hunting bin laden
A Portrait of Wadih El Hage, Accused Terrorist by Oriana Zill

In May 2001, El Hage, a U.S. citizen, was convicted of conspiracy and perjury in the East Africa embassy bombings case. Prosecutors believed that he was a top member of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Before the trial, FRONTLINE wanted to know more about El Hage's life and motives, and sought out his family, neighbors and friends. All were shocked by his arrest; most proclaimed his innocence.
home
introduction
who is bin laden
trail of evidence
two terrorists
interviews

Oriana Zill was Associate Producer of FRONTLINE's "Hunting Bin Laden"
wadih el hageOn a cold, rainy day in February, 1999 in New York City, Wadih El Hage was led into Manhattan Federal Court for a pre-trial hearing. Surrounded by several large security officers, El Hage appeared slight in his prison jumpsuit. A bearded man with intense, dark eyes, he whispered quietly to his lawyer throughout the hearing. In the sterile courtroom setting, it was hard to imagine this man was involved in the horrific bombings in East Africa in August 1998 which left 224 people dead and thousands injured.

A month after the bombings, El Hage was arrested after testifying before a grand jury. Originally charged with eleven counts of perjury, or lying to the grand jury, the charges were later expanded to include conspiracy to kill United States nationals. Prosecutors claim that El Hage, one of two American citizens who have been charged, was useful to bin Laden because of his ability to travel freely around the world with an American passport.

El Hage's lawyer requested the February hearing to discuss the restrictive conditions of El Hage's jailing and to ask the judge for a decision on bail. After several hearings, Judge Leonard B. Sand denied bail and El Hage was taken to solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center to await trial.

EARLY YEARS
-------------------------------

El Hage was born in 1960 into a Catholic family in Sidon, Lebanon. He grew up in highly Islamic Kuwait, where his father worked for an oil company. According to El Hage's mother-in-law, he converted to Islam as a teenager after reading the Koran.

His family disapproved of El Hage's conversion and shunned him. But he was taken in by a Muslim Sheik in Kuwait who paid for his education in the States, and he became a deeply religious young man.

In 1978, El Hage moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, to attend the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL). He studied urban planning and got a job at a donut shop where many young Arab men worked. His advisor at USL remembers El Hage as an average student who showed no signs of strong political views.

At the beginning of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, El Hage left Louisiana and traveled to Pakistan to enroll in mujahedeen war training programs. Thousands of young Arab men from around the world flocked to Pakistan to help the Afghans expel the Soviets. Sources told FRONTLINE that El Hage was a follower of Sheik Abdullah Azzam, one of the most important spiritual leaders of the Arab mujahedeen forces. Azzam preached that the war in Afghanistan was a jihad, or holy war, and that those who participated would have a special place in heaven.

During the Afghan war, Sheik Azzam became aligned with Osama bin Laden, who was at that time becoming active in fundraising and organizing mujahedeen fighters. Some reports have speculated that this may have been the initial connection between El Hage and Osama bin Laden.

By January 1985, El Hage returned to the United States and to USL. Later that year, he traveled to Arizona to marry an 18-year-old American Muslim named April. April's mother told FRONTLINE the two were introduced through an arranged marriage. In May 1986, El Hage graduated from USL and moved permanently to Arizona to start a family.

El Hage and his wife returned to Pakistan several times over the next few years, and for about a year, his mother-in-law and her husband accompanied them. "I was the Matron surgical nurse at an Afghan Surgical Hospital," she told FRONTLINE. "Wadih did not actually fight, but acted as an educator. My husband went with Wadih to deliver textbooks and Korans to the young people. It was a Jihad, a fight for Islam."

When they returned to Arizona, El Hage worked at several minimum wage jobs, including city custodian. In 1989, he was granted U.S. citizenship.

A MURDER IN TUCSON
-------------------------------

Dr. Rashad Khalifa was an imam in Tucson, Arizona who some felt was unorthodox. He used numerology to try to prove that the Koran was written by God. The imam also let men and women pray together and wear non-traditional dress.

