Canada has arrested a Saudi citizen suspected of being the driver of a vehicle used in connection with the terrorist bombing at a U.S. military installation in Saudi Arabia last June. The arrest could represent the first major breakthrough in the investigation.
Senior American and Canadian officials said Monday that the arrest came last week after amassing evidence against the suspect, Hani Abdel Rahim Sayegh, based on months of intense surveillance, including a wiretap on his phone.
One focus of the investigation is the suspect's apparent contacts with the Iranian embassy in Canada. Sayegh has denied involvement in the bombing.
If Canada deports Sayegh to the United States, as requested, U.S. officials would have the first direct access to a principal suspect in the case.
The Saudis have refused to allow the FBI to interrogate about 40 Saudi citizens suspected of involvement in the bombing, leaving the United States to rely on summaries of the Saudi findings and transcripts of their interrogations, which apparently were made under duress.
Now for the first time, countries other than Saudi Arabia _ the United States and Canada _ believe there is enough evidence to arrest a suspect in the case.
Saudi Arabia helped the Canadians build a case against Sayegh, who was identified as a key suspect last summer through interrogations of other Saudis arrested in the bombing in Dhahran. The attack killed 19 Americans and injured more than 500 people.
Sayegh, 28, who arrived in Ottawa after a stopover in Boston last August, is suspected of being the driver of one of the support vehicles that traveled along with the truck that carried explosives used in the bombing, a senior law enforcement official said.
The arrest is important to the Saudis because it means that for the first time the United States has apparently accepted a crucial Saudi theory about the bombing: that at least some suspects the Saudis have arrested since June were involved in the plot. The FBI had been skeptical of the value of many of those arrests.
Part of the evidence gathered against Sayegh was the contacts he apparently had with Iranian diplomats in Canada, a senior administration official said Monday.
While the contacts would not in themselves prove any direct complicity of Iranians or the Iranian government in the bombing, they provide a potential link to Tehran that American and Canadian investigators will pursue.
American and Canadian intelligence officials are examining electronic intercepts of Sayegh's conversations and papers seized at the time of his arrest to look for evidence connecting him to Iran or the Saudi bombing.
Speaking from prison in Ottawa on Monday, the Arabic-speaking Sayegh identified himself as a Shiite Muslim who studied in Qum, the main Shiite religious center in Iran, where the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini taught.
Sayegh denied any involvement in the bombing, saying that about two years ago he moved from Saudi Arabia to Syria, where he said he was at the time of the bombing. He said he left Syria for Canada last August and applied to be a refugee.
He said his wife and two young children are under house arrest in Qatif in Saudi Arabia.
But in an another interview published in the Ottawa Citizen on Sunday, Sayegh made clear his opposition to the Saudi monarchy. "I was part of a political movement that was asking for democracy in Saudi Arabia, and asking for democracy would upset the government there," he said in the interview, through an interpreter. "They are not democratic."
Canadian authorities received a warrant from a judge to put a wiretap on Sayegh's phone last fall and began monitoring his conversations, a senior Canadian official said. The Canadians were prepared to continue to keep Sayegh under close surveillance to build a stronger case against him.
But after Canadian authorities received information suggesting he was planning to leave the country, he was arrested at a grocery store last Tuesday on grounds he was "a security risk to Canada."
Because of strict Canadian laws on privacy and confidentiality, officials would not discuss the specifics of the case.
But the government also charges he committed an offense abroad that if committed in Canada would be punishable by maximum jail term of 10 years or more. Canadian officials would not confirm Sayegh was being held in connection with the Saudi bombing.
In a statement released Saturday, the FBI was much more specific, thanking Canada for its help in the investigation and adding that it hopes to question Sayegh.
And in an unusual acknowledgment of Saudi Arabia's role in providing information about Sayegh, the statement also praised the kingdom's "equally invaluable assistance leading to the identification and location" of Sayegh.
The Canadian government will ask a federal judge in Ottawa today or Wednesday to begin the deportation process against Sayegh. Any deportation is at least several weeks away, because a judge must first review evidence against Sayegh and then hold a hearing.
Some Saudi officials have suggested that the bombing was perpetrated by Saudi Shiites supported by Iran who may have trained in Iranian-run camps in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and that it was not part of a homegrown opposition to the ruling royal family.
The Saudi royal family is from the Sunni sect of Islam and only a minority of Saudis, mainly in the east of the country, are Shiites.
Other officials, including Crown Prince Abdullah, have played down the link to Iran.