no activist as a student. Says he: "Mahmud studied education at Alexandria University, came home, played soccer, and that's it."

But that was not all of it. According to friends, Abouhalima developed a deep and growing hatred for Egypt because he felt his country offered little hope for his generation's future. Despite its poverty, Abouhalima's family was several cuts above the norm, which may have created an expectation in the $ young man that a better life was obtainable. His rebellion began in small ways. He started to smoke, but never once lit a cigarette in front of his stern father, a powerful weight lifter who would have disapproved. As a teenager, Abouhalima began to hang around with members of the outlawed al- Jama'a Islamiyya, or Islamic Group, which considered the blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman its spiritual guide.

The group, which is committed to making Egypt an Islamic state, was banned on college campuses in 1979. Several times, Abouhalima's friends were rounded up by authorities. Mahmoud Abdel Shafi, an Egyptian lawyer who represents Islamic militants, remembers that Abouhalima occasionally came to him in 1980, at age 20, to get help for friends who had been arrested. "There was a crackdown on Muslim youths who were trying to remain steadfast in their faith," says Shafi. "Mahmud was not planting bombs. He was concerned about what was happening. He simply took it upon himself to try to help those who were in prison."

A year later, Abouhalima quit school and left Egypt. "I think that to him, immigration meant an escape from persecution," says Shafi. "The internal- security forces were watching him. Usually that means you will be detained and imprisoned and the door will start to close. He thought it was time to get out."

SMOKY GATHERINGS IN GERMANY

In September 1981, Abouhalima was granted a visa to visit Germany as a tourist. It was a good time to leave Egypt. Earlier that month Anwar Sadat had arrested some 2,000 Islamic intellectuals, clerics and fundamentalists who opposed him. One week after Abouhalima departed, militants killed the Egyptian President. Meanwhile, in Munich, Abouhalima sought political asylum, claiming that he faced persecution in Egypt because of his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist party that was then facing a harsh crackdown.

Abouhalima moved into the Islamic Center, located in a suburb on Munich's north side, which is home to a large immigrant Muslim community. The center boasts a futuristic blue mosque, dormitory-style accommodations where arrivals like Abouhalima can stay, as well as instruction in the Koran. But Abouhalima's newfound comfort was shattered in October 1982, when his request for asylum was denied. The reason: if Abouhalima had never participated in crimes, as he maintained, he should have nothing to fear from the Egyptian authorities. Germany gave him two weeks to leave the country.

, Luckily for him, by that time Abouhalima had moved in with Egyptian friends who lived in an apartment building in Munich. Across the hall resided a 34- year-old German named Renate Soika, a nurse with a history of alcoholism and emotional problems. As far as Abouhalima was concerned, it was a perfect match. The wedding took place at city hall in December, enabling him to remain in Germany.

Soika was happy to help Abouhalima stay in Munich. In return, she got a provider who was tall, courteous and confident. It wasn't love exactly, but Mahmud's traditional values appealed to Soika. He prayed five times a day and avoided alcohol. He brought her flowers on her birthday. And he insisted that she quit her job and devote her time to cooking and caring for the home. "He was always polite and friendly," recalls Soika. "He was never violent, never aggressive."

Eager to finish his education in order to become a teacher, Abouhalima took night classes in German and soon spoke the language fluently. He also worked at menial jobs, first as a dishwasher, then behind the meat counter of a grocery store. A former co-worker remembers Abouhalima as a quiet, hardworking man who was constantly tired, but never tardy.

Abouhalima's social life revolved around the Egyptian immigrant community in Munich, especially the orthodox Muslims he met while praying in makeshift mosques. He invited several Muslim friends who needed housing to live temporarily with him and his wife. Abouhalima conducted many smoky gatherings in their home, where groups of Egyptians would sit and discuss politics in Arabic, which Soika did not understand. Soika says she was left with the impression that Mahmud worked in some kind of "underground," but she couldn't put her finger on it. "He never said anything about it directly," she says. "But I could well imagine it."

