A Lebanese national with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, was picked up in Minnesota and charged Friday in a New York court with lying to the FBI about his ties to terrorists, Fox News has learned.
According to a federal complaint obtained by Fox, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi (search), attended jihad training camps in Afghanistan in 1988 and ‘89, where he first met Zarqawi — who is believed to be directing the current attacks against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq.
Officials say that more serious charges, such as material support to terrorism, may follow.
The court papers allege that Elzahabi admitted to personally knowing two of Al Qaeda's (search) most prominent leaders, Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (search), described as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Investigators with the FBI's joint terrorism task force say Elzahabi ran a shipping business from New York City and lied about knowing whether his company sent portable field radios and walkie talkies to fighters in Afghanistan.
Elzahabi, 41, has been in federal custody as a material witness since May. The charges he faced Friday are part of an international terrorism investigation.
Additionally, there is a potential link to Zacarias Moussaoui (search), the man often referred to as the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 plot.
Elzahabi, who lived in the United States at various times since 1984, returned from abroad in mid-August 2001 at about the same time Moussaoui was picked up by federal authorities. Elzahabi then went to Minneapolis, the same city in which Moussaoui had been living.
There is also a connection to terrorist activities out of Boston. Federal authorities allege that Elzahabi helped Raed Hijazia get a Massachusetts driver's license by sponsoring his application and allowing him to use his address. Hijazia was later convicted in Jordan for his part in the failed millennium bombing targeting U.S. and Israeli targets.
Elzahabi was approached by the FBI in April of this year. According to court documents, he talked to agents voluntarily and repeatedly said he understood that he was free to go.
At some point, he signed a statement explaining: "When not engaged in interviews, I have been staying in a nice room at a hotel in Minneapolis. I have been accompanied by other FBI agents but at no time have I ever been restrained in my movements in any way."
However, according to a law enforcement official, he then stopped talking as freely and the FBI decided to arrest him as a material witness as part of New York City's grand jury probe into terrorism in the U.S.
Elzahabi was arrested in May and taken to New York in June of this year.
On Friday, prosecutors asked a judge that his status be changed from that of a material witness to a defendant charged with lying to the FBI. Elzahabi had a brief court hearing in New York and would be sent back to Minneapolis to face charges.
Elzahabi "had associations with individuals who are now at the forefront of terror," a senior Justice Department official told Fox.
The official said the investigation into his case would continue, and more serious charges against him may follow.
According to the court documents, Elzahabi first came into this country in 1984 on a student visa. He allegedly admitted to federal authorities that he got a woman in Houston to marry him to get his green card.
Because of the fake marriage, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has initiated proceedings to deport him.
Elzahabi first decided to go to Afghanistan in about 1988 after he attended a multi-day religious conference in the Midwest, according to federal authorities. He then attended a jihad training camp and fought in Afghanistan.
He admitted that he acted as a sniper in combat and as an instructor to other jihadists, federal authorities said. He allegedly returned to the U.S. in 1995 because he was in need of medical care after suffering an abdominal gunshot wound in combat.
Elzahabi then lived in New York and Boston, where he worked as a cab driver. He claims that after he once again left the U.S., he was contacted by telephone by Abu Zubaida, who asked for his support at a training camp, but he declined to help.
Elzahabi also helped fighters train in Lebanon and served as a sniper in Chechnya, according to the federal government. He allegedly admitted that while in Chechnya he shot and struck several human targets, including a man driving a bulldozer.
As for why he was charged, a senior Justice Department official said that there are times when it is in the "national interest" to put an individual in the "criminal justice system."
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.