SHEIKH BEKAYEJanuary 28, 2000
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) _ A Mauritanian suspected of plotting a bomb attack against the United States, and who reportedly has links to the millionaire fugitive Osama bin Laden, has been arrested in Mauritania, security officials said Friday.
Mohambedou Ould Slahi was being held at the offices of the Bureau of Mauritanian Security, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He was arrested in this West African nation after leaving neighboring Senegal on Wednesday, they said.
Slahi, who had been living in Canada, left there in part because of an investigation into an alleged bomb plot U.S. authorities say was tied to bin Laden, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said Thursday.
U.S. officials accuse Bin Laden, a Saudi believed to be living in Afghanistan, of masterminding the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
In Washington, a federal law enforcement official said Friday that U.S. officials want to question Slahi. But the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, would not say whether the U.S. government would try to bring Slahi to the United States or would question him in Mauritania.
The Senegalese newspaper Walfadjri reported Friday that Slahi had been detained for a few hours at the Dakar airport after arriving from Paris. He was questioned and then allowed to travel to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, the paper reported.
Walfadjri, quoting unidentified police sources, said Slahi was questioned because his name was on an Interpol list of people to watch.
Slahi’s family, Arabs who were originally nomads who ranged across the Sahara Desert, settled in a crumbling apartment building in Bouhdida, just outside Nouakchott, when drought ravaged the region in the 1970s.
On Friday, Slahi’s mother, who identified herself only as Fatima, denied her son would be involved in a bomb plot.
“My son is not the kind of person who can kill,″ she said, as more than a dozen female relatives, and one teen-age boy, gathered in a cramped apartment. “At the end, you will see that it all was a big lie.″
She described him as a deeply religious man who “cries when a member of the family has a simple injury.″
Dan Lambert, a spokesman for Canadian intelligence, said Thursday that Slahi left Canada sometime after authorities uncovered the alleged plot on Dec. 14 when they arrested Ahmed Ressam for allegedly trying to smuggle bomb-making components into the United States.
Ressam, an Algerian, pleaded innocent Thursday in federal court in Seattle to charges of planning a terrorist bombing.
Three other Algerian nationals and a woman married to an Algerian are in custody, and police in the United States and Canada are searching for another Algerian.
According to a report in The New York Times, Slahi’s brother-in-law is one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants. However, a U.S. law enforcement official said Thursday on condition of anonymity that U.S. investigators are unsure of this.
U.S. investigators are also not sure if Slahi was a major figure in the bombing plot, or just a minor messenger, the official said in Washington.
No specific evidence has been released linking bin Laden to the newly alleged bombing plot. Authorities have not said what the targets of that plot might have been.
Before Slahi left Montreal, he shared a small room at the Assunna Mosque, said Bahaa Elbatal, the mosque’s secretary.
Elbatal said Slahi needed a place to stay in early January, and left Jan. 21. “I never felt he was a dangerous person,″ he said.
Investigators told the Times that Slahi was in contact with a construction company in Sudan that was owned by bin Laden and was a front for bin Laden’s international organization, al-Qaeda.