Penthouse Retrospective

by Steven A. Emerson Originally Published: March, 1991

Abu Ibrahim | 30 Years Ago This Month

Joe found the Pan Am office in downtown Geneva. Acting impulsively, he asked to speak to the manager. But the manager wasn’t there. Discouraged, Joe returned to his room, thinking about his next step. He thought for a while about going to see the Israeli ambassador, but quickly ruled that action out.

‘Joe realized he was becoming hysterical. He 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?”’

The next day he walked into the Saudi consulate, where he asked to speak to the consul. The guard looked at him suspiciously, demanding his passport. Ten minutes later, a Saudi diplomat appeared. “What can I do for you?” he asked. Joe claimed that he had to talk to him about “something very sensitive.” He asked the Saudi to meet him in the lobby of the Noga Hilton that afternoon. The diplomat agreed.

At 5 P.M. the Saudi official met Joe. At that precise moment a Saudi family appeared, as if on cue. “I am here to kill these people,” Joe blurted out. The startled diplomat’s rejoinder was, “What are you talking about?”

Without blinking an eye, Joe said, “I am here on a terrorist mission on behalf of Abu Ibrahim of Iraq.” Joe then pleaded with the diplomat to arrange a meeting with the consul for the next day. Clearly shaken, the Saudi said he would try. However, when Joe showed up at the Saudi consulate the next day, the diplomat pulled him aside and said, “I am very sorry to tell you that the Saudi consul doesn’t want anything to do with you. You must leave immediately.”

Now Joe felt trapped. He feared that the Saudis might betray him to the Iraqis. He was amazed that the Saudis were afraid of one man. Joe thought again that perhaps he was under surveillance. He became despondent, walking aimlessly for miles. Then he decided to go to the American embassy, which was located in Bern — only a short train ride away.

Arriving there, Joe was astonished to see that it was heavily surrounded by security. How could the mighty Americans be so scared? Joe thought to himself. Walking inside, Joe told the guard, “I need to talk to the ambassador — it’s very important.” He realized that he might be taken for a crazy person, but he insisted. Ten minutes later, a tall, well-dressed American appeared.

“Hello. Please come in,” said the American. “What do you want to talk about?”

“About a bomb,” Joe replied.

The man didn’t flinch at all. “Then come with me,” he said calmly.

The American took Joe to a second-floor room that apparently was the embassy’s sensitive, compartmented intelligence facility (in diplomatic and intelligence community shorthand, the S.C.I.F.), the secured room in the embassy impervious to electronic eaves-dropping.

Joe told the man, “I have a bomb.” “Where?” he asked.

“At my hotel,” answered Joe.

After getting the name of the hotel and the number of Joe’s room, the American called someone on the telephone and began speaking German.

Then the American began interrogating Joe. How long have you been in Switzerland? Who sent you? How do I know you’re telling the truth? The interrogation was interrupted when the telephone rang after half an hour. The American picked it up and listened. His face turned to one of anger. He glared at Joe, then hung up the phone. Then he began screaming. “You’re a liar! The Swiss police just said they inspected your room and found nothing.” He then told Joe that neither the Swiss police nor the bomb-sniffing dogs had found any explosives in his hotel room. The American was furious, accusing Joe of concocting this tale to avoid paying his bill.

Joe screamed back, “I’m telling the truth!” He explained exactly where the bomb was and where to look in the garment bag for the strips of plastic explosive. “Look, tell your people to go back to the hotel room,” Joe pleaded. “The bomb is there. It’s your people who are fucked up.” Joe even began to draw a diagram of the bomb. The American got on the phone again.

Then the two men waited in silence. The American took out a cigar and began puffing away as he stared in stony silence at Joe. It was a look that Joe would long remember. “I could tell that if I was lying, this man would have wanted to kill me,” he remembers. After what seemed like an eternal wait — it was actually about half an hour-the phone rang. Again the American talked in German. But the look of disgust abruptly changed. A smile came over his face. Joe could tell the bomb had been found. Hanging up the telephone, the American asked Joe, “What would you like to drink?”

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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