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Palestinian terrorist eludes U.S. in Iraq

With the assistance of Iraqi intelligence, Abu Ibrahim has carried out many attacks. He struck in London, Rome, Athens. In West Berlin, an infant was killed and 24 wounded after one of his bombs detonated at an Israeli-owned restaurant.
Image: Sketch of Abu Ibrahim
This undated artist sketch provided by the FBI shows a likeness of Abu Ibrahim. Ibrahim, a master bomb maker whose real name is Husayn al-Umari, was indicted in Washington, D.C., more than two decades ago for a fatal airline bombing that tore apart a 16-year-old boy and injured more than a dozen others. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Pan Am Flight 830 descended toward Honolulu and passengers finished their breakfast, a blinding burst of light washed over them.

And then, "BOOM!"

The 747 shuddered violently. Confusion erupted as the airliner nose-dived. Screams and thick smoke filled the cabin. Oxygen masks dropped.

In the rear of the plane, 16-year-old Toru Ozawa lay on his back in the aisle. His lower abdomen had been ripped open, his intestines seeping out. The explosion had also sheered off one of his legs. He called out for his mother and father; they watched in horror as he died.

The Aug. 11, 1982, explosion was no accident. Ozawa was murdered — killed by a sophisticated bomb, one of many that spread like a virus around the world in the 1980s, killing and injuring scores in more than two dozen terrorist attacks.

The man behind them: Abu Ibrahim, who controlled a web of dangerous operatives while living in Baghdad under the protection of Saddam Hussein.

Ibrahim has elused coalition forces
Long forgotten and even presumed dead by some, Ibrahim is very much alive, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ibrahim had managed to elude coalition forces — possibly while aiding the Sunni insurgency — before he recently crossed into Syria, federal law enforcement and former CIA officials believe.

The FBI is eager to catch Ibrahim, whose real name is Husayn al-Umari, and has ramped up efforts to find him, releasing an age-enhanced sketch of Ibrahim to the AP, the first known picture of him ever made public.

But time is running out.

As American forces draw down in Iraq, the FBI worries that locating Ibrahim could become harder if he slips back into the country. And a key witness who could testify against Ibrahim will be released from a Colorado prison in four years — if not sooner.

"This is an unfinished war on terrorism and he's part of that war," said Bob Baer, a former top CIA agent who worked clandestinely in the Middle East. "He was the most capable and the most dangerous bomb maker in the world barring none during my time as a CIA officer. He's a man who could open up a lot of old cases."

Mysterious puppet master
The 73-year-old Ibrahim is an almost mythological figure in terrorism, a sort of mysterious puppet master — always out of reach, in the background, pulling strings.

Pictures of him are rare. The Palestinian didn't make tape recordings and broadcast his anti-Israel, anti-American manifesto to the world. He let his bombs do the talking and taught a group of proteges his formidable skills — ones he acquired studying chemical and electrical engineering and later learned from KGB.

He's been described as a "genius." The "grandfather of bomb makers." A "Michelangelo." Or as one former Pentagon official said, "Dr. Frankenstein."

His infamous career stretches back decades. He has been linked to several terrorist organizations, including Black September and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

But it wasn't until Ibrahim broke away from the PFLP in 1979 and formed his own outfit called "15 May" that he began forging his reputation as a master bomb maker, attracting the attention of foreign intelligence services around the globe.

Named after the date on which Israel was founded, Ibrahim based 15 May in Baghdad and began perfecting his unique bombs. He experimented widely, devising a particularly nasty bomb that involved filling the cooling pipes of a refrigerated truck with liquid explosives.

But his piece de resistance was something totally different and on a much smaller scale. At his little workshop, he developed a blend of plastic explosives that he lined in suitcases or bags that used a delayed-timing device called an "e-cell."

Together, this became his signature as a bomb maker.

