Freedom looms for convicted terrorist
Published: Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.
NEW YORK -- In 1973, a young terrorist named Khalid Duhham Al-Jawary entered the United States and quickly began plotting an audacious attack in New York City.
He built three powerful bombs — bombs powerful enough to kill, maim and destroy — and put them in rental cars scattered around town, near Israeli targets.
The plot failed. The explosive devices did not detonate, and Al-Jawary fled the country, escaping prosecution for nearly two decades — until he was convicted of terrorism charges in Brooklyn and sentenced to 30 years in federal penitentiary.
But his time is up.
In less than a month, the 63-year-old Al-Jawary is expected to be released. He will likely be deported; where to is anybody's guess. The shadowy figure had so many aliases it's almost impossible to know which country is his true homeland.
Al-Jawary has never admitted his dark past or offered up tidbits in exchange for his release. Much of Al-Jawary's life remains a mystery — even to the dogged FBI case agent who tracked him down.
But an Associated Press investigation — based on recently declassified documents, extensive court records, CIA investigative notes and interviews with former intelligence officials — reveals publicly for the first time Al-Jawary's deep involvement in terrorism beyond the plot that led to his conviction.
Government documents link Al-Jawary to Black September's murderous letter-bombing campaign targeting world leaders in the 1970s and a botched terrorist attack in 1979. Former intelligence officials suspect he had a role in the bombing of a TWA flight in 1974 that killed 88 people.
"He's a very dangerous man," said Mike Finnegan, the former FBI counterterrorism agent who captured Al-Jawary. "A very bad guy."
The events linked to Al-Jawary happened long ago, when the conflagration in the Middle East spread around the world; he is being released into another century, one in which the scale of terrorism has grown exponentially, even bringing down two of New York's skyscrapers.
Al-Jawary has long insisted that he was framed and that the government has the wrong guy. Al-Jawary declined an interview through prison officials and has since failed to answer letters mailed to him in the last year and a half, but his former lawyer, Ron Kuby, insists he "wasn't a threat in 1991 and he's not a threat now."
Federal prosecutors didn't see it that way. They point to his trip to the United States in the 1970s as proof.
A slender, nattily dressed man with a thin mustache, Al-Jawary walked into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in November 1972 and applied for a visa using a phony Iraqi passport. He answered some routine questions, had his picture taken and was granted a visa.
On Jan. 12, 1973, Al-Jawary flew to Boston via Montreal and then to New York City.
Five days later, after the bureau's office in Tel Aviv received a tip in connection to another investigation, agents tried to locate a man who later turned out to be Al-Jawary.
They found him in New York City and conducted a perfunctory interview. Where do you live? Baghdad. Why did you come here? Flight training at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
The agent asked if Al-Jawary was affiliated with any political groups. He said he was "nonpolitical."
The agent asked how long he was staying. Al-Jawary said he planned to return to the Middle East after his training ended in about a month and get a job as a commercial pilot, according to FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Al-Jawary befriended a woman named Carol and her young son Todd. Carol and Al-Jawary grew close, with Al-Jawary taking her son on trips to Manhattan. Unbeknownst to the woman, the boy was a decoy. Al-Jawary had no interest in a relationship with her or Todd. He was scouting targets for a terrorist attack, and the presence of the boy would help him avoid suspicion.
He picked two Israeli banks on Fifth Avenue and the El-Al cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport.
Possibly working with two or more people, Al-Jawary rented three cars and assembled three bombs comprised of large containers filled with gasoline, propane tanks, plastic explosives, blasting caps and batteries, according to FBI and federal court records. The propane tanks were particularly diabolical, adding shrapnel to the blast.
Two of the bombs used alarm clocks, but a third employed a sophisticated electronic-timing device commonly referred to as an "e-cell," said Terence G. McTigue, who worked on the New York Police Department's bomb squad. It was twice as powerful as the other two bombs.
On March 4, Al-Jawary — and possibly others — readied the cars in anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's visit to the city.
Each car contained a Hebrew language newspaper with propaganda from Black September — the terrorist organization that carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics just months earlier — tucked inside.
But the bombs failed to explode. It is not clear why. They were discovered after the two cars on Fifth Avenue were towed, and the FBI learned about the third car at JFK and notified police.
McTigue disarmed the e-cell bomb at JFK and found the components for the fourth one in the car. It was cutting edge, the work of a professional.
"It was a sea change because it was the first time we encountered an electronic timer rather than a simple alarm clock or mechanical timer," recalled McTigue, who would be badly injured in 1976 when he tried to dismantle a bomb left by a Croatian terrorist.
McTigue also recognized something else as he examined the car bomb: a plastic explosive called Semtex from Czechoslovakia. It had been used in scores of letter bombs sent around the world the previous year, targeting Jews and Israelis and even U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers. One had killed an agricultural counselor at the Israeli embassy in London and another mangled the hands of a 26-year-old postal worker in the Bronx.
McTigue knew those letter bombs. He had handled them. The letters had pressure-release firing devices and were the work of Black September, Palestinian guerrillas believed by intelligence officials to be controlled by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
Rogers called the attempted New York City attack a "disturbing development" in a confidential memo to President Richard Nixon — it was, he said, the first time Black September had "mounted an operation on American soil."
As it turns out, Al-Jawary's car bombs and the letter explosives contained similarities that made authorities suspect they were linked.
"The explosive material found in the rental cars was imported and found to be identical to that used in the recent worldwide letter bomb campaign," according to declassified State Department documents obtained from the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md.
The FBI began a large investigation, "one of the most intensive in the history of the FBI," called "Tribomb," deploying 300 agents and interviewing hundreds of people.
The FBI lifted 60 fingerprints; they all matched Al-Jawary's. They uncovered a fake Jordanian passport behind an air conditioning duct and bomb materials from a room Al-Jawary had rented at a hotel near JFK. Agents recovered a copy of a Jordanian driver's license he had used to rent the cars.
Agents quickly realized that Al-Jawary was involved in the attempted attack and issued an arrest warrant. But he had already slipped out of the country.
The FBI focused on Lebanon because Al-Jawary had gotten his visa there. But Lebanon was the Wild West of the Middle East at that time, a safe haven where Arab and PLO terrorists circulated without fear of arrest. If he was there, Al-Jawary was out of reach.
Al-Jawary brazenly sent postcards to Carol from Paris, Rome, Beirut.
Years passed. The FBI gave up the hunt.
But their elusive quarry resurfaced in 1979, not long after Israel assassinated a top Black September terrorist. Border police stopped Al-Jawary's car as he and another man tried to cross into Germany from Austria, according to federal court documents.
In the trunk of the car, police found 88 pounds of high explosives, electronic timing-delay devices and detonators hidden in a suitcase. They also unearthed cash and nine passports inside a portable radio that could be used to monitor transmissions from ships, airplanes or the police.
Al-Jawary was traveling under the alias "Yousif Salim Sejaan" and refused to talk. He was carrying a French passport indicating he was born in Lebanon, and riding with a man who was a PLO officer.
German authorities soon learned why Al-Jawary was in the country. They had nabbed a total of 11 Palestinians and 40 pounds of explosives around the time of Al-Jawary's arrest. Two of the men admitted they were going to bomb targets in Germany — most likely, Jewish and Israeli ones.
All the explosives seized from Al-Jawary and the other men bore the same wrapping from a pastry shop in Beirut which served as a front for Fatah, the military arm of the PLO. Al-Jawary's fingerprints were on the wrapping.
Still, Germany released Al-Jawary long before the FBI knew that he had been taken into custody.
And he disappeared once again.
But those e-cell bombs did not. A group known as the 15 May Organization — named for the date that Israel was founded — began carrying out terror attacks from Lebanon, Tunis and Baghdad in the 1980s. Suitcase bombs made with e-cells were the 15 May trademark. Its leader was a skilled bomb-maker named Husayn al-Umari, commonly referred to as Abu Ibrahim. Ibrahim had an education in chemical and electrical engineering and a proclivity for targeting airliners. He also received KGB training.
In one high-profile attack in 1982, an explosion rocked a Pan Am jet flying to Honolulu from Tokyo, killing a 16-year-old Japanese boy and injuring several others.
Denny Kline was an explosives guru for the FBI and worked the 15 May cases. He also transported Al-Jawary's 1973 e-cell bomb to FBI headquarters in Washington.
As Kline recollects, the bombs were compared. Yes, both Al-Jawary and Ibrahim had used e-cells, but that was the only common denominator. This similarity didn't mean the bombs were built by the same person, Kline said.
The FBI's bomb expert worked closely with the CIA and never received any evidence or information to suggest that Al-Jawary was involved with 15 May.
But other investigators have since learned of the e-cell connection and believe it's a powerful one, because they were such sophisticated devices and so few people knew how to operate and create them.
"That's a big commonality especially since I don't know of anyone else using the e-cells in the bomb," said Billie Vincent, the former FAA security chief from 1982 to 1986 who studied the Ibrahim devices.
CIA investigative notes obtained by the AP, based on human intelligence and communication intercepts, indicate that Al-Jawary's nom de guerre was Abu Walid al-Iraqi. The notes link Al-Jawary to a man named Abdullah Labib, aka Col. Hawari, who took his orders from Arafat. The notes say that Al-Jawary also worked as a document forger for the PLO and Hawari.
Hawari, a senior Fatah security official and Arafat confidant, "inherited" elements of Black September, according to the CIA notes. Declassified State Department and CIA documents say Hawari took over 15 May in the mid-1980s while Ibrahim continued to supply his expertise.
According to declassified CIA records, Hawari orchestrated the 1986 attack on a TWA flight from Rome to Athens that killed four Americans, including an infant, after they were sucked out of the plane. The explosives used in the attack were linked to Ibrahim.
Hawari reportedly died in a car crash in 1991. Ibrahim, who was charged in the 1982 Pan Am attack, remains at large, possibly hiding out in Iraq.
Besides the use of e-cells, Al-Jawary had another link to 15 May. Ibrahim was suspected of being Black September's bomb maker, Kline and other former intelligence officials said.
Al-Jawary acted on behalf of Black September in 1973 when he rigged the car bombs in New York, federal prosecutors asserted in court documents.
FBI agent Mike Finnegan didn't know any of this when he arrived at work one day in 1988 to find the entire case file — many volumes and thousands of pages — sitting on his desk with a note that said: "Find Him" — find Al-Jawary.
Finnegan thought to himself: "I am screwed."
It took Finnegan a year to review the entire file. He followed every lead and re-interviewed witnesses. Nothing. He asked the CIA for help. Nothing.
Finnegan also looked at other terrorism cases involving bombs. There was one in particular that drew his attention: TWA Flight 841 crashed Sept. 8, 1974, in the Ionian Sea near Greece after an explosive device detonated.
Seventy-nine passengers and nine crew members were killed. Among them were 17 Americans on the flight that originated in Tel Aviv and was headed ultimately for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Thirteen days earlier, the same flight had landed in Rome. When a ramp agent opened the rear cargo compartment, smoke was found coming from a suitcase.
The fire was extinguished. Italian authorities wrongly determined it had started accidentally when batteries inside a tape recorder caused lighter fluid to ignite. One of the flight's passengers — Jose Maria Aveneda Garcia — stepped forward and identified the bag, according to recently declassified FBI files.
Garcia, who was probably using a fake Chilean passport, wasn't detained. Garcia's address in Rome was bogus.
The suitcase and contents were sent to an FBI laboratory in the U.S., which concluded it was a bomb.
The FBI tried to find Garcia. They never located him. The National Transportation Safety Board said the suitcase was "an attempt at the same form of sabotage" that downed the flight over the Ionian Sea.
Neither attack was ever solved. The suitcase was later destroyed.
Finnegan thought Al-Jawary had been behind the suitcase bomb. It employed an e-cell, according to the FBI. At that time, he was told, the use of an e-cell was a bomb signature.
"It had a very distinct timing device," said Finnegan, who retired in 2004. "It was almost like a foregone conclusion. This was my guy. I desperately wanted to resurrect that case."
James R. Lyons, a retired FBI agent who worked many big cases such as the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, said the use of e-cells in 1973 and 1974 would have been considered the signature of a bomb-maker, making Al-Jawary a prime suspect.
"Absolutely," said Lyons, who was also an FBI bomb technician. "I'd be going after the same guy. No doubt about it."
Another top FBI explosives expert, Dave Williams, said: "Look back in the '70s and '80s and there weren't too many bomb builders out there. So it was very likely that some of these bomb builders got their instructions from the same person or persons. If I were investigating it back then, I would have come to the conclusion that he was an integral part of that conspiracy."
But it wasn't Finnegan's call to pursue the 1974 attack. Street agents don't make those decisions. He had to focus on the New York investigation.
Finnegan had "computer-aged" pictures of Al-Jawary — ones from Al-Jawary's visits to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1971 and 1972. He also had one from a Jordanian driver's license that had been obtained from the investigation.
He now had a good idea what Al-Jawary looked like as a 45-year-old man, and he passed the photos along to foreign intelligence agencies.
In the fall of 1990, Finnegan learned Al-Jawary was residing on Cyprus — a center of terrorism — as the PLO's "cultural attache" under the name of Khaled Mohammed El-Jassem.
Finnegan finally had Al-Jawary in his sights, but then he was gone: In December, Al-Jawary escaped to Iraq, after he figured out the FBI was on to him. Finnegan was furious.
Then, some luck. In January 1991, Al-Jawary left Iraq to attend a funeral in Tunis for his good friend, Saleh Khalef, the leader of Black September and Arafat deputy known as Abu Iyad who had been gunned down by a rival Palestinian group.
But Al-Jawary's travel plans were derailed. He tried to go to Cyprus first but was denied entry. He was put on a plane to Athens. Again, denied entry. He flew to Italy.
Finnegan alerted the Italians that Al-Jawary was on his way. As he passed through Rome, Italian authorities detained him for using a fake Jordanian passport.
But the Italians were reluctant to give him to the FBI, said Robert Blitzer, who served in the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section from 1986 to 1995.
"They didn't want to release him," Blitzer said. "They were afraid to release him."
After many months of diplomatic wrangling, Finnegan and Bassem Youssef, an Arabic-speaking FBI agent, flew to Rome on a military transport plane to take Al-Jawary back to the U.S.
Under intense security that included the closing of the Rome airport and its air space, Al-Jawary arrived on a helicopter gunship. He had iron plates protecting the front and back of his torso. He was wearing a Kevlar hood.
Inside the plane, Finnegan took off Al-Jawary's hood. Finnegan introduced himself to a bewildered Al-Jawary: "I am Mike Finnegan, New York office FBI."
Youssef began speaking to Al-Jawary in Arabic. Startled, Al-Jawary responded briefly, allowing Youssef enough time to detect a Palestinian dialect along with a Libyan one.
But Al-Jawary quickly switched back to English and began yelling, believing Youssef was an Israeli agent.
"I am not going to talk to you," an animated Al-Jawary told Youssef. "I am not talking to the Mossad."
Convinced, finally, that he was in the custody of the FBI, Al-Jawary collapsed in a chair, relieved. He allowed Finnegan to question him.
"The guy was definitely lying about a lot of things," Youssef said. "He did not want to telegraph anything about the truth."
Al-Jawary told Finnegan he wasn't in New York when the bombs were planted. The FBI had the wrong guy. The Mossad had framed him. He's not from Mosul, Iraq. He's not an Iraqi national as the American government asserted.
He's Khaled Mohammed El-Jassem, father of five and devoted husband. He's a victim of Israeli aggression and bombs, which killed his brother and an infant son.
In time, he would say that he was born in Palestine in 1947 but was forced to flee from his home after Israel was established in 1948 and war erupted with its Arab neighbors.
Al-Jawary claims in court filings that he grew up in refugee camps in Jordan. When he was 18, in 1965, he joined Arafat's PLO.
While mired in poverty, a resourceful Al-Jawary managed to earn a bachelor's degree in Palestinian history in Deraa, Jordan, in 1972. Later, he says, he was arrested in Damascus, Syria, from September 1972 to July 1973 — the period of the New York bombing attempts — for publishing an anti-Syrian letter in a local newspaper.
After graduation, Al-Jawary claims he taught history and Arabic in Jordan and married a woman named Rima Omar in 1975.
In 1977 the family moved to Beirut, where Al-Jawary claims he worked as a teacher. Five years later, Al-Jawary left Lebanon, choosing to start a new life in Nicosia, Cyprus, where he operated a legitimate business importing electronic equipment from Japan and exporting it to various Middle Eastern countries.
The store folded in a couple of years, according to his version. At some point, he became the PLO's cultural attache.
A Brooklyn jury didn't buy any of this. It took about three hours for the jury to convict Al-Jawary in 1993 — just days after the first attack on the World Trade Center — based on evidence that included his fingerprints on one of the bombs.
Judge Jack B. Weinstein sentenced Al-Jawary to 30 years in prison on April 16, 1993. Weinstein later rejected his pleas for mercy in a written opinion issued after the trial, saying the bombs would have "killed and maimed hundreds, caused large fires and terrorized thousands of people."
Al-Jawary, the judge wrote, was a serious threat.
"It is highly likely that were this defendant released he would continue his dangerous terrorist activities," the judge said.
Since his conviction, many top Palestinian officials have written to the judge on Al-Jawary's behalf, seeking his release. There's even a death certificate in court files along with witnesses claiming Al-Jawary was killed by Israeli shelling in 1988.
None of it was convincing. Al-Jawary's appeals foundered.
But those countless hours behind bars are almost over. Freedom looms for this gaunt and graying terrorist who has spent about a quarter of his life in maximum-security prisons. He was transferred recently to a federal detention center in Manhattan.
Al-Jawary is scheduled to be released Feb. 19 after completing only about half his term, including time served prior to his sentencing and credit for good behavior, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Once he's released, Al-Jawary will be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held until his deportation.
It remains unclear where he'll go, largely because Al-Jawary's true identity remains in question — even to this day.
Those who helped put Al-Jawary behind bars believe he'll pick up where he left off.
"What is he going to do when he gets out?" McTigue said. "He'll be deported and received as a hero and go right back into his terrorist activities. He's had years to think about nothing else but causing havoc and destruction."
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