In Pursuit of Terrorists: US Opens Yousef Trial
NEW YORK — He has used at least 11 aliases, but today Ramzi Ahmed Yousef will be known as the alleged "mastermind" of a plot to bomb 11 American airplanes in one day.
Mr. Yousef and two other men, both with their own aliases, will appear in federal court, where they are charged with planning a reign of terror in the skies. Although this trial is expected to take months, Yousef will be back in court again, after this case, to face charges as the leader of the bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993.
The trials are the culmination of the government's investigation into the World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured thousands. Since almost all the defendants were extradited to the United States from foreign countries, the trial is also a way of sending a message to terrorists around the globe that it is hard to escape the American justice system.
"The case is a demonstration that the US has the capability and intends to pursue terrorists, in this case even someone who has not yet committed the terrorist acts abroad," says Roy Godson, president of the National Strategy Information Center, a Washington think tank that specializes in terrorism and security.
There is still no sign that terrorism is diminishing. Recently, President Clinton made terrorism the focus of a trip to the Middle East. Only last week the FBI warned prominent Jewish leaders, physicians, and businessmen that a Middle East organization may have targeted them. Extra security was provided to Jewish schools and other organizations.
At the moment, it is US policy to seek out suspected terrorists. "If we see more of these threats and retaliation, then the situation changes," says Michael Dobkowski of Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., an expert on Middle East terrorism.
Yousef was captured last December in Pakistan. Yet according to the criminal indictment, Yousef and his co-defendant, Wali Khan Amin Shah, began their alleged terrorism in the Philippines. On Dec. 1, 1994, the indictment says, the pair exploded a bomb in a Manila theater. Then, 10 days later, it is alleged they placed a bomb on Philippines Airlines Flight 434 bound for Tokyo. The bomb exploded in flight, killing one passenger.
The government claims that a month later Yousef, using a computer, started planning the times for detonating bombs aboard US airplanes. The government claims to have found in the computer a letter taking credit for the bombings. The letter threatened to attack US targets "in response to the financial, political and military assistance given to the Jewish state in the occupied land of Palestine by the American government." The plot prompted intensified security at airports around the world.
If this evidence is presented, it could be very damaging. "It is equal to a diary for the plans for his own criminal actions and plans to congratulate himself," says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.
In Manila, the government claims, Yousef started constructing bombs in his apartment, which he accidentally set on fire. After he fled, the police claim to have found nitroglycerin, bomb manuals, and timers.
Yousef fled to Pakistan, where he was later captured. He claims he was tortured while in Pakistani custody. Mr. Pugsley says it is likely anything Yousef told the Pakistani police would be admissible as evidence as long as there was no sign that the US government participated in the alleged torture.
Once the FBI took custody of Yousef, agents extracted a confession of sorts from him. But this element of the case came under fire last Thursday when an FBI agent testified that he did not read Yousef his rights until he spoken to him for about five minutes. In addition, the agent could not remember if he told Yousef that anything Yousef said could be used against him. "To me it is unbelievable that the FBI could be that sloppy, especially in a case of this magnitude," Pugsley says.