When FBI agents brought Ramzi Ahmed Yousef to New York City after his dramatic capture in Pakistan in February 1995, they deliberately flew him over the World Trade Center, which he had allegedly plotted to bomb two years earlier.
“You see, it’s still standing,” one agent pointedly boasted, according to a story making the rounds among law enforcement officials.
“But it wouldn’t be,” Yousef reportedly responded, “if I’d had better help.”
Cold, uncowed and still full of bravado, Yousef has rapidly gained a reputation among U.S. officials as the 1990s version of Carlos the Jackal, one of the most feared terrorists of the ‘70s.
Besides allegedly pulling off the New York attack, Yousef is accused of bombing a Philippine passenger plane and may be tied to an explosive attack on a Mideast shrine packed with worshipers. He has also been linked with failed schemes to bomb 11 U.S. aircraft in Asia and to assassinate Pope John Paul II and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto--all in a brief two years.
Yousef will be called to account for his alleged actions when the first of his two trials opens in a New York courtroom Monday. This one is on charges of bombing the Philippine plane; the World Trade Center trial is scheduled to start in September.
More than 100 witnesses, including many foreigners in witness protection programs in the United States, are expected to testify at the trials. With truckloads of forensic evidence, FBI officials expect both trials to far overshadow the first World Trade Center trial, in which 10 people were found guilty in October of conspiring to wage urban warfare against the United States.
Even with all the information that has been collected about him over the past three years, Yousef remains far more mysterious than Carlos. At least international authorities knew the real name and history of the elusive Venezuelan hit man at the height of his killings, hijackings and hostage seizures in the 1970s. They identified his sponsors. They understood his motives.
Investigating Yousef, the FBI and CIA had to sort through more than 40 aliases just to come up with his real name--Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim, sometimes with Baluchi added at the end to reflect his family’s origins in the Baluchistan region straddling Pakistan and Iran.
Specifics about Yousef--the name still used in court documents--are limited. Accumulated fragments portray a smart but sometimes careless amateur with an enormous ego.
Yousef knew, for example, how to stretch a limited budget. Many of his multiple passports were probably bought in Peshawar, in Pakistan’s Wild West-like frontier, for $100 or less, officials believe.
“This was not a high-budget operation that required serious state funding,” a lead investigator said. “He was, in fact, short of funds.”
Yousef also rather clumsily left fingerprints “at least 15 layers thick” on a bomb-making manual used in the World Trade Center attack, the investigator said. Those prints were the main proof that the man who checked in at the SuCasa Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February 1995 was indeed Yousef. The match also provided the legal basis for the request that he be extradited to the United States after his arrest at the SuCasa.
And for all the skills involved in making and delivering the 1,200-pound New York bomb, officials said, Yousef’s talents have sometimes backfired on him. In 1993, a bomb that Pakistani officials later charged was intended for Bhutto went off prematurely while Yousef was working on it, permanently maiming several of his fingers and leaving him with a wobbly eye.
In court, in sessions with the FBI and in one interview, Yousef has denied most of the charges against him, including the plots against the pope and Bhutto and the shrine bombing. He injured his hand and eye while helping to train fighters bound for Bosnia, he has said.
Investigators believe Yousef was propelled less by Islamic piety than by bitterness and rage, although his exact motivation remains unclear.
He appears to be the product of a confluence of circumstances: a general disillusionment and alienation among his generation of Muslims; the lawless environment created by the war between Soviet troops and Afghan guerrillas that spilled into Pakistan; the rising anti-Western fervor in the Middle East and South Asia; and the growing use of violence as a basic means of expression.
Law enforcement officials see striking parallels between the World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
In each case, the accused perpetrator is a dedicated and serious young misfit from an alienated underground culture. Both imaginatively built on basic training to devise unsophisticated but large and deadly bombs. Their shoestring funding allegedly came mainly from criminal activities, not sophisticated groups or supporting countries.
And the FBI now believes that like Timothy J. McVeigh, the chief suspect in the Oklahoma bombing, Yousef created his own terrorist cell from friends and contacts.
“There are incredible similarities with Oklahoma City,” said an FBI official familiar with both cases. “Both reflect the changing face of terrorism and what we’re going to have to learn how to deal with.”
Even if he carried out only some of the many attacks attributed to him, Yousef is considered clearly more dangerous than McVeigh.
