Iraq provided safe haven for terrorist involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing
On June 27, 1994 ABC News reported that Abdul Rahman Yasin (indicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) was known to be living in Iraq. A reporter working for ABC News and Newsweek spotted Abdul Yasin at his father's house in Baghdad. In its July 4, 1994 edition, Newsweek reported that Yasin was "working for the Iraqi government" according to the neighbors. At that time, the United States government was offering a $2 million reward for information leading to his capture. Yasin was never brought to justice, however, and still remains at large today. The reward for his capture has since increased to $5 million.
'America's Most Wanted' - Fugitive Terrorists
FORREST SAWYER: We begin tonight with new information about the two men most wanted by the U.S. government. They are the subject of an international manhunt that was set off by one terrible act: the bombing of the World Trade Center. Just days after the disaster, we learned that those at the center of the conspiracy had been captured. Score one for the FBI. But now a Day One/Newsweek investigation suggests that the one man most responsible for building the bomb got away, along with one other mysterious conspirator. We've also learned that the U.S. government made a series of mistakes that allowed the conspirators to get into the country and pull off the attack. The story now from Sheila MacVicar.
SHEILA MacVICAR, ABC News: [voice-over] Last month, the four men convicted in America's worst terrorist attack were taken to a federal courthouse in New York. They would each be sentenced to spend 240 years in prison. The bomb they exploded at One World Trade Center on February 26th, 1993, caused six deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, nearly half a billion dollars in damages and lost business income. Sixteen months later, the building is repaired, business is restored and it seems the case is closed.
JIM DWYER, Columnist, 'Newsday': I think that the idea that this was- these were the village idiots of the global village and we got them all in hand- I think that's definitely the idea that we've been led to believe.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] But there are two men who have not been caught, two men who were crucial to the plot and who made the bomb possible. They have disappeared and are now fugitives, each with a $2 million price tag on his head. [on camera] The real story of the World Trade Center bombing is not just a tale of stumbling amateurs. American security officials say the conspirators in New Jersey had professional help, the skills and expertise of a trained terrorist and his accomplice. The case, as developed against them but not yet tried in court, shows how they came into this country, carried out their mission and successfully escaped. U.S. authorities had opportunities to stop them, but failed each time. [voice-over] The plot had its roots in Jersey City, just across the river from Manhattan. Above this storefront on Kennedy Boulevard is the El Salaam mosque. Among the worshipers there was a small group united in their hatred of Israel and America. By June, 1992, according to this document filed in federal court by the U.S. attorney, the group had become a conspiracy and they had a lot of big ideas. They talked about assassinating a judge, killing politicians and buying ready-made bombs. But the FBI knew about these plans because they had an informant named Emad Salem planted right in the middle of the group. Salem was a former Egyptian Army officer. The group planned to rely on his military skills. As it was becoming clear the group was both serious and dangerous, Salem and the FBI had a falling-out over how to proceed. He stopped being an informant and dropped out of the group. The FBI lost their only source on the inside. They no longer knew what the conspirators were doing. Day One has pieced together what the FBI could not know, as the conspirators moved from talk to action. The first thing they did was try to find someone else who knew how to build bombs. One of the conspirators began a series of phone calls day and night, $1,400 worth, first to Baghdad, Iraq, and then to Peshawar, Pakistan. On the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Peshawar is a haven for gun runners, spies and veterans of the war between Afghan guerrillas and the Soviet Union. It was here that the conspirators in New Jersey contacted the man who had organized them and, investigators say, build their bomb. He is now wanted by the U.S. government. His name: Ramzi Yousef.
JAMES FOX, former Assistant Director, New York FBI: If somebody could be called the mastermind, the bomb master, in this plot, in my view, it's Ramzi Yousef.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] James Fox is the former director of the New York FBI. He led the investigation.
JAMES FOX: I don't believe there would have been a bomb without Ramzi Yousef or someone exactly like Yousef- that is, with his skills and expertise. Without that person, I don't think they could have made the bomb work.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] The bomb-maker's first task was to get into the United States. To do that, he needed a companion to get past American authorities at Kennedy Airport, so Ramzi Yousef found this man, Ahmad Ajaj.
AHMAD AJAJ: [through interpreter] No one suggested I travel with him. I met him at the end of July or the beginning of August. I just wanted to get back to the United States.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] But Ajaj is now serving a 240-year sentence at this federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, for what the government says was his part in the bombing of the World Trade Center. The government says his involvement began when he and Yousef, using assumed names, bought these first-class tickets on a Pakistan Airways flight bound for New York. On September 2nd, 1992, their flight landed at New York's JFK Airport. They left their first-class seats and headed for the immigration hall.
