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Arizona Man Was Sailor Who Wrote Radicals

August 14, 2004|H.G. Reza and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

PHOENIX — A former U.S. sailor who sent e-mail messages to a radical Islamic Internet site while a crewman on a Navy destroyer in the Middle East was identified Friday as a communications specialist and Muslim convert, according to sources familiar with the investigation and Navy records.

But a woman speaking on behalf of Hassan Abujihaad, who left the Navy in January 2002, denied Friday that he had posted anti-American views on the site, as authorities assert, or did anything wrong.

Abujihaad has not been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing. Federal officials had previously declined to identify him by name.

According to federal officials, Abujihaad, while serving on the guided missile destroyer Benfold in the Middle East in late 2000 and 2001, sent e-mail messages to a pro-Taliban website, allegedly including one that praised the deadly October 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole by terrorists in Yemen.

The messages surfaced in court documents last week in connection with the arrest in Britain of Babar Ahmad, a 30-year-old college employee wanted by U.S. authorities on charges that he acted as a fundraiser and propagandist for the Taliban and for Muslim separatist fighters in Chechnya.

Ahmad is also accused of operating the defunct pro-Taliban website with which the sailor allegedly exchanged messages.

He is a cousin of suspected Al Qaeda member Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, whose arrest in Pakistan triggered terrorism alerts this month in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

Federal agents are trying to determine how Ahmad ended up in possession of detailed and highly classified information about the San Diego-based aircraft carrier battle group that the Benfold was part of, including its classified travel plans and its vulnerability to attack.

On Friday, Lt. Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesman, said, "There is currently no tie between the former sailor and the documents recovered during the raid in London" that contained details on the ships accompanying the aircraft carrier Constellation.

The battle group was involved in actions against Afghanistan and Iraq. Authorities said that Ahmad knew when the battle group was scheduled to pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz and that one document noted the ships were vulnerable to attack by small craft armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

Deedra Abboud, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who is acting as spokeswoman for Abujihaad, said he had done nothing wrong and never mishandled classified information.

"He was very surprised to hear he might be connected to anything related to terrorism," Abboud said of Abujihaad, who lives in the Phoenix area and is, she said, a convert to Islam. "He's now scared he might get picked up for something he can't imagine being a part of."

She said that Abujihaad believed he was the target of surveillance by federal authorities.

The former sailor did not know Ahmad, the accused terrorist, according to Abboud. Although he was "familiar" with one of the radical websites, Abujihaad was not aware that it was in any way connected to terrorism, she said.

"He does not feel that he made any anti-American statements," she said. "Perhaps he may have disagreed with some policies."

She added that when he visited the website he never identified himself as a member of the military or as a sailor on the Benfold, a ship that he served on from July 1998 until he was discharged four years later.

According to his service records, Abujihaad joined the Navy in January 1998, eventually attaining the rank of petty officer second class.

His military occupation was signalman, or communications specialist. Among other decorations, he was twice awarded the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon for extended time at sea, and received medals for good conduct and other service.

Abujihaad, 25, works for the U.S. Postal Service and is married to a woman of Somalian descent. They have two daughters of preschool age.

Short, muscular, with glasses and a beard, he declined to answer questions from The Times.

Standing outside his north Phoenix apartment, which he also shares with a brother, Abujihaad questioned what he stood to gain from talking to a reporter. He cited concerns over how the government had treated other suspects picked up in the war on terrorism.

Abboud said Friday that Abujihaad had gone into hiding to avoid media attention. She said that he also was seeking to retain a lawyer.

"His family is supporting him, but under the current climate, they are very scared for him," she said. "Because of his fear, he is seeking legal advice, but not because he feels he's done anything wrong."

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