NEW YORK -- The Justice Department has decided to arrest Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the fiery cleric whose followers are charged with the World Trade Center bombing and with planning the destruction of the United Nations and other New York landmarks, sources said last night. He was to be taken into custody for violating immigration laws.
The decision was made jointly by the Justice Department, the U.S. attorney in New York and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Sources said the cleric was to be seized because he violated conditions attached to his being at large while he is appealing a court decision that he entered the United States illegally in 1991. Sheik Abdel-Rahman, who has denied any involvement in the trade center bombing and subsequent alleged terrorist plot, was ordered deported March 17 because he lied on immigration papers.
"The consensus in New York is he has violated his parole and there is some danger that he will flee," a government source said.
The precise nature of the violation was not spelled out, and it was unclear when Sheik Abdel-Rahman actually would be apprehended. Authorities said that when the cleric entered the United States, he failed to disclose that he was a bigamist and had been convicted in Egypt of a check-fraud charge.
Attorney General Janet Reno had been urged by Republican New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who was reported to be an assassination target of some of the sheik's followers, to order the arrest.
Sheik Abdel-Rahman, who preaches at mosques in Jersey City, N.J., and Brooklyn, N.Y., has advocated the violent overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. But he has denied promoting violence in the United States.
After suspects were seized a week ago in the plot to bomb the U.N. headquarters, two Hudson River commuter tunnels and the Federal Building containing the offices of the FBI, federal agents raided the sheik's apartment in Jersey City. They carted away boxes of documents.
Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, the alleged ringleader of the latest bomb plot, served as translator for Sheik Abdel-Rahman, as did Emad Ali Salem, a former Egyptian army officer who is the government's informant in the case. Mahmud Abouhalima, described by some investigators as the "field general" of the trade center bombing, also acted at one point as the sheik's translator.
Earlier yesterday, prosecutors charged in a court hearing that Mohammad Saleh, a suspect in the aborted plot, had claimed to have contacts with Hamas, a radical Palestinian group, during a secretly recorded conversation in which he allegedly was recruited for the scheme.
The reference to Hamas is the first public report of a possible link between the plotters and any organized international group. But in response to questioning from U.S. Magistrate James C. Francis, prosecutors stressed that they were not accusing Hamas of any involvement in the plot at this time.
"It is not your contention in discussing Hamas that this relates to this particular case?" Mr. Francis asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Khuzami.
"Not presently, your honor," Mr. Khuzami said. He declined to elaborate.
Government lawyers disclosed portions of the tape recording at a court hearing in which Mr. Saleh, a 40-year-old gas station operator, was ordered held without bail. Attorneys said the tape also included discussion by the suspects about including the George Washington Bridge among sites for possible attack.
Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group influenced by Iran, is a competitor with the Palestine Liberation Organization for the allegiance of West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians. The organization has targeted the Israeli military and settlers of the occupied territories but has never been formally linked to acts of violence against any other groups.
On the tape, apparently made by the informant, Mr. Salem, "Mr. Saleh is told that bombers are preparing for jihad or holy war and asks whether is it here or abroad," Mr. Khuzami said in court. "He is told it's here and then is told these persons might need financial support.
"He indicated some familiarity or contact with brothers from Hamas, which is an organization the government contends is a Palestinian terrorist organization."
According to the government's complaint in the case, in which nine people so far have been arrested, Mr. Saleh conferred on June 4 with Mr. Ali and Mr. Salem. At that meeting in Mr. Saleh's home in Yonkers, N.Y., the court papers charge, he agreed to participate.