Terrorist who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993
"Yes, I am a terrorist and I am proud of it. And I support terrorism so long as it was against the United States Government and against Israel, because you are more than terrorists; you are the one who invented terrorism and using it every day. You are butchers, liars and hypocrites."
I f Ramzi Yousef had had his way, September 11 might never have happened. Almost a decade before the World Trade Center buildings in New York City were destroyed on September 11, 2001, Yousef had tried to destroy the twin towers by setting off a bomb in the underground parking garage of one building in hopes it would topple onto the other. His plot failed, but only because he could not afford a bigger, better bomb, he later said. It did succeed, however, in turning Ramzi Yousef into America's "most wanted" terrorist.
Ramzi Yousef is one of the most mysterious terrorists yet caught. Although he is serving a life sentence in federal prison, with no chance of freedom, authorities are not sure of his name, his age, or his birthplace. More interesting, they do not know who helped pay for at least two years of global terrorism that included the first bombing of the World Trade Center, a bomb placed on board a Philippines Airlines plane, and perhaps other plots including an attempted assassination (murder) of Pakistan's prime minister and of Pope John Paul II, during the Pope's visit to the Philippines in 1995.
Officials have wondered whether Yousef might have been working for Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein (1937–), or perhaps for Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–; see entries), the Saudi Arabian who is blamed for sponsoring a second attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. For his part, the man known as Ramzi Yousef is not telling.
Despite a massive, worldwide manhunt for Yousef after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, authorities have never been able to penetrate the veil of mystery surrounding his origins—or even his proper name.
In 1994, Yousef said in an interview with the Arabic-newspaper Al Hayat that his father was a Pakistani, his mother was a Palestinian, and that he had a grandmother who lived in Haifa, Israel. (Some language experts believe he speaks Arabic with a Palestinian accent, which would support his claim to a Palestinian mother.) He claimed that he grew up in a working-class suburb of Kuwait City called Fahaheel, crowded with Palestinian exiles. Palestinians living in Kuwait, a tiny, oil-rich country on the Persian Gulf, were poorly treated. It seems possible that Yousef was known as Abdul Basit Mahmud Abdul Karim (usually shortened to Abdul Basit). He learned to speak Arabic and Urdu (the main language spoken in Pakistan). He also learned to speak English.
Yousef (or Basit) apparently resented his treatment as a youth in Kuwait, and came to blame the United States for his own problems, since the United States was the strongest supporter of Israel, a country carved out of Palestine in 1948 to be a homeland for Jews, six million of whom were targeted and systematically murdered by the German military during World War II (1939–45). Most of the Palestinians living in Kuwait were refugees (or children of refugees) from the 1948 war in which neighboring Arab nations attacked a well-armed Israel and lost even more territory to the new nation. Many were bitter about the experience—including, it seems, Ramzi Yousef.
At age eighteen, Yousef apparently left Kuwait for England, where he enrolled in Swansea Institute in Wales to study electronic engineering. There are records of a student named Abdul Basit studying at the technical college in Swansea, Wales, from 1986 to 1989 and receiving a degree in computer-aided electronic engineering, just as there are records of someone named Abdul Basit living in Kuwait. There are records of Yousef leaving Kuwait in August 1990, three weeks after Iraq invaded the country to start the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). He was said to have used an Iraqi passport, and to have admitted having relatives living in Iraq, which gave rise to speculation that he might have been working for the Iraqi government as a spy. Other reports say that the real Abdul Basit was killed during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and that "Ramzi Yousef" stole the identity of a real person—maybe with the help of Iraqi authorities during their occupation of Kuwait in 1990—in order to hide his own.
Apparently returning to the Middle East in 1989, Yousef (or Basit) may have been attracted to the growing battle in Afghanistan, where Muslims (followers of Islam) were fighting to drive out the army of the Soviet Union (now called the Russian Federation). Russian troops had entered Afghanistan in 1979 in order to support a communist government. (Communism is an economic theory that does not include the concept of private property; the public, represented by the government, owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.) A decade later, thousands of Arabs and other Muslims had volunteered to fight in Afghanistan to drive the Russians out. Among those helping to organize and pay for these volunteer fighters was a Saudi Arabian millionaire named Osama bin Laden, who later was accused of coordinating terrorist attacks aimed at the United States.
Much later, a U.S. Secret Service agent testified in court that Yousef claimed he had been trained for six months at a camp inside Afghanistan in the art of making explosives, and that he had become an instructor at a different camp near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. None of Yousef's statements has been proved by other evidence.
Whether Ramzi Yousef became involved with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, where bin Laden sponsored camps for Arabs volunteering to fight against the Russian occupation, or whether he was employed by the intelligence (spy) agency of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it seems clear that he became an expert in building bombs, especially the kind used by terrorists.