Abouhalima never hid his opinions. He condemned the governments of Sadat and later Mubarak, along with their supporters like the U.S. Abouhalima had little regard for Germans, complaining that they drank too much, had cold personalities and spent money too lavishly. Despite his bitterness toward Egypt, he longed for his homeland and spoke about it often. He read Arabic newspapers, and since his parents did not own a telephone, he made it a point to call one of his uncles in Egypt every Sunday.

Soika's relationship with her husband began to dissolve when she refused to convert to Islam and provide him with offspring. When Soika became pregnant in 1984, she had an abortion against her husband's will. Soon thereafter, Soika arrived home early after spending nine weeks at a health clinic for treatment of stress. When she opened the door, she found a 21-year-old woman named Marianne Weber staying in the apartment. Abouhalima suggested that the three live together as one happy family, but Soika refused. They divorced in February 1985, after Abouhalima had married Weber in a Muslim ceremony at the Islamic Center.

Despite Soika's resentment, she still refers to Abouhalima as her husband and keeps his surname on the doorbell of her current home. She is angry, yet still incredulous about his alleged involvement in the bombing. "The electric chair would be too good for him," she says, on the verge of tears. "I don't know how he can sleep at night after what he did. He prays five times a day and then does this? He's made a mockery of his religion. I can't grasp it. It doesn't fit with my image of him."

A GLORIFIED CELL IN BROOKLYN

When Marianne Weber met Abouhalima, she was studying in Munich, dreaming of becoming a dancer and trying hard to recover from the death of her 17-year-old brother in a motorcycle crash. "I was mostly depressed and looking for a purpose to my life," she says today. After meeting Abouhalima, she started skipping classes. She took him to meet her parents, Ernst and Hildegard, in her hometown of Vogt, a picturesque village in the hills of Swabia in southern Germany. The Webers, who own a wine shop next to their house, considered Abouhalima a harmless boyfriend. In a family photo album, beside a label that reads last picture, a smiling Marianne and Mahmud pose in the German countryside. He wears a moustache, jeans and a pair of thongs. She wears a sleeveless blouse and summer skirt, her hair long and blond.

It was the last time she allowed herself to be photographed. After marrying Abouhalima, she converted to Islam and moved with him to a government- subsidized high-rise. Her parents didn't find out about the wedding until four months later. In the fall of 1985, the couple announced that they were flying to the U.S. for a three-week visit. They settled in Brooklyn and never returned, leaving behind most of their possessions. "After they lied about the trip to America, I had real doubts about my son-in-law," says Hildegard. When Abouhalima's German residency permit expired in 1986, police came looking for him in Munich and found a vacant apartment. It remains unclear why the authorities took such an interest in Mahmud the Red.

THE STREETS OF NEW YORK

Six months after Abouhalima arrived in New York, his tourist visa expired. Fortunately for him, Congress was preparing to authorize an amnesty program for more than 1 million illegal aliens who merely had to assert that they worked as migrant farmers. Abouhalima applied for amnesty in 1986, received temporary legal residence in 1988 and became a permanent resident two years after that. Through an attorney, Abouhalima now claims he worked for seven months on a farm in South Carolina. But his current wife told a TIME reporter that she can remember no travels outside the New York metropolitan area except for one trip to Michigan to visit friends. "The amnesty program was a joke," says Duke Austin, a spokesman at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Since documentation wasn't required, the burden was on the government to prove the aliens were not farmers. Fraud was widespread and enforcement virtually impossible."

After getting his right-to-work papers in 1986, Abouhalima got a chauffeur's license and proceeded to drive taxicabs in New York for the next five years. His license was suspended 10 times for failing to respond to summonses for traffic violations. He regularly passed through red lights, drove without a license and neglected to have his car registered and inspected. Once, he was even found guilty of driving with broken meter seals, a telltale sign of an attempt to rip off customers.

