Friday, December 03, 2004

Christopher Carson: Saddam and Flight 800

By Christopher S. Carson
December 3, 2004

Even after the presidential election, America’s media solons and disgruntled former government officials—such as Richard Clarke—continue to get fawning coverage for every pronouncement on the basic harmlessness of Saddam’s Iraq. The thesis is clear: Saddam was a small-time monster, too weak and incompetent to harm a far-away America.

But wouldn’t it be revealing if our intelligence community actually had to answer some hard questions about Ramzi Yousef and the annihilation of TWA Flight 800—the second-greatest mass-murder in American history? The public would then hear of how Yousef worked for Saddam Hussein, and how Iraq's dictator was ultimately responsible for the murders of 230 Americans on that dark night, long before the devastation of 9/11.

On July 16, 1996, Saddam and his lackeys were gearing up for a big celebration the following day: Liberation Day, which was Iraq’s national holiday—the day the Baath Party took power exactly 35 years earlier. Saddam’s portraits around the Republic of Fear were spruced up and the anniversary date was splashed everywhere.

That same day in New York City, the terrorist Ramzi Yousef was also celebrating—in his jail cell. He had a gigantic crime unfolding. Like nearly every malignant narcissist brought to trial, Yousef insisted on representing himself. He fantasized that no lawyer was as intelligent and knowledgeable about American jurisprudence as he was.

The master terrorist mused that he alone knew how to get a mistrial, and he was going to get one the next day. A mistrial would force Judge Kevin Duffy to start all over, with a new jury. That could set the U.S. attorneys back months, and indeed a delay was what Yousef needed. He still had terrorists in the New York area working under him. He had a home country ready to receive him with open arms. Anything was possible, given time.

After all, Abdul Rahman Yasin, Yousef's co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had flown in from Iraq only a few months before the blast to prepare and mix the chemicals for the giant bomb and had flown back to Baghdad. Saddam wasn’t upset with Yasin for killing only six people in the blast and failing to topple one tower onto the other. On the contrary, the Iraqi president gave Yasin a house and a stipend outside Baghdad: the prodigal son had returned, as a CBS 60 Minutes news crew revealed when it traveled to Baghdad in 2002 to interview him. Far from washing his hands of Yasin, Saddam had even pressured Jordan to release Yasin when Jordan had briefly detained the bomb-mixer.

So Ramzi Yousef knew that he had a place to go and friends in New York. Indeed, he even said as much. In an amazing admission to his fellow inmate, Gregory Scarpa Jr., on March 5, 1996, Yousef boasted that he had “four terrorists already here in the United States.”

In 1996, Scarpa was a mafia hoodlum looking at serious prison time for multiple murders committed as a “soldier” in the Colombo crime family. He was angling for a “downward departure” under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure before he went to sentencing. Yousef was his ticket to a time cut. Ratting out the arch-terrorist to the feds was the only way he could avoid spending his life in the Big House.

Amazingly, Yousef came to trust Scarpa, as journalist Peter Lance revealed in his recent book, Cover Up: What the Government Is Still Hiding About the War on Terror. Yousef wrongly figured that Scarpa, as a Mafioso, hated America’s government and society as much as he did. In a series of FBI “302” memos obtained by Lance and published in Cover Up, Scarpa’s FBI handler recorded an astounding series of admissions by the terror mastermind about his plans and his backing.

According to the March 5, 1996, FBI memo, “Yousef told Scarpa that if he wanted, Scarpa’s family could be sent to an unknown country, and people there would take care of his family, treat him like royalty with the red carpet treatment. … Yousef implied that another government was involved/assisting Yousef. Yousef told Scarpa that if he went to this country no one could touch him.”

What country was aiding Yousef’s four terrorists and was willing to put him and Scarpa up in style? The same country that harbored Yousef’s bomb-mixer Yasin and Abu Nidal and his gang, that gave a house to Abu Abbas of Achille Lauro infamy, that trained foreign terrorists on Boeing airliners at Salman Pak and gave rivers of money to al-Qaeda and its affiliates: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Yousef got to make a lot of calls from jail, even to his terrorist “uncle” Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), future chief operating officer of al-Qaeda. FBI Special Agent in charge, James Kallstrom, was initially happy about Yousef’s calls because his men would be able to listen in. He brought in Arabic translators for the listening sessions.

The problem was, Yousef chose to talk in the Baluch language to “uncle” KSM and others, as Peter Lance revealed, so Kallstrom came up empty. KSM was keeping Yousef’s spirits up, possibly talking about springing him, despite the high security of Yousef’s current detention, and if that didn’t work, a trade could be arranged. Terrorists had been traded before, even by "the Great Satan." The American president, Bill Clinton, was coasting to re-election in the fall. The Republicans had nominated the old-time insider Bob Dole to run against him, and Dick Morris’ focus groups were looking positive on the head-to-head lineups. The U.S. military barracks at the Khobar Towers had just been destroyed by terrorists, but the media weren’t up in arms insisting on a messy military response against, say, Iran. Tough talk about “bringing those responsible to justice” would probably suffice.

