hunting bin laden
Ahmed Sattar

An Egyptian-born U.S. citizen, Sattar acted as a paralegal for the "blind sheik," Omar Abdel Al Rahman, who was convicted of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks in the mid-1990s. Sattar explains why many in the Islam world agree with bin Laden and oppose the United States - either violently or peacefully. Sattar also answers questions about bin Laden's Egyptian allies and their alleged connections to terrorist events.

In early April 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that Sattar was one of four people indicted for providing material support to the Islamic Group, an Egyptian terrorist organization. Ashcroft said Sattar had served as a "surrogate" for Rahman. In the video except below from FRONTLINE's 1999 interview with Sattar, correspondent Lowell Bergman asks him if it's true, as the U.S. government says, that Sattar speaks "with two faces," never revealing the face of someone who is willing to commit or promote acts of terrorism.

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Most Americans watch television and remember Anwar Sadat as Barbara Walters' friend, who smokes pipes, speaks very good English, and who seems very civilized. But to you, how did you feel when he was assassinated?

I felt good. It was a shock to me at first because I never expected the pharaoh to be assassinated in front of his army.

The pharaoh?

Sure, the pharaoh, yes. And but really, after absorbing the shock, I said, "Well, that was well done."

Because?

Because of what he did. What the Western mentality does not understand that your measurement is different ... your measurement of good and bad. Yes, President Sadat was a media star as what you said. Civilized, smoking a pipe, always referred to Barbara Walters as "my friend Barbara," and "my friend Carter," ... they were all his friends. But what did he do to the normal man in the slums of Cairo or in upper Egypt? He deceived them. When he signed the peace treaty with Israel, he promised, "This will be the end of suffering ... Things will change dramatically for the Egyptian people." He promised democracy, freedom, and people believed him.

And Mubarak is more of the same?

Mubarak I believe he is worse. Sadat was a smart man. Mubarak is just a puppet. A military man, he does not think. He just takes orders and does it.

Does what? Repress the people?

Repress the people. What he does, you know, it's not necessarily in the interest of the people as whole. And when I'm talking about people, I'm not talking only about Egyptian. Egyptian is just a part of the Islam world or Arab world. He's not farsighted, he's just a near sighted man. He thinks by obeying Americans or taking American orders and just run on those, and that will take him somewhere. And unfortunately, it is not getting him anywhere.

One of the things that we've noticed in trying to make sense of the embassy bombings and the bin Laden story is that there seems to be a number of Egyptians prominently involved. There are Egyptian allies within who stand next to him when he's on camera and makes his statements. Why? Where do they come from?

Egyptian opposition to the Egyptian regime. Egyptian opposition to American influence throughout the Islamic world. Egyptian opposition to American occupation of Muslim land.

American occupation of Muslim land? Where?

Saudi Arabia. Anywhere.

You've been here for sixteen years.

Yes.

... Why would some of your fellow Egyptians resort to violence against the government of Egypt?

ahmed sattarTo answer this question, we have to go back to what happened in Egypt in the past ... twenty-five, thirty years. ... Right after 1967 war, people were into identity crisis. Looking for their identity. [Nasser] told us that we are Arabs. He told us that we are Egyptian, the grandson and daughters of the pharaohs, the great people. ... I'm talking about the government here.

This is the Arab Nationalist government of Nasser?

Yes, of Nasser. You impose socialism on us. Sometimes some kind of communism, when your relationship was good with the Soviet Union. [Then later it became] "This is all wrong, so let's just put capitalism in effect." [But] this is all foreign ideas. This all imported ideas.

Socialism, capitalism...

Socialism, capitalism, communism. A man in the street, he does not understand what Marx said, or what Lenin said. But, you know, if you told him about what [Mohammed] said, he will totally understand and agree with you. So, why don't we try this? This was a trend in Egypt at this time. People started [to] resort to religion. . .

People were disillusioned with socialism, with communism, with capitalism, and they returned to the Muslim, Islamic roots that they came from.

Exactly, exactly. Now, [until] the mid '80s actually, it was very effective, with the whole Islamic activists were all over everywhere. And this posed a threat to the government of Egypt.

You were affected by this.

I was, definitely I was. As a younger man growing up in Egypt in the seventies ... in the '80s, looking around me, hav[ing] no hope in a country where I was born and raised, seeing things deteriorating to a level that will not be acceptable by anybody. There was no other way except [turning] to Islam ideology, to believe in it and to try to change things through it.

