Brazilian police confirm that al-Qaida terror suspect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed visited their country in the 1990s, and U.S. intelligence suggests that he may have hidden out in the region.
Mohammed's visit _ the first confirmed al-Qaida presence in South America _ renews fears that Osama bin Laden's organization may have sleeper cells in South America. There have been numerous unconfirmed reports of al-Qaida training camps on Paraguay's border with Brazil.
When he was apprehended in Pakistan on March 1, Mohammed was one of the world's most sought-after terror suspects. Dubbed the field general of al-Qaida, he is one of bin Laden's closest associates.
According to Brazil's Federal Police, Mohammed entered Brazil under his own name, using a Pakistani passport with a tourist visa, on Dec. 4, 1995. Brazilian police told Knight Ridder on Thursday that the U.S. Justice Department asked Brazil on June 25, 1998, to help apprehend Mohammed based on intelligence reports that he had returned to Brazil under an alias.
A former U.S. official involved in the search for Mohammed told Knight Ridder that credible information placed him in the Foz de Iguazu area, a gritty southern Brazilian city that borders Argentina and Paraguay, in 1998.
A retired Brazilian intelligence official, also speaking without attribution, said the tri-border area is home to numerous international criminals, smuggling and arms trafficking. It is also home to about 25,000 Middle Easterners, South America's largest community.
The CIA and Israel's Mossad spy agency say terrorists used the tri-border area to plot deadly bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992 and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994. There is ample evidence that Hamas and Hezbollah _ two militant Islamic organizations that conduct terrorist operations _ use the region as a financial center.
Fear of an al-Qaida attack led to brief closures of the U.S. embassies in Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador on April 6, 2001.
Concerned that the tri-border area is a haven for terrorists, the State Department's antiterror chief, Cofer Black, met with officials from the three countries in Argentina on Dec. 17.
"We have concerns that we have picked up around the world, and we have confidence in these concerns," Black explained to reporters. His office declined to comment this week on Mohammed's presence in Brazil and whether there are deeper al-Qaida links to the tri-border region.
An intelligence division of Planalto, Brazil's equivalent of the White House, issued a statement to Knight Ridder repeating that "indications of terrorist cells from the Middle East or other places _ of whatever nature, inspiration or origin _ have not been found" in Brazil or the triple border region.
U.S. intelligence had linked Mohammed to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. But there were no international arrest orders for Mohammed until Nov. 17, 2000. That warrant sought him in connection with a thwarted plan to blow up airborne jets in Asia.