Awaiting trial in his New York cell, Yousef had plenty of time to reflect on the previous four years. What a run it had been since he left Saddam International Airport in September, 1992, proudly carrying a printed business card that read “International Terrorist.” Flying into JFK airport with fellow terrorist Ahmad Ajaj, Yousef was stopped at the immigration desk. But Ajaj was the sacrificial lamb that day: he became irate when questioned by INS agents, who searched his bags and found fake passports, bomb recipes, six bomb-making manuals, and how-to videotapes on advanced weaponry. He shouted that he was from “Sweden” of all places.

Yousef, on the other hand, had been calm and collected. Although his papers were not in order, the INS supervisor quickly waved him through, no doubt distracted by the scene Ajaj was making. Yousef, as planned, immediately dived into the New York/New Jersey world of Islamic extremism, hanging out with the murderer of Rabbi Meier Kahane and plotting with the “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdul al-Rahman. The sheik and his followers, according to the FBI agents who had the mosque under surveillance, always called Yousef “Rashid the Iraqi.” (Yousef’s fellow traveler, Ahmad Ajaj, was arrested and charged with a visa violation, not with being a terrorist. He served six months in jail and was released. Incredibly, Judge Reena Raggi ordered the feds to return Ajaj’s bomb recipes to him.)

After Yousef’s team detonated the World Trade Center bomb in February 1993, the “Mozart of Terror,” as author Lance dubbed him, flew to Pakistan to see uncle KSM, another Baluch ethnic who was already planning “Operation Bojinka.” (Bojinka was an insanely ambitious plan to blow up 11 commercial airliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean, kill the pope and poison President Clinton in a cloud of chlorine gas. It was foiled in 1995 during the last stages of planning by a chance kitchen fire in a dingy Manila apartment.)

But back in 1993, while the North Tower of the Trade Center was still smoking, Yousef’s co-conspirator Ahmad Yasin “boogies to Baghdad,” in the immortal words of Clinton’s terror czar Richard Clarke. Co-conspirator Mohammed Salameh, age 26, was hoping to make it back to Saddam’s tender mercies as well, but was arrested as he showed up at the rental car office to collect his deposit on the van he rented to blow up with the bomb.

For his part, Salameh’s phone records reveal him to have been the messenger to Saddam. At his trial much later, it emerged that Salameh had been calling Iraq one or two times a day between June 10 and July 9, running up enormous cell phone charges that he was unable to pay. Salameh was Palestinian; it isn’t as if he had a sick Iraqi mother to console long-distance. But his uncle, Kadri Abu Bakr, had worked in Baghdad since 1986 for a Palestinian terrorist unit funded by Saddam.

So Yousef, aka Rashid the Iraqi, joined his uncle KSM to work up the Bojinka plan, with assistance from Osama bin Laden’s organization. Far from being devout Muslims, Yousef and KSM enjoyed the high life in Manila. They went to karaoke bars and strip clubs, dated dancers, and stayed in four-star hotels. They had plenty of cash: KSM took scuba diving lessons and once rented a helicopter just to fly it past the window of a girlfriend’s office in an attempt to impress her, as the L.A. Times reported in June 2002.

In 1995, it was time for a “wet test” of Bojinka. Yousef needed to be sure his bombs would work correctly, so he tested one on an actual airliner filled with people. He planted a tiny Casio-watch-timed bomb with Nitro “gun cotton” chemical on a Philippine Airlines flight to Japan. As Peter Lance reports, Yousef’s bomb, unlike the Semtex bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was really only a trigger that was supposed to ignite the center wing tank of the Boeing, sending the plane down in flames.

Yousef put the Casio trigger too far away from the tank, however. The timer went off, killing a man and blowing a hole in the plane, but the Filipino captain heroically maneuvered to keep the jetliner stable enough to land safely. Watching the news of the crash-landing on CNN in a bar that day, Yousef figured he’d get it right the next time. He and KSM were now fixated on airliners.

But as Operation Bojinka was exposed by an observant Manila police officer responding to Yousef’s accidental kitchen fire, Yousef was arrested, while his uncle got away and wasn’t captured until March 2003.

So, as Yousef awaited trial in 1996, Bojinka’s failure was stinging Yousef’s ego. Talking to Gregory Scarpa in his cellblock at exercise time, Yousef was obsessing about airliners and blowing them up. He was calling KSM from jail and his uncle was working the problem. Yousef’s other cellmate, Abdul Hakin Murad, told Gregory Scarpa that KSM’s people were going to blow up a U.S. airliner, but that “Ramzi’s waiting to hear if Bojinka (Yousef’s new code name for Osama bin Laden) got the message.” Thirty-four days before the destruction of TWA Flight 800, Osama still needed to approve the attack first.

Eleven days later, Yousef had presumably been told by KSM that Osama had blessed the operation. Yousef was also feeling better about how his trial was going, and so wanted to hold the bombing in reserve. The latest FBI 302 memo had Scarpa reporting that Yousef “was not going to perform the operation for now because the trial is going well.”

