Odyssey Into Jihad

April Ray's husband became bin Laden's secretary. Now he's behind bars. Her brush with the shadowy world of Al Qaeda

NEWSWEEK/January 14, 2002
By Kevin Peraino and Evan Thomas

She drives a dark green minivan with a "My child is an honor student ..." bumper sticker on the back. She scrimps and saves in discount shopping malls. Her kids like to watch "The Simpsons" and the WWF. (Her oldest son recently shaved the heads of his three little brothers to make them more closely resemble his favorite wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin.) Looking determined if a bit worn out at 34, April Ray might be just another struggling young American mother, except for the fact that her husband was, for a couple of years, the personal secretary of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. How did a suburban Dallas housewife become a bride of the monstrous Al Qaeda?

April Ray's husband, Wadih El-Hage, is now serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison for conspiracy to commit terrorism in the August 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa. Within Al Qaeda, El-Hage was nicknamed "the Manager," according to federal prosecutors. For several years during the 1990s, the U.S. government alleges, El-Hage performed nefarious chores for his terrorist boss, like purchasing a jet plane in order to deliver Stinger missiles (El-Hage personally handed the keys to bin Laden at a dinner party). Before the embassy bombings, federal wiretaps picked up El-Hage talking about "fixing papers" and preparing "notebooks" - code, the prosecutors said, for creating false passports for Qaeda operatives. The prosecutors did not prove that El-Hage formally swore allegiance to bin Laden with an oath, or bayat. But as a federal prosecutor told the jury: "The evidence showed that Wadih El-Hage led a double life, a secret criminal life on behalf of Al Qaeda, and that he performed logistical services for Al Qaeda to make sure that others in Al Qaeda could carry out their deadly acts." At the trial, El-Hage's lawyer Sam Schmidt countered that El-Hage worked for bin Laden's legitimate businesses, and had nothing to do with terrorism. The jury found the Feds persuasive and also found El-Hage guilty of perjury for denying his ties to Al Qaeda.


Bin Laden? "He was a Great Boss"

For about a decade, as her husband, a naturalized American citizen, traveled between Pakistan, the United States, Sudan and Kenya, April Ray, a devout Muslim, dutifully trooped along with her growing brood (now seven kids). She, along with the wives of other bin Laden followers, went to family picnics at bin Laden's farm on the banks of the Blue Nile. She endured dust storms, ominous warnings and the murder of several of her husband's friends. She listened to the evidence pile up in a U.S. federal court that tied her husband to a plot that killed 250 people and injured 5,000 more. But she cannot, or will not, see her husband as a terrorist. Indeed, she describes him as a sweet, if somewhat hapless, man, a warm-hearted bumbler who is better at reading to his children than running a business and who is utterly incapable of plotting mass murder. "He didn't do anything," says Ray. "Everybody loves him." And bin Laden? "He was a great boss," she says. "He's not the monster people make him out to be."

Ray is different, even eccentric, but there seems to have been an eerie normalcy to the bin Laden empire her husband joined. She may be out of touch with the reality the vast majority of Americans experience, but faith in holy war, however misguided, is real to her. Al Qaeda offered good pay, company perks, even family outings, just like any big and benevolent corporation, except that this one is Terror Inc., built to kill large numbers of people.

Ray does not fit the stereotype of the meek and submissive Islamic fundamentalist wife forced to defer to her husband's commands. When El-Hage tried to take a second wife, Ray says, she made his life "pure hell" until he backed down. In several extensive interviews with NEWSWEEK, her first with any news organization, she was feisty and at times cagey as she sought to prove her husband's innocence and good character as he pursues an appeal. (Ray says she herself has had no involvement in terror, and authorities never accused her of any.) Transcripts of federal wiretaps of her conversations with her equally tough-minded mother, Marion Brown (who referred to son-in-law El-Hage as a "sad sack"), show the two women uttering profanities and trying to anticipate the FBI's next move. In parsing Ray's statements about her husband and his shadowy activities, it is difficult to sort out what may be psychological denial or stonewalling, and what is just blind faith. But her story is nonetheless a revealing odyssey into a sinister and paranoid world, one whose ultimate leader is still on the run from American troops.


