On a cold, rainy day
in February, 1999 in New York City, Wadih El Hage was led into
Manhattan Federal Court for a pre-trial hearing. Surrounded by
several large security officers, El Hage appeared slight in his
prison jumpsuit. A bearded man with intense, dark eyes, he whispered
quietly to his lawyer throughout the hearing. In the sterile
courtroom setting, it was hard to imagine this man was involved in
the horrific bombings in East Africa in August 1998 which left 224
people dead and thousands injured.
A month after the
bombings, El Hage was arrested after testifying before a grand jury.
Originally charged with eleven counts of perjury, or lying to the
grand jury, the charges were later expanded to include conspiracy to
kill United States nationals. Prosecutors claim that El Hage, one of
two American citizens who have been charged, was useful to bin Laden
because of his ability to travel freely around the world with an
El Hage's lawyer requested the
February hearing to discuss the restrictive conditions of El Hage's
jailing and to ask the judge for a decision on bail. After several
hearings, Judge Leonard B. Sand denied bail and El Hage was taken to
solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center to
El Hage was born in
1960 into a Catholic family in Sidon, Lebanon. He grew up in highly
Islamic Kuwait, where his father worked for an oil company.
According to El Hage's mother-in-law, he converted to Islam as a
teenager after reading the Koran.
disapproved of El Hage's conversion and shunned him. But he was
taken in by a Muslim Sheik in Kuwait who paid for his education in
the States, and he became a deeply religious young
In 1978, El Hage moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, to
attend the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL). He studied
urban planning and got a job at a donut shop where many young Arab
men worked. His advisor at USL remembers El Hage as an average
student who showed no signs of strong political
At the beginning of the Afghan war against the
Soviet Union, El Hage left Louisiana and traveled to Pakistan to
enroll in mujahedeen war training programs. Thousands of young Arab
men from around the world flocked to Pakistan to help the Afghans
expel the Soviets. Sources told FRONTLINE that El Hage was a
follower of Sheik Abdullah Azzam, one of the most important
spiritual leaders of the Arab mujahedeen forces. Azzam preached that
the war in Afghanistan was a jihad, or holy war, and that those who
participated would have a special place in
During the Afghan war, Sheik Azzam became
aligned with Osama bin Laden, who was at that time becoming active
in fundraising and organizing mujahedeen fighters. Some reports have
speculated that this may have been the initial connection between El
Hage and Osama bin Laden.
By January 1985, El Hage
returned to the United States and to USL. Later that year, he
traveled to Arizona to marry an 18-year-old American Muslim named
April. April's mother told FRONTLINE the two were introduced through
an arranged marriage. In May 1986, El Hage graduated from USL and
moved permanently to Arizona to start a family.
and his wife returned to Pakistan several times over the next few
years, and for about a year, his mother-in-law and her husband
accompanied them. "I was the Matron surgical nurse at an Afghan
Surgical Hospital," she told FRONTLINE. "Wadih did not actually
fight, but acted as an educator. My husband went with Wadih to
deliver textbooks and Korans to the young people. It was a Jihad, a
fight for Islam."
When they returned to Arizona, El
Hage worked at several minimum wage jobs, including city custodian.
In 1989, he was granted U.S.
A Murder In Tucson
Rashad Khalifa was an imam in Tucson, Arizona who some felt was
unorthodox. He used numerology to try to prove that the Koran was
written by God. The imam also let men and women pray together and
wear non-traditional dress.
New York prosecutors say
that in the first days of 1990, El Hage was called up by a "tall
man" from New York who suddenly arrived in Arizona and said he was
there to check Rashad Khalifa. El Hage entertained him at his house
and drove him to the mosque, prosecutors say.
weeks later, Khalifa was found murdered in the kitchen of the
Mosque. Several members of the radical Islamic sect, Al Fuqra, were
convicted for conspiring to commit the murder, but no shooter has
ever been convicted. Prosecutors have repeatedly implied El Hage
knows who committed the murder and may have been
El Hage's family calls the claim ridiculous,
saying El Hage was out of the country at the time of the murder.
Prosecutors have repeatedly said El Hage at least should have
contacted the authorities with what he knew after he found out that
the man was murdered.
Soon after, El Hage moved his
growing family to the suburban community of Arlington,
The World Trade
Center Connection ...................................................
In December 1989,
according to prosecutors, El Hage met Mahmud Abouhalima at an
Islamic conference in Oklahoma City. According to a confession
Abouhalima later gave U.S. Attorneys, Abouhalima contacted El Hage
in 1990 to purchase assault weapons to be used against radical
Jewish Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane was murdered in November 1990 in
New York City.