JIM DWYER: It's one of the great cattle calls of our society. It's packed, the immigration hall at JFK. There are, you know, probably a couple hundred people getting off of this flight.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] Jim Dwyer is a columnist at Newsday and co-author of a book about the bombing.
JIM DWYER: Towards the front of the line, we have our man, Ajaj, and he's got this blatantly fake passport. One fingernail from the INS agent and she's able to peel back the picture and see that there's somebody else's face really pasted onto this passport, that it's a fake.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] Ahmad Ajaj, traveling on a stolen Swedish passport, was arrested. When Customs officers opened his luggage, the contents were startling. They found a suitcase packed with military manuals, volumes on explosives, how to make bombs, rig grenades and shoot to kill.
JAMES FOX: I think he knew what he was carrying and I think he knew that, by those documents being in his possession, he was protecting this man who was the key man for the operation. And he did it willingly, in my view.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] At the same time as Ajaj was being arrested, Yousef, the bomb-maker, was standing nearby, still waiting to clear immigration. JIM DWYER: Ramzi Yousef is there in this harem shirt and big, baggy silk pants and it's almost- it's almost like a caricature. Why is this man drawing so much attention to himself, in a way? Maybe what we're seeing here is the old thing about robbing a bank. If you go to rob a bank, wear some outlandish clothes and everybody'll be looking at your clothes and they won't remember your face.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] When Yousef's turn came, he pulled out an Iraqi passport and asked for political asylum. The officer in the booth wanted to refuse him entry, but her supervisors overruled her, so the bomb-maker was allowed to enter the United States. [interviewing] What could they have been thinking of? They weren't exactly trying to sneak in quietly.
JAMES FOX: The bottom line is, what happened? The bomb master got in and was able to pull off the bombing. So what appears as obvious to us, as a ridiculous situation, obviously wasn't that ridiculous.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] Ajaj, Yousef's traveling companion, has been in prison since his arrest at Kennedy Airport. He denies the manuals were meant to be used by Yousef. [interviewing] You're traveling with the guy that the FBI says made that bomb and you're traveling with a suitcase full of bomb manuals and you say to me that that is all a coincidence?
AHMAD AJAJ: [through interpreter] We never talked about doing anything illegal inside the United States. I was bringing those books here to mail them to others.
SHEILA MacVICAR: Did he tell you were he was going to live in New York?
AHMAD AJAJ: [through interpreter] He told me he would go and live with some people he knows around New York.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] Yousef, the bomb-maker, knew exactly where he was going, to this apartment building at 34 Kensington Avenue in Jersey City, where some of the conspirators lived.
JAMES FOX: Suddenly, Ramzi Yousef comes from the Middle East and I think they all knew what Ramzi Yousef was here for. And he quickly went right to work.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] Everybody was in place, except for one last man. He would become the second fugitive. Abdul Rahman Yasin arrived just a few days after Yousef. Yasin is a 34-year-old Iraqi who has lived most of his life in Baghdad. Unlike the bomb-maker, Yousef, Yasin didn't have to worry about U.S. immigration. That's because he was born in Indiana, where his father was a Ph.D. student. As an American citizen, Yasin could simply walk into any U.S. embassy and apply for an American passport. He did exactly that in the summer of 1992 in Amman, Jordan. Three months later, he used his new American passport to enter the United States. By the end of September, all the conspirators were living just a few blocks apart in Jersey City. Long into the night, when the neighborhood had settled down and most were asleep, the lights at 34 Kensington Avenue continued to burn. Led by Yousef, the bomb-maker, they made their plans. [on camera] Even though they had no informant among the conspirators, the FBI was still concerned about their activities. They actually had members of the group under investigation. But Day One has learned that agents were turned down by headquarters in Washington when they sought permission to use wiretaps and full-time surveillance to get more information. [voice-over] In late November, Yousef, using yet another assumed identity, went to City Chemical Corporation to buy the materials he needed for the bomb: nitric acid, sulfuric acid, amonium hydroxide. In February, at this house, Yousef, with the help of Yasin and the others, began preparing the bomb. [interviewing] Why do you think they chose this- this neighborhood?
