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First of 2 Trials to Open for Key N.Y. Blast Figure

Terrorism: Ramzi Ahmed Yousef is accused of bombing airliner. He also faces charges he planned deadly World Trade Center explosion.

May 12, 1996|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — 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.

Plane Bombing

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."

Left Fingerprints

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.

Terrorist Cell

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