In 1973, a young terrorist named Khalid Duhham Al-Jawary entered the United States and quickly began plotting an audacious attack in New York City.
He built three powerful bombs — bombs powerful enough to kill, maim and destroy — and put them in rental cars scattered around town, near Israeli targets.
The plot failed. The explosive devices did not detonate, and Al-Jawary fled the country, escaping prosecution for nearly two decades — until he was convicted of terrorism charges in Brooklyn and sentenced to 30 years in federal penitentiary.
But his time is up.
In less than a month, the 63-year-old Al-Jawary is expected to be released. He will likely be deported; where to is anybody's guess. The shadowy figure had so many aliases it's almost impossible to know which country is his true homeland.
Al-Jawary has never admitted his dark past or offered up tidbits in exchange for his release. Much of Al-Jawary's life remains a mystery — even to the dogged FBI case agent who tracked him down.
But an Associated Press investigation — based on recently declassified documents, extensive court records, CIA investigative notes and interviews with former intelligence officials — reveals publicly for the first time Al-Jawary's deep involvement in terrorism beyond the plot that led to his conviction.
Government documents link Al-Jawary to Black September's murderous letter-bombing campaign targeting world leaders in the 1970s and a botched terrorist attack in 1979. Former intelligence officials suspect he had a role in the bombing of a TWA flight in 1974 that killed 88 people.
"He's a very dangerous man," said Mike Finnegan, the former FBI counterterrorism agent who captured Al-Jawary. "A very bad guy."
Al-Jawary has long insisted that he was framed and that the government has the wrong guy. Al-Jawary declined an interview through prison officials and has since failed to answer letters mailed to him in the last year and a half, but his former lawyer, Ron Kuby, insists he "wasn't a threat in 1991 and he's not a threat now."
Federal prosecutors didn't see it that way. They point to his trip to the United States in the 1970s as proof.
Bomb plot foiled
On Jan. 12, 1973, Al-Jawary flew to Boston via Montreal and then to New York City. He began scouting targets for a terrorist attack.
He picked two Israeli banks on Fifth Avenue and the El-Al cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport.
Possibly working with two or more people, Al-Jawary rented three cars and assembled three bombs comprised of large containers filled with gasoline, propane tanks, plastic explosives, blasting caps and batteries, according to FBI and federal court records.
Two of the bombs used alarm clocks, but a third employed a sophisticated electronic-timing device commonly referred to as an "e-cell," said Terence G. McTigue, who worked on the New York Police Department's bomb squad. It was twice as powerful as the other two bombs.
On March 4, Al-Jawary — and possibly others — readied the cars in anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's visit to the city.
Each car contained a Hebrew language newspaper with propaganda from Black September — the terrorist organization that carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics just months earlier — tucked inside.
But the bombs failed to explode. They were discovered after the two cars on Fifth Avenue were towed, and the FBI learned about the third car at JFK and notified police.
McTigue disarmed the e-cell bomb at JFK. It was cutting edge, the work of a professional.
"It was a sea change because it was the first time we encountered an electronic timer rather than a simple alarm clock or mechanical timer," recalled McTigue, who would be badly injured in 1976 when he tried to dismantle a bomb left by a Croatian terrorist.
McTigue also recognized something else as he examined the car bomb: a plastic explosive called Semtex from Czechoslovakia. It had been used in scores of letter bombs sent around the world the previous year, targeting Jews and Israelis and even U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers. One had killed an agricultural counselor at the Israeli embassy in London and another mangled the hands of a 26-year-old postal worker in the Bronx.
McTigue knew those letter bombs. He had handled them. The letters had pressure-release firing devices and were the work of Black September, Palestinian guerrillas believed by intelligence officials to be controlled by Yasser Arafat.
As it turns out, Al-Jawary's car bombs and the letter explosives contained similarities that made authorities suspect they were linked.
"The explosive material found in the rental cars was imported and found to be identical to that used in the recent worldwide letter bomb campaign," according to declassified State Department documents obtained from the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md.
The FBI began a large investigation. Agents lifted 60 fingerprints; they all matched Al-Jawary's. They uncovered a fake Jordanian passport behind an air conditioning duct and bomb materials from a room Al-Jawary had rented at a hotel near JFK.
Agents quickly realized that Al-Jawary was involved in the attempted attack and issued an arrest warrant. But he had already slipped out of the country.
Years passed. The FBI gave up the hunt.
Links to terrorist group
But their elusive quarry resurfaced in 1979. Border police stopped Al-Jawary's car as he and another man tried to cross into Germany from Austria, according to federal court documents.
In the trunk of the car, police found 88 pounds of high explosives, electronic timing-delay devices and detonators hidden in a suitcase. They also unearthed cash and nine passports inside a portable radio that could be used to monitor transmissions from ships, airplanes or the police.
They were likely on their way to bomb targets in Germany — most likely, Jewish and Israeli ones.
Still, Germany released Al-Jawary long before the FBI knew that he had been taken into custody.
And he disappeared once again.
But those e-cell bombs did not. A group known as the 15 May Organization — named for the date that Israel was founded — began carrying out terror attacks from Lebanon, Tunis and Baghdad in the 1980s. Suitcase bombs made with e-cells were the 15 May trademark. Its leader was a skilled bomb-maker named Husayn al-Umari, commonly referred to as Abu Ibrahim.
