ClandesTime 108 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: Ramzi Yousef
Ramzi Yousef is an international man of mystery who is currently serving a 240-year sentence in a Supermax prison for bombing the World Trade Center. He is the first of two major figures we have not looked at yet in our exploration of the WTC93 bombing, the other is Ali Mohamed who we will get to in a few episodes time. Today we’re going to take a look at Yousef’s life and career as a terrorist, some of the mysteries and theories that surround him, and the inevitable intelligence failures that helped him do what he did.
Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was probably born Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim, though there is considerable dispute over whether Karim, born in Kuwait, is the same man as Yousef, now serving the prison sentence. Assuming he is Abdul Basit Karim, he was born in Kuwait in April 1968, though some sources have his birthday as May 1967. He was born to a family from Baluchistan, a huge area encompassing parts of Pakistan and Iran. His father was an engineer, working in Kuwait during the oil boom, and he sent his son to Britain so that he could benefit from a similar education. In November 1986, on a visa provided by the British vice-consul in Kuwait, Yousef flew to Britain. He enrolled in the West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education in Wales, and studied for a Higher National Diploma in computer-aided electrical engineering. He was smart, multi-lingual and technically very capable – in many ways the perfect terrorist. Though the same skill set could also make him a very good spy.
After completing his education, and spending a few months in the Afghan-Pak frontier learning how to build bombs, he spent most of the first half of the 1990s planning and executing terrorist attacks. Having missed out on the Soviet-Afghan war he felt a burning desire to participate in the jihad, so he attached himself to various people around the world with similar aims. Naturally, this brought him into contact with Al Qaeda – he trained at Al Qaeda camps and then ended up at the Al Qaeda hub in New York at the Al Kifah. Later, in the Philippines, he was closely involved with Jamal Khalifa, Osama Bin Laden’s brother in law.
However, his exact relationship with the early Al Qaeda organisation is somewhat shady. He never met Bin Laden personally, and when he was finally caught he said the Blind Sheikh didn’t know about the WTC bombing. However, he was caught in a guest house owned by Bin Laden that was well known as a stopping off point for young jihadis going to train in the border region. So who or what Ramzi Yousef was loyal to, I don’t know.
However, Yousef was no Islamic fundamentalist. At college in Wales he went to the pub with the other students. While in the Philippines he regularly cruised the local bars, drinking and picking up girls. As Simon Reeve noted, ‘This appears to create a paradox, for while Yousef clearly enjoyed the ‘sinful’ pleasures of the ‘the West’ in Wales, America and the Philippines, he also loved blowing them up.’ Though he married a Baluchi girl in the summer of 1991, Yousef was a renowned philanderer, with two former NSC members commenting in their book that, ‘He is remembered as something of a bon vivant bomber, a man with ready recommendations for whorehouses around the world and motivations that were a mixture of vanity and secular politics.’
In early 1995, almost exactly two years after bombing the WTC, Ramzi was finally captured. The US authorities had been dropping hundreds of thousands of books of matches with Ramzi’s picture on them and offering a reward for information. Ramzi was trying to get one of his old school friends to smuggle a small bomb onto a plane hidden inside a child’s toy, and the friend agreed. However, he couldn’t go through with it, and faced with the dilemma he shopped Ramzi to the Pakistani authorities, who in turn notified the Americans.
Yousef was extradited to the US, and on the plane back to New York two FBI agents interrogated him and wrote down what he said. The 302s from this interrogation and other Bureau/Department of Justice conversations with Yousef form the basis for what we know about him. Yousef went on trial twice, first for the airliner bombing plot known as Bojinka in 1996, and then for the World Trade Center bombing in 1997. At these trials he demonstrated yet further his confidence with the ladies. During a pre-trial hearing regarding his prosecution for the WTC bombing, Yousef had his attorney approach an employee of the court and ask her on a date. Christine Cornell, ‘the blonde, attractive, 42-year-old married courtroom sketch artist’ sensibly declined the offer. During the trial, at which he unsuccessfully opted to defend himself, he took Spanish lessons in an effort to win the affections of a Cuban-American woman. He even sent her a bunch of flowers while he was in prison. Remarkably, the woman was actually a member of his legal defence team, making this outrageous behaviour for anyone but Ramzi. Like a great many supposedly Islamist terrorists, Yousef was more like a globetrotting James Bond than a fanatical jihadi.
