Cracking The Conspiracy


In a double-breasted blue suit, white shirt and tie, his face cleanshaven and his hair slicked back, he looked like a young Middle Eastern entrepreneur -- which, in a sense, he was. For his arraignment in a New York City courtroom last week, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef abandoned the scruffy look of the fanatical Muslim terrorist. When the charge was read -- masterminding the bombing of the World Trade Center two years ago -- he replied in clear, firm English: "Not guilty." Even his court-appointed lawyer, Avraham Moskowitz, was surprised by his calm self-confidence. But then Yousef knew a lot more than the people who were prosecuting him. He knew who he is, how old he is, where he comes from, who he worked for and why. The investigators who caught him, after an immense international manhunt spurred by a $2 million reward, didn't know any of that for sure.

Yousef might have been working for Iraq's Saddam Hussein, or for Iran or Libya, or for some Palestinian faction. Or he might have been part of a vast "Jihad" conspiracy by Islamic extremists seeking to terrorize Americans by blowing up more of their landmarks. There was evidence to support all those theories, and still others. It seemed reasonable to suspect that at some point in a shady, double-dealing career, Yousef might even have been linked, at least indirectly, to the CIA, whose enemies, for a time, were his enemies: the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. He could have served more than one cause. In the convoluted world of terrorism, a man may have as many masters and motives as he does passports and names.

Whoever he is, Yousef's arrest was the highlight of a banner week for the forces of counterterrorism. On Monday, a key defendant switched sides in the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and 11 other Islamic men, who were accused of plotting a "day of terror" in New York City. Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, the purported ringleader of the plot, changed his plea to guilty and described a plan to bomb the United Nations and a federal office building in Manhattan, along with the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the George Washington Bridge. He also said he had undergone weapons training on Long Island to prepare for the assassination of prominent figures. He charged that Sheik Abdel-Rahman approved specific targets and discussed ways to avoid detection. Siddig Ali is a 34-year-oldSudanese who nearly defected to the prosecution last summer. His conversion, a week after the trial began, was overshadowed a day later when Yousef was run to earth in Pakistan.

"We'd been close to him fora while," says a U.S. official. "But of course "close' only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." Then an informer -- thought to be a disgruntled former associate -- walked into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and revealed where Yousef was living. (It could take U.S. officials quitea while to decide how much, if any, of the$2 million reward to give to the squealer. "This guy is not a choirboy," says aU.S. source.) Accompanied by Pakistani authorities, agents of the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service raided Yousef's room at the Holiday Inn. They found him lying on a bed, his beard shaved off and his hair dyed red. Two suitcases were packed, one holding bomb components, including a remote-controlled toy car packed with explosives. Yousef also had a copy of Newsweek from last July 4, which carried an article on the manhunt for him. Pakistani authorities treated the fugitive like a stick of dynamite with a burning fuse; they tossed him to the Americans, and soon he was on a plane to New York.

The last time he arrived there, in September 1992, Yousef opted for the Afghan look, wearing what an official described as "harem pants" and a "puffy-sleeved shirt." He presented an unconvincing identity card in the name of Khurram Khan. When that was rejected, he produced what appeared to be a legitimate Iraqi passport identifying him as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. He asked for political asylum, claiming that he belonged to a Kuwaiti guerrilla group and would be tortured if he returned to Iraq. He was allowed into the country, but a traveling companion, Ahmad Ajaj, was detained for carrying a fake Swedish passport and a set of bomb-building manuals.

Yousef disappeared into the immigrant Muslim community in Jersey City, N.J., where he mingled with the followers of Sheik Rahman. They knew him as "Rashid the Iraqi." Court papers portray Yousef as the indispensable man inthe World Trade Center bombing. Other alleged conspirators in the sheik's flock proved incapable of organizing such a large-scale operation, investigators charge. On Feb. 26, 1993, they argue, Yousef anda co-conspirator, Mohammad Salameh, drove a rented van full of explosives into the underground garage at the trade center and started the detonator, producing an explosion that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Yousef flew out of the country almost before the smoke cleared; he had obtained a new passport by convincing Pakistan's consulate that he was Abdul Basit, a Pakistani born in Kuwait in 1968. Four of Yousef's alleged accomplices, including Salameh and Ajaj, were convicted and sentenced to 240 years in prison for the attack on the trade center.

As investigators tell it, the conspiracies didn't end when Yousef fled. In the "day of terror" trial, Sheik Abdel-Rahman and his followers are accused of participating in an international conspiracy, fueled by Islamic zeal, to overthrow secular Arab governments, such as Egypt's, and to attack their backers in the United States. The two alleged organizers are Siddig Ali, who has switched sides, and a former Egyptian Army officer, Emad Salem, who was a government informer from the beginning. Unlike them, Yousef may not be a true believer. "He is more of a technician than an ideologue," says Steven Emerson, author of a forthcoming book on radical Islamic networks in the United States. "There's a tremendous rage against the West, but he's not particularly religious."

Yousef apparently kept busy after he left New York. Last month FBI agents and Philippine police raided an apartment in Manila and found a treasure-trove of evidence. Some of it reportedly linked Yousef to the bombing of a Philippine airliner last December, in which one passenger died. Philippine officials connected Yousef to a plot to kill Pope John Paul II during his visit to Manila last month. And FBI officials found explosives, a bomb manual, an encrypted computer disc and timetables for Delta and American Airlines. Investigators thought Yousef was involved in a plot to simultaneously blow up five U.S. airliners over the Pacific. Yousef fled before the apartment was raided, but investigators said they found fingerprints there that matched ones taken from him when he entered the United States in 1992.

That doesn't clear up the mystery of Yousef's identity. "Ramzi Ahmed Yousef" is merely "the name we know him by, the one he got caught under," says an administration official. The available clues go in many different directions. Yousef himself once claimed to be an Iraqi Christian. At least one Arabic-speaker who knows him says he has no Iraqi accent. Israeli intelligence listened to recordings of his voice and declared him a Palestinian, probably from Jordan. An FBI profile portrayed him as a Pakistani born in Kuwait. He apparently spoke Urdu well enough to persuade Pakistani officials in New York to give him one of their passports. Whatever his origin, U.S. officials think Yousef got his explosives training as a teenager in rebel Afghan camps in Pakistan during the 1980s -- when the CIA was helping to arm and train the anti-Soviet mujahedin.

Who employed him? Some of the circumstantial evidence points to Iraq. Apparently, the original Abdul Basit passport belonged to a real person, a Pakistani born in Kuwait who was killed there during the Iraqi occupation. And Iraq is now sheltering Abdul Rahman Yasin, the only defendant in the World Trade Center case who is still at large. Friends of his family said last week that Yasin is living in Baghdad, and as one of them put it, "He's not apprehensive that anything will happen to him." Yousef is exactly the kind of thoroughly professional terrorist who might help Iraq's leader get back at the United States. "Saddam Hussein wants revenge for our destroying his country," says Vincent Cannistraro, director of the CIA's counterterrorism division during the Bush administration. And as it happens, the World Trade Center bombing occurred on the second anniversary of Kuwait's liberation from Saddam. Whether it was from Iraq or some other source, Yousef clearly had big-time support. He had numerous false passports, a vast supply of explosives and enough money to live well and fly first class. "Ramzi cannot have been an independent actor," says Cannistraro. These days, even an anarchist needs a well-heeled sponsor.