But, as Peter Lance wrote, “three days after that, the mercurial Yousef told Scarpa that he thought the government want[ed] to sabotage his case.” Yousef told the court that he was going to have Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Garcia killed because he thought that Garcia had smirked at him, and Judge Kevin Duffy wasn’t amused. To make matters worse, Judge Duffy was looking as if he was going to let in the written confession of Abdul Murad, which talked about Yousef’s involvement in Operation Bojinka.

It was time to pull the trigger on America and Yousef, “Rashid the Iraqi,” was going to celebrate Saddam’s Liberation Day with a bang—and hopefully get his mistrial.

Saddam was celebrating too: as Dr. Laurie Mylroie recounted, this was the day that he gave “the most angry, vengeful speech of his entire life” against America, the Great Satan—no mean feat for the Great Uncle of terror.

At the time, Uncle KSM, in Doha, Qatar, was prepping the terrorist channels for the event. At noon Washington time on July 17, 1996, a fax came through at the London office of Al-Hayah, the most prestigious Arabic language newspaper. Purporting to be from the “Islamic Change Movement of Jihad,” which Dr. Laurie Mylroie describes as likely a “name given by Iraqi intelligence to threaten or claim credit for bombings,” it said:

“The mujahideen will give their harshest reply to the threats of the foolish U.S. President [Bill Clinton was again threatening Iraq over its noncompliance with UNSCOM]. Everybody will be surprised by the magnitude of the reply, the date and time of which will be determined by the mujahideen. The invaders must be prepared to leave [the Arabian peninsula], either dead or alive. Their time is at the morning-dawn. Is not the morning-dawn near?”

As the sun dawned on the Arabian peninsula, it was setting off New York harbor. At 8:31 p.m., more than 270 eyewitnesses saw streaks of light shooting toward TWA Flight 800. After a ghastly series of explosions, 230 innocent Americans careened into the Atlantic in a death plunge.

The next day, as terror expert Yossef Bodansky related, the Islamic Change Movement bragged in Beirut that it had “carried out [its] promise with the plane attack of yesterday.” In Qatar, KSM was delighted.

[I never miss a chance to plug Bodansky's writings...his last three are easily found and must reading for anyone who wants to really understand what is going on in the Middle East. Bodansky heads up the Congressional Task Force on Counterterrorism and Unconventional Warfare and his last three books are entitled "bin Laden: The Man Who Targeted America" (1999), "The High Cost of Peace" (2002), and "The Secret History of the Iraq War" (2004). - jtf]

Yousef showed up in court with his standby counsel and asked Judge Duffy for a mistrial, citing the “unfortunate confluence of circumstances” in the downing of the jetliner and its similarity to the Bojinka charges. Judge Duffy, a tough Irishman, was in no mood to do Yousef any favors. He polled the jury, first saying: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Last night near Moriches Inlet out in Long Island, an airplane blew up. TWA Flight 800. … All we know is that there was an explosion and the airplane went down. It’s a tragedy, there is no two ways about it, but that had nothing to do with this case.” Motion denied.

Enormous credit has to be given to Jack Cashill, co-author of First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America, for his dogged detective work in uncovering the Clinton White House’s outrageous corruption of the official investigation that followed.

As everyone knows, the official government position to this day is that the center wing tank of the jumbo jet mysteriously self-ignited shortly after takeoff, without any human cause. But in addition to all the hard physical evidence of a terrorist bomb or missile strike recounted in his book, including Yousef’s favorite explosive residues, RDX, PETN and Nitro on multiple seat cushions pulled from the ocean floor, Cashill’s later comment about the attack occurring on Iraq’s Liberation Day is shattering in its impact: “Were Mecca to be bombed on the 4th of July, the disinterested observer would logically conclude that either the USA was responsible or that some provocateur did it to implicate the US.”

As Dr. Laurie Mylroie first established, Ramzi Yousef was Saddam’s man. Yousef, with the assistance of his New York cell, KSM and Osama bin Laden abroad, and indeed Saddam himself, wanted to salvage something from the foiled Bojinka plot. They conceived to destroy a U.S. airliner from New York to get Yousef a mistrial and time to get sprung, acquitted or traded back to Iraq. To celebrate the Great Uncle of terror finance, Saddam Hussein, they set the day for July 17, 1996: Iraq’s 35th Liberation Day.

As Mylroie described in her book A Study in Revenge, Yousef was Saddam’s man; he was was not Kuwaiti; he was Baluch, from a wild area next to Iraq, where Saddam used to mine people for his wet work. We do the victims’ families no justice by telling them their loved ones died in terror because of a mysterious self-igniting fuel tank. And we ignore the fact that Saddam was part of engineering a 9/11 trial run, terrorizing the American skies in order to achieve one diabolical objective, brutal and unwarranted mass-murder.

Christopher S. Carson, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, is an attorney in private practice in Milwaukee.

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