According to some published reports, in 1991 Yousef traveled to the Philippines and joined forces with Abu Sayyaf, a group of fundamentalist Muslims fighting to separate the southern part of the Philippines, inhabited mainly by Muslims, from the mostly-Catholic northern part of the country. One former member of Abu Sayyaf was quoted in press reports as saying Yousef was bitterly anti-American, and wanted to wage a campaign of terrorism around the world.
Who Is Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman?
Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman was a blind Islamic preacher from Egypt who had an intense hatred for the government of his native country. In the early 1990s, he was headquartered in the New York City area, where he often preached at small mosques, including one in Jersey City, New Jersey, just west of Manhattan.
Born in Egypt in 1938, Rahman was arrested in Egypt and charged with involvement in the assassination of Egypt's President Anwar el-Sadat (1918–1981). He was found not guilty, but the United States put him on a list of suspected terrorists who were supposed to be kept out of the country. But in 1990, as a result of an error, he was admitted to the United States and was given a "green card," a document that non-citizens need to work.
Rahman is blind as a result of diabetes that began when he was under a year old. In 1993, when Ramzi Yousef encountered him, Rahman was frail and could barely walk. But his weaknesses did not stop him from preaching hatred towards the United States, as well as towards the government of Egypt headed by President Hosni Mubarak (1928–). Rahman was a familiar figure among some Arab Muslims living in New York in the early 1990s.
Rahman was born in Gamaliya, Egypt, in the Nile delta. Despite his diabetes and resulting blindness, he is reputed to have learned the Koran (Islam's holy book) by age eleven, and graduated with a master's degree in theology from Cairo University. Later he earned a doctorate at al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was married at least twice, and had a total of ten children with his two wives.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Rahman taught in southern Egypt. There, he harshly denounced the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), and later President Sadat, for failing to establish an Islamic state in Egypt, one governed by the strict rules of the Koran. He was accused of being the spiritual leader of al-Jihad, the organization of fundamentalist Muslims that assassinated Sadat in 1981. The government's case was not proved, and Rahman was released and eventually came to the United States.
Most of the men accused of plotting to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993 were followers of the Sheikh, although Rahman himself was never charged. Five months after that bombing, in June 1993, Rahman and ten of his followers were arrested in Queens, New York, and charged with plotting to blow up other New York landmarks, including the headquarters of the United Nations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's building in Manhattan, and two tunnels beneath the Hudson River that connect Manhattan with New Jersey. Two years later, Rahman was found guilty of conspiracy to blow up the buildings and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1997, U.S. officials said they had found evidence that Ramzi Yousef, convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in February 1993, had connections with Sheikh Rahman.
After his conviction, Rahman said in an interview with Time magazine: "Self-defense is legal in all religions. This is called jihad in Islam. The West has misinterpreted this concept. People who are defending their lands are called terrorists. Of course, this interpretation is useful to the West. It legitimizes attacks against any country in the Third World [poor developing countries]. Americans call them terrorists, and they take it to the U.N. [the United Nations, an international peacekeeping organization] in order to take legal action. And the U.N. does whatever the U.S. tells it to do."
Ramzi Yousef's Story Begins
The part of Yousef's story that is known for certain began on September 1, 1992, when he landed in New York City on a Pakistani airliner. He was dressed in "harem pants" and a "puffy-sleeved shirt," according to officials, looking as if he might have come from Afghanistan. He had no visa (a document that would allow him to enter the United States), and instead showed an identity card with the name Khurram Khan. When this was challenged by immigration officials, he offered an Iraqi passport bearing the name Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and asked for political asylum (when a nation grants an individual the right to stay in its country so that person will not be detained in another). He told American officials he belonged to a Kuwaiti guerrilla (secret military) group, and would be tortured if he went back to Iraq.
Immigration officials detained Yousef for entering the United States without a visa, but there was a problem: the small facility used to hold suspicious immigrants was already filled with other prisoners. So instead of holding Yousef, the officials granted him temporary political asylum until a hearing could be held and then they released him. Unknown to Immigration officials then, Yousef was not traveling alone. His companion on the trip was Ahmad Ajaj. He was detained for carrying a false Swedish passport and a set of books that described how to make bombs. Ajaj was detained and kept out of the United States.
Having passed Immigration, Ramzi Yousef went to Jersey City, New Jersey, a suburb of New York located almost directly west of the World Trade Center. The twin towers of New York's tallest buildings could easily be seen in the distance, symbols of America's economic power and domination. In New Jersey, Yousef joined a group of Arab immigrants who were followers of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian who preached at the Al-Salam mosque located on the third floor of a building in Jersey City above a check-cashing-store and a Chinese restaurant.