El Hage's family told FRONTLINE that he
did buy some weapons for Abouhalima, but they were never picked up.
Family members also say El Hage was told the guns were for
self-defense against the Kahane group.
In early 1991,
according to El Hage's grand jury testimony, he was called to New
York to help direct the Alkifah Refugee Center, a Brooklyn-based
group that raised money to support veterans of the Afghan war.
According to documents from the World Trade Center case, Alkifah had
a Tucson office and contacts with the main mosque in Arlington,
Texas, and family members confirmed that El Hage had been in contact
with the group.
On the same day that El Hage arrived in
Brooklyn, on March 1, 1991, the leader of the Alkifah Center,
Mustafa Shalabi, disappeared. A week later his mutilated body was
found in the apartment he and Mahmud Abouhalima shared in Brooklyn.
The murder case has never been solved, but prosecutors believe the
murder was the result of a dispute over allocation of the group's
The family maintains that El Hage was called
in as a mediator on this and other occasions when his friends from
Afghanistan developed disputes. "I know he was good friends with
Shalabi," says El Hage's mother-in-law. "He [Shalabi] was running
the organization to help Afghan veterans and Wadih wanted to help
him. Wadih cried on the phone about Shalabi's death. Shalabi must
have called him to go to New York to help when the trouble
Other friends of the family from Arlington,
Texas, also described El Hage as a mediator and a person whose
religious purity and strong faith were trusted by others "He was
calm and devout, not violent or rash," said a close family member.
"I would get more upset over politics than he
Whether El Hage was a mediator or collaborator,
evidence shows he was friends with many people who were later
convicted in the World Trade Center and New York City Landmark
bombing cases. On March 8, 1991, El Hage signed in to visit El
Sayyid Nosair at the Riker's Island. Nosair was serving a sentence
for gun charges stemming from the Meir Kahane murder case. Both El
Sayyid Nosair and Mahmud Abouhalima were central figures in the 1993
World Trade Center bombing and both have been convicted in that
There are other unusual connections between the
men. In January of 1992, El Hage was arrested in Arlington, Texas,
for writing several bad checks. He was riding in the car with a
companion named Marwan Salama. According to phone records from the
World Trade Center case, Salama had extensive phone contacts with
the World Trade center bombers in the two months before the actual
East Africa And
Osama Bin Laden
In early 1992, El
Hage moved his family to the Sudan and he began working as a
secretary for Osama bin Laden. Family members say El Hage worked
only in bin Laden's legitimate businesses in the Sudan. FRONTLINE
research shows that bin Laden had quite a few businesses there,
including a tannery, several farms, a road construction firm, a
transport company and two investment companies.
[bin Laden] was a busy person and had hundreds of people working for
him," said one El Hage family member. "You didn't get to see him
unless he invited you." El Hage's mother-in-law received letters
from El Hage that contained seed samples from the Sudanese farms. El
Hage frequently took international trips to Europe and elsewhere on
business for bin Laden, family members
Prosecutors, however, believe that El Hage was
becoming a key aide to bin Laden, who in turn was becoming an
international terrorist leader. "The intelligence that was being
created pointed increasingly to him as someone who had to be dealt
with," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and Deputy Director
of the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism from 1989 to
1993. "There were other intelligence indicators that were starting
to surface in the '94 time frame that pointed out that Usama was a
Little evidence has emerged that proves what
El Hage was doing in Sudan. His family admits freely that he worked
for bin Laden, but cannot provide details as to everything he did.
Prosecutors have alleged in court papers that El Hage "is being
investigated for his efforts to try to obtain chemical weapons for
Osama bin Laden's organization." But no evidence has been provided
to back up this claim.
Finally, it was April El Hage
who convinced her husband to leave the Sudan and bin Laden's
company. According to family members, bin Laden had been encouraging
Wadih to take a second wife and had even started to arrange someone
for him. "April would have none of that," said April's mother. "She
is Muslim, but she is also American, and she wouldn't stand for
In 1994, El Hage
left the Sudan for Kenya and became director of a Muslim charity
organization called "Help Africa People." Kenyan government
documents say the organization was dedicated to malaria control
projects. El Hage also worked in the gem business to make extra
During his time in Kenya, El Hage stayed in
contact with members of bin Laden's inner circle. In particular, say
prosecutors, El Hage associated with Ubaidah al-Banshiri, a key
figure within bin Laden's organization who was living in Kenya. U.S.
prosecutors believe Al-Banshiri was a key military leader, one of
two top-ranking commanders, of "al Qaeda," bin Laden's organization.