When you say in ways that no one would accept, what do you mean? Give me an example.

... People graduating college cannot find a job. Hundreds of thousands, even millions. People who reach the age of thirty, thirty-five cannot find an apartment to rent. Poverty was everywhere. Dictatorship.

George Washington was called a terrorist.  Menachem Begin [was] called a terrorist.  Anwar Sadat was called a terrorist by the British.  So, today's terrorist is tomorrow's freedom fighter.Even though that Mubarak was ... preach[ing] democracy ... in reality there is no democracy whatsoever. ... Absolute dictatorship. With only difference that [the US is] giving him $2.8 billion a year [to] oppress the people more.

The United States gives $2.8 billion in our tax money?

Yes.

So, to the people who are involved, let's say with bin Laden, ... they feel the United States is the friend of their enemy.

Yes, they do. ... The American government has one enemy ... the Islamic movement all over the world, whether it's armed struggle or peaceful ... . I mean, you can see it. You can see it from Algeria to Afghanistan.

United States is at war.

Yes, to a certain extent, yes.

With Islam.

Yes, even though that President Clinton would say differently. But who believes him? He said he never had sex with Monica, so I mean, you want me to believe that he's not at war with Islam?

The World Trade Center, the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, are really part of a war?

Yes. I look at it, yes, it is a part of a war. A war declared by the American government. And some people try to react. And their reaction comes out sometimes as acts like this. The World Trade Center, or the embassy bombing in Nairobi and [the assassination of] Sadat. ...

You're going to see the same feeling everywhere in a Muslim country toward Americans right now. In Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Morocco, everywhere you go, you're going to have the same feeling that there is a war declared by the West on Islam, and in particular, the United States of America on Islam. And ... something has to be done about it. [The] reaction ... could be like the bombing in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It could be some demonstrations in front of American embassies throughout the Islamic world that we saw before. Could be kidnapping of Americans.

In Yemen, for instance.

In Yemen, and let's not forget in Iraq. ... What bothers me really [is what has] happened to the relationship between America and the Islamic world. I remember as a kid in Cairo, 1973, when President Nixon came to visit Egypt for the first time. Thousands of people ... went out to greet him, and cheer him. ...

Because America was seen as hope?

America was seen as hope. America was seen as an oasis of democracy. ... It's preaching of freedom [of] religion, freedom of expression. [It was] the land of milk and honey to those people. People looked at you here, that you are the hope of the world. This picture, 25 years later, has changed dramatically. Now, the people, especially in the Arab and Islamic world, look at you the same way they look at the British and the French occupation forces in the mid-30s and '40s. You are an empire that will do anything to oppress people outside the United States borders.

How can you say that? When Iraq was going to invade Kuwait, a Muslim country, and Iraq threatened Saudi Arabia, we sent our troops to defend you.

Well, yes, we really appreciate it very much. You send your troops to defend us. Nobody asked for the American troops to go there. You went there to protect your own interest. You went there to protect some corrupted regimes that are working against their own people. You went there not to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and if you did, it would have been very, very nice of you. But you decided not to, so you can keep a foot and a hand into Syria. You did not go there for the people or for the Arabs or the Muslims. ... Why you didn't intervene in Kosovo where Muslims--not ethnic Albanians, this is not an ethnic Albanian thing, this is Christian crusaders against Muslim--when Muslims have been slaughtered like this? So, do not give me that you were there to protect the people. ... If you want to protect the regime of King Fahd, that's a different story. But your policy in this area has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with the people.

To some people looking in, you would look ungrateful. We have our young people there in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia willing to give their lives. And you're saying you don't want them there.

No. We don't want them there. Get out. ... Leave us alone. ... For the longest time since 1991 'til now, [the US says], "We send our troops, we send our sons and daughters to liberate Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia. Once it's over, we will get out, once the threat is over, we'll get out." And you get on the other hand, some American officials like Defense Secretary Cohen, and Defense Secretary Cheney before him [saying] on American TV, "We will not get out as long as we have interest in this area." ... This is not a statement by helping force, this is a statement by an occupying force. ...

So, when bin Laden says these things, there are many people in the Islamic world who agree?

Absolutely. ...