One passenger who rode twice in Abouhalima's taxi was John Hockenberry, a correspondent for ABC. He remembers a kind, bubbly driver who went out of his way to help the disabled journalist with his wheelchair. But his taxi was filled with Korans and Arabic books that Abouhalima would read at traffic lights, ignoring what was happening on the streets. Cassette tapes blared Arabic sermons. When Abouhalima spoke with Hockenberry, the cabdriver mentioned that America would lose the war against Islam without even knowing when that moment had arrived.

"He had this contempt for materialistic America, even though he was here," recalls Hockenberry. "He would honk at people and say, 'Look at that rich person,' and 'Look at that person.' He seemed very much out of his element. He had transformed his cab into an impromptu, monosyllabic Islamic institute."

In 1988 Weber's mother visited the couple, toting sweaters for her grandchildren and a photo album of Marianne's childhood. But Marianne wouldn't allow her to bring the book into the sparse apartment in Brooklyn, where the walls were bare except for Islamic scripture. One cousin refers to the environment as "a glorified cell." The family ate on the floor, and Hildegard barely saw her son-in-law. "We are 'real' Muslims," her daughter tried to explain. The Abouhalimas were so poor that the Webers wired them $5,000 in a series of bank transfers.

In early 1990 Abouhalima leased a taxi medallion, which drivers often need to work in the city's regulated livery industry. Seven months later, he vanished. The broker says he wrote several letters to Abouhalima, demanding the return of the medallion, the car's license plates and $1,600. Abouhalima's wife can recall no such dispute.

WARRIOR IN AFGHANISTAN

As he drove his cab, Abouhalima daydreamed about the "jihad," or holy war, in Afghanistan. He was obsessed with the mission of the 200,000 Muslim rebels in that country, the mujahedin, who had been battling for 10 years to oust the Soviet-backed government. The burly cabdriver worked long hours for a nonprofit group in Brooklyn that raised money for the rebels and recruited hundreds of young enthusiasts to join the fight. The fund's director was a fellow Egyptian named Mustafa Shalabi, and both the men and their wives became very close.

After obtaining his green card in late 1988, Abouhalima took several trips to Pakistan during the next 20 months, where he was trained for combat. His Egyptian spiritual leader, Sheik Omar, who was acquitted of encouraging Sadat's murder, had arrived in Pakistan seven months earlier with two sons who would also join the war. It was a heady time for militant Islamists. During the 1980s, an estimated 20,000 Arabs from 50 nations rallied to the Afghan jihad. Many, like Abouhalima and Sheik Omar, were men without a country, fugitives from antifundamentalist regimes. Some traveled under false names on false passports. Others, called holiday guerrillas, went to fight for a few months on tourist visas.

For many, the Afghan war was a transforming experience. "I haven't met one person who was sorry he went," says Ahmed Sattar, a director of a Brooklyn mosque where Abouhalima and other defendants prayed. "Most of them left America as ordinary men and came back so devout and so proud. The war reminded them of the glorious old days, many hundreds of years ago, when Muslims were fighting the infidel."

Abouhalima's training site was the frontier city of Peshawar in Pakistan, near the Afghan border, where the major mujahedin parties had their headquarters and where more than 50 Arab relief agencies and unofficial groups had offices. The mujahedin received an estimated $3.5 billion in financial support from the CIA as well, which bankrolled training for the Muslim warriors in the use of explosives and modern weapons. Abouhalima settled in one of the many transit houses known as the House of Friends, where young Arabs were often crammed four to a room.

The cliquish Arabs were sometimes viewed with suspicion by their Afghan brothers, who sensed that the volunteers had a wider agenda. Even so, their zeal in combat amazed even the fearless Afghans. "The Arabs were crazy fighters, charging into any fire," recalls Ahmed Muwafak Zaidan, a Syrian writer who covered the war. An Egyptian scholar in Pakistan remembers Abouhalima and conspiracy defendant Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali as "very good commanders who fought in various provinces" of Afghanistan.