What motivated Ramzi Yousef?
That being said, he was motivated by the same cause as inspires a lot of Islamists, namely, the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government. When he was finally caught and interrogated by the FBI, Yousef explained, ‘his desire to stop the killing of Arabs by Israel.’ He elucidated his view that, ‘”it’s nothing personal” regarding his killing of US citizens… but the “only way to cause change”.’ He elaborated that, ‘the only way to stop the present and future killing of Arabs by Israel is for the US to stop supporting Israel.’ Yousef believed that ‘extreme acts’ are the only way ‘to change the minds of people and the policies of countries’ and cited as examples of this, ‘the Marine barracks attack in Beirut several years ago and the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forcing the Japanese to surrender.’ Far from hating US values, democracy or the Western way of life, he said he ‘has no personal agenda with the US, only the US Israeli policy.’ However, Ramzi had never been to Israel and had no real connection with Palestine so whether this purported motivation is even true is somewhat doubtful. It also didn’t stop him from hiring a defence lawyer, Avraham Moskowitz, who is openly and obviously Jewish.
However, after he was found guilty the first time he fired Moskowitz and in his second trial he defended himself. That must have been quite a sight for the jury – watching Ramzi wandering around the courtroom answering his own questions about bombing the World Trade Center. When he was found guilty the second time and sentenced to life plus 240 years he stated, ‘Yes, I am a terrorist, and proud of it as long as it is against the U.S. government and against Israel, because you are more than terrorists; you are the one who invented terrorism and using it every day. You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.’
Indeed, Ramzi explicitly denied being a member of any Islamic group, and did not speak of religion as playing any part in his motives. He said that, ‘there are some Muslim leaders and groups that have similar philosophical views as Yousef but Yousef stated he operates independently. These Muslim leaders/groups may be an inspiration for Yousef but Yousef stated no particular individual or group controls or directs him.’ Far from being a fanatic or a maniac, he said that, ‘he believes he is rational, methodical and logical about what he believes in and what must be done to change US policy toward Israel.’ While some have sought to portray the first WTC bombing as an attack by Al Qaeda, if indeed Yousef was the mastermind then that is a gross simplification.
And frankly, the Blind Sheikh was blind, which meant he was never going to be doing surveillance and picking targets and acquiring chemicals and building bombs. The rest of his group were quite useless too – I mentioned before the apparent fuck-up with El Sayyid Nosair’s getaway plan for the Meir Kahane shooting. It was only when Ramzi was in New York, and then later when Emad Salem was entrapping the group, that they ever got anything together. So I am inclined to believe that the Blind Sheikh didn’t know the specifics of the WTC bombing plot, that Ramzi was the driving force behind it.
When they prosecuted the Blind Sheikh the government claimed that shortly after Salem withdrew from the group after being fired by the FBI, a phone call was placed from the Al Kifah to Pakistan. This was allegedly the Blind Sheikh calling up to say they needed someone to build the bomb, because Salem was originally slated to be the bomb builder and he had disappeared. Sure enough, Ramzi did arrive shortly thereafter but during his interrogation he always said the decision to go to New York was his own. As I say, there is a degree of ambiguity in almost every aspect of the Yousef story.
Ramzi did have connections to another well known nefarious organization, the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence or ISI. During the Soviet-Afghan War the ISI were perhaps the closest of all the intelligence agencies to the Afghan Arabs, their training camps, finances, supply lines and ideology. As detailed in The New Jackals, Yousef’s uncle Zahid Al-Shaikh was working for Mercy International, a Saudi-funded charity based in Peshawar. It was during this period that Yousef went to training camps and learnt bomb-making methods. Two days after the WTC bombing, Mercy International held an opening ceremony for an orphanage that they were sponsoring in Peshawar. Among its attendees was Pakistan President Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari. ‘Ramzi Yousef’s uncle had delivered a speech of welcome for the President and the two men were later seen talking earnestly together.’ Reeve also details the involvement in these ISI-friendly charities of Ramzi’s other uncle, supposed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
But back to Ramzi – several incidents suggest that Yousef himself was protected by the ISI as he began his career as an international terrorist. Months before he traveled to the US to build the bomb used on the WTC, Yousef returned to Pakistan from a trip to the Philippines. To enter the country he used an Iraqi passport bearing a visa supposedly issued by the Pakistani embassy in Baghdad. But the seal was not the official one, no such visa had been issued on the date shown, and the signature was faked. Reeve quotes a senior US intelligence official saying, ‘Yousef was developing high-level contacts in Pakistani intelligence through his links with bin Laden, mainly in the ISI. It’s a dirty mess. They facilitated much of his travel. Getting airport officials to turn a blind eye to his travel would have been nothing.’
