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Unabomber Threatens LAX Flights, Then Calls It a Prank : Terror: Security precautions to remain in effect despite serial bomber’s contradiction of earlier letter. Some passengers alter plans and airmail is interrupted.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The nation’s most notorious serial bomber put law enforcement on high alert and airline passengers into a state of high anxiety Wednesday, threatening in a letter to blow up a jet out of Los Angeles International Airport, but then saying in a missive late in the day that it was only a prank.

The contradictory statements by the so-called Unabomber left officials uncertain of what, if anything, to believe from the elusive terrorist who has played a deadly cat-and-mouse game with them for 17 years.

Officials in Los Angeles said they had been instructed by federal authorities late Wednesday to treat the Unabomber threat seriously, despite the late news of a letter to the New York Times in which the terrorist said he is simply reminding the public he is still around. Both letters have been authenticated by the FBI.

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“Not one iota of change has been effectuated because of this last letter coming in,” said one local official, who asked not to be named. “All of the security precautions remain in place.”

Those precautions were instituted after the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter Tuesday from the Unabomber, who authorities believe lives in Northern California. In it, he threatened “to blow up an airliner out of Los Angeles International Airport sometime during the next six days.”

As word of the initial threat spread nationwide, some travelers rushed to cancel flights and reroute itineraries. Airmail was interrupted throughout much of the state. At LAX, the fourth busiest airport in the world, uniformed police were posted around the perimeter and passengers were asked to verify their tickets with picture identifications.

Meanwhile, the response to this affront to domestic security ranged across several fronts:

* Federal Bureau of Investigation officials said they were “100%” certain that the source of the first letter was the serial bomber who has been responsible for 16 attacks that have killed three people and injured 23. Special Agent in Charge Jim R. Freeman, who heads the Unabomber task force, would not divulge details but said forensic tests proved conclusively that the letter was the work of the same individual and “does confirm that there is a credible threat.”

* Airport security was stepped up throughout the state to the highest levels since the Gulf War, and the Federal Aviation Administration warned passengers to expect delays and be on the lookout for suspicious packages. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, in what he said was an effort to personally inspect the new security measures, flew in and out of Los Angeles International Airport. Pena said he is confident that the airport is safe, but warned that “every person should exercise their own individual judgment about whether or not they want to fly.”

* Federal investigators huddled at the airport and reiterated their offer of a $1-million reward for information leading to the capture of the Unabomber. However, knowledge of the bomber’s identity remains sketchy at best.

* Fearing that, as in past attacks, the bomber could use an explosive hidden in a package, the FAA directed airlines not to accept any mail flown into or out of California for part of the day Wednesday, seriously disrupting deliveries. Later, the FAA retained the ban on parcels only. Nonetheless, postal officials estimated that the decision would ground more than 400,000 packages a day.

* The multi-agency task force hunting the bomber has been more than doubled to 150 agents, with reinforcements possibly on the way.

Last-Minute Development

But the day’s most bizarre development came with the Unabomber’s whipsawing letter to the New York Times, which the newspaper said it turned over to the FBI unopened because it looked “suspicious.”

In its editions today, the paper said the FBI quoted a part of the letter as saying: “Since the public has a short memory, we decided to play one last prank to remind them who we are. But, no, we haven’t tried to plant a bomb on an airline recently.”

The letter to the New York Times also said: “In one case we attempted unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner. The idea was to kill a lot of business people who we assumed would constitute the majority of the passengers.

“But of course some of the passengers likely would have been innocent people--maybe kids, or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We’re glad now that that attempt failed.”

Seeming to express some remorse, the Unabomber said:

“We don’t think it is necessary for us to do any public soul-searching in this letter. But we will say that we are not insensitive to the pain caused by our bombings.”

Still, Mitch Barker, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, said no changes would be made in the extraordinary security precautions taken at LAX.

“We’re going to keep those precautions in effect as long as we feel there’s a threat to the traveling public,” he said.

Asked if officials still took the original letter seriously, he responded, “Yes, we do.” Barker added that “the Unabomber thrives on this kind of stuff. He likes to disrupt lives. And he’s certainly disrupted some lives of late. That should make him happy.”

Most of those disruptions occurred at Los Angeles International Airport, which last year handled 51 million passengers and which on Wednesday was bracing for one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.

At check-in counters, passengers were asked for photo identification and politely detained if the name on their tickets did not match their IDs. At metal detectors, security workers doubled up to give extra scrutiny to mountains of suitcases and handbags.

Curbside traffic was hustled along by uniformed police officers posted every few hundred yards, and a bomb-sniffing dog was posted near the United Airlines shuttle gate. Passengers were told to expect delays of up to two hours, but as the day passed, most of the planes seemed to be running more or less on time.

Tempers, however, were short. At the Southwest Airlines terminal, emotions flared after a man, traveling to Albuquerque with his identical twin, walked down the aisle of a plane asking what the crew would do if he was carrying a bomb in his clothing. The plane, which was on the runway, returned to the gate, where airport security detained the man and handed him over to FBI investigators.

The episode drew a crowd in the bustling waiting area, bringing some nervous onlookers nearly to tears.

“I wish we could just catch this guy and put an end to this,” said a worried mother from Redondo Beach whose teen-ager was boarding a plane to Colorado, where she was to spend the summer with her father. “How do you feel secure anymore with this terrorism? . . . It’s a different world from the one I grew up in.”

At the airport’s administration building, Mayor Richard Riordan tried to reassure the public with the news that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies had formed a task force to address what they have termed “a credible threat.”

“The FBI, the Secret Service, the LAPD, the FAA are giving us the best protection possible,” emphasized Riordan, whose office said he canceled a trip to Washington, D.C., so he could be in Los Angeles during the emergency.

However, asked whether he would take the risk, Riordan--like Transportation Secretary Pena--was less confident.

“My personal judgment is that I would fly,” the mayor said. “But every person must make their own judgment.”

Taking that to heart, some Southern California travelers scrambled to other airports and other modes of transportation. Two airlines operating out of Burbank Airport--Alaska and America West--reported increases of about 10 passengers per flight Wednesday as travelers sought to switch LAX departures to nearby regional airports. Meanwhile, American Airlines and United Airlines waived the $50 re-ticketing fee for passengers wanting to change California flights. Other carriers were expected to follow suit.

Travel agents said they were able to accommodate most passengers wanting to change flights Wednesday. But they anticipated difficulty as the holiday weekend approaches. Many flights in and out of the Los Angeles Basin are nearly fully booked, as the industry enjoys one of the strongest travel seasons in recent years.

Rob Calihan, a New York attorney crisscrossing the country on business and scheduled to fly out of Los Angeles on Wednesday night, said he heard about the threat Wednesday morning from his law office and immediately began looking for alternate ways out of town.

By midday, he was still uncertain--and so unsettled that he was considering making part of his trip by train. It didn’t help, he said, that his small children back in New York had heard about the threat “and think it’s Oklahoma City all over again.”

“The chances of my being on the plane are extremely remote, I know,” Calihan said. “But it’s really unpleasant to have to worry about it.”

Those who had stayed with original travel plans echoed the views of Bonnie Kalaf of North Hollywood, who said her anger at the Unabomber outweighed her fear.

“At first, I thought, oh, great,” Kalaf said as she waited for a flight to New York with her 13-year-old daughter, Niki. “But then I thought, this is silly. You can’t let something like this stop you from what you have to do. That’s what he wants.

“So,” she sighed nervously, “we proceed and keep our fingers crossed and pray nothing happens. And nothing will happen. Right?”

The Bomber and His Mayhem

The years-long hunt for the Unabomber has now taken on a sense of critical urgency as he apparently has moved beyond his lone targets of recent years to the potential of mass carnage. Despite 16 bombings reaching back to 1978--including one targeting an airliner and another targeting an airline official--the Unabomber still remains unidentified.

Investigators know much about the Unabomber’s methods but precious little about his identity. The only known sighting of a suspect was in 1987 in Salt Lake City, when a witness glimpsed a white man with a ruddy complexion, sunglasses, a small mustache and reddish-blond hair hidden beneath a sweat shirt hood on the scene of a package bomb blast at a computer company.

More familiar has been the mechanism that has come to be known by FBI bomb experts as the Unabomber’s “signature”--a bomb crafted of wood, polished metal and common items such as a lamp cord that make tracing him particularly difficult.

“We found by experience that gunpowder bombs, if small enough to be carried inconspicuously, were too feeble to do much damage, so we took a couple of years off to do some experimenting,” the Unabomber explained in a letter to the New York Times two months ago.

“We learned how to make pipe bombs that were powerful enough, and we used these in a couple of successful bombings, as well as in some unsuccessful ones.”

