An Islamic cleric whose followers are accused of a terrorist conspiracy and the bombing of the World Trade Center was said to be waiting in a mosque Friday while his lawyer negotiated his surrender.
Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, 55, was sought after federal authorities decided to revoke his parole on immigration charges. They had allowed the Egyptian cleric to remain free while he fought a deportation order issued in March.Attorney Barbara Nelson said she was arranging from her New York law office for the sheik to give himself up. "Immigration wants him. He might as well surrender. There's no point in running away from it."
The statement came a day after Justice Department officials decided to reverse their previous decision to let Abdel-Rahman remain free, according to federal law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The sheik, according to the sources, was to be taken into custody by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had previously allowed the Egyptian cleric to remain free while he fought a deportation order.
The sheik wasn't being charged in the alleged bombing and assassination conspiracy that was broken up a week ago, authorities said. Nine men have been arrested in the alleged plot, and several faced bail hearings Thursday. The sheik has denounced the Trade Center bombing and denied any involvement in it or the foiled plot.
Attorney General Janet Reno previously had rejected proposals to arrest the sheik. The Justice Department presumably wanted to allow the blind cleric to remain free to enable the FBI to continue to gather information for its continuing investigation into the alleged plot.
Stern said he could not comment on why, if the sheik was being kept under surveillance, authorities were unable to pick him up immediately.
His supporters staged an apparent hoax involving an impostor Thursday night as federal authorities staked out a New York mosque where the sheik was rumored to be hiding.
INS agents armed with shotguns swarmed over a van in which several men, including one dressed in white, were trying to leave the mosque. The agents released the men when they realized they didn't have Abdel-Rahman.
A fleet of federal cars followed the van, and an INS agent who remained on the scene refused to comment. Officers continued to stake out the mosque; authorities also maintained a vigil at Abdel-Rahman's home in nearby Jersey City, N.J.
Abdel-Rahman, 55, was ordered deported in March by an immigration judge for gaining admission to the United States under false pretenses. An immigration judge found the cleric was excludable as an undesirable alien, for concealing on his visa application that he was polygamous and had been charged with check forgery in Egypt.
INS granted Abdel-Rahman parole status, allowing him to remain free while contesting the immigration judge's findings. But INS is empowered to revoke the parole at any time.
Calls for federal authorities to arrest Abdel-Rahman have intensified since the FBI said it had foiled the bombing and murder plot, but it was not immediately clear why law enforcement officials chose this time to detain the sheik. Continued publicity about the case may have depleted whatever value his continued freedom had for the investigation.
The Justice Department decision was first reported by ABC News and then CBS Radio.
Earlier Thursday, prosecutors disclosed in a New York federal court hearing that accused plotters discussed placing a bomb on the George Washington Bridge, which links upper Manhattan with Fort Lee, N.J.
Other targets identified earlier by authorities included the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, the U.N. building and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y.
Portions of the conversations secretly taped by an informant were disclosed at a bail hearing Thursday for one of the defendants, Mohammed Saleh.
Saleh, 37, indicated during the conversation with another suspect and the informant that he had connections with hit men and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami said.
The Yonkers gas station operator, charged with providing fuel oil for making bombs, was ordered held without bail.