On both ends of his trip to the US to bomb the WTC the same indications of collusion are evident. Yousef traveled to the US in 1992, and managed to get out of Pakistan and into America despite not having the proper paperwork. Reeve notes that he may have received help from Pakistani intelligence officials, that, ‘several are alleged to have helped in Yousef’s attempts to enter the US, and then later to avoid capture.’xii When the Pakistani Federal Investigation Agency checked their immigration records after the WTC bombing, they found that Yousef’s files had disappeared. No explanation for this has ever been provided. After flying back to Baluchistan after the WTC bombing, US investigators narrowly missed catching Yousef at his home in Quetta. Only weeks after the bombing, officials from the FIA and the US Diplomatic Security Service raided the house, ‘But, apparently tipped off, Yousef had disappeared only hours before.’ It would be almost another two years before Ramzi was caught.
Preparations for Destruction
It was his desire to give the US a Hiroshima event that saw Ramzi Yousef travel to the US and bomb the WTC. He took a plane to the US in September 1992 with a friend, Ahmed Ajaj, who Yousef had met in a training camp in Afghanistan. Ajaj, a Palestinian, was holding a blatantly forged Swedish passport in the name of Kurran Khan. Yousef’s Iraqi passport identified him as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. When asked for further identification by the INS official, he produced an ID card in the name of Kurran Khan, the same nom de guerre as in Ajaj’s passport. When asked his full true name he said it was ‘Ramzi Ahmed Yousef’, though of course that is a pseudonym.
After being captured in 1995, Yousef explained to the FBI that when departing from Pakistan, Ajaj had used a British passport in the name of Mohammed Azan and Yousef had used the Kurran Khan papers. On the flight, he had advised Ajaj that due to his poor English he should not pose as British, and gave him the Swedish (Khan) passport, crudely swapping in a photo of Ajaj. It is because Ramzi Yousef used that name when entering the US that he was tried as Ramzi Yousef, rather than as Abdul Karim or one of his many other pseudonyms.
Yousef told the INS that it was his intention to claim political asylum and after a brief detention and filling in a form he was given a date for an asylum hearing and turned loose. Ajaj was not so lucky. Not convinced by the Swedish passport, the INS official peeled off the photo of Ajaj, who became belligerent, and proclaimed that he really was Swedish and demanded that they check their computer. He was taken into a back room for questioning and his luggage was searched. The officials found numerous passports, along with manuals for bomb making, weapons and tactics. Ajaj was detained and the training materials seized, though he only served six months for passport fraud, and even had the terrorist materials returned to him.
This is the major intelligence failure around Yousef – that he got into the country on an obviously fake passport alongside someone who was arrested because he had a bunch of stuff with him that looked like terrorist equipment. If the authorities had checked they would have seen the two men got on the plane together and swapped passports, but they didn’t. They arrested Ajaj and left Yousef go. Bearing in mind the claims that he was being protected by the ISI, one has to wonder why they only arrested one of the two men.
In his interrogations by the FBI, and in a proffer session, Ramzi explained his plan in detail. He had visited the WTC site four or five times to determine a manner of attack, and settled on a truck bomb in the basement garage. He explained that ‘he wished to focus as much of the blast as possible to the “beam” in the tower, in order to cause the tower to fall. However, he related that most of the blast was directed up and down, as the surface area of the box containing the main charge was greatest in the horizontal plane.’ Yousef blamed a lack of money for the failure of the bomb to topple the WTC tower, and indeed explained that the timing of the bombing was purely an issue of the lease being up on the bomb-making flat. Though Yousef repeatedly refused to give details on where he got the money for the WTC bombing, this lack of funds makes no sense if Osama Bin Laden sponsored the attack, as some have alleged.
