hunting bin laden
Mother-in-Law of Wadih El Hage

An American Muslim nurse, she asked to be interviewed anonymously fearing harassment due to her son-in-law's connection to the Nairobi embassy bombing. She gives her reasons for believing her son-in-law was not involved in the Nairobi bombing.
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Tell me a little bit about [Wadih]. I read that he's Lebanese.

He's Lebanese.

Christian, originally?

His parents were Christian. He converted to Islam when he was 14 in Kuwait. His father had a government position in Kuwait. I believe it was in education, I'm not quite sure. And his father was very irate, and he was more or less tossed out of the house.

Because he converted to Islam?

Yeah. And he came under the aegis of a sheik in Kuwait who paid for his education, including the university education. When he graduated, the money stopped. And that's when he to start really scrambling around for money and trying to get jobs here and there.

How did you meet him?

I met him through the imam of this mosque here [in Tucson]. ... He wrote a letter to my daughter because he had heard that there was this very good Muslim girl here who might make a nice wife. It was an arrangement. He came and visited with her and she was pleased with him and he of course was pleased with her and after about a month or so, they married. And she loves him very much, and he loves her, and they have seven children.

Was he a little impractical?

Sometimes. Wadih is very human. ... What you read in the paper is not Wadih. ... If I can give you an analogy of an old car going up the street leaving nuts and bolts all the up the street, that's Wadih. He'd buy presents and then he'd leave for the plane and leave the presents behind on the desk. He could be very disorganized. He's very, very human.

He's not a calculated mastermind?

Oh, God, no. He was dead set against anything against Islam because he wanted to build up the reputation of Islam, not have it linked to terrorists and all that stuff. Killing women and children is anathema, you don't do that. You don't do that.

Well, they say he procured weapons for somebody involved in the World Trade Center bombing.

I think one or two of his friends were afraid in New York, ... they wanted a gun or something for self protection. ... That was all of it.

So, how do you understand what's happened so far?

I don't. I think maybe the government has had a lot of misinformation and they're working on what they believe is true. But to my way of thinking, it's fabrication. It's totally wrong. It's not Wadih.

What kind of father is he?

He's a wonderful father. A devoted father. He would wake up early every morning, said [his] prayer ... . He'd make breakfast for them all. He'd teach the older children Koran. ... He spends a lot of time with the children and he misses them terribly and they're becoming very bitter that the father is not there. My daughter has seven children. One is a babe in arms, and Wadih was denied to even talk to his children for a long time. And that's terrible. To me that is not American justice. This is not the way we do things.

He has [not] been convicted of anything.

No. They say he lied to a federal Grand Jury. So did Clinton. But Clinton is still in the White House and Wadih is under 23 hour [solitary confinement]. He can't talk to anybody. ... He's allowed supposedly 3 phone calls a month to my daughter. She's lucky to get one. Sometimes letters are few and far between and she'll 3 or 4 at a clip. And one time they sent the letters to her and one page was missing, you know. It's not well. He doesn't even have access to a visitor list. He can't even see anybody. My daughter can't even see him. And it's been six months. ... And she's now living in Texas waiting by the phone everyday. And that's terrible. And that's why I'm here.

Why?

Because I want to show the world that Wadih is not a terrorist. He's not a criminal. Maybe he ran a traffic light or something, but he's always been a very good boy. I say boy, because he's my son-in-law and he loves my daughter. He's devastated by this whole thing. His last letter to me was pitiful. ... He sounded very depressed. ... He felt like things weren't going for him well at all. He wants a new lawyer and since he can't talk to anybody, he can't ask for a new lawyer. He can't call anybody. He said his lawyer is a nice fellow, but he sees him once every couple of weeks and that's it. ... And he wants somebody, a good strong lawyer to plead his case. ...

[Did Wadih] talk to the FBI in Nairobi?

Yeah, he did.

And he talked to them in Arlington.

[Yes].

And he talked to them in New York.

[Yes]. ... He talked to them a lot. ...

He doesn't sound like somebody who has anything to hide.

No. He's always been so aboveboard, I mean, I don't understand it. Yes, he probably knew a lot of these people. Yes, he probably did. But he knows everybody. ... Guilt by association. And that's not right. In this country you're supposed to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. Wadih has not been convicted of anything. And they have even denied him bail. ...

[What was Wadih's role in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the Afghan-Soviet war?]

... He delivered books and writing materials, and he was a teacher. Some of the people there are very uneducated, very illiterate and his goal was to teach them how to read and write and study Koran. ...

[So] the role he was playing there was more as a literacy teacher or a--?

Yeah, to help teach. Bring books to the Afghan children, to help teach them how to read and write. Also he was a translator. ...

... He wasn't there as a fighter or somebody?

No. Wadih has a little right arm. He cannot physically do a lot of things a soldier could do. ... His heart may have been in it, but he was more of a teacher, translator, go-between. ... He was a peacemaker. You know, I'll be honest, a lot of Arabs are hot-headed, and he would keep the peace between them. ...

[When did Wadih and your daughter move to Sudan?]

They moved to Sudan ... the spring of '92. ...

Did he tell you why he was going?

To get a better job. ... When he was here [in Tucson], he couldn't get a job that paid enough money ... even though he had a degree from University of Louisiana.

So he got a job offer from Khartoum?

... I guess, I'm not quite sure. But he went there because it was a salary job offer. My daughter hated it. She hated being stuck in Khartoum and he was [traveling] all over to sell these samples, and translating this, or doing this or that.