When we were in the Sudan, Hussein al Turabi and other people said the reason the US can send cruise missiles to the Sudan, to Afghanistan, to Iraq is because the US government doesn't have to explain to its people that there are people who live here--"We're just dark skinned Muslims, we're not people to you."

True. ... To the average American on the street, they didn't care. It was like watching a movie. ... It was just like a video game, watching the smart bombs as they called them, going down from an airplane. ... It's like my kid, when he sits and plays a video game, he kills hundreds of people, and he does not get the sense of that he's doing anything wrong. Same thing ... . In the Gulf War, we took 250,000 people. And we did not feel ashamed of ourselves. That tells you that there's something is wrong here. Something morally wrong when you kill this many people, and you don't feel ashamed.

People listening will say the people who bombed the World Trade Center or Nairobi embassy killed or injured innocent people.

Yes.

Don't they feel ashamed?

I'm not going to say how the people who committed this act feel because I really don't know how they feel, okay? But what I am going to say ... [is] the World Trade Center bombing became an excuse ... to oppress Muslims here, at least in this country.

Yes, but this is a personal question. You are a Muslim, you have sympathy for the people who feel alienated from the United States. You feel some solidarity with the Islamic opposition [in Egypt]. When something like the World Trade Center happens, or the Nairobi bombing or the Dar es Salaam bombing, do you feel ashamed?

I will condemn it, and I did. Because you know, killing innocent people, it's not the way. Even though I might agree with your ideas of opposition and the principle. But killing innocent people is not going to be the solution. [In the] same way that I condemn the killing of Iraqi children, of Sudanese in the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical Company ... . Killing is killing, it doesn't matter where it happened. I will condemn it to the full extent.

When the US government says that the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam have been masterminded by a man named Osama bin Laden and his worldwide network--you're smiling...

I have a smile, because it seems like this is the same old story happening again, and again, and again. American government don't get it. ... The American government [is] deceiving the American people. They're not telling them what's really going on. You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow. You can arrest him and put him on trial in New York or in Washington. ... Tomorrow you will get somebody else, his name probably will be different, Abdullah, or Muhammad. ... It's not going to end. Until you, take a hard, and a good look at your policies in the Islamic world and the Muslim world, as long as you're supporting dictators like Mubarak ... as long as you are giving aid to regimes that [are worse] to their people than Saddam Hussein, things will get ugly, and you cannot control the emotion of people when you are tortured in Egyptian prison by an American trained Egyptian officer. He is torturing you, and he is bragging that he was in the United States getting his training, when the equipment that he is using is American made. ...

You've been close to the [Muslim] community here. Is there the feeling that bin Laden has a network of people? Or, is he just a symbol of an inspiration to these people?

I believe that he is just a single inspiration to people. I believe that you give him an image of an activist all over the world. You know, his network is working here, and his network is working there. And he will do this, and he will do that. He's the most dangerous man in the world ... .This is nonsense. The man is hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. And you're still making a big deal out of him.

Have we made him into sort of a folk hero?

I believe you did. ... Last year, if you asked the average man on the street of downtown Cairo ... who was the son of bin Laden, he would have not known. Now, ask a five or six year old, who's Osama bin Laden, they'll tell you exactly who is Osama bin Laden. He is our hero. This is how he is going to put it to you. A man, a single man is standing up to the only super power in the world. You made a hero out of him.

I sense you have some admiration for him.

I have an admiration for anybody who will stand up to a tyrant and tell him, "You are a tyrant" whether this tyrant [is a] man named [Mubarak] or [the] government of the United States of America.

Of course, he had some reputation in Saudi Arabia before because of his activities in the Afghan War.

Yes.

How important was the Afghan war to this movement of Islamic liberation?

It was very important. ... There [was] a Muslim country occupied by another power and thus the Muslim people who need[ed] ... help, and [the young people] flew there, and they fought side by side, and ... they put this idea into practice, that we are Muslims before anything else. ...

You're one religion, one country, one government, one society. The Afghan War put that into practice.

Put that into practice. So, people from all over the Arab world, especially the Arab world, went there and fought there side by side for the Afghanis. ... And that was a great thing. That gave them a sense of pride. "Well, we can do things. We can achieve things." ... The Afghan mujahedeen ... were fighting [an] occupying force, ... the Soviet Union, the second military power in the world, [and] some people ... were fighting with AK47s and some hand grenades, and defeated them. Nobody can imagine this. ... It was a dream come out to life. And why not do it somewhere else?