BROOKLYN MURDER MYSTERY

By the time he returned from Afghanistan in July 1990, Abouhalima was in his radical prime. (Sheik Omar arrived the same month, probably by coincidence.) Neighbors recall Abouhalima wearing fatigues and army boots. He reportedly joined several future defendants at a rifle range in a Connecticut forest, where they wore traditional Muslim clothing, knelt repeatedly in prayer -- and practiced shooting AK-47 rifles from the hip. While Abouhalima regularly moved his family to different dwellings in New York and New Jersey, his spiritual life revolved around two mosques in working-class immigrant neighborhoods: Abu Bakr in Brooklyn and al-Salam in Jersey City, where Sheik Omar often delivered his acid-tongued diatribes against secularism.

One Egyptian who attended the al-Salam mosque while the sheik was preaching recalls that many listeners were Egyptian expatriates, like Abouhalima, who had undergone college training for a profession but were forced to take menial jobs in America. Some felt demeaned. Most were alienated, lonely, and suffered from guilt at having abandoned Egypt. "It was easy for a speaker like Sheik Omar to exploit those feelings," says the observer, "and that is exactly what he was doing."

Almost from the moment the two men arrived in the U.S. in 1990, Abouhalima began serving as the holy man's part-time bodyguard and driver, a fact that Abouhalima has confirmed to the New York Times despite the sheik's claim that he doesn't know the man. The sheik's sponsor in America was Shalabi, Abouhalima's boss at the Afghan recruitment center in Brooklyn. Before long, Shalabi and Sheik Omar became entangled in a struggle for leadership of the Muslim circle. In March 1991 Shalabi was found shot and stabbed to death on the floor of his apartment.

The dead man's family believes he was murdered on Sheik Omar's orders. Some say Rahman accused him of working for the CIA and stealing money intended for the rebels. "I think the sheik was simply jealous because Shalabi was becoming too powerful," says a police investigator. Despite his long friendship with Shalabi, Abouhalima emerged as a prime murder suspect, but he was never charged, and the case remains unsolved. Seven days after Shalabi's murder, the FBI received a tip that Abouhalima was harboring explosives. Dressed as utility workers, federal agents searched his Brooklyn apartment but came up empty-handed.

In December 1991 one of Abouhalima's friends from the Afghan center, El Sayyid Nosair, was put on trial for the shooting death of Rabbi Kahane the previous year. In this case too, Abouhalima was briefly a suspect. Police believed he was the intended getaway driver but that Nosair jumped into the wrong taxi by mistake. In 1991 Nosair was acquitted of murder but convicted on assault and weapons-related charges. In August the sweeping conspiracy indictment linked Nosair to the trade-center plot as well.

Abouhalima and his friends are enthralled by Nosair, whom they view as a hero. They devoutly attended his trial and rallied outside on the sidewalk. After the murder acquittal, a jubilant Abouhalima hoisted defense lawyer William Kunstler onto his shoulders and carried him from the courthouse. Thereafter, Abouhalima visited Nosair frequently in prison.

Last year Abouhalima's mother-in-law spent two weeks with the couple, who had by then moved to Newark. Mahmud made every effort to improve the relationship. "He tried to please," Hildegard Weber recalls. "But they wouldn't show me their friends. They knew I was distrustful."

THE SUDDEN DEPARTURE

On March 5, 1993, just one week after the bomb ripped through the World Trade Center, Weber got a surprise phone call from her daughter. Marianne was hoping her parents could meet her and her four children in Amsterdam before returning to Vogt for a brief visit. Afterward, she said, she would travel to ; Egypt to meet up with Abouhalima. "I was suspicious," says Hildegard. "I asked her directly if this had something to do with the bombing."

Marianne seemed stunned at her mother's question. Mahmud was not even a known suspect at the time. She answered her mother with a sarcastic expression, chiding her for blaming Muslims. But Abouhalima's mother-in-law had reason to be wary. Since eloping in 1985, Marianne had ruled out a visit to Germany because her immigration status would prevent her from returning to America.

