Tower Bomb Suspect Has Humble Origins

Friends say he isn't guilty, recall his Afghan experience

THE saga of the man suspected of masterminding the World Trade Center bombing begins here, in the narrow, crowded streets of this sprawling Nile Delta mill town.

Mahmoud Abouhalima, a 33-year-old New Jersey cab driver who was arrested here March 14 and flown back to the United States March 24 for arraignment, grew up in a concrete, two-story building on Factory Street, owned, like most everything in this working class neighborhood, by the Egypt Spinning and Weaving Company. The company's massive textile factory dominates the city's landscape as well as the lives of most of Kafr al-Dawwar's inhabitants. Residents speak of "the company" in the same reverent tones n ormally accorded presidents and kings.

Outside the Factory Street house, friends and relatives of the suspect gathered Wednesday night in a show of sorrow and disbelief at the latest turn of events in Mr. Abouhalima's life.

"I can't believe that he had any hand in the bombing," said Ibrahim Mahmoud, a lawyer and childhood friend of the suspect. "He was a very thoughtful person. His actions and words never showed that he had violent ways or tendencies."

At the Shirka Mosque, where Abouhalima worshipped until he left Egypt, a small crowd of neighbors remember him as a devoutly religious man, but not a member of any of the extremist Islamic organizations that are currently battling to overthrow the secular Egyptian government.

"He was a good Muslim," recalls a civil engineer and former classmate of the suspect, who identified himself as Sami. "He was a very peaceful man. He is an innocent man. We are all sure he did nothing wrong."

Investigators into the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000, paint a very different picture of Abouhalima. They say he fled the US on March 6, just two days after the arrest of Mohammed Salameh, the first suspect seized in the case, who is accused of renting the van that carried the explosives. Eyewitness accounts reportedly place the two men together on the morning of the blast. One security source said that Abouhalima may have acted as a "consul tant" to the World Trade Center bombers.

The FBI is examining the possibility that Abouhalima was closely linked to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a New Jersey-based cleric who is the spiritual leader of a militant Islamic group in Egypt and whose name is often mentioned in connection with the suspects in the World Trade Center blast. On Wednesday, the cleric issued a statement to his followers in Egypt that seemed to call for the overthrow of the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Violence between the radical Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) and state security forces has claimed the lives of at least 150 people in Egypt over the past year. The militants are seeking to replace the present regime with a purist Islamic state.

Abouhalima was arrested by state security officials at his family home on March 14, held in custody in Cairo for 10 days, and then handed over to FBI agents on March 24 for return to the US.

Egyptian authorities have refused comment on the case, except to say that Abouhalima entered Egypt illegally two weeks ago on a German passport. Egyptian nationals are normally required to present their Egyptian travel documents whenever they return to the country. Abouhalima moved to Munich, Germany, in 1981, and to New York in 1986. His German wife, Marianne, and their four children are believed to have stayed in Kafr al-Dawwar after Abouhalima was seized.

Relatives of the suspect angrily deny that he was a disciple of Sheikh Rahman or that he belonged to the Islamic Group. "He was not a political man," said Rabih Abouhalima, his cousin and former classmate at the Salah Salem Elementary School. "He never met Sheikh Omar, I'm sure of it."

"We are not afraid of what will happen to him [in New York]," he added, "because we are convinced of his innocence."

Militant Islamic groups draw many of their youthful followers from places like Kafr al-Dawwar, where joblessness and poverty portend bleak futures for most residents. Thousands of the city's young men, like Abouhalima, emigrate to Europe and America in search of employment and escape from their impoverished homeland.

According to friends, he traveled to Afghanistan, where he fought alongside Muslim rebels battling the Soviet-backed regime. Service in the Afghan civil war is considered a right-of-passage for young Islamic militants, and Abouhalima's purported bomb-making skills may have been learned there.

Abouhalima's friends and neighbors privately admit that his experiences abroad may have radicalized him. "Nobody knew what he was doing in the United States," said his cousin Rabin. "We hadn't heard from him for a long time."

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