The past as prologue

Ramzi Yousef is in prison for plotting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- but we still don't know who he really is, who he might have been working with and what he could tell us about Sept. 11.

Topics: Terrorism,

Sitting in his cell at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., the world’s most secure institution, the lanky man with the large ears, prominent nose and dark, intense eyes must have experienced mixed feelings when he learned of the horrific events of Sept. 11. After all, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was the man who first conceived the idea of toppling the twin towers of the World Trade Center — and who almost succeeded, in an underground bomb attack in 1993.

William Gavin, who headed the FBI’s office in New York during much of the investigation of that earlier twin towers bombing, has a unique perspective on the mind-set of the terrorists. He remembers, for example, a helicopter trip with Ramzi Yousef after the man had been apprehended. Passing the Trade Center, Gavin couldn’t resist removing Yousef’s blindfold, momentarily, to drive home the point that his plot had failed. The bomber responded coolly that his only mistake was not using enough explosives.

At 12:18 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1993, in a parking garage below the giant complex, Yousef personally detonated a 1,200-pound bomb that he himself had designed and built. His objective, he later told investigators, was to topple one 110-story building into the other. He hoped this might produce a staggering 250,000 fatalities. In fact, the blast killed just six people, including a pregnant woman, most of whom were eating lunch on the other side of a thick wall from the bomb-laden vehicle. Still, more than 1,000 were wounded, hundreds seriously.

The blast, the largest incident ever handled until then by the New York City fire department in its 128-year history, caused damage that spanned seven levels, six of them below ground, created a crater 200 feet long and sent nearly 2 million gallons of sewage water rushing into the car park. It damaged a commuter train station nearby, halting the train service and snarling traffic, knocked out television stations with transmitters on the roof and nearly caused the collapse of the Vista Hotel directly above. Yet once the structural foundations were restored, the buildings returned to life just one month after the blast, and the city went on much as before.

Today, in the wake of the exponentially more devastating Sept. 11 assault, the earlier bombing might seem a mere historical footnote. No direct links between the perpetrators of the two Trade Center attacks have been established. Yet Yousef’s act was the ultimate example of past as prologue: It established what would not bring down the towers. And it proved that a small group of determined individuals were within reach of inflicting terrible punishment on the United States.



As investigators struggle to understand the conspiracy behind September’s catastrophe, its forbear remains in many ways a mystery. Despite an intensive, globe-spanning investigation that would send six defendants to prison, an astonishingly large number of loose ends remain, including the question of whether Ramzi Yousef conceived the plot alone or with the help of others. A bullheaded man given to bursts of braggadocio, he remains silent about any sponsors. Not surprisingly, two of the names that have surfaced in speculation are Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Furthermore, according to Neil Herman, a former senior FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the Joint Terrorist Task Force that investigated the bombing, “Ramzi Yousef himself remains a very shadowy figure. We were not able to establish [his] identity definitively.” Nor were authorities able to clarify where Yousef had spent most of his life, the identities of his family members or how he had funded his extensive travels throughout the world prior to his apprehension — much of it in first class seats.

The man convicted in the case used more than a dozen aliases. He had entered the United States in 1992 on an Iraqi passport bearing the name of Ramzi Yousef. He had no visa, and immediately asked for political asylum, a formality that resulted in his being admitted on a temporary basis. On New Year’s Eve, when consular staff were presumably otherwise occupied, he went to the Pakistani consulate, and, with a photocopy of old passport records, secured a new one, in the name of Abdul Basit. Basit turns out to have been born in 1968 in Kuwait of a Pakistani father and Palestinian mother.

For a variety of reasons, investigators settled on Basit as the terrorist’s true identity, although they were never absolutely sure. As Basit, he had apparently traveled from Kuwait to Britain in the late ’80s for an education — specifically, English language courses at Oxford and a degree in electronic engineering at a modest institute in South Wales. He seems to have educated himself in basic bomb-making skills while in the U.K., and then to have traveled to bin Laden-sponsored Afghan rebel camps. (One prominent critic of the case — an Iraq expert — disputes this entire scenario, arguing that the paperwork establishing Yousef as Basit appears to have been appropriated from a different person altogether.)