A Tortuous Spiritual Path

April Brightsky (pronounced "bright sky," as it was on the morning of her birth) Ray came by her wanderlust naturally. Her mother, who has been married five times, was a spiritual searcher called "Crusader Rabbit" by an ex-husband for her propensity to hop from cause to cause (Ray says she didn't have much of a father figure growing up). Brown, raised by Roman Catholic and Congregationalist parents, dabbled in Judaism and Buddhism before settling, finally, at 40, on Islam. As a young teen, Ray says that she briefly rebelled against her mother's faith. But then, at 16, Ray was almost kidnapped from high school by a boy on a motorcycle. "He was whacked out, and he thought he could take me somewhere so he could have some fun and I wouldn't go for it." Ray told her mother, who "freaked out" and pulled her daughter out of her Arizona high school.

Tucson in the 1980s was "wide open" and "scary," says Brown. Ray says her mother wanted her to have a safe Islamic marriage, and "not screw around" and turn into a "statistic." Brown took the direct approach. One day, as she attended the local mosque, 18-year-old Ray heard the PA system squawk: "Marion Brown is announcing that her daughter is at the age of marriage." Says Ray: "I was set up." Her name was put on "what we call the Arab grapevine," she says, and pretty soon proposals were arriving in the afternoon mail. Ray was presented with the photograph of the man she was to marry. Wadih El-Hage, 25, was slight, dark and squinting. "I said, "This man's going to beat me'," Ray recalled. "My mom's saying, "Shut up, he's not going to beat you'." In fact, she was soothed by the man's soft, warm voice. "He was just really nice, really sweet, and we clicked," Ray recalls.

Ray and El-Hage, a Lebanese-born Kuwaiti who was attending college in Louisiana, were married within a few weeks. The bride wore what she described as a kind of "froufrou" cowboy hat with pearls on top. Ray by then had come around to Islam as a haven from her chaotic upbringing. "It's complete," she now says of the Quran. "All the answers are there. There's no mystery to this, mystery to that, trust in this, trust in that, you've got all the answers. Everything is right there."


Marriage, then Holy War

El-Hage introduced Ray to jihad. In 1986, they moved to Pakistan to join the holy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. Born with a withered arm, El-Hage was not able to be a frontline warrior. But, carrying a gun and riding a motorcycle, he smuggled money, supplies and what Ray vaguely described as "stuff" over the Pakistan border. After one monthlong disappearance El-Hage returned bald. He told his wife that he had shaved his head to keep the bugs out while he slept in caves. Pregnant and almost always nauseated at the time, Ray says she was "shocked ... It was scary." Just going outside was dangerous. "You're a walking target. You've got these weirdos who attack tourists all the time." But, as an American, she felt relatively protected. America at that time was backing the jihad; the CIA was supplying the mujahedin with Stinger missiles. "Everybody loved Americans," recalls Brown, who had also moved to Pakistan to support the jihad.

Often traveling to the United States, Ray's husband worked for the shadowy Services Office, a forerunner of Al Qaeda which raised money and men for jihad. He became close to Mustafa Shalabi, a 39-year-old Egyptian who ran the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, a Services Office affiliate in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1991, Shalabi was found murdered; he had been stabbed and shot. Devastated, El-Hage called Ray. "He was crying," she says. In 1990, El-Hage had been touched by an equally mysterious murder. He admitted that he had met with a man who investigators believe was spying on Rashad Khalifa, an unorthodox imam who allowed men and women to pray together in his Tucson mosque. Several months after El-Hage and the man met, Khalifa was murdered. El-Hage had also been jolted when his mentor Abdullah Azzam, a fiery jihadist who had founded and ran the Services Office in Pakistan, was killed by a car bomb.


Revered--And Yet Repressed

Despite the carnage around her husband, Ray willed herself to be calm. "You do worry. But then you've got to stopno, don't really dwell on that. God willing, he'll be fine. He'll come home." She was reassured when El-Hage got a good-paying job in 1992: from Osama bin Laden, the wealthy holy warrior who had moved to Sudan after the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan. El-Hage and Ray were living back in Texas at the time. Bin Laden flew El-Hage to Sudan for an interview. "He's really nice," El-Hage reported back to his wife. El-Hage would make $1,200 a month - a fortune in their new home city of Khartoum.


"Director of International Marketing and Purchasing"

El-Hage was working for bin Laden's legitimate business enterprises, which included farming and chemical manufacturing. One of El-Hage's titles was "Director of International Marketing and Purchasing" for one of bin Laden's companies. But investigators believe that many of bin Laden's businesses are mere fronts for moving money and supplies around the globe, and that in any case any profits are plowed into bin Laden's terror network. Bin Laden is known to own as many as 20 ships (the better to smuggle arms and, since his disappearance from Afghanistan, possibly bin Laden himself). The used T-36 Sabre jet that El-Hage bought for bin Laden in 1993 was intended to carry shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. (But just one year later its brakes failed and it crashed on landing.)