You mean, if you can defeat the evil empire. . .

Yes, if I can defeat the evil empire, I can defeat anybody else. ...

You've told us that you have a very close relationship with the "blind sheik."

Yes.

[Note: Interviewer is referring to Sheik Omar Abdel Al Rahman who was convicted of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks. Al Rahman is serving a life sentence. Investigators also suspected him of being involved with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, but did not have sufficient evidence to charge him in that case.]

He is your friend, your associate?

My friend, my mentor, my sheik, my imam, my father...

That [relationship] must make you a suspect...?

sattar and sheik omar abdel al rahmanIt does. I've been pointed at, or suspected of being a terrorist. I've been called that by law enforcement agencies in this country. I've been followed days and nights, under surveillance 24 hours a day sometimes. I've been visited by FBI agents in my job trying to prejudice my co-workers against me. My life was dramatically changed because of my relationship with the sheik. To me, am I a terrorist? Nope. I am a father. I am a man who believes in his religion. ...

But you believe, as does the sheik, that armed opposition to the government of Egypt, the friend of the United States, is justified.

When it is in self defense, yes. The young people in Egypt did not raise the arms except to defend themselves. From 1984 to 1991-92, more than 80 of Egyptian or Islamic leaders in Egypt were assassinated on the streets of Egypt by the government. It was a broad daylight assassination. And when you take arms in your hand and defend yourself, this is legitimate. But the problem is now where can we go from there. Because once the genie out of the lamp, there is no control on it. You cannot control it.

It would be correct to say that, as does the sheik, you have sympathy for those who conspired to bomb the World Trade Center or the embassy in Nairobi?

I cannot say that I have sympathy for the bombers. I never said that. The sheik never said that. I have sympathy for the people who show hate, or let's say I have some kind of understanding of why people show their hate toward the United States, for the government of the United States.

But I would suspect that law enforcement in the United States, the counterterrorism task force here in New York, believes that you know a lot.

They do?

That you know a lot of people who also know a lot.

I do.

And that you could help them figure out who has been involved in these various acts.

This is where we don't agree. ... An act like the World Trade Center or Oklahoma City Bombing or the bombing in the embassy in Nairobi does not need many people to do it. Could be Joe Shmoe and another person with him, like in Oklahoma City. Could be four or five people like in the World Trade Center.

So, acts like this, nobody will walk on the street and say, "Yeah, I'm going to do such and such." The law enforcement thinks that everybody, if you have an association with Mahmoud Abouhalima, oh, you know Mahmoud Abouhalima, so you have to be part of the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center. ...

... Some of the people who have been identified as suspects in Nairobi, some of the Egyptians whose names we've seen who have not been apprehended--it seems to be a whole group of people who have not been apprehended who were a step above the people who were on the ground.

I'll tell you something. When the World Trade Center occurred here, the American government released a list. 173 names. And they called them co-conspirators of people who were living in this country, and people living abroad. 173 names. So, let's not just jump to conclusions because the American government, you know, released a name that he must be a part of it. 173.

Ramzi Yousef, the American government does not know until now what's his real name. The reports you guys made, about him, that he was in the Philippines, going to bars and drinking and going out with women. This is not an Islamic act, if you know us, the so-called fanatics, or fundamentalists or whatever you want to name them. We don't do that. ... You don't know his real name until now. You don't know where he came from, whether he was born in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Kuwait. Is he an Iraqi citizen or Kuwaiti or Pakistani? And money-wise ... they don't know where Ramzi was getting his money from. The thing is to convince the American people that this person is dangerous. This is one person you have to make a connection, you have to make a whole group so you can sell the idea. So, everybody knows everybody, everybody cooperating with everybody, to destroy us, and to destroy our way of living.

Well, one of the things that's come up is that there was a bombing in Nairobi, and a bombing in Dar es Salaam on the same day, similar kinds of bombs, showed some coordination, more than three or four people involved. And it turns out, a large number of the people identified are Egyptians. When we ask the question, "Why Egyptians?" we are told because the Egyptian opposition, the Islamic Jihad of Egypt and other organizations, have a lot of experience. More experience probably than most organizations in armed resistance.

No, I can't say that. ...

