Penthouse Retrospective

by Steven A. Emerson Originally Published: March, 1991

Abu Ibrahim | 30 Years Ago This Month

“But what about the other guests in the hotel?” asked Joe.

“Our enemies are also Americans and the rich Arabs who dare to patronize this Zionist hotel,” said Ibrahim. Then he began to bitterly attack the wealthy Saudis who stayed at the hotel. It seemed to Joe that Ibrahim was angrier at them than at the Jews.

Over the next several days, Ibrahim provided Joe with fabricated credentials, including forged visas and passports. Joe would be traveling to Geneva under the name of Mohammed Jassin Khalaf. While obtaining the false visas, Joe had been escorted by one of Ibrahim’s assistants. He was a young, handsome Lebanese who had previously recruited innocent European women to carry bombs or conduct surveillance. As the two parted, he left Joe with words of advice: “Be careful with Abu Ibrahim. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll send you on a one-way mission.” The words reverberated in Joe’s head.

Joe returned to Abu Ibrahim’s headquarters. Ibrahim took him to the locked room and gave him a large garment bag. Sealed inside the fabric were thin strips of plastic explosives, so narrow that if anyone even pulled the bag apart, they would appear to be a part of the cardboard lining. But the strips packed the equivalent of 500 kilograms of TNT. Ibrahim then patiently explained how to finish assembling the bomb, particularly the rather tricky way in which it would be detonated. The ignition switch and the two small batteries would be carried separately.

Ibrahim instructed Joe to travel to Budapest for a week first, where he should spend money like a rich Arab tourist. After that he was to travel to Zurich by plane. Then he was to take a train to Geneva and check into the Noga Hilton. If he got into trouble, Ibrahim reassured him, he should call the Iraqi ambassador, who would arrange his release. Ibrahim gave him $15,000 in American money and $5,000 in Hungarian currency.

Joe left and went to say good-bye to Rashid. But the man at the house didn’t look anything like Rashid. His hair was very short and he had no mustache. Rashid laughed and told Joe that he did this all the time before he went on missions. Though Rashid wouldn’t tell him what his mission was, Joe knew it was going to be something spectacular. They hugged each other good-bye. (In fact, at the same time Abu Ibrahim had sent at least five other terrorist couriers around the world to bomb airplanes and hotels. This was going to be a multiple terrorist event that would surpass the spectacle put on by Abu Ibrahim’s mentor, Wadi Haddad.)

At the Baghdad airport, Joe was very nervous, fearing that the vigilant Iraqi security officers would arrest him. But his escort told him not to worry. He was taken through a back door at the terminal, bypassing Iraqi security inspections. Joe’s escort was on such good terms with the security officials that he yelled hello after getting inside the terminal. No one inspected Joe’s luggage.

The plane departed at 11 P.M. on August 8, 1982. Soon after takeoff, Joe began to have misgivings. It was the first time he had been alone since he had agreed to become a terrorist courier for Ibrahim. He shuddered at the thought that he was going to be responsible for the killing of innocent people. The trip to Budapest seemed excruciatingly slow. Joe hoped he would get caught by the airport police in Budapest. That way he would be stopped, and Abu Ibrahim would not be able to accuse him of disrupting the mission. But the bomb and the false documentation were too good. He breezed through airport security.

After ten days in Budapest. Joe flew to Zurich. Again he hoped that airport or immigration officials would catch him. As he waited on the Swiss Customs line, he saw that a passenger ahead of him had been put under arrest for trying to smuggle in drugs. Ma, Joe thought to himself, they’ll catch me now. But when his turn came, the inspectors waved him through. “Welcome to Switzerland,” they said cheerfully.

Joe couldn’t help but laugh to himself. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get caught. Yet he couldn’t try too hard; if Ibrahim were to ever find out that Joe gave himself up, he’d be as good as dead. Joe even began to become paranoid, suspecting that he was being watched by other Ibrahim operatives. What the hell was he going to do?

Joe took the train to Geneva, where he took a taxi to the Noga Hilton. But when he got to the registration desk, he found out there were no rooms available. He made a reservation for the next vacancy, which would be available three days later. He left the Noga Hilton and went to the nearest hotel, several blocks away. After checking into his room, he put the bomb on his bed. Joe felt a surge of panic. What was he going to do? Though he realized that he was becoming hysterical, Joe began to talk to the bomb on the bed as if it were human. “Why don’t you kill me now? Why don’t you let me die?” He placed it under the bed.

A nervous wreck, Joe began to tremble every time he heard an ambulance or police siren. Even when he left the hotel, the sound of a siren shook him. Perhaps a maid found the bomb, he would think. His emotions ranged from relief to hysteria to helplessness. Joe decided that he couldn’t go through with the attack, that he would have to warn someone about the bomb he was carrying. He remembered that Abu Ibrahim had repeatedly said he wanted to bomb Pan Am because it was a symbol of the United States.

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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