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Egyptian Sought in F.B.I. Qaeda Query Says He Has Nothing to Hide

An Egyptian who has been living and working in Brazil as a furniture mover says he long ago got an inkling that he was on the American security establishment’s radar.

A few years ago, while he was living in Istanbul, a friend told the man, Mohamed Ahmed El Sayed Ahmed Ibrahim, that American officials wanted to meet with him, he said. They wanted to learn, he was told, about the diaspora of Egyptians who sought refuge in Turkey after the crackdown on Egypt’s Islamist movement in 2013.

“I didn’t have interest in speaking to them,” Mr. Ibrahim said in a telephone interview on Saturday from São Paulo, the teeming financial hub where he says he is happily married and in the furniture moving business.

Mr. Ibrahim said he had thought little of the American request until last week. That is when the F.B.I. disseminated a bulletin with his name and photograph alleging that he is an operative of Al Qaeda who has plotted attacks against American interests.

The notice said Mr. Ibrahim, who has lived in Brazil for a year and a half, should be considered armed and dangerous and said the bureau wanted to question him.

The bulletin, disseminated through the bureau’s most-wanted Twitter account, came as a shock, said Mr. Ibrahim. He attributed his predicament to the Egyptian government’s persecution of Islamist political parties.

“I don’t know what they want from me,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

An F.B.I. spokeswoman, Kelsey Pietranton, said on Sunday that the bureau would not comment on Mr. Ibrahim’s case beyond the information in the bulletin.

The State Department said in a statement that it was in “close contact” with the Brazilian authorities about Mr. Ibrahim. “We are concerned about the ability of transnational criminal organizations and foreign terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda to move money, weapons, goods, and people illegally across international borders, wherever those borders might be,” it said.

Neither the State Department statement nor the F.B.I. poster suggested that Mr. Ibrahim faces criminal charges in the United States or elsewhere.

The poster describes the 42-year-old Egyptian as an alleged “Al Qaeda operative and facilitator who has allegedly been involved in planning attacks against the United States and its interests.” The F.B.I. said it suspected that he had provided “material support to Al Qaeda since 2013.”

Mr. Ibrahim said he had never belonged to a terrorist organization or supported violence as a political tactic. Asked about his views on Al Qaeda, Mr. Ibrahim said he believed the group had effectively ceased existing after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

“Those people are finished,” he said.

Later that year, Mr. Ibrahim said he joined El Benaa wel Tanmeya, an Islamist political party begun in Egypt in the months after the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

One of the party’s leaders was Tareq al-Zumr, a former military officer who participated in the assassination of President President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mr. Zumr was among hundreds of imprisoned Islamists freed in the heady days that followed Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.

At the time, many Egyptian Islamists who had used violence as a political tactic during the 1980s and 1990s expressed a desire to pursue their goals peacefully through elections.

When the country’s first democratic elections were held the following year, Egyptians elected an Islamist, Mohamed Morsi, as president. El Benaa wel Tanmeya, which means the Building and Development Party, competed in the parliamentary election as part of a coalition of parties known as the Islamist bloc, winning 13 seats.

Mr. Ibrahim, who described himself as an ordinary member of the party, said he was elated by the election of Mr. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and relished the idea of living in a democratic nation.

But a crackdown on Islamist groups by the country’s military, which ousted Mr. Morsi in 2013, made him feel unsafe and afraid, he said. A turning point, he said, was the August 2013 massacre of anti-government demonstrators in Cairo when the security forces killed at least 900 people.

“The situation became very dangerous,” Mr. Ibrahim, noting that hundreds of Islamists and other dissidents were arbitrarily detained that year. “They arrested most people from our party, and we don’t know what happened.”

Fearing for his safety, Mr. Ibrahim said, he moved to Istanbul in October of that year. There, he said he established a transportation company catering to tourists, arranging airport rides and trips to landmarks.

He described his early years in Turkey as productive, as business prospered. The request to meet with American officials came as a surprise, he said. But Mr. Ibrahim said he had thought little of turning it down because he felt like he had no useful information to provide.

The F.B.I. bulletin includes three photos, including one of a man holding a rifle. Mr. Ibrahim said that photo showed him during a hunting trip in Malaysia. He said he has fired weapons only as a hunter.

“In all my life I didn’t kill anyone,” he said.

When political and economic upheaval in Turkey began hurting his earnings, Mr. Ibrahim said, he decided in 2018 to start anew once more, this time in Brazil. The South American nation, which has a large Arab community and a relatively open immigration system, was appealing because, like Turkey, it is a popular tourist destination.

Mr. Ibrahim said he had tried to establish a transportation service in São Paulo but that Uber’s ride-share dominance thwarted his idea.

“Here you can’t make that kind of company,” he said.

Still, Mr. Ibrahim said, he built a good life. He married a Brazilian woman and found work moving furniture.

“In Brazil everything is good,” he said. “I feel respected. I feel like a human.”

Mr. Ibrahim resides in Brazil lawfully, a status attained through marriage. To secure that status, Mr. Ibrahim said he had obtained written confirmation from the Egyptian Embassy that he faced no criminal charges in his native country. Such documentation is standard.

After the F.B.I. bulletin was issued on Aug. 12, Mr. Ibrahim contacted a lawyer who arranged to have him meet with officials from Brazil’s federal police. They questioned him for hours last Friday, Mr. Ibrahim said.

Mr. Ibrahim and his lawyer said American officials then conveyed their desire to speak to Mr. Ibrahim alone — without a lawyer present. Mr. Ibrahim’s lawyer, Ronaldo Vaz de Oliveira, said he rejected that request.

Ms. Pietranton of the F.B.I. declined to say what steps, if any, the American government had asked its Brazilian counterparts to take.

Officials in Brazil issued a statement last week saying they were willing to work with the American government on Mr. Ibrahim’s case. They declined to comment beyond that statement over the weekend.

Mr. Ibrahim said he was willing to answer any questions the American government has. He said he hoped their interest in him turned out to be a misunderstanding.

“I love American people,” he said.

He said he feared that the F.B.I. bulletin could put his relatives in Egypt, including a daughter, in danger.

“I don’t know what they will do with my daughter,” he said.


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