Later that same evening, Marianne phoned her parents again, this time to scrap the plans. She and Mahmud had decided to stay in New York, she explained. In reality, her husband was already in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, having flown there three days earlier from New York's Kennedy airport. He then made his way to his hometown in Egypt, where he was hauled into custody by government agents, who, according to Mahmud's wife, stripped him naked, hung him by his feet and burned his genitals. "The Egyptians told him that if he didn't confess ((to the bombing)), they would rape me and his mother," says Marianne, who by then had arrived in Egypt with her children. Mahmud's 15- year-old brother Sayed was also abducted. According to the family, Sayed was severely beaten until Mahmud finally confessed. "Every time we ask Sayed what happened, he bursts into tears and refuses to speak," says their uncle Ali.

The arrest left neighbors in Kafr al-Dawar confused and angry. "This is a filthy, corrupt government," declares a local man. "It accuses everyone and is unjust." Abouhalima's family members claim they were warned that if they talk to foreign journalists they will be arrested and will face "serious" consequences.

THE CASE AGAINST THE CABDRIVER

A gag order has barred prosecutors from giving sneak previews of their strategy, but they have indicated that they will portray Abouhalima as a major player in the conspiracy. After the tower attack, they claim, he flew to the Middle East to escape. Abouhalima, for his part, says that during the bombing he was at home with his family in Woodbridge, New Jersey, observing the rituals of the Muslim holy season of Ramadan. His flight to the Middle East, he claims, was a pilgrimage to Mecca followed by a reunion with parents and siblings in Egypt.

Abouhalima admits to knowing two of his fellow defendants in the bombing case, Nidal Ayyad and Mohammad Salameh, both age 25. The government claims to , have evidence showing Abouhalima meeting on many occasions with other alleged plotters to prepare for the bombing. In one case, Abouhalima joined Salameh to remove explosives from a New Jersey apartment, the indictment claims. In another instance, prosecutors say they can prove Abouhalima participated in a "test explosion." The alleged test may have taken place in a remote part of Pennsylvania, where Abouhalima conducted weapons training with Siddig Ali, his fellow "commander" from the Afghan war, who will stand trial next year. Furthermore, the witnesses at the Jersey City filling station claim they saw Abouhalima and Salameh gassing up the yellow van just hours before the bombing. Their accounts are considered so crucial that they have been placed under federal protection.

Prosecutors will also rely on surreptitious tapes made by a Muslim informant, Emad Salem. However, the handful of typewritten drafts of tapes that have been obtained by journalists are sometimes vague about which Abouhalima brother they are referring to. When the tapes are introduced as evidence, defense lawyers will argue that Arabic is a language of fiery hyperbole and wild exaggeration.

Hassen Ibn Abdellah, Abouhalima's lead attorney, contends that the case against him is weak because FBI probes of his client both before and after the bombing failed to produce the kind of physical evidence agents have gathered against the other alleged bombers. For example, Nidal Ayyad's saliva matches the traces left on an envelope containing a letter claiming responsibility for the bombing. Fragments of hydrogen tanks found in the wreckage were traced to a manufacturer and ultimately to Salameh, sources told TIME.

Abouhalima's defenders may decide to put him on the witness stand to charm the jury. His former lawyer, Jesse Berman, says he comes across as very bright and "very human," has an excellent sense of humor and even knows some Yiddish. Abdellah, a former prosecutor, intends to argue before the jury that religious persecution is a motivating force behind the case. "This trial is about Islam; it's not about the World Trade Center," he declares.

The defense will also portray Abouhalima as a devout Muslim and family man. Since his arrest, Abouhalima has twice phoned his mother-in-law in Germany, asking her to help care for his family. "I know that my husband is innocent and that gives me strength," Marianne declares. "Allah is testing us. He will give us justice now or in the next life. I'm patient."