Whoever he is, the man is certainly no typical Jihadist. During his years on the run, Yousef’s lifestyle bore little resemblance to that of a religious fanatic. He frequented bars, strip joints and karaoke clubs, flirted relentlessly with women, including married women, and bedded plenty along his trail. Instead of religion, Yousef’s motivation appears to be purely political.

This much is certain: The man known as Ramzi Yousef came to the United States for the express purpose of killing as many people as possible. On his arrival on Sept. 1, 1992, he went directly to meet Mahmud Abouhalima, an old friend who’d seen action in the Afghan war against the Soviets (and who had been implicated but acquitted in the assassination of Meir Kahane). Abouhalima was now working as a chauffeur for Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind radical cleric in Jersey City, N.J., directly across the Hudson River from New York. Jersey City was home to a large, multinational Islamic community that included many recent arrivals, including some radical fundamentalists. Yousef assembled a small crew of conspirators who in short order rented a storage facility, obtained the components for a bomb and began mixing and testing the deadly chemical brew. Yousef was no suicide bomber; he had prepared an elaborate exit strategy, calling abroad to places he would visit on the run, and obtaining the replacement Pakistani passport.

On Feb. 26, 1993, the conspirators assembled a convoy consisting of a rented yellow freight van and two cars. They drove from Jersey City to the underground garage of the World Trade Center, and parked next to a wall containing crucial building supports for the north tower. Inside the van, Yousef lit four 20-foot-long fuses, each timed to burn down in 12 minutes. Then he got into one of the accompanying cars and drove toward an exit. He had a moment of panic when he found his path blocked by another van, but the other driver soon returned, and Yousef was on his way well before the bomb (which he’d topped off with bottled hydrogen for maximum force) went off. The ferocious explosion came perilously close to puncturing the foundation walls that kept sea water from flooding into the basements, an act that might well have rendered the structures permanently uninhabitable.

In the aftermath, FBI officials working on the case (code-named TRADEBOM) began sifting theories of authorship, ranging from Colombian drug cartels to Serbian terrorists. Almost immediately, though, through a combination of skill and luck, investigators located a piece of the van’s chassis in the vast wreckage. A vehicle serial number quickly led them to a rental office in New Jersey. The conspirators, knowing that failure to return a rental van would draw attention, had reported the vehicle stolen the day before. When one of Yousef’s associates, Mohammad A. Salameh, a Jordanian of Palestinian parentage, went to the rental office to claim his $400 deposit, a platoon of agents were ready to grab him.

Salameh, who had helped assemble and build the bomb, was carrying identification that led investigators quickly to the apartment he’d shared with Yousef, and to a bank account. Relying in large part on records of telephone calls made from the apartment, they rapidly built a database of suspects. Another investigative front opened when the suspicious managers of the storage facility unlocked the rental unit, and found the makings of a bomb factory. Two other conspirators wee quickly rounded up. Mahmud Abouhalima, the huge, reddish-haired veteran of the Afghan wars whom Yousef had met in training camps on the Pakistani frontier, was captured in his native Egypt and extradited.

Yousef had disappeared, but within seven months of the bombing, the four co-conspirators went on trial. Prosecutors introduced a mind-numbing array of circumstantial evidence (the trial transcript was almost 10,000 pages). At their sentencing in May 1994, the judge gave 240-year sentences to the lot and dispatched them to a high-security penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

It was during this period that the FBI learned the danger of too quickly dismissing informants with crazy-sounding stories. For some time before the Trade Center bombing, an ex-Egyptian army officer named Emad Salem, who worked for the FBI, had been worried about loose talk he was hearing in a makeshift mosque upstairs from a toy store in Jersey City. The mosque was run by the blind cleric named Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who had fled Egypt where he faced charges of plotting to overthrow that country’s president. Having entered the United States despite being on a terrorist watch list, he routinely inflamed his immigrant flock with incitements to “kill the enemies of God.” Salem reported to the FBI conversations he had heard about bombings and assassinations. But the Bureau, thinking that he was exaggerating to justify his weekly $500 salary, and suspicious that he was working for Egyptian intelligence, fired him.

