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Terrorist may have targeted PSU

Substantial evidence suggests that an al-Qaida terrorist tried to come to Portland State University this month. A campus organizer’s vigilance countered the threat.

A suspect taken into custody in Pakistan bears the same name, and comes from the same location, as a man who submitted a suspicious application to attend a conference here this week. The application had been referred to Campus Public Safety for investigation.

The man applied from Pakistan three or four weeks ago to attend the annual conference sponsored by PSU’s Food Industry Leadership Center. He gave the name Jamil Muhammad. The Sunday Oregonian reported that a 27-year-old microbiology student named Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed was secretly handed over to U.S. authorities by Pakistani intelligence officers as a suspected terrorist. The name Mohammed frequently is rendered with different spellings.

The Oregonian said Mohammed was wanted in connection with the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000. Pakistani officials identified Mohammed as an active member of al-Qaida, the terrorist organization run by Osama bin Laden.

Mohammed’s application drew suspicion soon after its receipt here. Tom Gillpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center in the School of Business, said the conference occasionally draws attendees from Asia and Europe but a Middle East application was considered rare.

“We most typically do not get international participants,” he said. “But we do have Middle East students at Portland State and it’s conceivable we could have this kind of interest.”

However, Mohammed claimed to be a Portland State alumnus and records showed that claim to be untrue. He also claimed to work for a dairy whose name did not exist on a list of Pakistani dairies.

Gillpatrick also was somewhat suspicious of interest by a dairy employee, since milk does not travel well over long distances. However, he said, goat cheese and other Middle East dairy products do travel.

Feeling the application merited suspicion, Gillpatrick called in John Fowler, director of Campus Public Safety. Fowler in turn notified the FBI.

Nothing ever came of the application, Gillpatrick said. Mohammed failed to follow up on it. The conference went off as scheduled this Monday and Tuesday at the Embassy Suites in Washington Square without anyone named Mohammed showing up. Gillpatrick said the conference typically provides contacts with retailers and sales people.

The Oregonian story said the student was secretly handed over to U.S. authorities last Friday. The transfer bypassed the usual extradition and deportation procedures. It was described as a result of intensive investigation by the United States and Pakistan into the activities of Arab students suspected of terrorist ties.

In the Oregonian story, Mohammed was called “a solid al-Qaida asset” by an unnamed Pakistani official. It was said he could provide a potential direct connection between bin Laden and the attack on the Cole.

The Cole was the victim of suicide bombers who pulled alongside the vessel and detonated explosives. Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 others injured.

Karachi is considered a special hotbed of such terrorist activity, being Pakistan’s largest city and commercial capital. The story referred to the “unprecedented collaboration” of the United States and Pakistan in identifying potential al-Qaida affiliates operating in that country.

The story recounted that Pakistan authorities learned Mohammed had not been seen on the Karachi campus since late August. With suspicions aroused, they observed his apartment and took him into custody when he reappeared last week.

The operation to turn him over to U.S. officials was conducted in great secrecy, the account said.

He was brought by auto to a seldom-used area of Karachi International Airport by masked agents.

There he was delivered to U.S. agents, who spirited him away in a jet plane.

Mohammed was not a new name in the Pakistani suspect file. He came to Pakistan in 1993 from Taiz, Yemen, to study microbiology at the University of Karachi. In 1996 he failed to qualify for the honors program in which he was enrolled and was asked to leave. He was arrested the same year as a potential suspect in the November 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, but was released without being charged.

Mohammed’s activities between 1996 and 1999 are not known. In 1996, he re-enrolled at Karachi University.The story quoted government sources as saying two other Yemeni students with connections to Mohammed had been detained for suspected affiliation with al-Qaida.