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Venezuelan in British Custody Investigated for Terrorist Ties

The suspect was arrested at a London airport with a grenade in his bag. Authorities seek signs of an Al Qaeda presence in Latin America.

March 29, 2003|T. Christian Miller and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

CARACAS, Venezuela — British and local authorities are investigating whether a Venezuelan found last month with a hand grenade in his luggage at London's Gatwick Airport has ties to Al Qaeda or other Mideast terrorist groups.

Hazil Mohammed Rahaman, 37, who studied in Saudi Arabia to become an Islamic spiritual leader, raised suspicions because his passport showed he had spent the last three years touring countries that included Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan, Venezuelan officials and investigators said.

Scotland Yard and secret police here are now combing bank accounts, telephone records and other travel documents to determine whether Rahaman, who suffered from serious depression, might have been part of an Al Qaeda cell seeking to launch a surprise attack from an unexpected base: South America.

"This is a very complicated, very delicate investigation," said a Venezuelan government official involved in the inquiry. "We are looking to see what links he had" to terrorist groups.

Latin America's loose borders, weak legal systems and poor regional cooperation have long allowed some areas to become minor havens for activities linked to international terrorism.

Venezuela's Margarita Island, a tourist destination with a large Arab population, has been identified by investigators as a source of funding and site of money laundering for the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups.

Investigators say Rahaman has ties to the region where the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet. Local Arab traders there are accused of sending millions of dollars to Hamas and Hezbollah. U.S., Argentine and Israeli authorities believe the area was the launching site for bombing attacks in Buenos Aires against the Israeli Embassy in 1992 that killed 29 people and a Jewish community center in 1994 that left 87 dead.

Brazilian federal police also said recently that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged Al Qaeda chief of operations and Sept. 11 mastermind who was arrested this month in Pakistan, visited the triple-border region at least twice in the 1990s. And in 1999, police captured an Egyptian terrorism suspect affiliated with Al Qaeda who established himself at the triple border to set up a network there, according to Argentine intelligence documents.

Rahaman had phone contact and other ties with suspected extremists in the triple-border region, a U.S. official said in an interview. It is not clear whether Rahaman traveled to the area, the U.S. official said.

Investigators in Europe and Venezuela have not yet determined what Rahaman's target might have been, the U.S. official said.

But if he turns out to have been part of an Al Qaeda operation, it would mark the first time the group has tried to launch an attack from Latin America, raising fears of a new front in the U.S. government 's war on terrorism just hours from Miami. U.S. law enforcement officials are monitoring the case, but have not opened an official investigation.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office for Rand Corp., noted that Al Qaeda's Web site was paid for from a Caracas-based bank account for a brief period last year.

Al Qaeda "may see Latin America as an area where nobody is looking for them," Hoffman said. "They see breathing space and room to maneuver."

Rahaman was arrested Feb. 13 when British customs inspectors found a hand grenade in a large duffel bag as he was leaving the baggage claim area at Gatwick airport. He had flown to London on a British Airways flight that originated in Colombia and made stops in Caracas and Barbados.

Rahaman was charged with three counts under Britain's Terrorism Act and remains in custody.

At first, his attempt was dismissed as the clumsy work of a lone actor, like the initial reaction to the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid. But Reid turned out to be an Al Qaeda operative who had trained at Afghan camps and had contact with terrorist networks in Europe that funded his plot and provided him with explosives. Now, authorities say that Rahaman's effort, too, was more sophisticated than first believed.

The grenade was carefully concealed in an electrical appliance in the duffel bag, which had been wrapped in plastic and marked "Fragile." The grenade was live, though it was not attached to any timing device.

Investigators are also looking into a circuitous money transaction used to buy the British Airways ticket. Through a third party, Rahaman arranged to give 900 euros in cash to a former Venezuelan police officer, who then used his credit card to purchase the passage. The police officer has been interviewed, and is not believed to be involved in any plot.

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