After the bombing in the underground garage, though, investigators had a chance to examine the computer of one suspect, Nidal Ayyad, who along with several other co-conspirators frequented the same mosque. On the computer was a letter written on behalf of an unknown terrorist group, warning that it had 150 suicide bombers standing by to “execute our missions against military and civilian targets in and out of the United States.” Horrified bureau officials quickly reinstated Salem, who went on to set up a sting operation that resulted in the convictions of the Sheikh and 10 of his followers for preparing another vast terror operation, one that included bombing major tunnels and bridges and the United Nations building.

Ramzi Yousef missed all of that. Right after the bombing, he had briefly paused to admire his largely unsuccessful handiwork from the opposite bank of the Hudson River, then headed to JFK airport for a first class seat to Karachi, Pakistan. Despite his precautions, Yousef’s role as the mastermind of the operation emerged fairly quickly, aided by such clues as a pair of fingerprints on a chemical bottle in the storage unit and immigration documents left in the apartment.

While investigators worldwide searched for him, he began planning a new and spectacular reign of global terror. In 1994 he began spending a considerable amount of time in the Philippines, and some of his more ambitious schemes included assassinating President Clinton and Pope John Paul II during visits there. One plot that came perilously close to realization called for the simultaneous in-flight bombings of 11 U.S. jetliners en route home from Asia. The plot fell apart just two weeks short of fruition when Yousef, working with a friend and co-conspirator named Abdul Hakim Murad, inadvertently generated a fire while cooking up a batch of chemicals in a Manila apartment in January 1995. Murad was apprehended by the police when he went back to the apartment at Yousef’s request to collect his laptop; Yousef, as he would do on numerous other occasions, left his friend in the lurch and fled the country. From Yousef’s laptop, investigators discovered the extent of the plot, which — had it worked — might have resulted in 4,000 deaths and the paralysis of the airline industry. As it was, Yousef had already pulled off a couple of practice tests, one of which killed a Japanese man onboard a Philippine Airlines jet. (Murad, a commercial pilot who was convicted of his role in the bombing plot, had — in a terrifying precursor of the events of this Sept. 11 — also been planning to either crash a plane full of chemical weapons into the CIA headquarters or to fly overhead and douse the entire area with poison gas.)

While Yousef remained at large, U.S. investigators considered every trick in the book to apprehend him, including a so-called honeypot trap, taking advantage of his weakness for beautiful women. Meanwhile, the reward for information leading to his arrest was increased to $2 million; newspapers in Pakistan, the Philippines and other hot spots were blanketed with ads, and matchboxes were even printed up and dropped over parts of Pakistan and the Afghan border region.

When Yousef was finally caught, on Feb. 7, 1995, nearly two years after the blast, it came as a sort of anticlimax. He was betrayed by an associate, a South African Muslim living in Pakistan whom Yousef had worked hard to recruit. Pakistani soldiers and police and U.S. agents surrounded the Islamabad safe house where he had been staying, and Yousef, who had been lying on his bed, simply got up and answered a sharp knock at his door. He’d been apprehended on the brink of a new adventure: In his room was a suitcase containing toy cars packed with plastic explosives, and a letter threatening to kill the Philippine president and poison the water supply if his friend Murad was not released. The informant, who collected the $2 million reward, now lives in the United States with his wife and child, outside the confines of the government’s Witness Protection Program but nevertheless armed with a new identity.

On the plane back to the U.S., Yousef inexplicably talked to investigators about his role in the Trade Center bombing. He even drew a diagram showing the van’s positioning at the time of the explosion — before reconsidering his confession and eating a piece of the drawing. Back in New York, under incredibly tight security, he got a double dose of American justice. In October 1996, he was found guilty of charges related to the airplane plot, which prosecutors had dubbed “48 hours of terror in the sky.” In November of the following year, he was convicted for his role in the Trade Center bombing.

