Penthouse Retrospective

by Steven A. Emerson Originally Published: March, 1991

Abu Ibrahim | 30 Years Ago This Month

The inside story of the only high-ranking Arab terrorist who ever defected to the United States.

Penthouse Magazine - March, 1991Journey Into Fear

Sitting in a cafe with a stylish jacket draped over his shoulders, his tanned olive skin exuding a glow, and a small pony-tail grabbing the remaining silver hair left on his head, the man sitting in the back looks more like a movie producer than a terrorist.

“Joe” — one of more than a dozen pseudonyms he has adopted in the United States — is the highest-ranking terrorist to ever defect to the West. Joe’s real name is Adnan Adwan. But he now prefers to be called Joe. His presence in the United States since 1984 has been a closely held secret, and the Justice Department has shifted him from city to city to keep him alive. Except for a two-year stint when he tried living on his own, Joe has participated in the witness-protection program. Joe’s former employers in Iraq are believed to have put a multimillion-dollar contract on his head — wanted dead or alive, preferably dead.

American intelligence officials say Joe has provided invaluable information to the C.I.A. and the Justice Department about the internal operations, activities, and techniques of one of the least Known, yet most lethal and murderous terrorist groups in the world — the Iraqi-head-quartered Abu Ibrahim group. His secret testimony to a U.S. grand jury provided the critical evidence that enabled the United States to indict Mohammed Rashid, a Palestinian terrorist, in the 1982 bombing of a Pan American World Airways jet as it was about to land in Honolulu on its way from Tokyo, which killed a 14-year-old boy. The blast that ripped the boy’s body apart was produced by a bomb that had been placed underneath his seat by Rashid on the plane’s earlier leg from Hong Kong to Tokyo.

American intelligence officials also believe Rashid to be connected to the 1986 bombing of a TWA jet over Athens that resulted in the deaths of four people. Rashid was apprehended in Greece in 1988 on a tip by American authorities. While the Greek government refused to extradite him to the United States, Greece finally indicted him in the 1982 bombing. Rashid’s trial by Greek authorities is scheduled to begin early this year.

Rashid was the highest-ranking lieutenant in the Abu Ibrahim group, a small organization led by a deeply obsessed man of Palestinian descent named Hussein Mohammed al-Umari; his nom de guerre is Abu Ibrahim. Ibrahim formed his organization following the 1978 death of his mentor — the notorious Wadi Haddad, a Palestinian terrorist who gained worldwide infamy for his spectacular airplane hijackings and bombings in the seventies. His deeds included the shocking destruction — captured on television — of three American airplanes on a remote Jordanian airfield. When Haddad died, his protege, Abu Ibrahim, perpetuated his loathsome legacy.

By 1981 the 40-year-old Ibrahim, a short, muscular man who neither drinks nor smokes, perfected what Western intelligence officials concede was the “invisible bomb.” Virtually undetectable by Western technological security, the bombs built reflected a quantum and terrifying leap in terrorist technology. Abu Ibrahim himself became so proficient in personally devising ingeniously concealed bombs that he became known by the West’s counterterrorist services as the “master bomb-maker.” In the past decade, Abu Ibrahim and his operatives are believed to have been responsible for the actual or attempted bombings of at least seven airplanes, ten embassies, and six hotels around the world.

Joe’s story is a fascinating one, involving true-life terrorist intrigue, attempted assassinations, espionage, and a contract on his life. Many details of Joe’s story have been independently confirmed by counterterrorism officials at the Justice and Defense departments, as well as by internal government documents. Other details — to which Joe is the only witness — could not be independently verified. However, the Justice Department and the C.I.A. consider Joe to be 100 percent reliable and truthful in everything he has provided to the American government. The Swiss and the Israelis have similarly affirmed their belief in Joe’s authenticity.

Joe was born in 1942 in British Mandatory Palestine in a small village over-looking the port city of Haifa. His family was composed of seven brothers and three sisters; his father, who owned a small store in the middle of town, was a recognized figure. Situated in a mountain range and largely isolated from the civil strife that was building between Jews and Arabs, Joe and his family were unprepared for the tumult that resulted when the Jews finally declared themselves an independent state in 1948. The neighboring Arab regimes attempted to destroy the fledgling nation, and their leaders called upon Palestinian families to flee their homes to allow the Arab armies to throw the Jews into the sea. To induce the families to leave, Arab leaders began spreading stories of massacres and bloodbaths committed by the Jewish armies. Most of these stories were fabricated, but there were isolated, horrific episodes of brutal killings. Most notorious was the massacre of Deir Yassin, an Arab village outside Jerusalem, where more than 250 Palestinian civilians were killed.

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about terrorism can be how little things change over decades and decades. Consider the tale of Abu Ibrahim.

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