By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
Dateline NBC

It was in Bethlehem in January 2002 that militants controlled the biblical city. Avi Boaz, a 72-year-old American architect fluent in Arabic, is driving through the town where he’s worked for more than three decades. He’s stopped by armed men demanding to see identification. After examining his U.S. Passport, they shout “Jew” in Arabic, raise their weapons, then hijack his car.

According to western intelligence and law enforcement sources, the militants then drive Boaz to an abandoned soccer field, put him back behind the wheel, and open fire, killing him instantly.

It was a calculated and cold-blooded attack. And U.S. and Israeli officials say they’ve identified the alleged mastermind. But, today, that individual is not behind bars. He’s walking the streets a free man.

Lisa Myers, correspondent: How much freedom do you have here in Ireland?

Jihad Ja'ara: 100 percent.

Myers: 100 percent freedom?

Ja'ara: Yeah.

Jihad Ja’ara is a legendary Palestinian terrorist. For years, he’s led a double life. As an officer in the Palestinian equivalent of the FBI, Ja’ara was responsible for preventing terrorist attacks.  Yet, at the same time, he was committing acts of violence. In 2002, he was a top operative for a terrorist group known as the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has killed hundreds of Israelis and at least five Americans.

Myers: How many people did you kill or did you order killed?

Ja'ara: It’s not important for me how many I kill, one or ten or 100.

Myers: Do you still consider yourself a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade?

Ja'ara: Yes, and I’m proud.

And he's unrepentent.

Myers: Did you engage in bombings?

Ja'ara: We do everything. What we can do.

Myers: So, we should assume that you engaged in bombings.

Ja'ara: I not tell you exactly. But I was a freedom fighter.

Ja’ara says he turned to violence to avenge the deaths of comrades assassinated by Israel and to drive Israel out of, what he says, is Palestinian land. He opposes the current peace process.

Israeli intelligence officials say over the years Ja’ara masterminded a series of deadly attacks, including a 2002 suicide bombing that killed 11, and the shooting of an Israeli woman as she drove her car.

Ja’ara was so brazen that he once took along a BBC camera crew as he fired his machine gun into a Jewish neighborhood. Today, there’s even a Web site extolling his exploits.

So how is it that Ja’ara today is free to walk the streets of Dublin?  

It all goes back to Bethlehem, March 2002. Two months after the shooting of that American architect, Israel sent forces to hunt down Ja’ara and his comrades. A shootout followed and Ja’ara and the others took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s holiest sites. Shot in the leg, Ja’ara nearly bled to death.

Myers: You held out for 40 days with that wound?

Ja'ara: Yeah, 40 day. Without anything. Israel try six times to assassinate me.  But the God, he like I live.

The 40-day siege generated tremendous international attention. Because Israel was perceived as attacking a holy shrine, under pressure, Israeli officials agreed to allow Ja’ara to leave Bethlehem and re-settle in Ireland. In return, the Irish were supposed to monitor his activities, and ensure he had no further involvement in terrorism.

But have the Irish kept up their end of the bargain? Ja’ara seems to be up to his old tricks.

Up to his old tricks?
In January 2003, Ja’ara used a fake passport to slip out of Ireland to Spain where he met up with other Palestinian militants. Irish authorities only learned he’d escaped when he called in to taunt them.

Ja'ara: I rang the leader of security and I told him, “I am Jihad and I am now in Spain.”

Finally, after two weeks, Spanish authorities detained Ja'ara up and shipped him back to Ireland.

Irish officials declined to be interviewed but tell NBC News their intelligence service, headquartered here in Dublin, has intensified their surveillance of Ja’ara. These officials also say they will prosecute anyone caught using Ireland for terrorist operations.

While Ja’ara flaunts giving the Irish the slip, he denies allegations that he’s working with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, to mount more attacks.

Myers:  Intelligence officials say from the safety of Ireland, you have continued to help plan terrorist operations in the Middle East.

Ja'ara: It’s not true.

Ja'ara: Yes, I respect the law in this country here. And I am not do anything.

Ja'ara: I always a good boy.

To corroborate his claim that he’s out of the terrorism business, Ja’ara suggested we speak to a friend of his—now in Israeli custody.

Ja'ara: If you like, go visit him in the jail. 

Myers: We will try.

