By CHARLES J. HANLEY, AP Special Correspondent
Sat Dec 3, 5:25 PM ET
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – He’s a mystery in a red beard, with a strange alias and a degree in chemical engineering. In the hands of this alleged al-Qaida operative, it’s a specialty that summons visions of poison gas and mass terror.
Al-Qaida is «wedded to the spectacular,» notes U.S. counterterrorism analyst Donald Van Duyn, and elusive Egyptian chemist Midhat Mursi was said to be exploring such possibilities when last seen, brewing up deadly compounds and gassing dogs in Afghanistan.
Van Duyn’s FBI and other U.S. agencies are interested enough in Mursi to have posted a $5 million reward this year for his capture. Egypt’s government reportedly is interested enough to have seized and locked up his two sons in an effort to track down the father.
The U.S. reward poster says the alleged bombmaker, also known as Abu Khabab, literally «Father of the Trotting Horse,» may be in Pakistan. But «we don’t think there’s really a good fix on where he is,» Van Duyn said in a Washington interview.
«Nobody knows,» said Mohamed Salah, a Cairo expert on Islamic extremists. «He could be in any country, under another ID. Or he could be on the Afghan-Pakistani border, with Zawahri.»
Unlike fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Mursi is largely an unknown figure. «Here in Egypt, his name doesn’t represent anything for us,» said Diaa Rashwan, who follows Islamic militancy for Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
A son of Alexandria’s al-Asafirah, a noisy seaside district of rutted streets and crowded housing, Mursi, 52, graduated from Alexandria University in 1975, say the Islamist researchers of London’s Islamic Observation Center. It was a period when Muslim militancy flared in this Mediterranean city, as zealots burned liquor stores and other «non-Islamic» targets.
Salah, who writes for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, said it isn’t known what Mursi was doing in the 1980s, but he was not among scores of defendants in the terrorism conspiracy trials that followed President Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination, the young men considered the core of Egyptian militancy.
The London center says Mursi left Egypt in 1987 for Saudi Arabia, and then Afghanistan, where Egyptian militants joined the war against Soviet occupation.
In 1998, Zawahri’s group, Islamic Jihad, merged with bin Laden’s al-Qaida, bringing what Rashwan says were at least 100 experienced Egyptian militants into al-Qaida ranks. But the director of the Islamic Observation Center questions whether Mursi was among them.
Yasser al-Sirri says the Egyptian chemist did «consult» with bin Laden’s group, but «my information is that he is not a member of al-Qaida.»
After the U.S. invasion in 2001, computer files uncovered by reporters in Afghanistan showed that by 1999 the man referred to as Abu Khabab, armed with a «startup» budget of $2,000 to $4,000, was working to develop chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan.
His most notorious work was recorded on videotape, eventually obtained by CNN in 2002, showing dogs being killed in gas experiments. Intelligence sources said a voice heard on the tape was Mursi’s, the cable network said.
Experts believe the gas was hydrogen cyanide, used in gas-chamber executions. But NATO chemical weapons specialist Rene Pita says that compound has long been viewed as an unsatisfactory mass-casualty chemical weapon because of its instability and low density.
Journalists in post-invasion Afghanistan found the «Abu Khabab laboratory,» part of al-Qaida’s Darunta complex 70 miles east of Kabul, to be a rudimentary site lighted by a single bulb among disorderly boxes of test tubes, syringes and vials.
Specialists doubt al-Qaida could produce sufficient amounts of sophisticated chemical weapons, such as nerve agents, without a large-scale, even state-sponsored operation. «Those were very crude labs in Afghanistan,» said Washington expert Jonathan Tucker, of the Monterey Institute for International Studies.
Even before discovery of his Afghan operation, Mursi was quietly being hunted as an al-Qaida bombmaker, Salah said. He said the Egyptian was suspected of having helped train suicide bombers who attacked the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors.
Five months after that October 2000 attack, Egyptian authorities arrested Mursi’s son Mohamed as he flew into Cairo with a fake Yemeni passport, Cairo’s al-Ahram Weekly reported at the time.
«That indicates the family was in Yemen,» said Salah. «Abu Khabab must have gone to Yemen. Why Yemen? Because of the USS Cole.»
Then, early last year, another son, Hamzah, was deported from Pakistan into Egyptian custody, said London’s al-Sirri. Mohamed at least is believed still held, Salah said, as authorities apparently seek to extract information or pressure the father.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry declined to discuss the continuing hunt for the mysterious Abu Khabab, about whom so little is confirmed that of 14 descriptors on the U.S. «Rewards for Justice» poster — from «Height» to «Status» — 10 are followed by «Unknown.»
By CHARLES J. HANLEY, AP Special Correspondent