Newsreal: "I wanted to shoot the CIA director"

In letters to Salon's correspondent, Pakistani terrorist Mir Aimal Kasi -- who faces the death penalty for killing two CIA employees -- explains why he did it, recounts his life on the lam and says his only regret is that he didn't kill higher-ranking CIA officials.

Published January 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

he wanted to assassinate the head of the CIA but couldn't find him, settling instead for a rush-hour attack on the spy agency's employees outside their front gate.

He acted alone, and traveled freely in Afghanistan afterward -- even going to religious services with the country's prime minister.

And, during the more than four years that Pakistani gunman Mir Aimal Kasi eluded a global manhunt, he dreamed of slipping back into the United States and doing it all over again.

Those are some of the revelations in a series of letters the 33-year-old Kasi has written from his jail cell in Fairfax County, Va., where a judge Friday sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

Five years ago this Sunday, Kasi sprayed a line of cars outside CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., with AK-47 rifle fire, killing two agency employees and wounding three other people. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted last November, with a jury recommendation that he be put to death.

Kasi did not testify in his trial and has never spoken to the media. But in a series of 10 letters Kasi began writing to this reporter in December, he described his bitterness at the United States government for bombing Iraq and his life on the lam after the Jan. 25, 1993, shootings and said his only regret today is that he didn't kill some CIA higher-ups instead.

"I am not proud of what happened. I feel sad (that) the people who came under attack were not powerful people ... I wish powerful people would have come under the attack, then it would have been better," he wrote.

"I wanted to shoot [then-CIA Director) James Woolsey but was not able to find him, or his timing of coming or going to CIA. If I had found (former CIA Director Robert) Gates I would have attacked him, as these are people who make up policies for CIA or U.S. government."

The Washington Post reported last year that CIA security agents had detected someone stalking Gates' suburban Virginia house a few weeks before the 1993 killings, with some speculating that it might have been Kasi. But the defendant said it wasn't him. "I never went to his house," he wrote.

Kasi also rejected the allegation by Gen. Hamid Gul, the retired head of Pakistani intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), that he had once worked for the CIA and had perhaps turned on the agency in an act of fury. Gul, who worked closely with the CIA during the Afghan War, insisted to this reporter in an interview in Rawalpindi last August that "Aimal Kasi was an agent of the CIA ... He was working inside of Pakistan and outside of Pakistan."

Kasi, however, declared, "I did not work for CIA." During the war in Afghanistan, he wrote, "I had mujahedeen (Afghan guerrilla) friends who worked with the ISI people in bringing (CIA-supplied) arms from military bases in Pakistan to the mujahedeen arms depot (in Afghanistan). I sometimes used to go with them. That was all."

Kasi got into the United States after buying false papers in Karachi and altering his name to "Kansi," he said. He later bought a fake green card in Miami.

Kasi denied he had any contacts with Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian or any other foreign terrorists, as has been alleged. He wrote that he was surprised that he hadn't been killed during his assault, which started when he stepped out of his car in morning rush-hour traffic and started firing at cars waiting to turn into the CIA's main gate in Langley, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

"I used to pass this area almost every day and knew these two left-turning lanes (were) mostly people who work for CIA," he wrote me.

"The attack on CIA was my idea alone ... Nobody in Pakistan knew about it. I alone planned everything and did it."

Kasi says the idea for the attack "started coming into my mind" after he purchased an AK-47 from a local Virginia gun dealer. After that, the planned attack was "more important than any other thing to me."

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In his letters, Kasi says the seeds of the idea were planted while he watched U.S. warplanes bomb Iraqi troops as they withdrew from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. "Once the Iraqis withdrew from Kuwait then the continued bombings of Iraq were not justified," he wrote. "I did not want to become famous. I wanted to punish those who do wrong things against Muslim countries like Iraq."

While Kasi admits to the shootings, he disputes a key part of the prosecution's case: that he shot one of his victims, CIA employee Frank Darling, in the back, and then shot him again in the head.

"I started shooting at cars in front of me. When the shooting finished I was returning back to my Isuzu pickup ... I shot at him from front. I did not [go] back and to the back of his car. I shot him several times from the front. I sat in my pickup and drove away," he wrote in one letter.