Yousef was something of a mystery man to the Arabs he lived with in New Jersey. He had introduced himself as an Iraqi, but said little else. Some thought his accent was not right, and believed him to be a Pakistani. The more observant Muslims criticized him for not wearing a beard.
According to telephone records found later, in November 1992 Yousef began ordering supplies for making bombs. Later, the residue (traces) of chemicals were found in an apartment occupied by Yousef and another man, Mohammed A. Salameh. Yousef apparently changed identities several times in the short period he spent in the United States, and moved from place to place often, ending up in a building at 40 Pamrapo in Jersey City.
On November 30, Salameh rented a storage locker under the name Kamal Ibraham. Later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) inspected the locker and found nitric acid, sodium azide, and sodium cyanide, as well as sulfuric acid and urea—chemicals used to make explosives.
On February 23, 1993, two men, one of whom was Salameh, turned up at a Ryder truck rental location and inspected available vehicles. They settled on a Ford Econoline van for $200 a week with 100 free miles. Since Salameh did not have a credit card, he put down a cash deposit of $400. The money would later prove his undoing.
The Attack and Escape
About four o'clock on the morning of February 26, 1993, a Friday, the van drove into an all-night service station, followed by a blue Honda. The van driver—later identified as Salameh by the station attendant—spent $18 to fill the gasoline tank completely, perhaps to add more fuel for the explosion that was to come. One man made a call from a pay telephone, and a few moments later, a red car joined the group. The three vehicles then set off for lower Manhattan.
The van was parked in the underground parking garage beneath the World Trade Center.
At 12:18 p.m., the van exploded with a tremendous force, sending flames shooting up one of the twin towers. Six people were killed and over one thousand were injured, many by flying debris. The explosion knocked out power to the building and sent thousands of workers scrambling down smoky, dark stairwells. Traffic and business in lower Manhattan was completely snarled. The cost of the damage was estimated at $500 million. It was, in 1993, the biggest terrorist attack yet launched in the United States. According to officials who later arrested him, Yousef claimed his aim was to topple the tower so that it would tip and crash into the other twin tower, bringing down both buildings. But, Yousef said, he did not have enough money to build a bomb sufficient to do the job.
Four days after the bomb exploded, a letter arrived at the New York Times claiming credit for the bombing and criticizing the United States policy of supporting Israel in the Middle East. It was signed Liberation Army Fifth Battalion.
In the meantime, New York City police started immediately looking for the people responsible for the explosion, and on Sunday, two days after the bomb ignited, they had a
major breakthrough. Police found a twisted piece of the Ryder truck that contained the vehicle identification number, a unique number that goes with every car and truck manufactured. It did not take long to trace the vehicle to the Ryder truck rental agency in New Jersey.
On Friday, just a few hours later, Salameh had returned to the rental agency asking for his deposit and claiming that the truck had been stolen the previous night. The rental agent refused to refund the money, and demanded that Salameh file a police report. Two days later, on Monday, Salameh returned and again demanded his deposit back. Later, there was speculation that he needed the money to buy a ticket out of the country. Again, he was turned down. Finally, on Thursday, he returned to the rental agency yet again. This time, FBI agents were waiting to arrest him.
In the meantime, his partner, Ramzi Yousef, had already fled, flying first class to Pakistan.
Disappeared… . and a new plot
For almost three years, Ramzi Yousef seemed to disappear. Authorities thought he might be in Afghanistan or western Pakistan. In March 1993, a bomb destroyed the home of Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, and Ramzi Yousef was blamed, but no definitive proof was found of his involvement. In March 1994, police in Bangkok, Thailand, foiled a plan to bomb the Israeli embassy there; again, Yousef was named as a suspect but never caught and definitive proof was not found.
In another event that was later linked to Yousef, a bomb exploded on a Philippine Airlines plane on December 11, 1994. The plane was on a flight from Manila to Tokyo, with a stopover in the city of Cebu, the Philippines. Investigators later developed evidence that Yousef, using the name Armaldo For lani, had flown on the first leg of the flight and hidden a bomb under seat 26K on the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, then got off the plane at Cebu. A Japanese businessman flying in that seat was killed when the bomb exploded during the second leg of the flight. The plane, although crippled, was able to land safely. Philippine authorities were terrified that the bomb could signal a planned attack on Pope John Paul II, who was scheduled to visit the Philippines the next month (January 1995).
Yousef's plans were cut short by a fire in his apartment on January 6. Neighbors noticed smoke pouring from an apartment and called the fire department. Inside, firemen found what amounted to a bomb factory—and a laptop computer left behind by Ramzi Yousef.
