America's Most Wanted

America's most wanted terrorist is a lean, bearded man with a broken nose, intense eyes and two very dangerous skills: he builds enormous bombs from scratch and he makes people trust him. Nearly a year and a half ago he arranged the explosion in New York's World Trade Center that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. It was the worst terrorist atrocity ever committed in the United States. Then he got away.

"If somebody could be called the mastermind in this plot, in my view it's Ramzi Yousef," says James Fox, who was then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York office. The State Department is offering $2 million each for Yousef and another fugitive, Abdul Rahman Yasin. As long as they remain at large, it warns in posters, fliers, even on matchbooks, "more innocent lives could be at risk." Yet as federal investigators have focused on convicting plotters they have in hand, not talking up those who got away, the fugitives' stories have been left largely untold.

To learn more, Newsweek and ABC television's "Day One" have pored through hundreds of pages of evidence, interviewed investigators and tracked down their contacts from the Baluch region of Iran to a prison in Colorado. The results show that even though four other people were convicted in the trade-center case earlier this year, and an additional 15 -- including the blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman -- have been charged in related conspiracies, it was Yousef who moved the group to action and built the bomb.

In just six months, from the day he arrived in the United States on Sept. 1, 1992, until the moment he left -- hours after the trade-center explosion on Feb. 26, 1993 -- Yousef took a handful of impoverished Muslim fanatics in Jersey City, N.J., and turned their wildest fantasies of holy war into a bloody reality on American soil.

Where did this guy come from? Investigators now believe he was born in Kuwait to Pakistani parents. But as one of them says, "That's just the current version." The most credible ID he carried was an Iraqi passport in the name of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, supposedly aged 25 in 1992. Yet his acquaintances thought he was older. Yousef spoke fluent Arabic, English and Urdu, tailoring his life story to his audience. He told a human-rights group he was an Iraqi-born victim of political persecution in postwar Kuwait. "A very nice guy, very credible -- in retrospect a very good liar," reported a paralegal who interviewed him.

Yousef turned up in the United States at a critical moment for Muslim zealots inspired by Sheik Omar's bloodcurdling rhetoric. They constantly fulminated against America but they couldn't manage to make any bombs that worked. The man they thought would help them, a former Egyptian Army officer named Emad Salem, never delivered. In fact, he was a government informant.

When the FBI pulled Salem off the case and turned its attention elsewhere in the summer of 1992, the plotters already were looking for a new expert. The phone bill for one of them, Mohammed Salameh, jumped from $128.41 in May to $1,401 in June as he touched base with contacts from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, where his uncle is a military officer with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The net was cast so widely that many secret services could have learned of Salameh's interests and any one of them -- including Iraq's -- may have sent an agent to help. "Was this a plot looking for a group to carry it out, or a group looking for a plot?" says an administration official concerned with the investigation. "I'm not sure there's a difference." The result, in any case, was lethal.

Yousef certainly had the calm of a pro. In Pakistan he hooked up with a Palestinian named Ahmad Ajaj, and bought first-class tickets for the two of them to fly to New York. Ajaj, interviewed in prison this month, said he was first off the plane when they landed at Kennedy airport. He presented a stolen Swedish passport with his picture clumsily glued on. The immigration officer took "less than two minutes" to spot the fake, he said. In his baggage a trove of bomb-making manuals and videotapes were found. Ajaj made an angry scene.

Yousef followed, cool and collected. He was dressed in Afghan-style clothes ("puffed sleeves" and "harem pants," one witness recalled). At first he presented a fake ID card from an Islamic center in Arizona. But when that was challenged he quickly produced his Iraqi passport and asked for political asylum.

Ajaj went straight to jail. Yousef went to Jersey City, joined up with Mohammed Salameh and set about building his bomb. Unlike the alienated immigrants he worked with, Yousef moved in American society with easy assurance, using automatic teller machines, conducting international conference calls. When his accomplices couldn't persuade chemical and gas suppliers to sell them materials, Yousef bought them easily. For that job he claimed to be an Israeli Arab.

Meanwhile, he started preparing his escape. He convinced the Pakistani Consulate in New York that he had lost a valid passport, and got himself a new one under yet another alias. He booked his flight out of New York 13 days before the bombing, and when the job was done his ticket showed him heading for the wilds of Baluchistan along the Pakistan, Afghan and Iranian borders -- a lawless, desolate region once described by American geologists as the closest thing on Earth to Mars.

Where did Yousef learn his skills? There are tantalizing hints of ties to Iraq: the passport, Salameh's calls to Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's history funding covert networks in Afghanistan and even Baluchistan, the dictator's recent alliances with Islamic extremists. Certainly Saddam had the clearest motive for an attack -- revenge -- and the date of the bombing was, suggestively, the second anniversary of his defeat in Kuwait. "The logic is there," says one counterterrorism official, "but -- there's no evidence."

For a "smoking gun," investigators say they need Yousef himself, or at least Yasin. Born in the United States and eligible for an American passport, he also came from Iraq to Jersey City late in the summer of '92. He seemed to be a minor accomplice, charged with mixing chemicals. The FBI actually arrested Yasin in March 1993 -- then let him go when he turned informant. They've been trying to get him back ever since. But there's no question about Yasin's whereabouts. A reporter for Newsweek and ABC saw him in Baghdad last week. His neighbors say he's working for the Iraqi government. If so, like Yousef, he may be well beyond the long arm of American law.

America's Most Wanted | News