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The Kansas City Star September 09, 2006

KC man linked to early al-Qaida

Call to jihad led student to follow bin Laden

By Tony Rizzo

Did a Kansas City college student help Osama bin Laden start al-Qaida?

Federal law enforcement officials think he did. So do private-sector experts on international terrorism.

Now, a new book that chronicles the history of al-Qaida portrays former Kansas City resident Mohammed Loay Baizid as a confidant of bin Laden in the early years of the terrorist organization.

While The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, provides Baizid’s firsthand account of his association with bin Laden, the former Kansas City resident’s activities already have been extensively documented in federal court transcripts and law enforcement documents. He even was mentioned in the 9/11 commission report.

“He was one of the guys there when it all got started,” said John Lumpkin, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based defense-policy research firm and clearinghouse of military information. “He definitely was a major figure.”

Jack Cloonan, who as an FBI agent questioned Baizid with the cooperation of Sudanese authorities shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said he had seen a list of original al-Qaida members.

“His name is on it,” Cloonan said of Baizid. Cloonan now is president of a private security firm, Clayton Consultants.

Baizid has denied that and said he was not present at the meeting that many consider the birth of al-Qaida.

Although many think Baizid was an integral part of al-Qaida’s early days, his role in the organization as it evolved into a worldwide terrorist organization is less clear. His name has come up in the trials of terrorism figures, but he apparently has never faced charges himself.

Wright and others think Baizid long ago cut his ties to bin Laden and al-Qaida.

Cloonan said he and other FBI agents came to Kansas City in 1998 to investigate Baizid’s background. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Cloonan was part of a joint FBI-CIA team that went to Khartoum, Sudan, to interview people with connections to al-Qaida, including Baizid.

“We really don’t know the full length and breadth of his involvement,” Cloonan said.

Galvanized by call

According to Wright, Baizid was 24 in 1985 when he answered the call to jihad and traveled from Kansas City to Pakistan and later Afghanistan to fight the Russians. Wright spent five years researching his book and met Baizid in 2003 in Khartoum.

Baizid’s family immigrated from Syria when he was a teenager and in Wright’s book, Baizid is quoted as saying that he was a “typical young middle-class American man” when he read a tract by Abdullah Azzam, who has been described as one of bin Laden’s main spiritual influences.

In the tract, Azzam called on Muslims to rally together to aid Afghanistan in its fight with the Soviet Union.

Baizid declined to be interviewed by The Kansas City Star, but Wright told The Star that in interviews the former Kansas City resident said he was seeking adventure and became “galvanized” by Azzam’s call.

Baizid only intended to stay a short time, but after flying to Pakistan, he called a telephone number that was printed on the tract he had read and Azzam answered the phone. Bazid said he did not know what he would have done otherwise.

In Pakistan, Baizid met Azzam, bin Laden and other Arab volunteers in the fight against the Soviets. He adopted the name Abu Rida al-Suri.

“I went to Afghanistan with a blank mind and a good heart,” Baizid is quoted in the book as saying. “Everything was totally strange. It was like I was born just now, like I was an infant, and I have to learn everything new. It was not so easy after that to leave and go back to your regular life.”

That regular life included studying engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Baizid was enrolled at UMKC from August 1982 to May 1984, according to university records that do not reflect whether he obtained a degree. A university spokesman said privacy laws did not permit the release of grade information or the names of professors Baizid studied under.

An acquaintance of Baizid’s in Kansas City in the early 1980s, also an immigrant from Syria, recalled an easygoing young man who enjoyed playing cards with friends and walking on the Country Club Plaza and who was always quick with a joke.

“He always liked to tease and try to be funny,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used for fear that it might hurt his business.

In the next decade, Baizid allegedly became a business adviser and fundraiser for al-Qaida, according to extensive sworn testimony and documents from federal investigators and terrorism experts filed in federal courts in Chicago and New York during terrorism trials. Lorenzo Vidino, a terrorism analyst for the Investigative Project, a Washington-based counterterrorism research and investigative center that was founded in 1995, said Baizid’s role in the formation of al-Qaida and its later fundraising efforts in the United States, cannot be overemphasized.

“It’s no exaggeration to say he was one of the four or five founding members,” said Vidino, co-author of the book Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad.

Members of Baizid’s family, including his uncle Adnan Bayazid, who lives in the Kansas City area, declined requests to comment.

But Adnan Bayazid told U.S. News & World Report in a 2002 article about American jihadists that his nephew had helped buy supplies for Afghans fighting the Soviets and had since grown disillusioned with bin Laden. He also suggested that another person with a similar name may be responsible for some of the things attributed to his nephew.

Bayazid also mentioned his nephew’s connection to bin Laden in the 1980s and ’90s in an article in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle.

Mohammed Baizid allegedly was still in Pakistan in 1988 when a pivotal event in the history of al-Qaida occurred. At a meeting of bin Laden and a handful of others, plans were discussed to organize the group that would become al-Qaida. Wright said that Baizid denied he was present, but the handwritten notes of that meeting were made by Baizid, according to later federal court testimony and documents prepared by the U.S. Justice Department.

In the early 1990s, bin Laden relocated to Sudan, and Baizid went with him.

In Wright’s book, Baizid is described as bin Laden’s “main business adviser” for various enterprises in Sudan.

By 1994, Baizid was back in the United States. He obtained an Illinois driver’s license and allegedly became a leader of the Chicago-based Benevolence International Foundation, a purported charitable organization. Federal authorities later shut down the group for allegedly funneling money to al-Qaida. Its director pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering.

In documents later seized by authorities, Baizid is referred to as being president of the foundation at one time.

Vidino said the group functioned as one of the main Al-Qaeda fundraising groups in the United States.

Baizid’s first known contact with U.S. law enforcement came in what Vidino called a “mysterious story” that unfolded Dec. 16, 1994, in California.

According to trial testimony and court documents, Baizid was with bin Laden’s brother-in-law, who was detained after arriving in San Francisco on a flight from the Philippines.

But Baizid was released, and Vidino said he has never been able to determine the reason or where he went after that.

Wright said that Baizid has a comfortable life in Sudan and operates several businesses.

“I know he would like to come back to Kansas City,” Wright said. “He’s bored and frustrated in Khartoum.”

But Baizid is afraid that U.S. authorities will arrest him, even though Wright said law enforcement officials have told him that Baizid is not facing any charges.

“I think he’s harmless and should be allowed to come back,” Wright said.


Copyright 2006, Kansas City Star and wire service sources