Penthouse Retrospective

by Steven A. Emerson Originally Published: March, 1991

Abu Ibrahim | 30 Years Ago This Month

From 1982 through 1984, Joe worked with Swiss authorities on several sting operations against suspected terrorists and false double agents. He traveled under an assumed name to Morocco, but that was as close as he got to Iraq. He was getting restless in Switzerland. One day, in December 1984, an opportunity to escape his ennui arose when Justice Department official Dan Bent came to Bern to discuss the U.S. case against Rashid, as well as the hunt for Ibrahim. During that visit Bent revealed that Joe’s participation would be absolutely critical. “We will need you as a witness against Mohammed Rashid,” Bent told him. “We are going to try to catch him, and when we do, you will be needed. Would you be interested in coming over and living in the United States?” Joe said he would. “How long will it take you to get ready?” asked Bent. “I’m ready right now!” exclaimed Joe. Both men laughed. Within days Joe had packed and both men took the train to Zurich, protected by two American bodyguards. Then they flew from Zurich to New York.

Landing at Kennedy Airport, Joe flew under heavy security on the shuttle to Washington, D.C. He was driven to the U.S. Marshall’s Service, where he met with its officials. “Where would you like to live?” Joe was asked. “AII I need is hot weather and an ocean,” he responded. His Arabic translator suggested Hawaii. But Joe already had a preference in mind: Miami. Why Miami? Because he had remembered seeing pictures of Miami in an old Dean Martin — Jerry Lewis film. (He has since been moved to another state.)

Meanwhile, the Justice Department pressed on in the hunt for Rashid and Ibrahim. Ibrahim’s terrorist “signature” was found on the bomb that blew a hole in the TWA jet over Athens in April 1986. Four people were sucked out of the plane at 17,000 feet. But Iraq — which had been taken off the list of countries supporting international terrorism — had pulled the wool over the State Department’s eyes. The Department of Justice, the F.B.I., and the Defense Department were furious with the State Department for pandering to the Iraqis.

‘The Israelis offered to pay Joe $5 million to travel to Paris disguised as a rich Arab. He declined: “If I go back into this business, I’d rather work for my own people.”’

In June 1986 the U.S. attorney convened a grand jury in Washington. On July 31, and for the next several days, Joe appeared before the grand jury, providing more than 200 pages of testimony. Six months later, on January 15, 1987, the grand jury returned a secret indictment against Mohammed Rashid and three other people whose names have never been publicly revealed. According to intelligence sources, they include Abu Ibrahim and Rashid’s wife Fatima. All three were charged with nine counts of conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism, along with carrying out acts of terrorism and murder.

In May 1988 Rashid traveled to Greece on his way to another country. Acting on a tip supplied by the United States, Greek authorities arrested him, but Rashid said it was a case of mistaken identity. However, American intelligence and law-enforcement authorities had the goods — photos, forged records, and home addresses — thanks largely to Joe and to other surveillance operations. The United States requested that Greece extradite Rashid. The Greek government refused, largely because of a desire to avoid disrupted relations with radical Palestinians.

Instead, the Greek government tried and convicted Rashid of entering the country on a false passport and sentenced him to five months. Fearing that Greece was about to release Rashid — especially following the Greek government’s decision to free another Palestinian terrorist convicted of bombing a synagogue and killing a young child — the United States placed heavy pressure on the authorities. Finally, after intense diplomatic and legal wrangling, the Greek government announced that it would place Rashid on trial on charges of premeditated murder and placing explosives on an airliner. Rashid has received legal support from the Palestine Liberation Organization.

For Joe, his moment of truth was finally at hand. In October 1990 he was flown to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington, where he provided another six hours of testimony to American and Greek prosecutors. His eight-year odyssey was now coming to a close.

Still, amazingly, his real name had never been made public. Although Ibrahim was certainly not naive enough to believe that Joe had not defected, there was no conclusive proof-nor was there any evidence as to which country Joe had defected to. Despite the fact that intelligence officials believed that Ibrahim had placed a contract on Joe’s life, the ambiguity surrounding his sudden disappearance in 1982 had served as a de facto protection for his family in Baghsad. Unfortunately, that protection began to dissipate in November, when word of Joe’s defection and his real name was leaked in Greece. Within weeks, Joe learned that a campaign of harassment had been initiated against his family. Joe’s anticipated appearance at Rashid’s trial will certainly prove electrifying. In a larger sense, the trial will really be against Abu Ibrahim. And it will finally allow his chief accuser to step forward.

For Joe, security will take a back step. American intelligence has already been warned that Ibrahim and other Palestinian followers, including the P.L.O.’s Force 17, the Colonel Hawari group, and Abu Abbas, will try to strike against American and Greek targets once the trial begins. No. 1 on the list is Joe.

In the back rooms of Western intelligence services, there has always been a begrudging respect for Abu Ibrahim’s almost errorless style and his diabolically effective bombs. A psychiatrist working for the Swiss police once observed that Ibrahim is the type of man who never makes a mistake. But the psychiatrist was wrong: Abu Ibrahim chose Joe to be his courier.

It generally saddens us when we realize that we still need to have an entire category devoted to war in a contemporary magazine.

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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