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Sunday, December 26, 2004

"I Married a Terrorist"

A California woman reveals to ABC News that she unknowingly married a Muslim extremist who helped set up what authorities say was one of the first al Qaeda sleeper cells out of their Orange County apartment complex.

Saraah Olson says she watched as her then-husband, Hisham Diab, and his group transformed local teen Adam Gadahn into an America-hating fanatic who she says is the masked man who promised in an al Qaeda video message released in Pakistan late October that the "streets of America will run red with blood."

"I was just a stepping stone to a green card," Olson said. "I married a terrorist. I married somebody who did not like America, who didn't like Americans."

Gadahn, who met Olson's former husband at a local mosque, was "fresh meat," she said. "Someone they could control. Not only that, he's very unassuming-looking, he can do a lot of their tasks."

The voice, gestures and rhetoric of the video's "Azzam the American" were all familiar to Olson, especially the phrase "red with blood," which was one of the group's favorite sayings, she said.

And over the course of six years, Olson said, some of Osama bin Laden's top deputies would stay with her and her husband, including blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who would later go to prison for life for his role in organizing terrorist plots against the United States.

Olson said she repeatedly tried to notify the FBI of her husband's suspicious activities, but that she was never taken seriously. "I'm in hell," Olson remembers thinking after she recognized Abdel-Rahman in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. "I have entered the bowels of hell and I'm going to be here forever. And I've only been married seven months. I've got a terrorist in my house."

The FBI said in a statement that counterterrorism is their top priority. "Whenever we receive credible information pertaining to terrorist threats against the United States, the FBI acts immediately to thoroughly pursue all such leads," the statement read.

Federal authorities say the couple's neighbor Khalil Deek, considered a major al Qaeda figure, ran the Orange County sleeper cell operation.

Diab, who obtained a U.S. passport after marrying Olson, left the country suddenly in June 2001. He is now being sought by U.S. authorities and is believed by intelligence officials to be hiding in Pakistan with top al Qaeda leaders.

"I was the wife," Olson now says. "So it looked like a typical guy married to an American girl with the little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in tow."
Blinded by Love

But when she first met Diab 13 years ago, while working at a local university issuing foreign student visas, she thought the then-32-year-old Diab had more honorable intentions.

"I really loved him," she said. "I was 22 years old and I was in love."

Diab introduced himself as an Egyptian national who had overstayed his visa and needed to switch visas, said Olson. She then explained that the school's program was not applicable to him, that he could not switch visas.

"He seemed fine with it," Olson said. "He left. No problems. Came back the next day, 'Will you go out with me?'"

In just a few months, they were married and settled in an apartment complex in Anaheim. Olson and her 4-year-old son from another relationship, Ryan, both converted to Islam.
'Follow the Rules'

The honeymoon was short-lived, however. First, she said Diab insisted she wear the hijab, a head scarf worn by certain devout Muslim women, and conform to other strict Islamic customs.

And the beatings came next, she said, provoked by what were deemed violations of her husband's strict rules, which including forbidding physical contact with any man. She says he hit her the first time just weeks after their wedding for accidentally bumping into the manager of their apartment building.

"You have to listen to me and I am God," she said Diab told her. "Follow the rules."

Olson's son Ryan, now a teenager, says he was beaten almost daily when he did poorly in the Arabic lessons he was forced to take.

"I mispronounced something and that set him off," the college freshman said. "And I remember he clasped both his hands together and just hauled off and hit me right square in the back. I remember the wind, you know, getting knocked out of me, crying out."

Ryan said Diab's cell tried to recruit him into their group and he would be brought to small meetings where the men would rail and plot against America.

"He wanted me to be just as extreme as he was you know, hate America, anything that his little group didn't like," he said. "I just can't really say I ever believed it. I just went along, just nodded my head."

And Saraah Olson admits she played a role in drawing up the papers for a fake charity, called Charity Without Borders, that the cell used to funnel money overseas. The organization would not be discovered or shut down until after the Sept. 11 attacks.

It was an act of desperation, Olson said. "I'm not proud of it. Not proud of it at all," she said. "I just knew that I lived in hell and I wanted out. And if helping him do whatever it was that he was doing meant that I wouldn't get hit, I was willing to do it at that point."
Falling Into Al Qaeda's Web?

Olson's story is confirmed in detail by the imam of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Haitham Bundakji. He said Diab and others in the cell were disruptive troublemakers who caused the most harm by recruiting innocent others, especially Gadahn.

"And I blame myself and my people for not embracing him [Gadahn] and not making more efforts to gain him," Bundakji said. "He fell in the wrong hands and he became as aggressive as they were."

Olson explained why she now feels it is the time to come forward.

"Because it's the right thing to do," she said. "These are dangerous people and a lot of people were hurt."