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FBI terrorism probe tracks ex-cabdrivers

2 who left Boston tied to bin Laden

By Stephen Kurkjian and Judy Rakowsky, Globe Staff, 2/5/2001

BI investigators believe that two men who left Boston suddenly in the late 1990s after working as taxi drivers were trusted agents for Osama bin Laden, the feared and sought-after terrorist.

The FBI began investigating the men - Bassam A. Kanj, who lived in Boston for nearly 15 years, and Raed M. Hijazi, who was here for two years - after they were tied to separate militant and terrorist plots last year that were alleged to have been financed by bin Laden.

Kanj, 35, was killed a year ago after leading a militant group in an attack against Lebanon's army, while Hijazi, 32, is in jail in Jordan awaiting trial on charges that he was planning to destroy a hotel filled with Americans and Israelis, as has been previously reported. The FBI is continuing to look at Kanj's and Hijazi's activities in the Boston area in hopes of learning more about their contacts inside bin Laden's far-flung organization.

''We are still trying to sort out who played what role,'' said Michael Rolince, chief of international terrorism operations for the FBI, in a telephone interview.

By examining Kanj's and Hijazi's actions, the FBI is trying to determine how orders are given and implemented inside bin Laden's hierarchy, and how missions are assigned and carried out. Since both had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when bin Laden's Muslim militancy took root, Kanj and Hijazi subsequently would have held a higher station in his network than agents recruited for ad hoc missions, Rolince said.

''It's too consistent to be happenstance,'' Rolince said of their shared experience in Afghanistan and the paths they took thereafter.

While Kanj and Hijazi lived on and off together in apartments in Everett and Brighton during the time they were in Boston, Rolince said, there is no evidence that they were involved in a bin Laden ''cell'' in Boston, plotting a terrorist act here or elsewhere.

Hijazi, who was born in the United States but raised for the most part in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, traveled to Boston in 1997 from Sacramento, where he had been attending college and working at odd jobs.

Kanj, who came to Boston in 1985 after fleeing his native Lebanon, worked as a taxi driver starting in the mid-1990s and helped secure Hijazi a job leasing and driving cabs for Boston Cab Co. Fellow drivers recall the two men as hard-working, with Kanj being the more outgoing. ''They were never any problem,'' said Edward Tutunjian, president of Boston Cab Co.

At the end of 1998, Kanj and Hijazi suddenly left Boston within months of each other, leaving behind the $150 deposits they had made to lease their cabs. Hijazi headed for Jordan, Kanj for Lebanon.

Like 35,000 other young Muslims, both men had spent time in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, joining the mujahideen in its battle against the Soviet Union. According to friends and officials, both became radicalized from their experiences in Afghanistan.

A friend who accompanied Kanj on a trip there said Kanj was wounded a few days after arriving in Kabul and taken to Pakistan, where he spent weeks recuperating. On returning to the United States, he received further treatment in New Hampshire, according to the friend, who asked not to be named.

Bin Laden was also among the thousands who had responded to the international call to Muslims to help the Afghans fight the Soviet Union, an effort later shown to have been financed in part by the CIA. One of 57 children of a wealthy Yemeni construction magnate, bin Laden provided millions of dollars of his family's wealth to purchase arms for the mujahideen and its Muslim volunteers. Bin Laden remains secluded and protected in Afghanistan, but US authorities suspect that he continues his terrorist plotting.

Although no hard evidence has been turned up yet, the FBI has investigated whether bin Laden sponsored the October bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, which killed 17 servicemen, as well as three plots aimed at Americans in the United States and overseas during last year's millennium celebrations.

No attack was carried out, but one of the plots involved exploding a bomb consisting of an equivalent of 16 tons of TNT at the Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan. The hotel's 400 rooms were booked by many Americans and Israelis for the holiday celebration. One of several people arrested in the scheme, Hijazi has admitted to investigators in Jordan that his orders came from one of bin Laden's lieutenants, according to a New York Times report last month.

Although friends cite Kanj's experience in Afghanistan as the beginning of his disaffection with life in the United States, the exact point when he may have taken his disenchantment to a more militant level is unknown.

While he remained a resident of the Boston area until 1999, Kanj traveled to Kosovo and Chechnya to assist Muslims who were under siege in both places. US government sources, who confirmed the travel, said they do not know if Kanj was motivated to make the trips in response to orders from bin Laden's organization to defend Muslims being persecuted there. Nor would they say if they knew whether Kanj made the trips to join the armed battle or to film events to call international attention to the plight of Muslims, as his friends contended.

Whatever his ties to global terrorism, Kanj's path from his homeland of Lebanon at age 20 to a relatively sedate 15 years of going to school, becoming a citizen, and building a family in Boston is one of stark contradictions.

He arrived in the United States in 1985 intent on making this country his home, and Boston seemed a good place for him to make his mark. After immersing himself in a program at Boston University to learn to speak and read English, he entered Northeastern and studied electrical engineering, working part time for several local engineering firms as part of the school's co-op program. He joined Northeastern's varsity soccer team, and began dating a young legal assistant from Maine.

In the summer of 1988, Imam Talal Eid, the religious director of the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy, officiated at Kanj's marriage to the 23-year-old para-legal, Marlene Earl. They went on to have five children together. While he did not stay close to Kanj in the ensuing years, Eid had some ideas on why Kanj would have become disillusioned with the United States.

''I do not know anything about bin Laden, but I do know that many young Muslims, like Kanj was, are worried that the American [culture] machine will have a negative effect on their children,'' Eid said. ''Very few actually do go back [to their homelands], but it is a constant concern of young parents here that their children will lose their values.''

Friends that he made during his years in Boston scoff at the FBI's belief that Kanj aligned himself with bin Laden.

Kanj decided to move his family to Lebanon in the early 1990s - while he remained in Boston, driving his cab - because his oldest child was becoming school-aged and he did not want his children exposed to drugs, violence, or even loud music.

''In the end, he saw the United States as a place to make money but not to raise his family,'' said the friend, who declined to be identified. ''He had become radicalized, I agree, in his views and understood how Muslims were persecuted, but to say he became tied up with bin Laden is wrong.''

Keith Cammidge, his former soccer coach at Northeastern, expressed surprise at the allegation that Kanj would turn into a militant extremist. Proud of his Lebanese heritage, Kanj often showed teammates postcards that displayed Beirut in its pre-civil war splendor, and his interests revolved around ''school and soccer,'' said Cammidge.

On relocating to Lebanon in 1999, Kanj joined his brother in operating a small bakery in Tripoli.

The circumstances that led to the battle between the Lebanese Army patrol and Kanj's group are still being investigated by Lebanon's judiciary. The army unit was allegedly in a mountainous region rounding up scattered bands of militants when it came under attack. In what was described as the bloodiest battle between Lebanon's army and militants since the end of the civil war, 21 people were killed during five days of fighting.

Kanj and another militant leader died when a water tank they were hiding behind was hit by a shell from an army tank. Two days after the battle, Al-Safir, a leftist newspaper in Beirut, identified Kanj as a bin Laden operative who had recruited 200 young men to bin Laden's network during the previous year alone. At the same time, Al-Nahar, which covers Lebanon's Christian community, reported that Kanj had received financial support from bin Laden.

Kanj was buried in Tripoli on Jan. 9, 2000. Later in the year, his wife and children moved back to the United States. They are now living in the Southwest.

Through her attorney, Lenore M. Glaser of Boston, Kanj's widow declined to be interviewed.

''She wants to be left alone to move on with her life,'' Glaser said.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 2/5/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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