In Search Of A Killer

SHORTLY AFTER 8 A.M. ON JAN. 25, 1993, a lone gunman calmly emptied his AK-47 into the windshields of several cars waiting in rush-hour traffic to turn into the main gate of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va. A pair of CIA officials, apparently chosen at random, died. In the agency's ""Bubble,'' its secure auditorium, CIA Director James Woolsey vowed to track the killer ""for the rest of his life.'' In June, three and a half years later, a happier meeting was held in the Bubble to celebrate the capture of the alleged killer, Mir Aimal Kansi, 33.

News accounts described a daring midnight raid to snatch the suspect as he hid out in Pakistan. The public was left to imagine men in black dangling from helicopters and Harrison Ford racing to the rescue. The true story says more about the difficult task of tracking down terrorists in the real world. There was plenty of intrigue, but much of it was between the FBI and the CIA. Courage mattered, but not as much as cash, and the most elaborate planning could not eliminate some exasperating snafus.

The Feds are still not sure why Kansi might have opened fire. His family, a wealthy and powerful clan in northwest Pakistan, allegedly worked with the CIA supporting the mujahedin guerrillas in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan during the '80s. Kansi has told friends that his father was betrayed by the Americans. Some in the CIA feared that Robert Gates, the agency's director in the early '90s, was Kansi's first target. A month before the Langley shooting, Gates's security detail spotted a man with a rifle in the woods behind Gates's house. The man got away. But a search of Kansi's apartment later turned up a copy of NEWSWEEK, opened to a story on Gates. Thanks to eyewitnesses and a talkative roommate, Kansi was not hard to identify as the suspect, but he fled the country within hours of the shooting.

Wild west: Normally the FBI investigates murders of federal employees, but since the victims were from the CIA and the killer had gone abroad, the bureau had to join forces with its old rivals at the agency. The CIA tracked Kansi to Baluchistan, Pakistan's wild west, but then lost him in a territory known for its arms dealers and drug smugglers. Impatient, the FBI moved in. A DEA informant tipped the bureau that Kansi was holed up in his family's fortified compound in the city of Quetta. Coached by the FBI, Pakistani forces raided the compound - but grabbed the wrong man, a relative who resembled the suspect. Local tribal sensitivities were inflamed when reports surfaced that soldiers had barged into a part of the compound set apart for women in purdah. Then the CIA tried again. The agency came close several times - once the CIA was so confident that it had a plane ready to scoop up the suspect inside Afghanistan - but each time Kansi slipped away.

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In the end, money talked. After locating Kansi's protectors, the CIA offered such a big payoff - $3.5 million - that the fugitive's own bodyguards betrayed him. Using a phony business deal as a lure, Kansi was brought to a hotel in Dera Ghazi Khan, in central Pakistan, which was surrounded by a small army of men from the FBI and the CIA, backed up by commandos from Delta Force. After midnight, FBI agents disguised in native dress (but with their Florsheim shoes showing beneath their robes) barged into Kansi's room. At first they feared that they had the wrong man again - Kansi had grown a beard. But by comparing Kansi's thumbprint to one they had brought to the scene from his apartment in Virginia, the gumshoes were able to make the arrest. Kansi swore at his captors in Urdu; then, after he had been read his rights, in perfect English. As they hustled Kansi out of the hotel, one of the FBI agents, ever polite, said through his disguise, ""Thank you very much'' to the hotel's bewildered manager.

Local police had not gotten the word, and they chased Kansi and his abductors through the streets. A helicopter finally whisked the Feds and their ""package'' to Islamabad. But at the airport, customs agents refused to let them take off until Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had personally intervened with the Pakistani prime minister. On the plane, Kansi appeared giddy with relief that he had not been summarily shot. According to intelligence sources, he confirmed he was the man in the FBI's Wanted poster. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to be tried in Virginia.

At the foot-stomping celebration at Langley in June, there was a rare sense of elation among officials who have been demoralized by fiascoes like the treachery of KGB mole Aldrich Ames. Most remarkable, said old agency hands, was that some of the loudest cheers were for the CIA's oldest enemy: the men from the FBI.

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In Search Of A Killer | News