Man arrested in bombing of Trade Center Suspect linked to radical Muslim cleric in N.J.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- A New Jersey man described by the authorities as an Islamic fundamentalist was arrested yesterday and charged with participating in the car bombing that shook the World Trade Center a week ago in one of the nation's worst acts of terrorist violence.

With twisted but identifiable fragments of a yellow van found in the rubble and a paper trail showing that the vehicle had been rented in New Jersey three days before the explosion, investigators said, they traced the renter and achieved what they called a swift, lucky breakthrough in a case that had been expected to take months.

Federal agents seized the suspect, Mohammed Salameh, 26, at a Jersey City rental agency as he attempted to reclaim a $400 deposit on a Ford Econoline van that may have carried the explosives and was destroyed in the blast last Friday that killed five people, injured more than 1,000 others and closed the world's second-tallest buildings for a month.

A slightly built man with dark hair and a dark beard, Mr. Salameh, a Jersey City resident, was ordered held without bail at an arraignment before Judge Richard Owen in U.S. District Court in Manhattan last night, concluding a tumultuous day in a case that has drawn national attention and even occasional statements by President Clinton.

"It's a remarkable day in the history of the FBI," Acting Attorney General Stuart M. Gerson said in Washington after George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman, confirmed reports of the arrest.

The unusual statements virtually pre-empted announcements by federal and local investigators in New York working on the case and touched off angry recriminations.

The arrest's timing brought on another bitter dispute. City law enforcement officials, bristling for days over what they called news leaks by federal officials, said a New York Newsday report yesterday tracing the van to a rental agency in Jersey City had forced a premature arrest of a suspect who was being followed, dashing hopes that he might lead them to other collaborators. There was no indication that the newspaper was asked to withhold the article.

Authorities were still uncertain about the motive for the blast, or even whether the Trade Center was the intended target, but investigators said they were convinced that a conspiracy was behind the bombing and that other arrests could be expected.

And, although a suspect, who requested an Arabic-speaking interpreter for the hearing, was in custody, questions continued to swirl about the case: Did the suspect drive the van into the Trade Center or did he play some other role? Where did the explosives come from? Did the suspect have ties to domestic or international terrorists?

Mr. Salameh was traced, through a telephone number he had left with the rental agency, to an apartment in Jersey City. In a search of the apartment, according to an affidavit filed in court, federal agents found "tools and wiring, manuals concerning antennae, circuitry and electromagnetic devices."

"A law-enforcement officer trained as a bomb technician has examined these materials and has concluded that they constitute evidence of a 'bomb maker' at the location," the affidavit said.

Recounting the details of the van's rental and its probable identification as the vehicle that carried the explosive to the trade center, the federal complaint said that "Mohammed A. Salameh did aid and abet the damage of the World Trade Center complex by use of an explosive device, causing the death of at least five individuals."

Little was known about the suspect's background and associations. Federal and local law enforcement officials refused answer many questions about Mr. Salameh and how they were led to him. Without supplying details or even speaking on the record, they hinted at ties he might have with figures who have been publicly but tenuously linked to terrorist groups and assassinations.

One of the few on-the-record statements yesterday about the suspect's associations came from Brian Dorf, a spokesman for Jersey City Mayor Brett Shundler, who said Mr. Salameh worshiped at El Salam, a Jersey City mosque that has been the base of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a Muslim fundamentalist cleric.

Sheik Rahman, an Egyptian who entered the United States illegally from the Sudan in 1991 and faces a deportation order, is widely regarded in Egypt as a spiritual leader of several radical groups that make up the Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad, or Islamic Holy War.

The sheik has been linked by investigators to the 1982 assassination of President Anwar el Sadat of Egypt, but he was acquitted of charges that he incited the assassination.

His frequent presence at a Brooklyn mosque, Farouq Majid, was noted by investigators in the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane because Sayyid A. Nosair, who was acquitted of the killing, occasionally worshiped at the same mosque.

But beyond suggesting that Mr. Salameh had attended the sheik's Jersey City mosque, and that this perhaps held implications for a wide array of contacts and associations with terrorist organizations, the picture of the suspect remained murky last night.

Authorities said the trail that led to Mr. Salameh's arrest began with a lucky break, the discovery in the rubble at the trade center last weekend of a twisted fragment of metal that contained the serial number of what turned out to have been a yellow, model E-350 Ford Econoline van.

Federal officials traced the serial number to a Ryder truck rental office in Jersey City and learned that Mr. Salameh had rented the van on Feb. 23, putting $400 down as a deposit on the rental.

That day of the explosion, investigators said, Mr. Salameh went to the rental agency and reported that the van had been stolen from a parking lot and asked that his deposit be refunded. He was told that he needed a police report.

He returned Monday with his original rental agreement, still seeking the deposit. The papers, officials said, were later found to be flecked with nitrates, chemicals used in explosives and traces of which had turned up in the the debris of the devastated underground garage. But without the police report, he was turned away again.

Federal agents arrived at the rental agency Wednesday and learned Mr. Salameh's identity and where he lived in Jersey City. Soon afterward, officials said, the suspect was placed under surveillance. Officials decided not to arrest him immediately in hopes that he would lead them to other suspects.

But the surveillance did not last. Newsday reported yesterday that federal agents had traced the van to the Jersey City rental agency, and, fearing that the suspect would flee, agents lured him back to the rental agency by having one of its employees telephone him and say that he could collect his refund.

When he showed up again at the rental office, he was met by a federal agent posing as a Ryder agent and was given $200 -- the amount left after his rental fee was deducted -- and he walked out. He was arrested after walking about a block.

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