Ray says she was oblivious to her husband's peripatetic work. She was "busy busy busy. House house house, kids, kids, kids, house," she says. There were few amenities in Khartoum and Ray was afraid to drive. On the other hand, she could look forward to recreation at bin Laden's version of a company picnic - parties of 30 to 40 of his followers invited to grill shish kebab at his farm outside the capital city. The women would gather in a tent a safe distance from the men, who would congregate round bin Laden and hear him rant about the evils of the corrupt Saudi regime. As their children played and swam in the Nile, the women would talk about families, but never about their husbands' work. Ray says this discretion was partly to avoid jealousy. It may also have been because the Qaeda terrorist training manual forbids operatives from discussing their work with the wives.

Ray says she never met bin Laden himself. "I don't meet the men," she says. "My husband could bring home the president of the United States and if he didn't want me to know, I wouldn't know they were there. The women don't sit with the men ... You don't look at the men." She did, however, feel bin Laden's influence on her husband. In 1993, El-Hage told Ray that he was going to take a second wife. He explained that bin Laden was encouraging the men to have more than one wife "because," Ray explained, "there are so many women who don't have husbands." Ray was not buying. She reminded him that, in their original marriage contract, he had promised not to take a second wife. She couldn't force him to divorce the new wife (who was already under contract) because, she said, "that's un-Islamic." Instead, she says, "I made his life hell ... I was becoming a real b___." After six months, El-Hage relented. He decided not to go through with his second marriage after all.

Ray complained about the fierce dust storms in Sudan, which were aggravating her asthma. After two years in Sudan, "I couldn't wait to get out of there," says Ray. El-Hage accommodated her wish, quitting the bin Laden organization and moving to Nairobi in Kenya in 1994 to go out on his own as a trader, dealing in jewels and other commodities.


Back to bin Laden

He was "bad at it," says Ray. His business dragged. Ray urged him to go back to work for bin Laden. Actually, federal prosecutors believe, he never stopped working secretly for the terrorist mastermind. Among the documents seized by investigators is one called "The New Policy," directing Qaeda members to revive their activities in Somalia. The first point in the document is "the return of Wadih" to Kenya after a visit with bin Laden. El-Hage, prosecutors say, is sometimes referred to by a pseudonym, Abdel Sabbur, and called an "engineer."

In fact, court evidence showed, El-Hage was a fixer. He traveled around the world opening bank accounts and arranging documents to support Al Qaeda's terror cells, prosecutors said. And he maintained relationships with a wide array of people who wound up convicted of terrorist activities. He acknowledged to investigators that he bought guns at the request of a man later imprisoned for mixing and transporting chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. A bit of a pack rat, El-Hage collected address books, diaries and business cards that would later provide investigators with a kind of terrorist road map. For instance, one of his contacts was a Hamburg, Germany, businessman named Mamoun Darkanzali, who denies terrorist ties but has reportedly admitted to being in at least casual contact with members of the Hamburg-based Qaeda cell that carried out the September 11 hijackings. Among the documents arranged by El-Hage are ID cards for a charity he set up called Help Africa People. One card identifies Fazul Mohamed as a computer-software specialist for the charity. The FBI believes that Fazul is actually Haroun Fazil, the man suspected of masterminding the truck-bomb attack that blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

Transcripts of El-Hage's phone conversations, which were being secretly wiretapped by the Feds in 1997 and introduced as evidence at trial, show him speaking guardedly and sometimes in code. In one conversation with Ray, El-Hage asks his wife to send "ten green papers." "Green papers?" she asks. "You mean money." El-Hage replied sarcastically, "Thank you very much." He adds, "That's only for you. Nobody else is listening." But Ray suspected that her phone was being tapped. Investigators would later obtain a Qaeda "security memo" proposing that certain of El-Hage's files be destroyed lest they be discovered. In this memo, which was retrieved from a computer in El-Hage's house in Nairobi, the author complains that Ray has heard English voices coming out of the TV set. "This is it. This is the line," Ray says she hears the voices saying. "Is he Arab or English?" She apparently thought she had stumbled over a sloppy wiretap.