Ja'ara: And ask him this question.

So we did pay a visit to Ja’ara’s friend, Salem Bawaqnah, at a maximum security prison in northern Israel where he’s awaiting trial on terrorism charges. 

Salem Bawaqnah: My goal in contacting Jihad was to get weapons for me and my group.

Far from exonerating Jihad Ja’ara, Bawaqnah told us that from July 2004 until his arrest in November, he repeatedly contacted Ja’ara in Ireland for help when his group ran low on cash and weapons.

Bawaqnah: We had to turn to Jihad, and Jihad had to turn to Hezbollah. So there was a circle created, and there was financial support.

And it’s not just Ja’ara’s friends who claim he’s been doing this right under the nose of the Irish. Israeli intelligence officials say while in Ireland, Ja’ara has helped Hezbollah funnel large sums of money to terrorist cells in the West Bank.

Bawaqnah says that financial support underwrote car bombings. Israel intelligence claims it also funded an attempted bombing of a synagogue last fall.

Where did Ja'ara get his skill?
All of this is alarming. But perhaps the great irony here is who taught Ja’ara his craft. A hint: U.S. taxpayers footed the bill.

Ja'ara: CIA.

Myers: You were trained by the CIA?

Ja'ara: Yes.

Back when he was an officer with the Palestinian Preventive ASecurity Force, Ja’ara attended courses given by the CIA, as well as Arab allies. Now, the CIA says that the training was supposed to help the Palestinians neutralize terrorists. But Ja’ara says that, in his case, it had the opposite effect.

Ja'ara: They make me very nice freedom fighter.

Myers: Thanks to the CIA.

Ja'ara: Yes.

Myers: Was any of the training helpful when you went to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade?

Ja'ara: I think every—every course I—what I take it help me. Especially for shooting.

Myers: The shooting?

Ja'ara: Yes.

Myers: Was helpful?

Ja'ara: Yes.

Denying involvement on American's death
The daughter of that American shooting victim, Idit Boaz-Cohen, says Ja’ara murdered a friend of the Palestinians, a man who transcended the religious and political divide.

Idit Boaz-Cohen: He thought of people as people. Not, one is an Arab, one is a Jew, one is Christian, one is Muslim. A person is a person and it doesn’t matter where he comes from and what he believes in.

Recently, she was reunited with her father’s closest Palestinian friends. After three and a half years, the pain still runs deep. And so does the anger at those behind Avi Boaz’s murder, especially the alleged mastermind, Jihad Ja’ara, who remains a free man in Ireland.

While quick to admit killing Israelis, Ja’ara insists he played no role in the murder of the American architect.

Ja'ara: I never thinking kill anybody in the world, if he not Israel.

Myers: So, you did not kill Avi Boaz.

Ja'ara: This not true. Absolutely no.

Myers: You’ve never killed an American.

Ja'ara: No. My conflict between me and the Israel.

Myers: And so you will only kill Israelis?

Ja'ara: Yes.

But Western intelligence and law enforcement sources tell a very different story.They say Ja’ara not only participated in the murder; it was his idea. It seems he even bragged about it to Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Joshua Hammer.

Joshua Hammer, Newsweek Jerusalem bureau chief: He told me in no uncertain terms that he had organized the kidnapping and the murder of Avi Boaz.

What’s being done about Ja’ara? 
So what's the United States doing about Ja'ara? In a statement to NBC News, the U.S. Justice Department said that tracking down those who kill Americans overseas is a top priority and that in this case, the department, “will not be satisfied until all of those responsible for the murder of Boaz are brought to justice.”

But time is short. Within weeks, it will be hard for us authorities to get their hands on this Palestinian.

Under a recent agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, Ja’ara and other infamous exiles will be allowed to return to Bethlehem as soon as the city is returned to Palestinian control, which could happen next month. There’s only one catch: the exiles must renounce violence.

Myers: Will you renounce violence? 

Ja'ara: I hope you ask me why you do the violence.

Myers: Why do you kill people?

Ja'ara: Because that’s my enemy, because this is—kill every future for the whole Palestinian people.

Myers:  So, you do not renounce violence.

Ja'ara: When I have freedom, I promise you I will stop.

Myers: But not until then.

Ja'ara: Not— Not— Not now.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments