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FBI probes 'sleeper cell' possibility

Investigation of ex-Boston cabdriver extends to 9/11

The Boston office of the FBI is investigating whether a former local cabdriver indicted Friday on charges of lying about ties to a suspected terrorist may have been part of a "sleeper cell" in the Boston area supporting Al Qaeda terrorist activities and whether he may have connections to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Washington and New York.

Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Boston office, confirmed that the investigation is taking place, saying, "During terrorism investigations we will always look for connections to all known or suspected terrorists or the events of 9/11."

Although FBI officials in Boston have in the past downplayed the possibility that a sleeper cell was operating in the area, the indictment of Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, 41, in Minnesota on Friday charging him with lying to the FBI about his ties to a suspected terrorist and shipping communications equipment to Pakistan provides further leads that will be pursued, Marcinkiewicz said.

The top FBI terrorism specialist in Boston said last year that the agency had no concrete evidence of the existence of a sleeper cell in Boston.

"There's no indication at all that the 9/11 hijackers had any Al Qaeda cell in Boston to support that operation," Tom Powers, an assistant special-agent-in-charge of the FBI's Boston office, said at the time. "There's no evidence of any secret cell in Boston, but that doesn't mean we don't have small groups of individuals that we're concerned about."

Elzahabi lived in the Boston area between 1997 and 1999, driving a cab leased from the Boston Cab Co. and living in apartments in Everett. During that period, Elzahabi associated with three other men, also former cabdrivers, who later were alleged to have separate ties to terrorist-related activities.

The alleged misrepresentations that Elzahabi was charged with in Friday's indictment were made during recent interviews in which Elzahabi told federal agents that he had attended Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan during the 1980s. It was in those camps, according to the indictment, that Elzahabi became acquainted with two of Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenants: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to be directing attacks against US forces in Iraq, and Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al Qaeda associate who appeared to have been an organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Friday's indictment detailed Elzahabi's links to two of the men, Raed Hijazi and Bassam Kanj, whom he said he met at a jihad training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Yesterday, another friend told the Globe that Elzahabi was also friendly with a third former Boston cabdriver, Nabil Almarabh, and the two men had also fought together against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Almarabh was arrested by federal agents in Detroit less than a week after the attacks of Sept. 11 and, according to a 2002 federal report, had "intended to martyr himself in an attack against the United States."

However, Almarabh was released from prison last January and deported to Syria after federal investigators concluded that they were unable to prove he had engaged in any illegal acts.

Mashour Masoud, of Everett, said he met both Elzahabi and Almarabh in the late 1990s, while driving a cab at Logan International Airport.

"I know he [Elzahabi] was friends with Nabil. Both were in Afghanistan fighting the Russians in the 1980s," Masoud said.

Elzahabi, Masoud recalled, was quiet and hard-working, and when he left Boston Cab Co. in 1998, Elzahabi asked Masoud if he could lease Masoud's cab when he wasn't driving it. Masoud, who drove nights, agreed, and for six months Elzahabi drove Masoud's cab during the day, handing it back to him at night. They also lived together for five or six months, sharing an apartment above Angelina's Submarine Sandwich shop in Everett until Elzahabi left the area.

Masoud said he has not seen or heard from Elzahabi since Elzahabi moved out and did not know he had been arrested by the FBI. "I'm surprised. I don't understand," he said. "Why would he lie to the FBI?" Asked whether he thought Elzahabi could be involved in terrorist activities, Masoud said: "Not really. No."

The possibility that unknown people in Boston were providing support to terrorists, including the 10 who hijacked the two planes out of Logan Airport, has been the subject of much conjecture among law enforcement officials.

However, Powers told the Globe in early 2001, months before the September attacks, that agents were investigating the activities of the two former cabdrivers, Kanj and Hijazi, to see if they had ties to terrorism. Kanj, 35, was killed after leading a militant group in an attack against the Lebanese Army, while Hijazi, 32, was tried in Jordan on charges that he was planning to destroy a hotel filled with Americans and Israelis on New Year's Eve 2000.

According to the complaint unsealed Friday in US District Court in Minneapolis, Elzahabi lied about the extent of his relationship with Hijazi when the two lived in the Boston area in the late 1990s. When questioned in April by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force about his friendship with Hijazi, Elzahabi first said that he had seen Hijazi sleeping in a cab but "denied knowing him very well," according to a federal affidavit.

However, the complaint alleged that Elzahabi helped obtain a driver's license for Hijazi, signing as his sponsor for the application to receive the license and allowing him to use his Everett address for mailing.

An Everett man who was friends with both Elzahabi and Hijazi confirmed in an interview with the Globe in late 2001 that Elzahabi and Hijazi were close. The Everett man, who asked not to be identified, said that Elzahabi had taken a used mattress from his apartment in Everett and brought it to Hijazi's apartment in Malden.

The Everett man said that Elzahabi also had become friends with Kanj when both were fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan and continued their friendship in Boston. When Elzahabi sought medical treatment for a wound to his abdomen that he had received in Afghanistan, Kanj directed him to an Egyptian doctor who was practicing in New Hampshire.

Elzahabi, who has been in federal custody since May in New York, is scheduled to be transferred to Minneapolis for his arraignment this week.

Adrianne Appel, a Globe correspondent, contributed to this report.Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at kurkjian@globe.com. 

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