A Jihadist Bombmaker Shows His Human Side

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
4 MINS READApr 29, 2017 | 13:00 GMT
Lessons From Old Case Files

Convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef has apparently been passing the time in his 7-by-11-foot cell in a Colorado supermax prison by writing a treatise against the Islamic State. Since I am at least in part responsible for Yousef's current situation, any news about him tends to draw my interest. In a recent interview published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Bernard Kleinman, the attorney who represents Yousef and several other notorious terrorist figures, said his client had written a 250-page essay denouncing the Islamic State's corrupting influence on Islam.

According to Kleinman, he has tried to persuade the U.S. Attorney's Office to publish the essay as a way to dissuade would-be jihadists from joining the Islamic State's cause. I, for one, welcome anything Yousef, who is serving a life sentence and who once described himself as a "proud terrorist," could do to redeem himself for the deaths and misery he has inflicted. 

Yousef, whose real name is Abdul Basit, was the operational leader and chief bombmaker in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000. He fled the United States within hours of the explosion and later carried out the bombing of Philippines Airlines Flight 434 in December 1994, leaving a passenger dead. That bombing was a test run for Operation Bojinka, his plot to blow up multiple airliners in flight. The plan failed after his apartment in the Philippines caught fire as he brewed a batch of explosives to use in the airliner bombs. Yousef escaped to Islamabad, Pakistan, where my fellow Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agents helped to arrest him in early 1995. 

In those days, when an attack happened, DSS agents often acted as one-man detective agencies. We would respond anywhere in the world on the same day, sometimes without forensic assistance from the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Our department was small and nimble, and personnel traveled on black diplomatic passports. We conducted crime scene investigations and took photos, often working with the local U.S. Embassy's regional security officer, who was frequently more then happy to hand the case over to the agents from Washington.

Working with those who managed to survive an attack, we used an old-fashioned Identi-Kit — a transparent overlay of many faces, eyes, hairstyles, mustaches, noses and hats — to help piece together an image of the suspect. For the most part, it was a shot in the dark. But sometimes, that shot connected.

In Yousef's case, it was the work of DSS agents, combined with the U.S. government's Rewards for Justice program, that led to his capture. The events leading up to that moment, chronicled in my memoir Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, turned on some very human characteristics: greed and misplaced trust. While he was a skilled bombmaker, Yousef was a poor judge of character. One of Yousef's associates, who saw his image on a matchbook touting a $2 million reward for his capture, ratted him out for the cash.

"These individuals are not 10 feet tall," Kleinmann noted of his clients in the Combating Terrorism Center interview. "Ramzi Yousef has, on more than one occasion, been ascribed MacGyver-type qualities, which is ridiculous. While they stand accused of terrible crimes, they are complex human beings with frailties and worries about their families' future. The clients I have dealt with are accused of horrendous crimes, but they are not psychopaths."

Yousef, whose plots were driven by political and religious beliefs, may not have been the elusive mastermind some painted him to be. Certainly, though, he was a cold-blooded killer who would have continued to plot death and destruction had he not been captured. Thanks to dogged determination and a little luck, he will remain an unwilling guest of the United States for the rest of his life. And if his writings inspire just one aspiring terrorist to have a change of heart, I would encourage him to continue.

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