A new nest for international terrorists
They have a growing presence in Latin America. Intelligence agencies
By Katherine Ellison
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE
CHUI, Brazil -- By 11 p.m., the
Fortaleza cafe in this small town on the border with Uruguay was full of
cigarette smoke, pungent lamb and guttural Arabic. At a table in front,
Mayor Mohamad Kassem Jomaa, a graying Lebanese man with a quick grin and
big gold Rolex, talked about the stranger who was known as Ibrahim
during eight quiet days he spent here before his arrest.
Intelligence officials in several nations have denounced that
stranger as a terrorist: El Said Hassan Ali Mohamed Mukhlis. Egypt said
it suspects him of being a shooter in the 1997 attack in the tourist
city of Luxor that killed 58 foreigners and four Egyptians.
Moreover, Egyptian and U.S. officials have called him a key player in
the Egyptian extremist group al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which gets support
from Osama bin Laden, the Saudi renegade accused of masterminding the
bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year.
Mukhlis's case raises troubling questions about the growing presence of
international terrorists in Latin America.
The twin towns of Chui, Brazil, and Chuy, Uruguay -- and even more,
the area about 560 miles north of here where Brazil, Argentina and
Paraguay meet -- are part of a new front line in the battle against
And U.S. officials said that the arrest of Mukhlis here on Jan. 29
was an important catch in the cat-and-mouse game in which the United
States and its allies are trying to counter an accelerating effort by
bin Laden and his allies to retaliate for the U.S. cruise-missile attack
on bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan after the embassy bombings.
"This is a major blow to bin Laden's organization," a U.S.
intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Mukhlis
is one of a relatively small number of people that bin Laden can count
on to carry messages, spread the word, and move around the world."
A wiry man with a thin moustache, Mukhlis was born in Port Said,
Egypt, in 1968, according to Egyptian authorities. When arrested on the
Uruguayan side of this town, he had a Malaysian passport that gave his
name as Ibrahim Mohammada al Thaqaaf and his birthdate as May 25, 1964.
"The Uruguayans knew in advance exactly what he looked like,
what kind of passport he had, the number of the passport, and how many
people were with him," an Argentine intelligence official said in
The Uruguayans also soon learned of his travel plans: Mukhlis had
five airplane tickets for London, via Sao Paulo, Brazil, for himself,
his wife and their three children, Argentine officials said.
Argentine intelligence officials said that Mukhlis speaks Arabic,
English and Spanish.
Mukhlis' name had been on a list circulated by Egyptian security
officials to intelligence agencies and other authorities around the
world. The Egyptians have said that he also may have had a role in an
assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
Argentine investigators said that Mukhlis had been living since 1993
in Foz de Iguacu, Brazil, a scenic city in the so-called tri-border area
where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet.
U.S. intelligence has been keeping a close watch for years on the
area, where about 18,000 people of Arabic descent live and where
officials said several "very virulent" Islamic extremist
organizations have been operating for some time.
Mukhlis had a shop across the border in Paraguay's Ciudad del Este,
where he sold household electrical appliances. But the Argentine
intelligence officials said that the shop was a front for a business in
false passports, including the ones he got for himself and his family.
They said that he also communicated with members of the extremist
groups Hezbollah and Hamas, sent money to the Middle East, and provided
logistical support for al Gamaa al Islamiyah.
"He's a real fanatic," Jomaa, the Chui mayor, said, adding
that Mukhlis told him that he had traveled to Afghanistan several years
ago for 18 months of religious preparation.
Intelligence sources said that he went
there to prepare for something else entirely. "He wasn't studying
the Koran," one U.S. official said. "He was going to bomb
Of all the investigators commenting on the case, Uruguay's have been
the most cautious. In an interview, Interior Ministry Undersecretary
Daniel Lamela emphasized that Egypt has only announced its plans to
request extradition, and has sent no documents to substantiate the
there's been a lot of noise, but no nuts, as we say here," Lamela
said. "Mukhlis could end up being the kind of guy who just came out
on the balcony and waved a flag after something happened."
Other agents said Lamela's understatement was easily understood.
"Until now, Uruguay has been neutral," a high-level Argentine
spy in Buenos Aires said. "Imagine what he must be thinking about
the possible consequences for his country of pursuing a major
said that Uruguay had little choice but to act once Mukhlis tried to
cross the border.
Chui, 240 miles east
of Montevideo, is known to Uruguayans less as a place of intrigue than
as a shopper's paradise. Its short dirt streets stop at the Avenida
Brasil, the wide divide between Chui, Brazil, pop. 7,000, and Chuy,
Uruguay, pop. 12,000.
Cross the avenue, and you are in another country. Chui's large
supermarkets attract Uruguayan bargain-hunters when Brazil's currency is
cheap, as it is now. On the Uruguayan side, Avenida Brasil is lined with
duty-free stores. If several accounts are to be believed, there are
spies on both sides.
Here in Chui, Brazil, Mukhlis stayed in a $7-a-day room at the Sao
Joao hotel. He fit in easily among the town's 500 or so merchants, most
of whom are Palestinian. Amid the secular, commercial bustle, the only
thing that appeared to draw notice was his obvious religious observance:
He ate no meat that had not been ritually slaughtered, and he prayed
five times a day.
On the afternoon of Jan. 29, Mukhlis and his family went to the
nearest Uruguayan immigration post. They were driven there by Jameel
Yousef, an immigrant from Jordan who owns the Supermercado Panama in
Chui. He and Mukhlis' wife were arrested along with Mukhlis, but later
"You know the Middle East? We Arabs are very united,"
Yousef said one recent morning as he rang up purchases. "But I
didn't know anything about his having a false passport. If I'd have
known, I wouldn't have driven him."
Although a Uruguayan official said that Mukhlis was nabbed after a
routine passport check, others said that Uruguay had been notified weeks
in advance and had been waiting. Both U.S. and Argentine intelligence
claim credit for tracking him down.
Jomaa, the mayor, said that, if Mukhlis was really a terrorist,
"of course he should pay," but said he personally did not
believe that was so.
"Maybe he's not the guy who actually did anything, but just a
guy who knew the guys who did," Jomaa said. In any case, he
suggested he doubted that Uruguay or Egypt would eventually prove its