New York prosecutors say that in the first days of 1990, El Hage was called up by a "tall man" from New York who suddenly arrived in Arizona and said he was there to check Rashad Khalifa. El Hage entertained him at his house and drove him to the mosque, prosecutors say.

Several weeks later, Khalifa was found murdered in the kitchen of the Mosque. Several members of the radical Islamic sect, Al Fuqra, were convicted for conspiring to commit the murder, but no shooter has ever been convicted. Prosecutors have repeatedly implied El Hage knows who committed the murder and may have been involved.

El Hage's family calls the claim ridiculous, saying El Hage was out of the country at the time of the murder. Prosecutors have repeatedly said El Hage at least should have contacted the authorities with what he knew after he found out that the man was murdered.

Soon after, El Hage moved his growing family to the suburban community of Arlington, Texas.

THE WORLD TRADE CENTER CONNECTION
-------------------------------

In December 1989, according to prosecutors, El Hage met Mahmud Abouhalima at an Islamic conference in Oklahoma City. According to a confession Abouhalima later gave U.S. Attorneys, Abouhalima contacted El Hage in 1990 to purchase assault weapons to be used against radical Jewish Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane was murdered in November 1990 in New York City.

El Hage's family told FRONTLINE that he did buy some weapons for Abouhalima, but they were never picked up. Family members also say El Hage was told the guns were for self-defense against the Kahane group.

In early 1991, according to El Hage's grand jury testimony, he was called to New York to help direct the Alkifah Refugee Center, a Brooklyn-based group that raised money to support veterans of the Afghan war. According to documents from the World Trade Center case, Alkifah had a Tucson office and contacts with the main mosque in Arlington, Texas, and family members confirmed that El Hage had been in contact with the group.

On the same day that El Hage arrived in Brooklyn, on March 1, 1991, the leader of the Alkifah Center, Mustafa Shalabi, disappeared. A week later his mutilated body was found in the apartment he and Mahmud Abouhalima shared in Brooklyn. The murder case has never been solved, but prosecutors believe the murder was the result of a dispute over allocation of the group's resources.

The family maintains that El Hage was called in as a mediator on this and other occasions when his friends from Afghanistan developed disputes. "I know he was good friends with Shalabi," says El Hage's mother-in-law. "He [Shalabi] was running the organization to help Afghan veterans and Wadih wanted to help him. Wadih cried on the phone about Shalabi's death. Shalabi must have called him to go to New York to help when the trouble started."

Other friends of the family from Arlington, Texas, also described El Hage as a mediator and a person whose religious purity and strong faith were trusted by others "He was calm and devout, not violent or rash," said a close family member. "I would get more upset over politics than he would."

Whether El Hage was a mediator or collaborator, evidence shows he was friends with many people who were later convicted in the World Trade Center and New York City Landmark bombing cases. On March 8, 1991, El Hage signed in to visit El Sayyid Nosair at the Riker's Island. Nosair was serving a sentence for gun charges stemming from the Meir Kahane murder case. Both El Sayyid Nosair and Mahmud Abouhalima were central figures in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and both have been convicted in that crime.

There are other unusual connections between the men. In January of 1992, El Hage was arrested in Arlington, Texas, for writing several bad checks. He was riding in the car with a companion named Marwan Salama. According to phone records from the World Trade Center case, Salama had extensive phone contacts with the World Trade center bombers in the two months before the actual bombing.

EAST AFRICA AND OSAMA BIN LADEN
-------------------------------

In early 1992, El Hage moved his family to the Sudan and he began working as a secretary for Osama bin Laden. Family members say El Hage worked only in bin Laden's legitimate businesses in the Sudan. FRONTLINE research shows that bin Laden had quite a few businesses there, including a tannery, several farms, a road construction firm, a transport company and two investment companies.