The intention of the bombing was to topple one tower into another, which Yousef believed could cause 250,000 deaths. According to the FBI, Ramzi ‘noted that this was the number of civilians casualties which occurred as a result of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.’ He admitted that he was disappointed at the failure of his plan, and of hearing news reports that only one person had been killed by the blast. He was convinced that the bomb had failed to go off properly. Ramzi clearly hadn’t done his homework. A single bomb in one corner of the underground garage did not stand a chance of doing enough damage to bring the tower toppling down. The Engineering News Record reported that a study done in 1964 found that you, ‘could cut away all the first story columns on one side of the building, and partway from the corners of the perpendicular sides, and the building could still withstand design live loads and a 100 mph wind from any direction.’ There is no way one bomb (or a single plane strike, for that matter) could hope to destroy and completely bring down such highly redundant, well built structures.
Not everything went to plan in the WTC bombing plot, and a piece of bad driving almost exposed the plot to the authorities. In late January 1993, just a month before the bombing, Mohammed Salameh was driving Yousef to a meeting with Mahmoud Abouhalima. Salameh was a terrible driver, having failed his test four times, and he lost control of the Chevy Nova, crashing it in the town of Woodbridge, New Jersey. Police arrived on the scene to find the car having mounted the curb and crashed on a lawn. Salameh was sat by the car in a daze, and his passenger Yousef was unconscious in the passenger seat. By this point Yousef had missed his scheduled asylum hearing and could have been arrested and deported, but he got lucky.
Yousef was taken to hospital and treated for a back injury. He even managed to charm the nurses into letting him use his fake calling card to ring up and check on the car and order chemicals. The problem was that in the boot of the car were chemicals that they were using to build the bomb, and Yousef was concerned that they would be discovered by the authorities. He didn’t need to worry. The car was never checked, and Salameh reclaimed it quickly. Nonetheless, this led Yousef to drop Salameh as the driver of the van that would carry the bomb. He was replaced by Eyad Ismoil, a Jordanian living in Dallas who Ramzi knew from his childhood in Kuwait. Exactly how much Ismoil knew about the plot, and exactly what he was doing, is unclear, but he would eventually be prosecuted and convicted alongside Yousef.
Ramzi Yousef’s Liberation Army
After the bombing Nidal Ayyad, a chemical engineer who had helped the group obtain the chemicals used in the bomb, phoned in a claim of responsibility. Yousef had apparently dictated a letter that Ayyad sent to the New York Times several days after the bombing, and Ayyad also phoned up the New York Daily News tip line and left a message claiming responsibility. The conspirators, calling themselves ‘the fifth battalion of the Liberation Army’ said they did the bombing and outlined demands focussing on the US role in the Middle East. They also claimed to have ‘more than hundred and fifty suicide soldiers ready to go ahead.’ After seeing news reports crediting Serbians with having carried out the bombing, Yousef called Nidal Ayyad shortly before he left the US on the evening of the bombing, and dictated a new ending to the letter. It read, ‘Our calculations were not very accurate this time. However, we promise you that next time it will be very precise and the Trade Center will be one of our targets.’
Some commentators have taken this letter to be an ‘early warning’ sign of what was to come with the suicide bombings on the US embassies in 1998, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Peter Lance notes that the FBI had copies of the original letter and the new ending within a week of the 1993 bombing. He asks, ‘Why didn’t they pick up on it? Why did senior FBI and DOJ officials continue to deny Al Qaeda’s involvement and insist for years that the bombing was the result of a ‘loosely organised group’ of Sunni extremists – a position that would persist right through the 9/11 Commission?’ This accusation is presumptive, and unfair. For one thing, the idea that crashing a plane into a building is a ‘very precise’ means of attack relative to truck bombing the basement is utterly ridiculous. For another, Yousef was not a formal member of Al Qaeda, and there is no conclusive evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement in the bombing. Most importantly, if Al Qaeda did have 150 suicide soldiers in place in 1993 then they would have carried out a lot more attacks in the following years than they actually managed.