Trying to sabotage airlines
With the assistance of Iraqi intelligence, Ibrahim carried out many attacks. He struck in London, Rome, Athens. In West Berlin, an infant was killed and 24 wounded after one of his bombs detonated at an Israeli-owned restaurant.

His most well-known plans, however, involved trying to sabotage Pan Am and El Al airlines.

On Aug. 11, 1982, Mohammed Rashed, a top 15 May lieutenant, boarded a flight from Baghdad to Tokyo along with his Austrian-born wife Christine Pinter and their child.

Before Rashed, Ibrahim's apprentice, disembarked in Tokyo, he activated a bomb under the cushion of window seat 47K. Once on the ground, Rashed and his wife got off the plane, which continued to Honolulu. Ozawa, who was on vacation with his family, sat in Rashed's seat.

While the bomb killed Ozawa and injured 14 others, Rashed's mission was only a partial success. Despite a large hole in the cabin floor exposing the cargo area, the plane managed to land safely.

"I'm sure it was meant to blow up the whole plane," said Dave Magness, a former CIA bomb technician who disarmed several Ibrahim devices by hand.

The bomb had rattled the FBI and CIA. How did the bomber get past airport security without being detected? What about bomb-sniffing dogs?

Two weeks later in Rio de Janeiro, a cleaning crew discovered a bomb that had malfunctioned aboard another Pan Am flight. Like the earlier one, the bomb used an e-cell and had been placed under a window seat and was designed to punch a hole in the side of the plane.

FBI was stumped
The FBI was stumped. Denny Kline, a retired FBI explosives expert who investigated 15 May, had only seen the e-cell once before, in a bomb placed by a Black September terrorist at JFK Airport in 1973 that had failed to detonate. But that was a different type of e-cell, Kline said.

He knew the bombs were connected, but little else. Rashed and Pinter had used bogus Moroccan passports to buy their airline tickets. The FBI didn't even know their true names and a recovered fingerprint that would later implicate Rashed led nowhere. Photographs of them were essentially useless.

And Ibrahim? He was a ghost — running an organization the FBI had yet to tie to the attacks.

FBI agents finally got a break in 1984 after they went to Switzerland to interview Adnan Awad, a 15 May defector, according to federal court documents.

Awad had met Ibrahim and Rashed in late 1981 in Baghdad. Ibrahim had asked Awad to carry out an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Geneva and had given him a suitcase bomb with an e-cell. When Awad refused, Ibrahim shut down a construction site where he had a contract and froze his bank accounts.

"I was terrified," Awad later testified. "That's when I realized that something serious was going on and that Ibrahim had connections to the Iraqi authorities. I went to his office because I realized he was very powerful, and I told him I would do whatever he wants."

But Awad didn't have the stomach for blowing up people. In 1982, he gave the suitcase bomb to Swiss authorities who asked him to call Ibrahim to verify his story. He did. And Ibrahim dispatched a courier with money who was also carrying a vinyl shoulder bag when the Swiss arrested him.

'It was the crown jewel'
When FBI agents arrived in 1984, they were able to examine for the first time the items the Swiss had confiscated.

"The bag had a missing piece from the bottom of it," Kline said. "That liner was used to wrap up the device we recovered from Rio. That's how we positively connected all these devices together. It was the crown jewel."

Agents also asked Awad if he recognized the photographs of the mysterious Rashed and Pinter.

Yes, he knew them. He also betrayed them. The FBI had finally connected Rashed, Pinter and Ibrahim to the 1982 Pan Am bombing.

The discovery helped lead to the trio's sealed indictment in 1987 in Washington, D.C.

At least 21 devices linked to Ibrahim
The FBI desperately wanted to arrest Ibrahim but he remained in Baghdad. The bureau's efforts were also complicated by international events. The State Department had been pressuring Iraq to stop supporting terrorism. Iraq, looking to get America's help in its war against Iran, said Ibrahim would no longer be a threat. The Iraqis claimed Ibrahim had retired and 15 May was out of business by the mid-1980s.