Most ominous is the cumulative effect of his alleged misdeeds, for he also came close to creating a new type of global network. In four years of what U.S. investigators claim was a disjointed worldwide terrorist campaign, he built up cells in North America, the Middle East and throughout Asia.
In his only prison interview to date, Yousef boasted openly of a heretofore unknown organization called the Liberation Army Movement, with members from “all of the world’s nationalities.”
The movement has “groups and military divisions, each of which concerns itself with Islamic movements’ affairs in various countries,” he told Al Hayat, an Arabic publication based in London, last year. He named Egypt and Algeria, as well as the Palestinians.
Yet Yousef does not conform to the classic psychological profiles of those espousing the nationalist and religious causes he has adopted. Although he did tap into groups of Muslim fanatics in the United States and Asia to carry out his alleged crimes, he is not a fundamentalist.
“It would be a mistake to look at him that way. He personally doesn’t fit the fanatic mold for a number of reasons,” a key U.S. official said.
Yousef has spent a fair amount of time in the West. He earned a degree in electronic engineering in 1989 from West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education (now the Swansea Institute) in Wales, where he was not known among the faculty as a Muslim enthusiast.
Yousef has been widely linked with the network of Afghan “holy warriors,” but in fact he claims never to have fought inside Afghanistan. He was in Wales when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, and his closest association with the “holy warriors” is believed to have occurred in 1992.
And in a bizarre twist, officials said that Yousef may even be connected to a 1994 bombing of the holiest site in Iran, the country synonymous with Islamic extremism. The attack on the Reza shrine in Mashhad, which killed approximately two dozen people and injured more than 100, was the deadliest act of violence in Iran for a decade.
A Sunni Muslim, Yousef seems to despise Iran’s Shiite regime as much as he does the United States, investigators said. That attitude may be inherited. Yousef’s father reportedly has a long record of anti-Shiite, anti-government activities.
The other cause with which Yousef identifies is the Palestinian movement. He justified the New York attack on grounds that the United States is a partner in crime with Israel.
“Because this [foreign aid] money is taken from taxes by Americans, then logically and legally, this makes the American people responsible for all crimes of killing, settlements, torture and imprisonment to which the Palestinian people are subject,” he told Al Hayat.
Yet Yousef is Pakistani. His father was born in Baluchistan, a lawless, tribal and largely Sunni province beyond the control of either Iran or Pakistan, where several brothers and uncles still live. His wife and two daughters are thought to be hiding in Baluchistan, investigators say.
As a young adult, Yousef traveled between Kuwait and Pakistan. His only Palestinian link is a maternal grandmother, who he claims was from Haifa. She lost the family home during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he told Al Hayat.
The causes behind Yousef’s sense of ties to Palestinian and Islamic issues appear instead to grow out of his early years in Kuwait.
Born there in 1968, while his father was employed by Kuwait Airways, Yousef grew up in Fahaheel, one of the city-state’s poor suburbs, among the families of migrant workers from Pakistan and several Arab communities, including Palestinians.
As it did all foreigners, Kuwait denied his family citizenship and other benefits of living in the oil-rich nation. Frustration and alienation escalated during his formative years, as the oil boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s--when oil revenues quadrupled or more--accentuated the differences in income and opportunities between wealthy Kuwaitis and their “guest workers.”
Fahaheel at the time was a breeding ground for a wide range of movements, including Palestinian nationalism and the Islamic resurgence. Two key players in alleged Yousef plots in Pakistan and the Philippines were Baluchi friends with whom he grew up in Fahaheel.
The 1980s meanwhile marked the heyday of U.S. involvement in South Asia and the Mideast. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Reagan administration poured in money and arms.
The period was also marked by the most controversial American interventions in the Arab world, including a naval buildup in the Persian Gulf to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War and the U.S. Marine deployment in Lebanon.
All these factors shaped the mind of a clever young man in search of an identity who was an outsider in virtually every place he lived, investigators believe.
During his arraignment for the New York bombing, when he refused an interpreter, he calmly and loudly pronounced, “Not guilty.”
Yet investigators who have talked with Yousef said he seems “openly proud” of the World Trade Center attack that killed six, injured 1,000 and caused $500 million in damage. Although he faces the prospect of life imprisonment, he still acts as if he hasn’t been beaten.
“If ‘terrorist’ means that I regain my land and fight whoever assaults me and my kinsmen,” Yousef told Al Hayat, “then I have no objection to being called a terrorist.”