Indeed, even the Liberation Army itself appears to have been little more than a tool of psychological warfare created by Yousef. When his friend and co-conspirator Hakim Murad was captured by the Philippines authorities he told them that the organisation was ‘fictitious’ and that the Liberation Army’s membership consisted of just Yousef and Murad. He also told the same thing to the FBI, saying that, ‘Ramzi made up the name in order to make people believe that the Liberation Army was a large group of committed terrorists.’ He related how sometime in November 1994 Yousef saw news of a ‘bombing of an underground railroad’ in New York, though it is unclear what event this was. Yousef called up Murad in Dubai and told him to make a call to the US embassy in Oman, claiming responsibility in the name of the Liberation Army.
The claim and the demands outlined by Yousef to Murad were virtually identical to the WTC bombing letter. Murad told the Philippines National Police (PNP) once again that the organisation did not really exist, and that ‘they only used it whenever they are making announcements like the above.’ He also explained that Yousef wanted his own terrorist organisation, that Ramzi had told him that ‘one day the Liberation Army will grow and become an independent, structured organisation.’ Murad also outlined Yousef’s desire to attack US nuclear facilities and a sketchy plan for Murad to go to the US to attack a nuclear power station there. If the plan was successful, according to Murad he, ‘will be announcing later through a telephone that [the attack] was the handicraft of the Liberation Army.’
Betraying his deceit, bravado and narcissism, Ramzi told the FBI a different story. He claimed that the Liberation Army (Fifth Battalion), ‘is a genuine organisation, responsible for numerous bombings; however, he refused to provide any specific information regarding the structure… or specific attacks.’ In all likelihood, this is just an extension of Yousef having Murad and others make out that the Liberation Army was a real organisation, though this time the FBI were subject to his attempts at psychological warfare. That said, it does raise the question of the authenticity of Yousef’s extended confessions. Would he have copped to the WTC bombing regardless of whether he actually did it, just to become famous as a terrorist?
Ramzi Yousef the Terrorist
Indeed, the legend of Ramzi Yousef’s terrorist career contains some contradictions and ambiguities. After bombing the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef left the United States that very evening, catching a flight to Karachi in Pakistan. Over the following two years he would lead authorities on a manhunt across half the Asian continent, from the Philippines to Iran. The FBI finally got hold of him in February 1995 though the story of his activities in the interim leave a lot of questions about who and what Ramzi really was. Several episodes show that even Yousef, possibly the most ‘accomplished’ terrorist of the 1990s, was prone to near-fatal accidents. In July 1993 Yousef conspired with two friends, Abdul Hakim Murad and Abdul Shakur, who had both grown up with Ramzi in Kuwait. Shakur had trained in the Al-Faruq camp set up to aid the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan war. The three plotted to assassinate Benazir Bhutto, at that point gearing up for an election that would result in her second term as Pakistani Prime Minister.