Kline never bought that line.

"He still made the bombs and he still taught people how to do it," Kline said. "He had a little shop in Baghdad. He had this cadre of couriers who went out and placed them like Rashed. He was a dedicated terrorist."

Kline said the FBI was able to connect at least 21 devices to Ibrahim. Others continued to circulate in the hands of terrorists; they would be traced to two airline bombings in 1986 and 1989 that killed 174 people, including the wife of an American ambassador to Chad.

Still, the FBI and CIA had not lost interest in Ibrahim or Rashed. The CIA wanted to snatch Rashed first in Tunis in 1986 and then in Sudan in 1988. It never happened.

As for grabbing Ibrahim, the CIA had well-sourced reporting in 1990 that Ibrahim continued to live in the Al-Mansour district of Baghdad with the knowledge and support of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. He lived a few blocks away from the headquarters of the intelligence service.

Too risky to grab Ibrahim in Baghdad
But any plan to grab Ibrahim in Baghdad was simply too risky. He had too many friends in the regime watching over him.

Former intelligence officials say Ibrahim, a devout Sunni Muslim, was closely aligned with the intelligence service, teaching its officers for years while helping carrying out terrorist attacks against Syria and Iran. Ibrahim's 15 May also received monthly "support funds" as late as 1995 and perhaps longer, according to recently released U.S. military documents based on captured Iraqi intelligence records.

While the FBI waited out Ibrahim, agents did manage eventually to arrest Rashed in 1998 after he was released from a Greek prison. The Jordanian pleaded guilty to bombing the 1982 Pan Am flight in December 2002. He also provided intelligence officials a deep look into Ibrahim's past.

Less than four months after Rashed entered his plea, coalition forces invaded Iraq. They quickly began looking for members of Hussein's regime who had been placed on what was called the "Black List." But the infamous list was not complete.

Ibrahim was not on the list, but he was not forgotten by those who had hunted him and disrupted his operations in 1980s.

"The military was working off their deck of cards," said a former senior CIA official and explosives expert who was stationed in Baghdad after the invasion. "He didn't meet the threshold. We pushed and pushed. But it just didn't go anywhere. He was way, way down on the list of priorities. He just fell through the cracks."

Ibrahim disappeared — again
The former CIA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still works in the Middle East, said he pressed ahead anyway without the help of the military. He managed to get a picture of Ibrahim. In 2004, the CIA official drove to Baqouba, a neighborhood approximately 35 miles northwest of Baghdad, where he learned Ibrahim had moved before the invasion.

Residents recognized the man in the photograph, but Ibrahim was not there. He had fled to Mosul in northern Iraq. He had seemingly disappeared — again.

But in 2004, the military raided a bomb-making factory in Mosul and found telltale signs of Ibrahim and his devices, suggesting that he or his pupils were supporting the insurgency.

"We knew that Abu Ibrahim had never really been accounted for," said Robert L. Grenier, who was the CIA's representative to the White House on Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion and for the first 18 months of the counterinsurgency effort. "I used to wonder whether he may have some hand in the insurgency and helping to train people in the insurgency but apart from speculation, I'm not sure that was ever corroborated."

An FBI counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said Ibrahim had not been idle in Iraq.

"There's reason to believe his expertise is linked to the insurgency," the FBI official said. "There's no reason to believe that his modus operandi has changed."

So where is Ibrahim today? Federal law enforcement and former CIA officials believe that Ibrahim has fled to Syria. His sons, daughter and longtime wife Selma could also be with him.

While the FBI declined to discuss specific efforts to find Ibrahim, the official did say the window to bring him to justice is closing. Rashed, whom prosecutors called a "cold-blooded killer" in a court filing, is scheduled to be released from prison in 2013 — which would leave any case against Ibrahim without its star witness.

ADVANCE FOR APRIL 6; timeline of the career of terrorist Abu IbrahimW. Castello / AP