You understood his job in the Sudan more as a salesman, a translator, a--

Yeah, translator, salesman, and my daughter was instrumental in saying, "That's enough of this, let's get out of here." And one thing that worries my daughter so much is that every place they ever went, they always went immediately to the US Embassy and registered. They never slipped from sight. They wanted the government to know they were in case something ever happened.

Now wait a second, this alleged terrorist ... would go to the US Embassy and register?

Wadih did. ... He's always let the government know where he was. He never hid his activities. ... And [when] the baby was born in Nairobi, they registered the baby there with the American government. ...

Because they were all American citizens?

Exactly. Wadih's an American.

So the idea of him endorsing this fatwah that says kill Americans and Jews--

Impossible. As my daughter said, she said, "My God, I'm an American, the children are Americans, Wadih is an American. How could he do this?" ...

Why did they move to Nairobi from [Sudan]?

[My daughter] ... has asthma. She was sick a lot in Sudan, and she felt very, very isolated. It's also a very backward country, and I've learned since then that this so-called mastermind terrorist, Osama bin Laden did a lot for that country. So I guess, I guess he wasn't quite as horrible as everybody portrays. Although, if he indeed was behind the bombings, I think that's disgraceful.

But he was your son-in-law's boss. I mean--

At that time when he was in Sudan. But when he went to Nairobi, he no longer was. He broke with him. There were a lot of personal reasons why he broke with him and [my daughter] threatened to leave Wadih if they didn't get out of there.

Because?

Because bin Laden wanted him to take a second wife, and [she] said, more or less, "You do that and I'm history." So he acceded to his wife's wishes and stopped his association with bin Laden and went to Nairobi. ...

So when you went ... to visit your daughter in Nairobi, were you surprised at what happened once you arrived there?

Oh, why, yes. I arrived in Nairobi the evening of one day and not even 12 hours later there was a knock on the outer gate. And they said, "Open the gates." They came into the house, it was the Police Department of Nairobi and American FBI agents. ... [They] said they were looking for stolen property and they searched the whole house and they came out of the bedrooms with Wadih's PC, and they took it. ... He had all these little papers all over the desk, his notebooks and other personal papers, his little ledgers, his address books. They scooped them all up and took them. Every single one. All his business contracts, everything. ...

And Wadih wasn't there.

He was not there. In fact he had gone into Afghanistan ... because he was working as a gem dealer then, and also in conjunction with Africa Help [a charitable organization] ... . [Later, when he came back, he] hit the Nairobi airport, [and] the FBI and the Nairobi police were there too. And they took him away and questioned him. In the meantime, they spoke to us that night and told us it would probably be best if we got back to the United States right away and they told my daughter they could arrange for her to be on the next flight out. ... They said it might not be safe to live here. She got frightened. She's got all these little children ... so she says, "No, I'm not leaving without my husband."

Did they say why it wouldn't be safe? ... That you might be better off--

[If] we went back in the United States. Something might happen here. ... I'm afraid I don't quite remember the words but the inference was plain. [Something might happen to her children or herself next time].

Did they mention anybody's name, like Osama bin Laden or anything like that?

No. I don't remember that. If they had it went over my head, I didn't hear it.

...Wadih comes from the airport. ... He's been interrogated. ... Didn't you say then, "What's going on?"

He says they wanted information about some of his friends and people that they want to know if he knows. ...

But did he say why they wanted to know?

No. He never said anything. Either that or I didn't ask. I was too upset. ... .

[But] it's your daughter, it's your grandchildren. Something is going on, and it's in stolen property.

Well, I never for one minute thought it was stolen property. I thought they were checking something out. God knows what. I don't know. I don't about any cell. I didn't even hear the name of Osama bin Laden at that point. I didn't know anything. ...

Is it possible they're holding him because they hope that he'll testify, that he'll tell them about everybody else since he knows [so many people]?

That is a possibility. That is a very distinct possibility. I can't deny that he didn't know probably know these people. He probably did know them. As to protecting them, I don't know if he'd go that far, but I don't think he would volunteer anything he didn't know just to save his own neck ... .

Did you ever meet anybody named Odeh?

No, I don't even know who that is.

How about a [Muhamed Ali]?

Yeah, we were friends with his wife...

And Mr. bin Franklin, a neighbor.

... Oh yes, [he was a] close friend. He's an American citizen. ...

And there was an Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani? You know that man?

No, I don't know him. I never met him. Just bin Franklin and also Muhamed Ali. ...

... How does he know all these people? Why is he associated with all these people? It's just because of who he is?

He knows everybody. I mean everywhere he goes people know him and they respect him because of his Islam. He's a strict Muslim. ...

[Is he] an extremist?

He's not an extremist. No, he is not. But he could know people all the way along the spectrum. He knows everybody. That's his problem maybe. He just knows everybody. He just tries to make peace. ...

Did he ever talk with you about things like Somalia or bin Laden, once you knew his name, or anything like that?

No. He told me about the big road they built from Khartoum to some other place. ... [He] told me about his vast holdings of agricultural farms. ... He never said anything about him being a terrorist. He was a very brave freedom fighter in Afghanistan. ... I got the impression he was a good man until I read this in the papers. ...

Is it possible that [Wadih is] everything you say, a good man, family man, but also believes strongly enough to get involved at least on the edges of some of these activities?

Anything is possible. ... I can't look into his heart. From what I see of him by his works, I judge him a good man and from what he has said, I judge him to be a good man. I can't see him having any part of killing any innocent women and children. I can see him fighting in a war against soldiers, yes, but bombing buildings, never. ... But as to some of the people, his acquaintances, I don't know. I can't answer to that. ... And he would have to tell me himself that he did certain things for me to believe it, otherwise, I would never believe it because I trust him. ...



Read FRONTLINE'S profile of Wadih El Hage.

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