The computer proved to be a goldmine of information. On it investigators found a plan to murder the Pope during his visit to the Philippines, as well as detailed plans to explode bombs on about a dozen commercial airliners flying across the Pacific to the United States, presumably using the same sort of bomb that had been planted on the Philippines Airline plane a month earlier. Authorities said the computer contained departure times for commercial airliners, and times for the bombs to explode.
But Ramzi Yousef was nowhere to be found. After flee ing the apartment building, he had disappeared.
It had been almost three years since the World Trade Center bombing, and U.S. officials were determined to find Ramzi Yousef. The U.S. Government offered a $2 million reward for his capture, and publicized it by means of matchbook covers distributed widely in Pakistan.
In Islamabad, Pakistan, a Muslim born in South Africa walked into the U.S. embassy and told them he knew where Ramzi Yousef could be found. But, he warned, Yousef was on the verge of leaving in just a few hours.
Quickly, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. State Department joined with Pakistani police. They surrounded an inexpensive guest house called Su Casa and went to room 16 on the upper floor. Pakistani police burst into the room—and found Ramzi Yousef lying on a bed. Beside him, in a suitcase, were two remote-control toy cars, filled with explosives.
Within a few hours, Pakistani officials completed paperwork required to send Yousef back to the United States. On the twenty-two-hour flight, according to the U.S. agents who accompanied him, Yousef admitted his role in the World Trade Center bombing, as well as boasting about his plans to blow up as many as a dozen airplanes flying across the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Brian Parr testified against Yousef at his trial, at which Yousef was charged with both the World Trade Center explosion and the Manila airliner plot. Agent Parr also said Yousef said his true name was Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim.
In November 1996, a man tried under the name Ramzi Yousef was found guilty of trying to blow up the World Trade Center and sentenced to life in prison. Before sentencing, he told the judge in the courtroom:
You keep talking also about collective punishment and killing innocent people to force governments to change their policies; you call this terrorism when someone would kill innocent people or civilians in order to force the government to change its policies. Well, when you were the first one who invented this terrorism.
You were the first one who killed innocent people, and you are the first one who introduced this type of terrorism to the history of mankind when you dropped an atomic bomb which killed tens of thousands of women and children in Japan and when you killed over a hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, in Tokyo with fire bombings. You killed them by burning them to death. And you killed civilians in Vietnam with chemicals as with the so-called Orange agent. You killed civilians and innocent people, not soldiers, innocent people every single war you went. You went to wars more than any other country in this century, and then you have the nerve to talk about killing innocent people… .
The government in its summations and opening said that I was a terrorist. Yes, I am a terrorist and I am proud of it. And I support terrorism so long as it was against the United States Government and against Israel, because you are more than terrorists; you are the one who invented terrorism and using it every day. You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.
Who was Yousef Ramzi?
"Yousef Ramzi" was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. But the details of his life remain unknown. Was he an agent of the Iraqi government? Officials in Kuwait claimed that he had collaborated with Iraqi soldiers when they occupied Kuwait in 1990, and the fact that he entered the United States in 1992 with an Iraqi passport persuaded some investigators to think so.
Was he part of Osama bin Laden's global network of terrorists? In 2002, U.S. officials said that a key figure in bin Laden's plan to bomb the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, was also linked to Yousef. According to officials, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed helped Yousef coordinate, and pay for, his plan in Manila to blow up airliners crossing the Pacific.
It seems possible that the truth about Ramzi Yousef will never be known. Even if he were to decide to tell all, would investigators believe him? Or would they conclude that he was telling a new set of lies, perhaps to lure them off the scent of the truth?
Sitting in the Federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, Ramzi Yousef isn't talking.
For More Information
Mylroie, Laurie. Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America. Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2000.
Reeve, Simon. The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.
"An Enigmatic Personality Whose Mission Was to Punish America." New York Times, September 6, 1996, p. A14.
"Broad Terror Campaign is Foiled by Fire in Kitchen, Officials Say." New York Times, February 12, 1995, page 1.
"Charged as Terror Master, Surrounded by Mysteries, Many Origins and Aliases for Bomb Suspect." New York Times, May 29, 1996, p. B1.
Duffy, Brian. "The Long Arm of the Law: How Federal Agents Nabbed the 'Evil Genius' Accused of Blowing up the World Trade Center." U.S. News & World Report, February 20, 1995, p. 50.
Farley, John. "The Man Who Wasn't There." Time, February 20, 1995, p. 24.
"Funds for Terrorists Traced to Persian Gulf Businessmen." New York Times, May 26, 1993, p. A12.
"Pieces of Terrorism: Accounts Trace the Trade Center Explosion." New York Times, May 26, 1993, p. A12.
Weaver, Mary Ann. "Children of the Jihad." New Yorker, June 12, 1995, p. 40.