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U.S. Aid to Afghan Rebels Proves a Deadly Boomerang : Terrorism: World Trade Center bombing is traceable to Islamic veterans of the Asian conflict, experts say.

August 02, 1993|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and DOUGLAS FRANTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — The peaceful stretch of Atlantic Avenue is dotted with small markets selling spices, baklava and imported goods to women whose heads are covered by scarves and to men in white robes. They cross paths with more typical urban passersby. It scarcely seems a gathering place for terrorists.

Yet the trail of evidence in the World Trade Center blast and an alleged plot to unleash a second wave of bombings in New York can be traced to two graffiti-stained buildings on this block in Brooklyn.

Inside the first, the Al-Farooq mosque, devout Muslim men knelt in a high-ceilinged room on the second floor to pray and listen to a blind Egyptian cleric's angry call to religious warfare.

Up the stairs a few doors away is a dingy office with a single desk and folding chairs. Here, many of those same men watched videotaped images of violence in Afghanistan and collected money for the holy war, or jihad.

Some were stirred to fight. They went to Pakistan for training paid for by the CIA, then slipped across the border into Afghanistan to confront the Soviets. Many returned changed. They were heroes, assured of a place in paradise. Devotion hardened into zealotry.

"This is the ultimate honor for a true Muslim," Clement Rodney Hampton-El reportedly said when he came back to Brooklyn in 1989 after being wounded in Afghanistan. "I want to recover and go back to Afghanistan to achieve enlightenment and then die while striving."

Hampton-El never went back. Instead, authorities said, he and others with ties to the Afghanistan war and the blind cleric, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, brought the jihad to the streets of New York.

As they sift through the evidence and try to reconstruct what happened, the FBI and the CIA are examining links between the Afghan resistance movement and suspects in the Trade Center attack and the alleged bomb plot, according to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

Egypt's chief foreign policy adviser has gone so far as to assert that the Trade Center bombing was planned in Afghanistan and that Arab veterans of the war and Iranian intelligence agents were involved. But U.S. officials said they do not yet have evidence confirming the claim.

FBI officials do say, however, that Islamic extremism is now the top terrorist threat in the United States. And both here and abroad, terrorism experts and government authorities expressed fear that Arab veterans of the Afghan war form the nucleus of terrorist organizations not only in the United States but also in Egypt and other Arab countries where radicals seek to overthrow moderate governments.

To them, the aid that the United States provided to the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan has boomeranged. U.S. arms and money were directed by the CIA to the most effective Afghan rebel groups, which turned out to be virulently anti-American Islamic fundamentalists.

With the war over and the veterans dispersed around the globe, there are concerns that trained militants stand ready to answer the call of a handful of extremist religious leaders. The result is a potent mixture of religious zealotry and military experience that a U.S. intelligence official warned has created an army of Islamic soldiers.

Speaking of the veterans, Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert, said: "If you are sitting in a cafe in Cairo or a coffee shop in Brooklyn, you would say that the United States--despite its protests that it has no quarrel with Islam--is very much in a hostile relationship with your religion. And you might be inclined to act, if summoned."

But Middle East experts and many Muslims cautioned that those who see mosques as dens of terrorism misjudge the Islamic religion and are guilty of discrimination that would not be tolerated if directed at another group.

There is a grim irony in the idea that a remote and apparently risk-free U.S. foreign policy success on a distant Cold War front years ago may now, at least indirectly, be paying fearsome dividends at home. But the warning signals were there from the beginning.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 provided the Ronald Reagan Administration with a perfect chance to confront Moscow through proxies. Funneling aid through Pakistan's intelligence service, the United States had provided $3.3 billion in money and weapons by the end of the decade to the Afghan resistance, known as the moujahedeen .

The goal originally was not so much to oust Soviet forces but to make them pay a heavy price for the invasion.

"The maximum achievement would be to make the cost of Soviet presence extremely high so that they would learn a lesson and be discouraged from trying in other more important places," said a former State Department official involved in the policy. "That meant we did not pay attention to who got the arms because we did not think there would be a post-Soviet Afghanistan."

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