by Robert I. Friedman
The Village Voice
Ahmad Ajaj, a 27-year-old West Bank Palestinian being held in federal custody for conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center, may have been a Mossad mole, according to Israeli intelligence sources.
Ajaj was arrested at Kennedy Airport on September 1, 1992, after he arrived on a Pakistani International flight from Peshawar carrying a forged Swedish passport and bomb-making manuals. He was taken into custody, and subsequently pleaded guilty to entering the country illegally. Ajaj’s traveling companion was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an Iraqi who law enforcement sources say is a “key player” in the World Trade Center bombing. Yousef, currently a fugitive, is believed to be in Iraq. The State Department last week offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his capture.
The FBI has identified Ajaj as a senior intifada activist in the occupied territories, having close ties to both El Fatah, a constituent group of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization. According to federal sources and the Israeli National Police, the Israeli military expelled Ajaj to Jordan in April 1991 for conspiring to smuggle weapons to El Fatah on the West Bank. Ajaj claims in court papers that after his arrest he was tortured by Israeli soldiers who burned his body with lit cigarette butts.
But according to Kol Ha’ir, a highly regarded Hebrew-language weekly in Jerusalem, Ajaj was never involved in intifada activities, or with the PLO, or Hamas. Citing court papers and other sources, Kol Ha’ir says that far from being a political activist, Ajaj was actually a small-time crook who was arrested in 1988 for counterfeiting U.S. dollars. Ajaj and two other members of his counterfeiting ring ran a printing press in an Arab cemetery outside East Jerusalem, housing their equipment in the same building where religious Muslims wash corpses before burial. When Israeli police raided the cemetery, they arrested Ajaj, who was holding some $100,000 of bogus U.S. currency. Another gang member was carrying an antiquated pistol.
Ajaj was convicted for counterfeiting and sentenced to two-and-one-half years. It was during his prison stay that Mossad, Israeli’s CIA, apparently recruited him, say Israeli intelligence sources. By the time he was released after having served just one year, he had seemingly undergone a radical transformation. The common crook had become a devout Muslim and hard-line nationalist. Soon after, he was arrested for smuggling weapons into the West Bank, allegedly for El Fatah.
But Israeli intelligence sources say that the arrest for weapons smuggling, and Ajaj’s subsequent torture and deportation, were staged by Mossad to establish his credentials as an intifada activist. Mossad allegedly “tasked” Ajaj to infiltrate radical Palestinian groups operating outside Israel and to report back to Tel Aviv. Israeli intelligence sources say that it is not unusual for Mossad to recruit from the ranks of common criminals.
Although Israel says Ajaj was expelled to Jordan in April 1991 as a security risk, Peter Lems, an official for the Palestine Human Rights Center, based in East Jerusalem, told the Voice that Ajaj’s name does not appear on any known list of Palestinian deportees. Whatever the case, soon after Ajaj left Israel, he traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he reportedly fought with the mujahedin, the Muslim fundamentalist rebels in Afghanistan. He later showed up in New York, where he allegedly befriended members of the radical Muslim clique surrounding Sheikh Abdel-Rahman.
On February 26, the day the World Trade Center was bombed, Ajaj was in a federal prison in upstate New York serving a six-month sentence for having entered the country on a forged passport. The following month, he was indicted for conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center.
Ajaj’s court-appointed attorney, Austin Campriello, says his client “has nothing to do with any of the [suspects] in this case.” Responding to allegations that Ajaj is linked to Israeli intelligence, Campriello told the Voice, “I have absolutely no reason to believe it’s true.” FBI spokesperson Joe Valiquette says, “I have no idea if it’s true. I’ve never heard it.”
If Ajaj was recruited by Mossad, it is not known whether he continued to work for the Israeli spy agency after he was deported. One possibility, of course, is that upon leaving Israel and meeting radical Muslims close to the blind Egyptian sheikh, his loyalties shifted.
Another scenario is that he had advance knowledge of the World Trade Center bombing, which he shared with Mossad, and that Mossad, for whatever reason, kept the secret to itself. If true, U.S. intelligence sources speculate that Mossad might have decided to keep the information closely guarded so as not to compromise its undercover agent.
© Copyright 2001 Village Voice