NEW YORK — Federal authorities presented formal charges Thursday against key suspect Mahmud Abouhalima and a lesser figure as they began closing the circle of people sought in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center.
In a day of fast-paced developments, Jim Esposito, head of the FBI's Newark, N.J., office, said "the circle is now very narrow," with five people in custody and one more being pursued.
At the same time, James M. Fox, the FBI's New York chief, said central mysteries in the case remain unsolved--including the motive and the possibility of foreign terrorist involvement--and that the investigation is still expanding.
Abouhalima, coughing repeatedly and looking exhausted after being flown back to the United States from Egypt on Wednesday, claimed through his lawyer to have been tortured by Egyptian authorities before being turned over to the FBI in Cairo.
"They hung him from a board like a shish kebab," said attorney Jesse Berman. He said the former cab driver, who reportedly flew to his homeland a few days after the bombing, was "blindfolded, he was beaten, he was tortured. He has cigarette burns around his private parts."
Authorities had no comment on the allegation.
Investigators said they believe that Abouhalima acted as a "consultant" or "field general" who advised and guided other suspects in the manufacture and delivery of the massive bomb used in the attack.
Investigative sources said Abouhalima possesses the technical skills needed to make a large explosive device. Also, witnesses have reportedly placed him in a rented van allegedly used in the attack and at a storage shed allegedly used to prepare explosives.
U.S. Atty. Roger S. Hayes said he expects that evidence against Abouhalima will be revealed in court within a week when a superseding indictment--a more comprehensive set of charges--against him and others is issued.
An indictment unsealed Thursday in the case accused Abouhalima, 33, and other alleged conspirators of "unlawfully, willfully, knowingly and maliciously" causing the explosion that killed six people in the trade center.
Three other suspects apprehended after the Feb. 26 attack pleaded not guilty Thursday during federal court hearings on separate charges related to the bombing. Each vigorously protested his innocence.
They were Mohammed A. Salameh, accused of renting the van that allegedly hauled the bomb into the trade center's underground parking garage; Nidal Ayyad, a chemical engineer who shared bank accounts with Salameh and allegedly helped him make the bomb, and Ibrahim A. Elgabrowny, an acquaintance of Salameh's who tried to block a search of his apartment by authorities.
"I am not guilty. I swear by all I hold dear--the Koran, my wife, child and mother--I had nothing to do with this," Ayyad said.
A formal complaint filed in court Thursday said FBI agents found a timing mechanism, similar to those used in terrorist bombings, at an address used by Ayyad and a newly arrested suspect, Bilal Alkaisi.
Alkaisi, 26, surrendered late Wednesday and was charged with "aiding and abetting" the Manhattan explosion. Like the others, he was ordered held without bail.
Esposito told reporters that Alkaisi had turned himself in "because he heard on the street that the FBI wanted to talk to him."
Officials said Alkaisi had also been seen "on several occasions" since last November at the storage shed allegedly rented by Salameh--a place where authorities claim explosives were mixed.
It was understood that federal agents had placed Alkaisi on their "wanted list" when they arrested Ayyad earlier this month.
While searching Ayyad's Maplewood, N. J., apartment, federal agents found a credit card with Alkaisi's name that listed Ayyad's residence as the billing address. In addition, officials said, both men have continued receiving mail at a Bloomfield, N.J., apartment that was rented by Ayyad up until last fall.
Also, sources involved in the investigation said Alkaisi shared bank accounts with Ayyad and Salameh.
Esposito said Alkaisi, like other suspects in the case, worshiped at a Brooklyn mosque where Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman often preached. The radical cleric has been seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government while living in the United States under threat of deportation.
At Abouhalima's arraignment, authorities shed little light on his capture. Egyptian authorities apprehended him days ago and, in an arrangement with U.S. and other international officials, turned him over to the FBI without formal extradition proceedings.
Berman told reporters that Abouhalima had been arrested by Egyptian security forces soon after arriving in that country after a series of flights that began in New York.
The defense lawyer said Abouhalima's trip had been for religious purposes and to visit his family home in Alexandria, and not to evade arrest in the bombing investigation.
Some investigators said Abouhalima's arrest in Egypt had been part of a crackdown there on proponents of an Islamic state blamed for a wave of violence.
Asked about allegations of Egyptian torture, Fox replied: "I'm only aware of the comments made by the (defense) attorney."
At the conclusion of the hearing, Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Griesa directed that Abouhalima be given a full medical examination.
Criminal defense experts said allegations that Abouhalima was mistreated in Egypt probably would not affect his prosecution in the United States.
Times staff writers David Savage and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington and Janny Scott in New York contributed to this story.
NEW BOMBING CLUES: Information could link the attack to 'a Middle Eastern country,' sources in Egypt say. A12