"He [bin Laden] was a busy person and had hundreds of people working for him," said one El Hage family member. "You didn't get to see him unless he invited you." El Hage's mother-in-law received letters from El Hage that contained seed samples from the Sudanese farms. El Hage frequently took international trips to Europe and elsewhere on business for bin Laden, family members say.

Prosecutors, however, believe that El Hage was becoming a key aide to bin Laden, who in turn was becoming an international terrorist leader. "The intelligence that was being created pointed increasingly to him as someone who had to be dealt with," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism from 1989 to 1993. "There were other intelligence indicators that were starting to surface in the '94 time frame that pointed out that Usama was a problem."

Little evidence has emerged that proves what El Hage was doing in Sudan. His family admits freely that he worked for bin Laden, but cannot provide details as to everything he did. Prosecutors have alleged in court papers that El Hage "is being investigated for his efforts to try to obtain chemical weapons for Osama bin Laden's organization." But no evidence has been provided to back up this claim.

Finally, it was April El Hage who convinced her husband to leave the Sudan and bin Laden's company. According to family members, bin Laden had been encouraging Wadih to take a second wife and had even started to arrange someone for him. "April would have none of that," said April's mother. "She is Muslim, but she is also American, and she wouldn't stand for it."

NAIROBI, KENYA
-------------------------------

In 1994, El Hage left the Sudan for Kenya and became director of a Muslim charity organization called "Help Africa People." Kenyan government documents say the organization was dedicated to malaria control projects. El Hage also worked in the gem business to make extra income.

During his time in Kenya, El Hage stayed in contact with members of bin Laden's inner circle. In particular, say prosecutors, El Hage associated with Ubaidah al-Banshiri, a key figure within bin Laden's organization who was living in Kenya. U.S. prosecutors believe Al-Banshiri was a key military leader, one of two top-ranking commanders, of "al Qaeda," bin Laden's organization. In May of 1996, al-Banshiri drowned in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria.

Another bin Laden associate, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Haroun Fazul, moved into El Hage's house in Nairobi during this period and began to work for El Hage as a secretary. "He had no money and needed a place to stay," says El Hage's mother-in-law. "Wadih was always letting people stay with them. That is the proper Muslim way."

Haroun Fazul, according to prosecutors, was a key player in the Nairobi embassy bombing in August of 1998--accused of renting the house where the bomb was built and driving the lead truck in the bombing.

When told of the charges that Haroun Fazul was a key organizer of the bomb plot, El Hage's family laughed. "April always called him the black Ronald McDonald," said April's mother. "She thought he was kind of goofy. And she finds it very hard to believe that he could have been a terrorist."

Another man charged in the bombing, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, has admitted during his interrogation that he knew El Hage in Kenya and that El Hage had attended his wedding. Odeh was captured trying to enter Pakistan just after the bombings and provided investigators with the first link that the bombings were conducted by people working for Osama bin Laden.

THE NAIROBI RAID
-------------------------------

U.S. officials in Washington D.C. had first started investigating Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s based on growing evidence that he was funding terrorist activity. The New York Times reported that in 1996, CIA and State Department officials secretly met with a Sudanese agent in Washington and asked for the names of 200 bin Laden associates from the Sudan. In their efforts to get more information on bin Laden, U.S. investigators attempted to locate and interview as many bin Laden associates as possible. That investigation eventually led them to Nairobi, Kenya-- and, in August 1997, to Wadih El Hage. This was a full year before the Nairobi bombing.

"I arrived in Nairobi and not even 12 hours later there was a knock on the outer gate," said El Hage's mother-in-law, who was visiting the family. "They came into the house...it was the police department of Nairobi and American FBI agents." El Hage was away at the time, family members told us, on a gem collecting trip to Afghanistan.

FBI officials had a search warrant and collected all the papers in the house. They also took El Hage's personal computer, and told the family that they were searching for stolen property. They also gave April El Hage and her mother a firm warning.