A Warning from the FBI

Ray's suspicions turned to outright fear in 1997 when a group of Kenyan police and FBI men knocked on her door. "We believe El-Hage's life is in danger," the G-man told her, Ray recalls. "Somebody might try to kill him. Do you know who would want to do that?" Ray said she didn't know. She asked if her children were in danger. "We don't think so, but we can't really be sure," an FBI man said. "If you want us to take you in right now, we can." But Ray said, "I'm not leaving without my husband," who was in Pakistan on business.

Shortly thereafter, the family moved back to Texas. Ray claims that she was too busy with her household chores to notice the news reports that bin Laden had issued a deadly fatwa - proclaiming that it was the duty of Muslims to kill Americans. But when, on the morning of Aug. 7, 1998, she heard the news of the embassy bombings in Africa, she was overcome by a sense of dread. "Oh my God," she says she thought to herself. "This is really bad. We were there. They're going to think my husband did it."

Panicking, she called her husband at the Ft. Worth tire dealership where he worked, but he brushed her off. He was busy, he said. A little after midnight on Aug. 12, Ray's mother called her daughter to say that the FBI had come around asking questions. This was not Brown's first run-in with the bureau: 33 years earlier, she told her daughter, she was involved with some far-right-wing "Minute Men" who were setting up camps and training exercises to fight against communism. The FBI shut down the group. The G-men back then were "nasty," said Brown. The FBI agents these days were "very nice, very polite," said Ray. In the transcripts of the FBI wiretaps, the two women sound at once wary and savvy. In between gushing "somewhat artificially perhaps" about what a "good man" El-Hage is, they talk about how to handle the FBI. "You know," says Brown, "if they [the FBI agents] were smart they would have tried to enlist El-Hage's help. If they were smart." Replies Ray: "I figured they already got what they wanted. They know what we are up to. They have our phone bugged and everything. But they probably think "... My hypothesis ... [She pauses] ... is they want to see what you would say to us and act on what we would say back to you...."


"Everybody Knows bin Laden"

At one point, Brown refers to bin Laden as "Abu," an Arab diminutive that means father and is also a common alias for Al Qaeda recruits. Ray corrects her: "He is Osama bin Laden." "Whatever," says Brown. El-Hage gets on the line and the women tell him the FBI may question him. "So what," he replies. "I told them before, everybody knows bin Laden. They all know him. The man is on TV and in the newspapers." Brown interjects, "Yeah, but you are probably the only one who had dinner with him." El-Hage tries to be sarcastic: "Yeah, I had the last supper with him." Ray interrupts, "I don't see anything humorous about that." Agrees Brown: "I don't either."

It's doubtful that El-Hage was making jokes a few days later when he was arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy and perjury. (He was not accused of taking a direct role in carrying out the embassy bombings, but rather of conspiring to kill Americans at the embassies and around the world.) For two years he languished in a federal prison in Manhattan, awaiting trial. In November 2000, one of his codefendants stabbed a prison guard in the eye. When Ray and her kids visited El-Hage in February 2001, the month his trial began, he seemed broken and bewildered. "He didn't recognize us," she says. "He was totally out of it." Prison psychiatrists determined that El-Hage was faking amnesia. He subsequently snapped out of it and began writing Ray again, although she says the two have not spoken over the phone or in person since September 11.

Ray says she learned of the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon when a friend phoned her and asked: Are you safe? She turned on the TV and saw the devastation. "I literally called everyone that I knew and I told them, "Go get your shopping done right now. The next few days are going to be pretty rough for people'." Sure enough, in the grocery store, one of her Muslim friends, who was handicapped, received a death threat. In the post office, when Ray complained of a bad smell because it hurt her breathing, another woman sneered, "You people should stop complaining ... go back where you came from." Ray says she shot back, "Excuse me? I'm 100 percent American and I have a lineage that would put yours to shame ... I'm not letting anyone walk over me."

Ray says she is struggling to make ends meet, living off donations from the mosque and welfare. Her children miss their father (whom they call "Bubba"); they cry for no reason and cling to her. But she is defiant. Like many true believers, she won't accept that bin Laden ordered the September 11 attacks. She suspects they were plotted by the CIA or Israeli intelligence. She is opposed to killing civilians, but if the jihad against the enemies and corrupters of Islam goes on, and her 15-year-old son, the WWF fan, wants to fight, then she'd consider letting him join when he comes of age. She says she puts her faith in the will of Allah. "As Muslims, we accept death," she says. "We know it's part of life." But just in case, she says she wants to buy a gun.

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