His targets have been disparate, including the engineering department of Northwestern University, a computer rental store owner, professors of computer science and genetics and a Burson-Marsteller advertising executive. In April, in his most recent attack, forestry lobbyist Gilbert Murray was killed by a bomb that exploded at the office of the California Forestry Assn. in Sacramento.

In taunting letters--one to a victim, another to a Yale computer science professor, another to the New York Times--the Unabomber has called for “the destruction of the worldwide industrial system” and demanded publication of a manuscript detailing his beliefs.

Initially, some authorities expressed doubts that this week’s threat was from the same terrorist. Past Unabomber attacks, for the most part, have been made on individuals without warning by U.S. mail.

But FBI Agent Freeman said during a Wednesday news conference in San Francisco that “further examination has confirmed that this letter originates from the Unabomber subject. The implication of that, of course, is that it does confirm that there is a credible threat.”

Asked how certain he was that the letter was the work of the Unabomber, Freeman said simply: “100%.”

The most recent letter was mailed Saturday afternoon at a mailbox in San Francisco, Freeman said. It arrived at the Chronicle’s office Tuesday.

A transcript of the Chronicle letter was released by the FBI. It said in its entirety:

“WARNING. The terrorist group FC, called unabomber by the FBI, is planning to blow up an airliner out of Los Angeles International Airport some time during the next six days. To prove that the writer of this letter knows something about FC, the first two digits of their identifying number are 55.”

Earlier letters to the New York Times have used a nine-digit number that began with 55, Freeman confirmed.

Investigators said they were uncertain whether the Unabomber intended the six days to begin Saturday, when the letter was mailed, or Tuesday, when it was opened.

The Unabomber, who has frequently used addresses involving types of wood in the past, used a fictitious return address of 549 Wood St. in Woodlake, Calif. The sender’s name was listed as Frederick Benjamin Isaac Wood. Investigators were inquiring to see if someone of that name existed, but were inclined to agree that the name was more likely a play on the initials, FBI.

Although the Unabomber has most recently used the U.S. mail to deliver his bombs, that is not his only method; many of his earlier bombs were placed in locations where people would find them and set them off. Nor is it unlike him to target an airline--the name Unabomber was coined by the FBI because of his earliest attacks, on university professors and airlines.

In 1979, one bomb apparently sent through the mail exploded in an American Airlines cargo bay, igniting a fire. Twelve people were treated for smoke inhalation as the plane made an emergency landing.

The bombing occurred during the Iranian hostage crisis, but the FBI quickly discounted Middle Eastern terrorism as a motive, subsequently discovering that the bomb had been rigged with a common home barometer set to explode when the plane was at 6,500 feet.

The next year, United Airlines President Percy Wood was nearly killed when a parcel sent to his Illinois home exploded on the kitchen table.

This pattern, officials said, supports the theory that the Unabomber is threatening to strike again.

“Is it a credible threat? Yes,” Freeman said. “The Unabomber has carried out bombings before. He certainly has shown the capability of doing it, whether his motivation is to follow through with that I don’t know.”

In an apparently related development, according to FBI investigators, the New York Times on Wednesday received a small package that was also believed to be from the terrorist. The newspaper turned it over to the FBI unopened, and the contents were not publicly divulged.

After the bombing death of timber lobbyist Murray in April, the Unabomber offered to stop targeting people if a major newspaper or magazine would publish a lengthy communication he would write. But Freeman said he had no knowledge that the Unabomber had submitted a manuscript to any of the outlets that might publish it.

“I am very much in favor of the Unabomber ceasing that kind of terrorist activity and I’m heartened that the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times and a few others have expressed an interest in at least considering publishing a manuscript or statements from the Unabomber. I’d much rather see communication than bombs.”

Playing It Safe

Given the Unabomber’s track record, officials said they preferred being safe to being sorry.

In one particularly harrowing precautionary measure, more than 350 people were evacuated from a United Airlines jumbo jet at Sydney airport in Australia after passenger found a broken clock radio under a seat and mistook it for an explosive device.

Perhaps the most sweeping safeguards were taken in regard to the Unabomber’s preferred milieu--the mails.

Dennis Hagberg, postal inspector in charge in San Francisco, confirmed that the mails would be disrupted on a massive scale amid an FAA directive to airlines not to accept any airmail in California.

Initially, the order affected nearly all of the mail originating in California for delivery in other states as well as much of the mail sent within California. Later in the day, the federal agency allowed letters 11 ounces and under to fly but continued to ground parcels.

Not since the Los Angeles riots, when local mail was declared undeliverable at times to certain locations, has there been such a disruption in delivery, officials said. One of the greatest logistichurdles was at LAX, which handles about half of the parcels delivered in the state each day.

