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The RCMP had their hands on one of the key insiders of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, but he was released after he had Mounties call his handler at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Ali Mohamed, a Californian of Egyptian origin who is believed to be the highest ranking al-Qaeda member to have landed in Canada, was working with U.S. counterterrorist agents, playing a double or triple game, when he was questioned in 1993.

"The people of the RCMP told me by midnight that I can go now," Mr. Mohamed wrote at the time in an affidavit shown yesterday to The Globe and Mail.

He later confessed in the United States to being a close bin Laden associate and is in a U.S. prison.

The 1993 incident developed after customs agents at Vancouver International Airport detained Essam Marzouk, an Egyptian who had arrived from Damascus via Frankfurt, after they found him carrying two forged Saudi passports.

Mr. Mohamed, who was waiting to pick him up at the airport, inquired of the police about his friend's detention. That made the RCMP curious about Mr. Mohamed, but he dispelled their suspicions by telling them he was a collaborator with the FBI.

Mr. Mohamed, who had a U.S. passport, was called back to Vancouver to testify on behalf of Mr. Marzouk at the latter's refugee-claimant case -- one terrorist vouching for another terrorist at a Canadian refugee hearing, although neither had admitted it.

The story provides evidence that years ago al-Qaeda was using Canada as a logistical transit point for its operations, perhaps to smuggle people into the United States.

Mr. Mohamed, who was a U.S. Army sergeant, eventually would confess to training Mr. bin Laden's bodyguards, helping set up a terrorist cell in Kenya that bombed the U.S. embassy and arranging security for a meeting between Mr. bin Laden and the head of Lebanese Hezbollah.

Mr. Marzouk's name was in the news this month after a business card for his Surrey, B.C., company was recovered in an al-Qaeda safehouse in Kabul. Mr. Marzouk, 33, is in an Egyptian prison after being convicted of terrorism.

The November, 1998, indictment that accused Mr. bin Laden of the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania notes that al-Qaeda "maintained cells and personnel in a number of countries to facilitate its activities, including in . . . Canada" -- but no details are provided.

When Canadian authorities questioned Mr. Mohamed and Mr. Marzouk at the Vancouver airport, "Ali Mohamed was in the Americans' good books," Mr. Marzouk's lawyer, Phil Rankin, said yesterday. "He got away from the RCMP by telling them, phone . . . this FBI agent in the United States and he'll vouch for me. So, Ali Mohamed wasn't so shadowy in those days. He was one of their guys,"

Mr. Mohamed provided Mr. Rankin with an affidavit about the incident. He said he was waiting for "my friend Essam Marzouk . . . but he did not show up, so I went to the customs office to find out."

Plainclothes officers asked him for his papers and called the FBI. The RCMP asked him to come the following day to their Vancouver office for questioning and a search of his car. "They found nothing. I left Canada [at]4:30 p.m. for the States," Mr. Mohamed wrote.

According to a statement given by Khaled Abu el-Dahab, a defendant in a 1999 Cairo terrorism trial, Mr. Mohamed returned to Canada with money provided by al-Qaeda so Mr. Marzouk could pay his lawyer.

Mr. Rankin denies that, saying that his client paid his fees and bail from $20,000 he was carrying on him. "He [Mr. Mohamed]never gave me one penny, period. Marzouk came with money, and that's the money he used. Now whether he gave Marzouk money is a different issue. I don't know."

Mr. Mohamed, 49, is a former major in the Egyptian army who settled in the United States, married a California woman and enlisted in the U.S. Army, training at Fort Bragg, the base of the U.S. Special Forces, though he never joined that group.

He told a hearing in New York in October, 2000, that he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist group that merged with al-Qaeda at about the same time, in the early 1980s.

In the early 1990s, while he commuted to Vancouver to pick up Mr. Marzouk and to testify at his refugee hearing, Mr. Mohamed conducted military and basic explosives training for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, he confirmed after pleading guilty to five conspiracy charges.

In the al-Qaeda camps, Mr. Mohamed was known as Abu Mohamed al Amriki -- "Father Mohamed the American," a hearing in another trial was told this spring. "He is very, very strict and not gentle," testified one of his al-Qaeda students, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan-born defector who was supposed to become Mr. bin Laden's personal plane pilot.

Mr. Mohamed taught Mr. Kherchtou and others how to case and surreptitiously photograph potential targets.

"In the early 1990s, I assisted al-Qaeda in creating a presence in Nairobi," Mr. Mohamed said after his guilty plea, adding that he conducted surveillance of the embassy that would be bombed in 1998, killing 213 people.

He said he took orders from Mr. bin Laden and from Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda's chief of military operations who was killed in a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan last week.

Mr. Mohamed admitted to training Mr. bin Laden's security detail and to providing security during a meeting of the Saudi-born millionaire and Imad Mughniyah, the head of security of the Lebanese Hezbollah, alleged to have been behind the Lebanese hostage crisis and the 1983 Beirut bomb attacks that killed 300 U.S. and French troops.

Mr. Marzouk reportedly left Canada in 1998 for the Balkans.

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