Well from the Muslim Brotherhood to the present, they have been in struggle with the secular governments of Egypt. They've managed to survive through all kinds of repression. They've managed to inflict casualties ... on the street in Egypt.

That's just recently. I really don't know how to explain why too many Egyptians--if what you're saying is true by the way--why too many Egyptians' name[s] appeared [in connection with the embassy bombings]. ... Amar Zorohi. ... He's in Afghanistan with bin Laden, does ... this make him anything? That makes him guilty of blowing up?

No, but newspapers in the Arab community in London and elsewhere report that there is some discussion amongst the Islamic opposition in Egypt about whether or not they should stay alive with bin Laden. This has been a controversial decision because it makes the United States their direct enemy.

That's true, and I told you before, when bin Laden formed his front to fight the crusaders and the Jews, the Islamic group said, "We are not part of it." ... And they pulled out of it completely. This is the biggest opposition group in Egypt. They said we are out.

Out, but sympathetic.

Out, but of course, sympathetic. But I'm not going to use or to agree about the methods or the things that you are doing.

Would you condemn it?

Do I condemn the bombing in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam? Of course I do.

Would you help the authorities to figure out who did it?

If they want the truth, yes. And I told them this long, long time ago. I said, "If you want the truth, yes, we will help you as Muslims in this country." But unfortunately, you don't want the truth. You want somebody to [lie] to you and deceive you. And then, give you at the end, you know, what you want to hear. I'm not willing to sell myself and my soul to you. ...

Just for the record--Ahmed Salem is the informant?

Ahmed Salem is the informant, yes.

He's Egyptian.

Yeah.

Former military man.

A double agent, if you want to put it this way.

Who helped put the sheik away in the [New York City] landmarks case?

Yes.

Some would say he created the [New York City] landmarks plot.

Absolutely. He wrote the story, made the scenario, and directed the whole show, and there's a profit, a million and some dollars. And unfortunately, they just were so dumb. It's unbelievable.

You mean, the guys we saw on the video?

No, no, ... I'm talking about the FBI agents. They were so stupid. I mean, at the beginning, the guy was just playing them anyway he wants. And right after the World Trade Center, just, they said, "Hey, you have to come and save us here." He was just, you know, feeding them information that did not exist. ...

We did hear that you were the real thing. I mean, when I asked about you, I was told you were right on the edge of the whole thing. I don't know if they're convinced that you're a conspirator or what you are--this is the government of the US--they said that you would speak to us with two faces, articulate, intelligent, peaceful, but that beneath that is another face that is willing to commit acts of violence or promote them, but that you would never show that to us.

The American government, or the intelligence community, can think whatever they want. If you're not with them, you are against them. I was offered to work for them. [They] tempted me with money, and tried to put the fear in me by [saying], "We're going to send you to prison for the rest of your life." It didn't work. I will show you that I don't believe in killing innocent people. And I truly don't. Last time I had a gun in my hand was in 1981 when I left the Egyptian army, never had anything to do with guns after that.

Do I plead in self-defense? Yes, I do. Do I promote in self-defense? Yes, I do. I'm not going to stand up or sit down and you smack my right cheek, and I give you the left one. No, you smack my right cheek, I will punch you right in the face. This is it. And if you see something wrong with that, that's too bad... Keep away from me, and I will keep away from you. This is the way I believe. Many people don't like that; that's their opinion, too. They're entitled to it. They say many things about me. ... You have something against me, come forward with it. You have something else, that you don't like, that I practice my rights as an American citizen in this country, you did not give me this right. There is people before you who fought in this country, and were called terrorists. They fought, and gave me and gave you that same right. And I will practice it so full. And I will protect it also when it comes to the time when I see somebody is trying to take it away from me and my kids.

What is a terrorist?

There is a very thin line between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. ... A terrorist who, somebody does something that you don't agree with, a freedom fighter is somebody who does something that I agree with. ... George Washington was called a terrorist. Menachem Begin, originally who was wanted by the British government, [was] called a terrorist. Anwar Sadat, your hero, was called a terrorist by the British. You know, he actually spent a months or years in prison. So, today's terrorist is tomorrow's freedom fighter. Or today's freedom fighter could be tomorrow's terrorist. And it's proven by the Afghanis' experience. During that year, they were freedom fighters, now they are terrorists. ...

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