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updated 7/9/2003 4:58:23 AM ET 2003-07-09T08:58:23

I got a letter from the Alphabet Bomber the other day. It looked like the usual correspondence from paranoid schizophrenics, who tend to write in block letters and fatten the envelopes with copies of documents “proving” whatever delusional fantasy drives them.

AND, YES, there’s always the risk there will be a little talcum powder or something more sinister inside. The still-at-large anthrax terrorist wrote in block letters, too. But I figured this envelope was OK. The return address was Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s super-maximum-security facility near the Oregon border. Whatever else this guy was up to, he wasn’t making chemical or biological weapons. At least, not anymore.

So I opened it. There were indeed copies of several papers, and scrawled on the back: “DEAR MR. DICKEY: YOU COULD ASCEND TO WORLD PROMINENCE BY BEING THE FIRST WHO UNDERSTOOD THIS LETTER. M. KURBEGOVICH.”

Typical.

IMG: Alphabet Bomber
Ahead of his time: The Alphabet Bomber at a 1987 parole hearing
In lieu of a CV, there was a concise, straightforward 1985 “record of deportable alien.” It described Muharem Kurbegovic [sic] as tall, blond, blue-eyed and originally from Sarajevo, having immigrated to the United States in 1967: “Subject gained notoriety as the ‘Alphabet Bomber’ in 1974 by firebombing the houses of a judge and two police commissioners, firebombing one of the commissioner’s car [sic], burning down two Marina Del Rey apartment buildings and bombing the Pan Am Terminal of Los Angeles International Airport, killing three people and injuring eight.” Convicted in 1980 on “25 counts of Murder, Arson, Illegal Use of Explosives and related charges. Sentenced to life in prison, the subject has whiled away the hours in San Quentin [where he then was] by mailing death threats against U.S. presidents and other U.S. and foreign officials.”

Kurbegovich, as he now spells his name, was in fact more dangerous than the Unabomber of the 1990s, and a great deal more frightening than the laconic prose of the immigration document would suggest. Just last Thursday, as The Washington Post reported, the FBI warned its field offices to be on the lookout for “lone extremists” who “represent an ongoing terrorist threat in the United States.” Kurbegovich, now pushing 60, could be the poster boy for the kind of malevolent lunatic the Feds have in mind. At the time he was arrested in August 1974, this one-man horror show had acquired almost all the components he needed to make sarin nerve gas.

Kurbegovich, an engineer who worked for aerospace industries and pretended to be a deaf-mute to evade the Vietnam-era draft, was a denizen of public libraries in that pre-Internet age. From them he pulled together what were then just-declassified cookbooks for weapons of mass destruction. A quarter century before Osama bin Laden’s training camps taught holy warriors how to generate poisonous cyanide gas near the air-conditioning intakes of high-rise buildings, Kurbegovich bought 25 pounds of potassium cyanide and nitric acid to do just that. He hid it so effectively in his Los Angeles apartment that the police didn’t find the chemical stockpile until he told them about it—more than two years after his arrest.

Yet what made Kurbegovich’s reign of terror in the summer of 1974 so intense and, for a few weeks, so successful was his ability to integrate conventional bombs and the threat of chemical weapons into a strategy that today’s U.S. military would call “information warfare.” His first chemical attack was by postcard. On July 7, 1974, he left a tape cassette in a planter at the Los Angeles Times claiming he put nerve gas on tiny lead disks hidden under 11-cent stamps on postcards mailed June 15 to all nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. As he explained on the tape, “Each postcard shows the Palm Springs [Calif.] home of entertainer Bob Hope and reads as follows: ‘It is justices of your greatness that made this nation so great. Respectfully, Bob Hope’.” As it turned out, nine such postcards had indeed been intercepted at the Palm Springs post office on June 16, where the canceling machines had broken the tiny vials under the stamps. The foreman thought they were toy caps.

Kurbegovich admitted a few weeks later, in another threatening tape, that the postcards were a hoax and the liquid in the vials innocuous. But he knew it was the idea that sowed terror as much as the reality. “A reasonable man will pause to think if someone points a gun at him,” he said, “whether the gun is loaded or empty.” It’s the same idea now embraced, on a much more horrendous scale, by Osama bin Laden and his acolytes. After carrying out the September 11 attacks, they let it be known they are looking to acquire radiological, biological and chemical weapons. The mere threat has kept the whole world on edge. Saddam, too, works hard to sustain the horrific idea of his weapons of mass destruction—whether he has the devices or not.

Kurbegovich was “a terrorist ahead of his time,” writes Jeffrey Simon in the Monterey Institute’s 2002 volume on “Toxic Terror,” which is the most thorough analytical account I’ve seen. Though Kurbegovich had no organization and no outside support, he claimed to be Isak Rasim, military commander of a group he called Aliens of America. He was dubbed “The Alphabet Bomber” after he dropped off an audiotape at a CBS affiliate in the aftermath of the gory LAX attack. “The first bomb was marked with the letter A, which stands for airport,” he said. “The second bomb will be associated with the letter L, etc., until our name has been written on the face of this nation in blood.” After a grim panic seized the city, he sent a warning about the next device, planted in a Greyhound bus station, in a locker—thus L. When it was found and eventually defused, it was the most powerful explosive device the bomb squad had ever handled. “He had credibility,” the state prosecutor told Simon later. “He had the city of L.A. in fear.”

The Alphabet Bomber was caught, at last, because his targets were too personal. His apocalyptic terrorism had grown out of a private vendetta against a judge and commissioners he blamed for preventing him from opening a hall for “taxi dancers,” where women were paid to slow-dance with lonely men like him. He’d been caught in a lewd situation in one such hall, and that compromised his chances to start his business, even threatened his chances of becoming an American citizen. So the central demands of his terrorist campaign were an end to immigration and naturalization laws, as well as any laws about sex. CIA voice analysis of a his tapes pinpointed Kurbegovich’s Yugoslav origins. Court records of the cases handled by his first targets—the judge and the police commissioners—triangulated his identity. He was tailed for a while, then picked up after dropping off yet another threatening tape in the bathroom of a family restaurant.

Now, almost 30 years later, having spent just about half his life in mental institutions and high-security prisons, he sends me this envelope. Why me? He doesn’t explain. Perhaps because he spends a lot of time reading thrillers and one I published in 1997, “Innocent Blood,” was about a blond, blue-eyed terrorist of Bosnian descent name Kurtovic who tries to bring the apocalypse to American shores. But I suspect the real reason is that from Block 8, cell 115 in Pelican Bay, Muharem Kurbegovic wants a piece of the terrorist action in the post-Osama world. He’s the one who wants to “ascend to world prominence.” Last year he filed a writ in the Superior Court of California claiming “he has been a member of the Al-Qaida terrorist organization since 1963,” when Bin Laden was barely in elementary school. But all Kurbegovich can do now is send threats in block letters. It’s other lone extremists looking for lunatic vengeance, apocalyptic glory, who will carry on the work. And they remain a danger to us all.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

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