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Bombing Suspects: Ties That Bind a Seemingly Odd Pair : Blast: Nidal Ayyad's family says Salameh was a friend. Officials say they shared bank account, roles in attack.

March 11, 1993|GEBE MARTINEZ and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEWARK, N.J. — In many ways, he is everything that prime suspect Mohammed A. Salameh is not: a man of educational achievement with a professional career, just starting a family, a newly sworn American citizen with real roots in his community.

But authorities say the remarkably dissimilar Salameh and newest suspect Nidal Ayyad share significant bonds--a Palestinian heritage and key roles in the deadly bomb attack on New York's World Trade Center.

They simply were friends, insisted distressed and tearful members of Ayyad's family during the young chemical engineer's brief appearance in federal court here Wednesday. "The only thing he did was know Mohammed Salameh," said his 17-year-old brother, Reziq Ayyad. "He has the right to choose his friends."

Investigators suspect that they shared much more than friendship--a joint bank account, access to a secured storage shed believed converted into a makeshift bomb lab, expertise in concocting a half-ton chemical bomb and links to El Sayyid A. Nosair, imprisoned last year for gun violations connected to the shooting of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Kahane, a radical Zionist who wanted Arabs expelled from Israel and its occupied territories, became a symbol of repression and a target of rage to most Palestinians. He was assassinated in Manhattan in 1990.

It is the Kahane element that may finally suggest a motive. As one federal investigator said, "Nosair, in (allegedly) killing the devil Kahane, seems to have united" a lot of people.

Whatever brought them together, Ayyad and Salameh appear to be an odd couple.

Ayyad, 25, was a distinguished student at Rutgers University who studied chemical explosives as part of his instruction. Salameh, also 25, was unable to pass a written driver's license test in four attempts, was sometimes ridiculed by friends for being "stupid" and had appeared hopelessly confused about how to change a blown fuse at his Jersey City apartment.

Ayyad worked as a process engineer in the development laboratory of AlliedSignal Inc. Salameh scrambled to get occasional jobs in construction.

Ayyad was described by university professors as well-mannered, unassuming and "very quiet." He is married and he and his wife are expecting their first child. Salameh was described by neighbors and roommates as polite but so loud in his many lengthy telephone conversations about money and religion that he was asked to move out of one apartment. He was a loner who called his mother in the Middle East so often that he could not pay his telephone bills.

According to his family, Ayyad attended an Islamic mosque in a nearby community but was "not very religious. He does not go 24 hours a day . . . at the mosque," his father said. According to Salameh's friends, he went to the mosque five times a day to pray.

By all accounts, Ayyad and Salameh had some sort of association going back as much as a year. One of Ayyad's brothers said the pair first met at a mosque--possibly when they went to hear a sermon by controversial Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, a radical cleric fighting deportation to his native Egypt, where he is linked to political assassinations and terrorist attacks.

Investigators first picked up their mutual trail soon after identifying the probable source of the bomb: a rented Ryder van. It turned out the yellow Ford Econoline had been rented by Salameh and that he had been accompanied to the Jersey City Ryder lot by Ayyad, driving a rented red car.

Further investigation led authorities to the joint bank account, the self-storage locker they apparently shared and records of telephone calls believed made by Salameh from that suspected makeshift bomb lab to Ayyad's desk at AlliedSignal in Morristown, N.J. When Salameh was arrested late last week, federal agents discovered Ayyad's business card among the suspect's personal effects.

If such links seemed incriminating to law enforcement officials, they were not persuasive to Ayyad's family.

"I know my son. He did not do this," said his father, Abdel-Rahman Joseph Ayyad, shortly before leaving the federal courthouse to seek medical treatment for a heart irregularity. "My son is a smart guy and he is not fanatical."

The senior Ayyad also declared: "I am an American citizen. I am proud I am an American."

Inside the courtroom, Nidal Ayyad's pregnant 18-year-old wife wept as her husband was led into the crowded chamber. A phalanx of federal marshals formed a human wall between her and Ayyad, who never looked back.

The Ayyad family was shaken from their sleep shortly after dawn Wednesday when an FBI SWAT team armed with assault rifles burst into the three-story house in suburban Maplewood where Ayyad lives with his wife, his mother and two teen-age brothers in the first floor and basement apartments.

"All I heard was the door (being) broken," his brother Reziq said. "My mother was screaming."

Bomb-sniffing dogs followed the FBI team into the home, but officials said no signs of explosives were discovered.

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