The trio had apparently accepted a contract from the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a Sunni militant group who are viciously anti-Shia. Bhutto, a woman educated at Harvard and Oxford, and a prominent Shia Muslim political leader, was an obvious target. Yousef put together a crude device made up of a lump of semtex, the Czech equivalent of C-4 also favoured by the IRA, a Soviet detonator dating from the Afghan war, and a remote control from a garage door opener. The plan was to plant the bomb outside Bhutto’s home in the Clifton district of Karachi, and for Ramzi himself to detonate it by remote control as her car went past. One night late in July the three drove out to the house, and Yousef planted the bomb in a drain outside. While he was stashing the device a police patrol car stopped and asked them what they were doing. They told the police they had dropped their keys in the drain and were looking for them, and the cops lefts them alone. However, Ramzi feared they might return and discover the bomb so he went back to retrieve the device from the drain. While he was pulling it out, the detonator went off, shooting tiny fragments of metal into Yousef’s left eye, partially blinding him, and the force of the explosion knocked him out.i
There is a problem: this story appears to not be true. According to records of interrogations with Hakim Murad by the Philippines National Police (PNP) and the FBI, as well as Yousef’s interrogation by the FBI, this incident never happened. The apparent real explanation for the injuries to Yousef’s eye and fingers was a different incident in the summer of 1993 while Yousef and Murad were staying in an apartment in Karachi. Yousef was trying to clean impurities out of a pipe bomb containing lead azide using only his fingers, and exerted too much pressure on the explosive causing it to go off in his face. It was in fact his right eye that was damaged, not his left. Murad told PNP interrogators that Yousef stayed in hospital for two months, and then weeks later said it was six months. This disparity may be explained by Yousef going to Iran for an eye operation, extending his period of recuperation.ii
This was not the only ludicrous accident of Ramzi’s terrorist career. In March 1994 he built a bomb in Bangkok with the intention of truck-bombing the Israeli embassy there. The bomb was made up of plastic explosive used as a detonator and around a ton of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) as the main charge, in some respects quite similar the one apparently used at the World Trade Center a year earlier. One of Ramzi’s associates rented a six-wheel truck and strangled the delivery driver, dumping his body in the water tank carrying the ANFO slurry. They loaded the bomb into the truck, and set off for the Israeli embassy. En route to the Israeli embassy the truck collided with a motorcycle-taxi driven by a young man called Boonserm Saendee. An Arab man leapt from the truck and tried to offer Saendee money to keep quiet about the accident. A crowd gathered, and the driver of the truck ran off when he heard police sirens. The police drove the truck to the station, and only discovered the bomb, complete with the body of the rental driver, when the truck’s owner came to pick it up a week later. While nearly twenty people were arrested, only one was convicted and he was subsequently freed on appeal, and Ramzi Yousef has never been charged in connection with the attempted bombing.
According to Simon Reeve’s near-definitive account The New Jackals, Yousef then accepted a contract from another Pakistani group with a militantly anti-Shia ideology. The Mujaheddin-e-Khalq Organisation approached him a couple of months after he returned to Pakistan from Thailand. They ‘asked or paid’ Yousef to ‘lead an attack against one of the holiest Shiite sites in Iran – the shrine of Reza, the great-grandson of Prophet Mohammad’. The shrine, in the North Eastern city of Mashhad, was bombed on June 20th 1994, killing at least 26 people and wounding over 200. While Yousef has never even been charged with being responsible for the bombing, both Pakistani and US investigators believe he was centrally involved. Furthermore, Yousef told a South African friend of his, Istaique Parker – the man who would eventually give Yousef up to American authorities – that he was responsible for the Mashhad bombing.
If this is true then it presents a problem for those who claim Yousef was ‘Al Qaeda’s master bomber’ and an affiliate of Osama Bin Laden. Earlier that year Bin Laden, an apparent Salafist Sunni Muslim, met with leaders of the Iranian Shia militant organisation Hezbollah, a meeting facilitated by Ali Mohamed. If Yousef was freelancing for fundamentally anti-Shia groups then he was clearly not party to whatever strategy led Bin Laden to meet with Hezbollah. Indeed, Bin Laden told CNN’s Peter Arnett in March 1997 that he did not know Ramzi Yousef. Similarly, according to the 9/11 Commission alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yousef’s uncle, said in his interrogation that, ‘Yousef was not a member of al Qaeda and that Yousef never met Bin Ladin.’
The plot that has come to define Yousef’s terrorist career and led to his capture was developed during the months following the Mashhad bombing, while Ramzi was in the Philippines in late 1994 and early 1995. For that part of the story, the question of Ramzi Yousef’s laptop, Jamal Khalifa and the possible involvement of the CIA, we’re going to have to wait until next week.
I know this episode has jumped around a bit, but my intention was not to give a linear biographical account because I think the last few episodes have laid down a pretty clear timeline of the WTC bombing. Instead, I hope this has given you a sense of who Ramzi Yousef was, how he fits into the WTC bombing plot, how he fits into Al Qaeda in this period. I also hope you can see some of the humour here because I think there are some funny elements to all this, when I was researching Yousef I did find myself laughing out loud. While the other parts of this story are easier to nail down, the legend of Ramzi Yousef is full of questions and problems and uncertainties and absurdities.
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