"They spoke to us that night and told us it would probably be best if we got back to the United States right away," said El Hage's mother-in-law. "They said it might not be safe to live here. She [April] got frightened. She's got all these little children, and she's frightened and I'm upset. So she says, no, I'm not leaving without my husband. I'm afraid I don't quite remember the words but the inference was plain, that something might happen to her or the children."

THE COMPUTER LETTER
-------------------------------

On El Hage's personal computer, the authorities found a letter that has been released as part of the federal case against the Africa bombers. In the letter, which prosecutors now believe was written by El Hage housemate Haroun Fazul, the author describes the presence of an "East African cell" connected to bin Laden.

The letter also states that the cell members had recently become aware that bin Laden had declared war on America by watching the international media. They seem upset because they were not advised of the decision before it happened and are worried about the security of the cell.

"There are many reasons that lead me to believe that the cell members in East Africa are in great danger," says the letter. "...the Hajj [bin Laden] has declared war on America. My recommendation to my brothers in East Africa was to not be complacent regarding security matters and that they should know that now they have become America's primary target... I am 100 percent sure that the phone is tapped."

El Hage's real name is evident in the letter, as is his assumed name from Afghanistan, Abd'al Sabur, which means "servant of the most patient." The letter seems to imply that El Hage is an "engineer" of the cell.

Two days after the raid on El Hage's house, he returned to Nairobi from Afghanistan and was questioned by police. He was also told to leave the country, according to the family. One month later, in September 1997, Wadih El Hage and his wife left the country and returned to America. According to family members, they sold everything they had in order to raise the money to get home.

Intelligence sources have told FRONTLINE that the Nairobi raid was a "counter-terrorism disruption" and that forcing Wadih El Hage to leave the country was part of the strategy to fracture these cells as soon as they are found. They did not, however, deport Haroun Fazul. In hindsight, the authorities clearly did not understand the danger posed by El Hage's associate at that time, and the evidence is unclear whether they were aware of Fazul at the time of the raid.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS
-------------------------------

El Hage moved back to the suburban community of Arlington, Texas and got a job in a local tire store. The family moved into a small apartment near the University of Texas and the children enrolled in a local Muslim school.

According to friends and neighbors contacted by FRONTLINE, the family lived a normal Muslim life, regularly attending Mosque and schooling their children in the Koran. "He was a hard worker, had a good business sense and was very devout," said his co-worker at the Lone Star Tire Store, Mahmoud Mazouni. "He became something of a religious leader, like an imam and sometimes led the prayers."

The Muslim community in Arlington was shocked when El Hage was arrested and insist he is innocent of any charges. Many members of the community offered to try to raise bail for El Hage after he was arrested, to show their support.

Mr. Mazouni said that El Hage showed no special reaction on August 7, 1998, when the East Africa bombings took place. At home, however, he and his family were worried. "When the bombings first happened, we were shocked," said a close family member who asked not to be named. "We said, oh god, Nairobi--don't let it be Muslims who are involved. Then, when we found it was Muslims, we knew trouble was coming."

Two weeks after the bombings, FBI agents interviewed El Hage about his connections to bin Laden and the people in Nairobi. According to prosecutors, El Hage denied knowing Odeh and claimed to not recognize him in a picture during this interview.

On September 15, 1998, El Hage testified before the grand jury investigation into the Africa bombings. Here, prosecutors say, he testified that he never heard that al-Banshiri died and that he didn't know Odeh and other people who knew bin Laden. Several days later, El Hage was arrested and charged with perjury. On October 7, 1998, a new indictment was returned by the grand jury, expanding the charges against El Hage to include conspiracy to kill United States nationals. In May, 2001, he was found guilty by a federal jury of both perjury and conspiracy.

last updated September 12, 2001

home + introduction + who is bin laden? + trail of evidence + two terrorists + join the discussion
interviews + reporting from the times + links + press reaction + tapes & transcripts
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS