A suspected bomber on President Bush's new list of "most wanted" terrorists was in the FBI's grasp eight years ago for allegedly playing a role in the first attack on the World Trade Center, but he was released and then allowed to leave the country, authorities acknowledged Thursday.
Abdul Rahman Yasin, 41, is one of the 22 accused terrorists identified by Bush on Wednesday as murderous extremists wanted by the U.S., whom authorities will aggressively pursue to bring to justice.
The FBI questioned Yasin at length soon after the February 1993 bomb blast at the trade center, which killed six people and injured 1,000. They asked about his sharing of apartments in Jersey City, N.J., with others who were later indicted and convicted in the bombing, and about how explosive chemicals got on one apartment's walls and may have caused a burn mark found on his thigh.
FBI agents also questioned Yasin about his association with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the man later convicted of masterminding the plot, according to law enforcement authorities and Stephen Somerstein, Yasin's lawyer.
"He . . . went in quite voluntarily, spoke at length to the FBI and went home," Somerstein said Thursday. "And the FBI appeared to be satisfied with that. They let him walk out the door."
A week after the bombing, on March 5, 1993, Yasin flew to Amman, Jordan, while other co-conspirators flew to Jordan, Saudia Arabia and Pakistan. He was indicted that August for his role in the bombing.
Officials at the Justice Department and the FBI declined comment.
Yasin's case, which has been cited as an example of the FBI missteps in terrorism investigations, also underscores a broader problem facing law enforcement authorities. Although they must establish probable cause before arresting a suspect--even a suspected terrorist--they sometimes fail to adequately investigate them.
Authorities also failed to prevent Yasin from fleeing. Last month's hijacking attacks have raised additional questions about the ability of the FBI--and the entire U.S. intelligence community--to correctly interpret warning signs about terrorists in their midst.
Bush's identification of Yasin on Wednesday as one of the world's most dangerous terrorists could further fuel a renewed debate over the ability of U.S. intelligence to correctly identify and detain suspected terrorists.
Authorities See Yasin as One That Got Away
Yasin's escape still rankles some counter-terrorism authorities, as evidenced by his inclusion on Bush's list, according to Vince Cannistraro, a former counter-terrorism chief for the CIA.
"We wanted him badly but he escaped and is now in Iraq," said Cannistraro. "He's the one the FBI should be embarrassed about. They talked to him in 1993 and then he skipped the country."
Yasin, born in Indiana to Iraqi parents, was released the day of his questioning. A week after the bombing, he flew from a New York airport to Jordan and then apparently to Iraq, even though authorities had warned airports to be on the lookout for him.
In August 1993, Yasin was indicted as one of the terrorist bombers, and the State Department later placed a $2 million bounty on his head. Yasin has remained out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement ever since, safely ensconced near Baghdad, authorities believe. Iraq has no extradition policy with the United States.
One former FBI official said the failure to hold on to Yasin became a subject of scrutiny after he fled the country.
"There was an overall discussion about the fact that we didn't home in on the guy sufficiently the first time," said James Kallstrom, who took over as head of the FBI's New York office in 1995. "I wouldn't call it second-guessing, but there was some opining."
Kallstrom, however, defended the bureau, saying agents had "virtually nothing to go on" in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack.
Neil Herman, a retired FBI supervisor who ran the World Trade Center investigation, said Yasin "certainly raised our suspicion . . . he was interviewed at length."
During the interview, Herman said, agents observed a chemical burn on Yasin's right thigh, making them suspect that he was involved in mixing nitroglycerin and other explosive chemicals used in the bombing.
But, Herman said, "Based on the evidence that was gathered, and in consultation with the United States attorney's office," authorities decided not to hold Yasin.
Herman said authorities later tied Yasin to the attack and the making of the bomb chemicals by using forensic evidence and photo identification from witnesses.
Lawyer Says Client Seen as Guilty by Association
Somerstein, who didn't begin representing Yasin until after he was questioned, agreed that the FBI agents certainly appeared to be linking his client to the bombing--even before finding the burn mark.
"Why would they be looking at this thigh unless they considered him a suspect?" asked Somerstein. "I assume he walked in there with a pair of trousers on."
Nevertheless, Somerstein said he believed Yasin played no part in the bombing. He said Yasin was in the U.S. seeking medical treatment, and that he was unfairly singled out for his associations with Yousef and others implicated in the plot.
"He's just a normal guy," Somerstein said. "It's guilt by association."
The indictment accuses Yasin, Yousef and another man of spending the early months of 1993 producing nitroglycerin, urea nitrate and other explosive chemicals in an apartment in Jersey City. It also implicated Yasin in other ways, and said the various co-conspirators placed the bomb in a rented Ryder van and detonated it under the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993--but did not specifically say Yasin was in the van.