In one high-profile attack in 1982, an explosion rocked a Pan Am jet flying to Honolulu from Tokyo, killing a 16-year-old Japanese boy and injuring several others.
Denny Kline was an explosives guru for the FBI and investigated the 15 May cases. Kline worked closely with the CIA and never received any evidence or information to suggest that Al-Jawary was involved with 15 May.
But other investigators have since learned of the e-cell connection and believe it's a powerful one, because they were such sophisticated devices and so few people knew how to operate and create them.
"That's a big commonality especially since I don't know of anyone else using the e-cells in the bomb," said Billie Vincent, the former FAA security chief from 1982 to 1986 who studied the Ibrahim devices.
CIA investigative notes obtained by the AP, based on human intelligence and communication intercepts, indicate that Al-Jawary's nom de guerre was Abu Walid al-Iraqi. The notes link Al-Jawary to a man named Abdullah Labib, aka Col. Hawari, who took his orders from Arafat. The notes say that Al-Jawary also worked as a document forger for the PLO and Hawari.
Hawari, a senior Fatah security official and Arafat confidant, "inherited" elements of Black September, according to the CIA notes. Declassified State Department and CIA documents say Hawari took over 15 May in the mid-1980s while Ibrahim continued to supply his expertise.
Hawari reportedly died in a car crash in 1991. Ibrahim, who was charged in the 1982 Pan Am attack, remains at large, possibly hiding out in Iraq.
Besides the use of e-cells, Al-Jawary had another link to 15 May. Ibrahim was suspected of being Black September's bomb maker, Kline and other former intelligence officials said.
A bomb signature
FBI agent Mike Finnegan didn't know any of this when he arrived at work one day in 1988 to find the entire case file — many volumes and thousands of pages — sitting on his desk with a note that said: "Find Him" — find Al-Jawary.
It took Finnegan a year to review the entire file. He followed every lead and re-interviewed witnesses. Nothing.
Finnegan also looked at other terrorism cases involving bombs. There was one in particular that drew his attention: TWA Flight 841 crashed Sept. 8, 1974, in the Ionian Sea near Greece after an explosive device detonated.
Seventy-nine passengers and nine crew members were killed. Among them were 17 Americans on the flight that originated in Tel Aviv and was headed ultimately for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Thirteen days earlier, the same flight had landed in Rome. When a ramp agent opened the rear cargo compartment, smoke was found coming from a suitcase. The suitcase and contents were sent to an FBI laboratory in the U.S., which concluded it was a bomb.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the suitcase was "an attempt at the same form of sabotage" that downed the flight over the Ionian Sea.
Neither attack was ever solved. The suitcase was later destroyed.
Finnegan thought Al-Jawary had been behind the suitcase bomb. It employed an e-cell, according to the FBI. At that time, he was told, the use of an e-cell was a bomb signature.
"It had a very distinct timing device," said Finnegan, who retired in 2004. "It was almost like a foregone conclusion. This was my guy. I desperately wanted to resurrect that case."
But it wasn't Finnegan's call to pursue the 1974 attack. Street agents don't make those decisions. He had to focus on the New York investigation.
In the fall of 1990, Finnegan learned Al-Jawary was residing on Cyprus — a center of terrorism — as the PLO's "cultural attache" under the name of Khaled Mohammed El-Jassem.
Finnegan finally had Al-Jawary in his sights, but then he was gone: In December, Al-Jawary escaped to Iraq, after he figured out the FBI was on to him. Finnegan was furious.
Then, some luck. In January 1991, Al-Jawary left Iraq to attend a funeral in Tunis for his good friend, Abu Iyad, the leader of Black September and Arafat deputy.
But Al-Jawary's travel plans were derailed as he was passing through Rome. He was detained after Finnegan alerted Italian authorities. Months later, Finnegan was able to bring Al-Jawary back to the U.S.
Since his arrest, Al-Jawary has asserted he wasn't in New York when the bombs were planted. The FBI had the wrong guy. The Mossad had framed him. He's not from Mosul, Iraq.
He's Khaled Mohammed El-Jassem, father of five and devoted husband, born in Palestine in 1947. He's a victim of Israeli aggression and bombs, which killed his brother and an infant son.
Al-Jawary claims in court filings that he grew up in refugee camps in Jordan and later moved to Beirut and then Cyprus.
A Brooklyn jury didn't buy any of this and convicted him in about three hours.
Credit for good behavior
Judge Jack B. Weinstein sentenced Al-Jawary to 30 years in prison in April 1993. In a written opinion issued after the trial, Weinstein said Al-Jawary was a serious threat.
"It is highly likely that were this defendant released he would continue his dangerous terrorist activities," the judge said.
Al-Jawary's appeals foundered.
But those countless hours behind bars are almost over. Freedom looms for this gaunt and graying terrorist who was transferred recently to a federal detention center in Manhattan.
Al-Jawary is scheduled to be released Feb. 19 after completing only about half his term, which includes time served prior to his sentencing and credit for good behavior, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Once he is released, Al-Jawary will be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held until his deportation.
It remains unclear where he'll go, largely because Al-Jawary's true identity remains in question — even to this day.
Those who helped put Al-Jawary behind bars believe he'll pick up where he left off.
"What is he going to do when he gets out?" McTigue said. "He'll be deported and received as a hero and go right back into his terrorist activities."