In another, he explained: "[Darling's] car was the last one on the left [of the] left turning lanes and he was looking at me ... I looked at him before shooting ... There was a child also in the car, in the front seat standing [and] looking at me. He was I think maybe five or six years old. I didn't see the wife of Darling in the car."

Actually there was no child in the car. FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd speculated that Kasi mistook the head of Darling's wife, Judy, who was trying to get under the dashboard of their Volkswagen Golf, for a child.

Kasi did not think he would get away after the shootings. "I thought I will be arrested, or maybe killed in a shootout with CIA guards or police," Kasi said. Instead, he just hopped back into his Isuzu pickup truck and drove off, leaving the bloody carnage in his rear-view mirror.

Kasi painted a rosy picture of his four-and-a-half-year sojourn in Afghanistan after the killings, saying he was welcomed as a "hero" by fundamentalist Muslims who took power in May 1992, including then-Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"Would you believe I rode with the prime minister in his black Mercedes to a place of worship -- I did!" Kasi wrote. "I was respected by the people there as a hero, and in the four years there not a single person told me you did a wrong thing by attacking the CIA. They all said you did a great job."

Kasi spent most of his time in the border regions near Pakistan, traveling with and protected by his fellow Pushtun tribesman. One day he was sitting under a tree listening to his radio when he heard a report that the man wanted in the CIA killings had been captured.

"First, I got surprised. Who have they arrested? And then I started laughing with myself and saying to myself, I am sitting under this tree and they are saying the man has been arrested. It was real funny -- and I enjoyed hearing such news." On another occasion he heard that two men had been arrested in Quetta by the FBI and taken to Islamabad. "They had arrested the wrong Aimal. After a week or 10 days they came back home to Quetta."

An FBI agent who worked on the case disputed this element of Kasi's account. "There were reports like that all the time over there. I stopped reading them."

As the years passed, Kasi drifted from place to place in Afghanistan, usually not staying more than two weeks in any one spot, dreaming of a permanent safe haven somewhere -- perhaps in Iran, perhaps in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. He'd been to Iran in 1984, he told me, but didn't find much to admire in the Iranian revolution.

He also fantasized about going to Greece, getting a job on a ship and slipping back into the U.S. to hit the CIA again.

"I'd take a taxi to CIA headquarters, and when the taxi reached the same lights and the left-turning lanes outside CIA headquarters, I will jump out of taxi and shoot some more CIA officials," he told me, then "escape in one of the dead official's car."

"These were the thoughts that used to come into my mind."

Kasi began to believe that the U.S. and Pakistani security services had given up on trying to find him. He often crossed into Pakistan to buy newspapers or see friends and "nobody ever interrogated me," he says. "All they ask[ed] was who are you, and I will say I am an Afghan ... and if they want to see my I.D. I will show them a false I.D.," which he said were easy to get. If a guard balked, he'd give him "100 rupees" -- less than three cents -- and waltz through.

His life on the lam began to unravel in June 1997, however, when some fellow Pushtun tribesmen -- reportedly persuaded by millions of dollars in American reward money -- inveigled him into an alleged scheme to smuggle Russian electronic goods into Pakistan.

"The promises were doing a business deal, buying a large amount of Russian goods in Afghanistan, selling them in (Pakistan)," he wrote, adding that he was also promised an "I.D. and legal documents (from) this area."

Last June 15, Kasi was lured
to Dera Ghazi Khan, a dusty bazaar town in central Pakistan, and booked a room in a hotel. At 4 a.m., a team of FBI agents busted into his room, nabbed him and flew him back to the United States without an extradition hearing. The move caused howls of outrage in Pakistan, and the U.S. government has never admitted it caught Kasi there.

Speculation was rife in Pakistan that relatives of Farook Leghari, then Pakistan's president, had helped set up Kasi. But Kasi refused to identify anyone, saying, "People will get killed."

"I want to make it clear (that) the people who tricked me ... were Pushtuns, they were owners of land in the Leghari and Khosa clan areas in Dera Ghazi Khan," but "I will never name them," he wrote.

Kasi's likely death sentence has hardly dampened his fury. But he insisted that "I am not against the USA or the American people. I am against the policies of the U.S. government toward Islamic countries or toward Muslims."

"A lot of young people in Pakistan," he said, "think mostly the same."

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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Afghanistan Cia Iraq Islam Middle East Religion Robert Gates