A number of published and televised reports Friday linked three men arrested in connection with a deadly plot to bomb New York City subways with Hamas, the Islamic militant group under suspicion a suicide bombing in Jerusalem earlier this week that left 15 people dead.
But the FBI said its ongoing, global investigation had not yet produced a link between the men - one of whom allegedly tried to detonate one of five explosive devices during a raid by New York police Thursday morning - and the international terrorist organization. They also did not indicate a tie to the recent Middle East bombing or the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center.
Authorities, however, acknowledged that one of the suspects, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, 23, indicated on a completed U.S. asylum application that Israeli police had arrested him for being a member of a “known terrorist group.” Officials did not specify to which terrorist group Abu Mezer was thought to have been linked.
Also arrested in Thursday’s early morning raid were Lafi Khalil, 22, who, along with Abu Mezer, was shot during his arrest, and Abdul Rahman Mossabah, 31, an Egyptian who arrived in the United States just weeks ago.
The New York Times reported in today’s editions that Abu Mezer, had been detained by federal authorities earlier this year but was allowed to stay in the United States temporarily even though he told the authorities that Israel considered him a terrorist.
Since June 1996 Abu Mezer had been caught three times trying to sneak into the Washington state from Canada. The third time, officials said, he requested political asylum, claiming that he would face persecution in Israel where he was regarded as a terrorist wrongly, he said. Federal officials gave him 60 days until Aug. 23 to leave the country.
The revelation left immigration officials scrambling for an explanation and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani seething Friday.
“I think it is appropriate to question,” the mayor said. “Just why is it that this person was allowed to come into the country announcing that he is accused of being part of a terrorist group? Maybe in the future we can learn something from it.”
According to federal and city officials, Abu Mezer tried three times to sneak into Washington state through Canada: twice in June 1996 and once in January 1997. In his last attempt, Abu Mezer was arrested by border patrol officers for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Bellingham.
Charged with entering the country without proper documentation, Abu Mezer was held for three weeks on $15,000 bond in an INS detention center, officials said. According to Colleen Roche, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, the United States “tried to send him back to Canada, but they refused.”
He was freed in February after posting a reduced bond of $5,000, and was given an April court date by a judge attached to the Office of Immigration Review, which is part of the Justice Department. The name of the judge could not be learned Friday night.
At the April hearing, officials said, Abu Mezer filed an application for political asylum on the grounds that he would be persecuted if ordered to return to Israel. He acknowledged that the Israeli government considered him to be a member of Hamas, an association that he denied.
At a hearing on June 23, the Palestinian withdrew his application for asylum, officials said, and agreed to leave the country within 60 days.
Abu Mezer left Washington almost immediately, and moved into an apartment behind a car service operation in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was found there early Thursday morning by police officers responding to a tip that he and Khalil were on the verge of committing suicide-bomb attacks in Brooklyn. Both men were shot in the confrontation, and they are now listed in stable condition at Kings County Hospital.
“There’s no question that part of the motivation here or part of the intent was to attack the U.S., to attack Israel, and to attack Jewish interests in New York and, possibly, globally,” said Giuliani, who did not fully explain his remarks.
Citing an unnamed FBI source, the Associated Press reported that the group to which Abu Mezer had been linked by Israeli authorities was Hamas. The news service also said that intelligence operatives fingered one of the two other suspects as a member of Hamas, a group that promotes Islamic rule on all land that formerly was Palestinian, including Israel.
CBS News reported that the men arrested in Brooklyn, as well as the two suicide bombers responsible for the Jerusalem market explosion, worked for Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas political leader who had been accused and imprisoned in the U.S. for suspected terrorist activities and was deported earlier this year.
Thursday’s arrests come just days before the second trial of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, thought to have masterminded the bombing of the 1993 World Trade Center.