Several X-ray scanners were being installed at a hangar on the south end of the airport and dozens of technicians from the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, Postal Service and Los Angeles Police Department were enlisted to view the packages, one at a time.

Authorities were unclear on how long the massive effort would go on.

“That has to be done one piece at a time,” said one airport official. “It is a hand process, and it is very painstaking.”

Delayed parcels--including express, priority and fourth-class mail--were to be held at one of 23 mail centers statewide until a plan is devised to ensure their safety. In the meantime, consumers may face delays in sending and receiving mail and be required to show identification when dropping off parcels.

Transportation Secretary Pena refused to specify what other precautions were being taken at LAX, or to say which other California airports were also placed on alert.

However, Pena said, the new security measures would remain in place “until this matter is resolved--that is, until the threat goes away.”

How long that will take remained unclear.

“Let me say that all of us as Americans are beginning to understand that we live in a changed society,” Pena said, refusing to elaborate.

“With the New York Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing--and now this threat--we realize that our lives are being inconvenienced because of the changing nature of the world.”

But while authorities stressed that they are taking the threat seriously, they could only wonder how serious the bomber might be.

“Is he testing the system out? Is he trying to show us how smart he is?” one law enforcement source wondered aloud. “We don’t know what he is trying to do this time.”

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, Vivien Chen, Tina Daunt, Denise Gellene, Larry Gordon, Jeff Leeds, Dan Morain, Ronald Ostrow and Adrian Maher contributed to this report.

* SECURITY INCREASED: Extra measures implemented at John Wayne Airport. B1

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Trail of the Bomber

A 17-year run of package bombings is code-named Unabom because early bombings targeted universities and airlines.

Chronology

1) June 28, 1995: Many California airports tighten security following a threat to blow up an airliner at Los Angeles International Airport.

2) April 25, 1995: Timber industry executive killed by bomb sent to his office at the California Forestry Association in Sacramento.

3) Dec. 10, 1994: Advertising executive killed by bomb sent to his North Caldwell, N.J., home.

4) June 24, 1993: Yale University computer scientist injured in office.

5) June 22, 1993: Geneticist at University of California at San Francisco injured by bomb sent to his home.

6) Feb. 20, 1987: Man injured by bomb left behind computer rental store in Salt Lake City.

7) Dec. 11, 1985: Man killed by bomb found near computer rental store in Sacramento, Calif.

8) Nov. 15, 1985: Secretary injured by package mailed to professor at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

9) June 13, 1985: Police disarm bomb mailed to the Boeing Co. in Auburn, Wash.

10) May 15, 1985: One person injured by bomb found in computer room at University of California at Berkeley.

11) July 2, 1982: Professor of electrical engineering and computer science injured in faculty lounge at University of California at Berkeley.

12) May 5, 1982: One person injured at Vanderbilt University in Nashville; package addressed to a professor.

13) Oct. 8, 1981: Bomb is placed in a business classroom at University of Utah in Salt Lake City. No one injured.

14) June 10, 1980: United Airlines president injured at home in Chicago area.

15) Nov. 15, 1979: Twelve people suffered smoke inhalation when bomb exploded in plane’s cargo hold during American Airlines flight, forcing an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport near Washington.

16) May 9, 1979: A bomb injures one person at Northwestern University’s Technological Institute in Evanston, Ill.

17) May 25, 1978: A bomb at Northwestern injures a security guard.

****

Investigators’ Profile of the Unabomber

* Believed to be living in Northern California.

* Compulsive, quiet and patient; shows paranoia and need for attention; grandiose; thwarted ambition; intelligent; anti-technology; a self-described anarchist.

* His stated goal: the “destruction of the worldwide industrial system.”

* Envious of attention paid to Oklahoma City bombing.

* Has threatened to build a more powerful bomb packed into “more harmless looking packages.”

****

The Bombs

* Meticulously handcrafted, using commonly available items.

* Materials used have included matchheads, gunpowder, aluminum cylinders, ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder and handmade triggers.

* Fascination with wood is evident, with many devices having hand-carved wooden components or placed in wooden boxes.

* The latest bomb was in a wooden shoebox-size box, wrapped in heavy brown paper, sealed with nylon tape and addressed with typed labels.

* The letters “FC” have been scratched on some parts.

* Bombs have included pipe bombs, parcel bombs, at least two disguised as “road hazards.”

Sources: FBI, Times files.

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