He insisted on representing himself at the first trial; he cut a sharp figure in a tailored, double-breasted suit, frequently turned on the charm and generally represented himself surprisingly well, even getting hostile witnesses to contradict themselves. During the second trial, over the Trade Center bombing, he let his lawyer do everything, and steadfastly maintained his innocence. First, he denied his earlier confessions, then, after being sentenced to 240 years in prison, declared: “I am a terrorist and am proud of it.” He said that his goal was to change American policy in the Middle East; he accused the United States of killing innocent people, of mistreating Native Americans and other minorities and of itself inventing terrorism.

While Yousef lives out his days in Florence, Colo., in circumstances close to solitary confinement, many questions remain. William Gavin, who ran the New York FBI office during most of the TRADEBOM investigation, instinctively feels some bin Laden presence, spiritual or more direct, in both incidents, 1993 and 2001. Gavin notes that even though the 1993 bombing itself cost only about $20,000, that still seems like a lot for Ramzi himself to have contributed, and his extensive years on the run would have been expensive, too.

Bin Laden has said that he didn’t have the pleasure of Yousef’s acquaintance until after the Trade Center bomb went off. Even assuming that he is telling the truth on that front, it seems clear that Yousef received pre-Trade Center training and taught courses in a bin Laden camp, and that the Saudi shared common cause with the bomber on subsequent projects, including having Yousef train Philippine separatists and trying to draw him into the plot to kill Clinton. It’s known that the bin Laden organization gave him shelter after he fled the U.S.; Yousef stayed at bin Laden’s House of Martyrs hostel in the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar and was living in a bin Laden safehouse in Islamabad when he was finally apprehended. In addition, one of Yousef’s convicted co-defendants in the Manila airline plot, Wali Khan Amin Shah, had at one point been a top aide to bin Laden.

Laurie Mylroie, an academic expert on Iraq, has been beating her drum for a theory putting Saddam Hussein squarely behind the 1993 bombing. In her book “Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War With America,” she lays out an elaborate scenario suggesting that Ramzi Yousef is not really Abdul Basit at all, but an Iraqi agent posing as Basit, who she believes is dead. Mylroie presents what she claims are discrepancies surrounding the only two pieces of evidence used to establish the man’s identity: fingerprints and signature. Investigators maintain that Mylroie is misconstruing evidence, but she has her backers, including Adm. James Woolsey, who was the director of the CIA at the time of the bombing. Woolsey says that release of key documents from Basit’s stay in England could clear up the identity issue and help resolve the matter. (British authorities have, to date, made no effort to clarify publicly exactly what information is in their files regarding Yousef’s identity.)

Meanwhile, several former investigators who were intimately involved in the case point out that, unfortunately, no special skills or expertise were required in the 1993 bombing. Says one, “The sad thing is, nothing he did is that intricate. The explosives were relatively simply made, relatively inexpensive. It was a big bomb, but it didn’t take tons of expertise. Most of it was common sense stuff. If you’d read Tom Clancy books you probably could do the same.”

On May 26, 1995, a memorial fountain was dedicated to the six victims of the 1993 blast. At that ceremony, directly above the spot where the rental van exploded, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani uttered these words: “The memorial that we’re dedicating today is a small reminder of the city’s grief, and a tangible homage to those whose lives were cruelly snatched from them by a handful of cowards driven by the poison of hatred.”

Like the lost traces of a previous civilization, that memorial fountain now lies beneath the rubble of last month’s apocalypse. The suicidal perpetrators of Sept. 11, with a thousand times as many dead on their hands, cannot reveal what they know. But Ramzi Yousef sits in a jail cell, with all the time in the world to think about whether he has anything he wishes to say.

Russ Baker, an award-winning investigative journalist, is founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.com.

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