Penthouse Retrospective

by Steven A. Emerson Originally Published: March, 1991

Abu Ibrahim | 30 Years Ago This Month

The following day, Joe returned to the embassy after having slept in a hotel paid for by the Americans. The Americans told him that he would have to be turned over to Swiss authorities. “But we’ll protect you,” they said to Joe as they escorted him downstairs, where the Swiss Federal Police awaited him. He was placed in a car and driven to the federal court in Bern. He repeated his entire story. The Swiss praised him for coming forward, but said he’d have to be placed in protective custody in a safe house outside the city. For the next three days, he was fully debriefed by the Swiss, drawing maps of Abu Ibrahim’s multiple safe houses in Baghdad, providing names and addresses of anyone connected to Ibrahim, and describing the laboratory where Ibrahim constructed his bombs. Joe’s handler was a Swiss counterterrorist expert who spoke Arabic. His purpose was to make sure that Joe was not a double agent.

Then the Swiss put Joe in a hotel, gave him money, and had him fill out papers for a passport. A new life was about to start. But he had also lost all of his life until that moment. He would never see his family again. He would never see any of his friends. He relinquished all of his assets, including his business, his four cars, his house, and all his personal possessions.

After about a week, the Swiss asked him to meet with foreign intelligence services, including agents from the American C.I.A., the British M.I.-6, the French Deuxieme Bureau, and the Israeli Mossad. Of all the intelligence services, only the Mossad came with an Arabic-speaking agent. They insisted that Joe be hooked up to a lie-detector machine. Joe was asked a series of questions. Have you killed anyone? Was this your first mission? were among them. Afterward, the Israelis were convinced of his authenticity. They asked him if he would become a double agent for them by going to Paris in the guise of a rich Arab. In return, the Israelis offered to pay him $5 million. Joe politely declined. “Thank you anyway,” he told the Mossad, “but I don’t want to go back into this business. I know that if you find someone, you have to kill them. If I go back into this business, I’d rather work for my own people.”

The Americans came with pictures of suspected Palestinian terrorists and concealed bombs and weapons. Did he recognize anyone or anything? The American who led the delegation was a Justice Department official named Dan Bent, who was at that time the assistant U.S. attorney in Hawaii. Bent’s particular interest was finding out who had placed the bomb on the Pan Am jet from Tokyo to Hawaii that had killed the 14-year-old Japanese boy and injured 15 other passengers. The bomb had gone off some ten days earlier. In addition, another bomb was found on a Pan Am flight as it landed in Rio de Janeiro after taking off from Miami. The flight had originated in London. Miraculously, the bomb had failed to explode and was found in the jet’s empty cabin by a member of the cleaning crew.

From the photos he had been asked to look at, Joe picked out the picture of Rashid. With Joe’s help, the Americans reconstructed the bombing of the Pan Am airplane. On July 15, 1982, Rashid had requested visas from the Japanese embassy in Baghdad for himself, his wife Fatima, and his two-year-old son. On or about August 7, Rashid had left Baghdad with his family for Singapore. There Rashid purchased Pan Am tickets to Tokyo under the false name of Mohammed Harouk. They then traveled to Hong Kong, then to Tokyo. During the Hong Kong to Tokyo portion of the trip, Rashid placed a bomb under seat 47K and set the timer for a delayed explosion. Rashid, Fatima, and their child returned to Baghdad.

The Americans began preparing their case against Rashid, a process that would take nearly five years before an indictment could be issued against him. Rashid has denied involvement in the Pan Am bombing, stating that he is a victim of mistaken identity.

But in August 1982, Joe had no idea what he was getting into. Since his defection had been kept out of the papers, he had no idea whether Abu Ibrahim knew what had happened. The Swiss police wanted to test Ibrahim. One evening Joe called him on a police telephone in Bern.

“Hi, is Abu Ibrahim home?” Joe asked the woman who answered.

“Sorry, he is not home,” said the female voice, which Joe immediately recognized as that of Ibrahim’s wife.

“Well, I’d like to leave a message for Abu Ibrahim. I wasn’t able to find a hotel room at the Noga Hilton, so I had to go to a different hotel. I’ve run out of money, so please let me know who to go to.”

Several days later, an Ibrahim operative was observed entering Switzerland. He traveled to the hotel at which Joe had told Ibrahim’s wife he had been staying. The man went to the front desk and asked for Mohammed Jassin Khalaf, the name on the false passport being used by Joe. At that moment, Swiss police surrounded and arrested him. In his pocket the police found $1,500 in American currency, a picture of Joe, and a note for Joe from Abu Ibrahim. The note said, “My brother, please give your luggage to this man. He’ll finish the mission. You are to return home at once.” The police asked the man why he wanted Joe’s luggage and whether he knew Abu Ibrahim. The man said that he had been told that Joe would be carrying drugs. But he would talk no further. The Swiss police suspected that his real mission had been to kill Joe.

The Swiss put the man in jail, then arranged for Joe to be placed in the cell next to his. At the very least, the man would report back to Ibrahim that Joe had been arrested as well. Joe tried to coax the man into talking, but every time he approached him, the man put his fingers over his mouth. Within several days, the man was expelled from Switzerland.

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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