JAMES FOX: Well, I think they were probably looking for a place they would not stand out, be inconspicuous, and the address, 40 Pan Rapao, is exactly that. It's set back off the street, well off the street, much further back than any of the other houses. This address came to be known as the bomb factory.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] In the days before the bombing, Yousef made almost daily trips to a neighborhood bank. These images from a security camera in the lobby provide a rare look at the man we know as Yousef, the bomb-maker. Here he is, withdrawing money from a cash machine. Two days later, he is back to use the pay phone in the corner. The countdown has begun. He assigns an accomplice to rent a van. Everything is now ready. The time is set. 4:00 A.M., February 26th, the day of the bombing. The conspirators meet at a gas station. The bomb is in the van.
JAMES FOX: Ramzi Yousef was in the van, making one more checklist, saying, 'Is this right? Is this right?' Everything had to be really well placed and it had to be done by somebody who had been trained by professional terrorists.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] They drove through the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan. Yousef and an accomplice took the van down into the garage of One World Trade Center. They locked the door and walked away.
JAMES FOX: We're at the B-2 level, of course, of the parking garage. This is where the van was parked when the bomb was detonated. It looks fairly well organized and clean and tidy now. On that day, it was absolute devastation. Cars were thrown around like they were tinkertoys.
SHEILA MacVICAR: How do you think that they had the expertise to know exactly where to put it?
JAMES FOX: I think you have to come back to the theory that someone was the key man, the mastermind. And we, of course, think it was Ramzi Yousef. And it was probably Yousef that made the determination exactly where the van should be parked.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] Investigators say that what happened next is the most compelling evidence of Yousef's profile as a professional terrorist. Only seven hours after the bomb went off, Yousef was at Kennedy Airport, checking in for a flight to Pakistan. It was a perfect getaway. Weeks before, he had obtained a passport in still another assumed name and nationality. He left the United States as Abdul Basit, a Pakistani. He left behind the other conspirators. Within days, the FBI began making arrests. One of those taken in for questioning was Abdul Rahman Yasin.
JAMES FOX: He was not hostile and belligerent and hateful and I think he left, in those initial hours, a favorable impression with the agents.
SHEILA MacVICAR: The agents believed that he was cooperating.
JAMES FOX: They felt that he could be very helpful in this investigation.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] So helpful, Yasin told the FBI about key locations in the plot, gave them names and addresses to search. Inexplicably, the FBI decided not to arrest him and, just like Yousef, he left the country. He became the second fugitive.
JAMES FOX: I can't explain what all we knew and what all we didn't know at that time but, obviously, we felt it wasn't enough to justify keeping him, at that early stage.
SHEILA MacVICAR: But what he did that night was under his own name, go to JFK and use a plane ticket he'd bought days before and go to Jordan.
JAMES FOX: And who can explain? We certainly can't explain it now.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] From New York, fugitive number 2, Abdul Rahman Yasin, flew to Amman, Jordan. By late spring, 1993, he had disappeared down the highway into neighboring Iraq. Last week, Day One confirmed he is in Baghdad. This is his father's house, where Abdul Rahman Yasin visits almost daily. Just a few days ago, he was seen at the house by ABC News. Neighbors told us Yasin comes and goes freely. In Washington, where the State Department has put a $2 million price tag on Yasin's head, a spokesman declined to comment on what, if any, steps are being taken to bring him to justice. He said they were previously aware of reports that Yasin was in Baghdad. As for Ramzi Yousef, the bomb-maker, the other $2-million fugitive, from New York he flew to Quetta in Pakistan. Unconfirmed reports say he may have crossed into Afghanistan. There the trail runs cold.
JAMES FOX: Yousef is really a shadowy figure in this whole thing. There's so little that we know about him for certain and so much that we may never find out.
SHEILA MacVICAR: [voice-over] And unless they find him, key questions, like who paid him, who trained him and who sent him on his deadly mission, may never be answered. FORREST SAWYER: Sheila, you've hit on a critical point, whether these guys were acting on their own or this may have been state-sponsored terrorism.
SHEILA MacVICAR: Or there's another scenario. Perhaps some state, some organization somewhere, learned about the conspiracy in New Jersey and decided that they could use it to their own ends and so they sent in a professional, like Ramzi Yousef. Until we get at least one of the two fugitives, we aren't going to know the answer to that question for sure.
FORREST SAWYER: Which raises another question. How cold is the trail?
SHEILA MacVICAR: In the case of Ramzi Yousef, we believe the trail to be very cold. We don't even know who this guy is. We don't know his name, where he's from- very, very little about him. In the case of Yasin is easier. We know where he is and there are some indications from sources outside this country that there have been some discussions to try to get him to come in from the cold.
FORREST SAWYER: Sheila MacVicar, thanks a lot. We'll be back in just one moment.