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Senegalese Imam Suspected Of having Links To Terrorists - 2003-11-24

Authorities in Senegal are closely monitoring a controversial Senegalese imam who was recently expelled from Italy over suspected links with international terrorists. But the imam denies any such connection.

After being deported from Italy last week, Imam Mamour Fall was interrogated for three hours by Senegalese police at the airport in the capital, Dakar.

Authorities said he had not committed a crime inside Senegal, so they had no reason to arrest him. But they confiscated his identity papers, and put him under constant police surveillance, pending an investigation.

Mr. Fall is now staying in his hometown of Kaolack, about 200-kilometers from Dakar. He says he wants to return to Italy, where he is the director of the European Islamic Center, based outside the northern city of Turin.

Italian authorities said his center is being investigated for suspect funding, possibly from terrorist organizations. They also said he was a threat to state security.

Speaking to V-O-A at his home in Senegal on Saturday, while two policemen sat next to him, Mr. Fall denied any wrongdoing.

"My activity in the last five years in Italy is about inviting Italian people for Islam. Islam is a religion of peace, a religion of integrity, a religion of fraternity."

Mr. Fall says he has met and admires terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. But he says he has no more links to him and does not condone violence.

"I met bin Laden for the first time in 1993-1994 in Sudan and last time I met him was 1996. From 1996 until now I do not know where is bin Laden. I do not have any links with terrorists. The people who know me know I cannot kill a rat. I do not have the courage to kill dead animals. How could I kill these innocent people?"

Mr. Fall has repeatedly brought attention to himself by making inflammatory comments. He once told Italian television he was linked to the al-Qaida terrorist leader by what he said was a blood pact.

Earlier this month, he also predicted there would be attacks on Italian soldiers in Iraq because they were helping the US-led coalition there. That prediction came true on November 12th when 19 Italian soldiers and military policemen were killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq. The imam was expelled from Italy a few days later.

Mr. Fall says his prediction that Italians would be attacked was a warning, rather than a threat. He says he heard Islamic militants calling for such an attack on Arabic television.

Senegalese social commentator Seedy Sall says even though the country is more than 90-percent Muslim, most people in Senegal accept that the imam should be closely watched, now that he is back.

"The Senegalese government has to take the time and you know investigate about Mamour Fall, see whether he has some relationships with the al-Qaida network or not. I mean they have to take the time and investigate. But I do not think that al-Qaida can use West Africa as an operating region."

Recent research studies in West Africa indicate al-Qaida has not yet gained a foothold in the region, and has no widespread support or training facilities. But the research also indicates that extremist Islamic ideology is becoming more popular among university students and some religious leaders. And T-shirts with Osama bin Laden's picture on them are widely available in many countries.