Intelligence agencies watch closely.
Excerpts derived from an article written by By Katherine
Ellison for the
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE
Before his arrest El Said Hassan Ali Mohamed Mukhlis was a terrorist
based in the tri-border area of South America. 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