In May of 1996, al-Banshiri drowned in a ferry accident on Lake
Another bin Laden associate, Fazul Abdullah
Mohammed, also known as Haroun Fazul, moved into El Hage's house in
Nairobi during this period and began to work for El Hage as a
secretary. "He had no money and needed a place to stay," says El
Hage's mother-in-law. "Wadih was always letting people stay with
them. That is the proper Muslim way."
according to prosecutors, was a key player in the Nairobi embassy
bombing in August of 1998--accused of renting the house where the
bomb was built and driving the lead truck in the
When told of the charges that Haroun Fazul was
a key organizer of the bomb plot, El Hage's family laughed. "April
always called him the black Ronald McDonald," said April's mother.
"She thought he was kind of goofy. And she finds it very hard to
believe that he could have been a terrorist."
man charged in the bombing, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, has admitted
during his interrogation that he knew El Hage in Kenya and that El
Hage had attended his wedding. Odeh was captured trying to enter
Pakistan just after the bombings and provided investigators with the
first link that the bombings were conducted by people working for
Osama bin Laden.
On El Hage's personal
computer, the authorities found a letter that has been released as
part of the federal case against the Africa bombers. In the letter,
which prosecutors now believe was written by El Hage housemate
Haroun Fazul, the author describes the presence of an "East African
cell" connected to bin Laden.
The letter also states
that the cell members had recently become aware that bin Laden had
declared war on America by watching the international media. They
seem upset because they were not advised of the decision before it
happened and are worried about the security of the
"There are many reasons that lead me to believe
that the cell members in East Africa are in great danger," says the
letter. "...the Hajj [bin Laden] has declared war on America. My
recommendation to my brothers in East Africa was to not be
complacent regarding security matters and that they should know that
now they have become America's primary target... I am 100 percent
sure that the phone is tapped."
El Hage's real name is
evident in the letter, as is his assumed name from Afghanistan,
Abd'al Sabur, which means "servant of the most patient." The letter
seems to imply that El Hage is an "engineer" of the
Two days after the raid on El Hage's house, he
returned to Nairobi from Afghanistan and was questioned by police.
He was also told to leave the country, according to the family. One
month later, in September 1997, Wadih El Hage and his wife left the
country and returned to America. According to family members, they
sold everything they had in order to raise the money to get
Intelligence sources have told FRONTLINE that the
Nairobi raid was a "counter-terrorism disruption" and that forcing
Wadih El Hage to leave the country was part of the strategy to
fracture these cells as soon as they are found. They did not,
however, deport Haroun Fazul. In hindsight, the authorities clearly
did not understand the danger posed by El Hage's associate at that
time, and the evidence is unclear whether they were aware of Fazul
at the time of the raid.
Hage moved back to the suburban community of Arlington, Texas and
got a job in a local tire store. The family moved into a small
apartment near the University of Texas and the children enrolled in
a local Muslim school.
According to friends and
neighbors contacted by FRONTLINE, the family lived a normal Muslim
life, regularly attending Mosque and schooling their children in the
Koran. "He was a hard worker, had a good business sense and was very
devout," said his co-worker at the Lone Star Tire Store, Mahmoud
Mazouni. "He became something of a religious leader, like an imam
and sometimes led the prayers."
The Muslim community in
Arlington was shocked when El Hage was arrested and insist he is
innocent of any charges. Many members of the community offered to
try to raise bail for El Hage after he was arrested, to show their
Mr. Mazouni said that El Hage showed no
special reaction on August 7, 1998, when the East Africa bombings
took place. At home, however, he and his family were worried. "When
the bombings first happened, we were shocked," said a close family
member who asked not to be named. "We said, oh god, Nairobi--don't
let it be Muslims who are involved. Then, when we found it was
Muslims, we knew trouble was coming."
Two weeks after
the bombings, FBI agents interviewed El Hage about his connections
to bin Laden and the people in Nairobi. According to prosecutors, El
Hage denied knowing Odeh and claimed to not recognize him in a
picture during this interview.
On September 15, 1998,
El Hage testified before the grand jury investigation into the
Africa bombings. Here, prosecutors say, he testified that he never
heard that al-Banshiri died and that he didn't know Odeh and other
people who knew bin Laden. Several days later, El Hage was arrested
and charged with perjury. On October 7, 1998, a new indictment was
returned by the grand jury, expanding the charges against El Hage to
include conspiracy to kill United States nationals. In May, 2001, he
was found guilty by a federal jury of both perjury and