Long before 9-11, and even a few years before Lockerbie, America got a glimpse into the tragic reality of airplanes as tools of international terrorism.
It was August 1982 and a bomb planted by a Palestinian terrorist exploded aboard a Pan Am flight bound for Honolulu, killing a 16-year-old Japanese boy and injuring more than a dozen others.
The man who planted it, a member of the 15th of May group, a pro-Palestinian organization, was eventually caught, convicted and sent to jail, first in Greece and then here.
More than three decades later, Mohammed Rashed is free from prison and facing deportation.
He is, by some accounts, a man without a country willing to take him, a man who for now is forced to call Western New York home.
Now 64, Rashed is in custody at the Batavia Detention Center.
“He just wants to go somewhere and be left alone, and leave everyone else alone,” said A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender who represents Rashed.
Rashed’s arrival here is the latest chapter in a story that began as one of the world’s first aviation-related terrorist plots.
Investigators say it was Rashed who placed the bomb on the plane that day in August 32 years ago and it was Abu Ibrahim, the so-called “Bomb Man,” who made it. Even now, more than 30 years after the Pan Am bombing, Ibrahim is still a fugitive and still on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
Rashed, viewed as a top lieutenant in Ibrahim’s 15th of May organization, was traveling at the time with his Australian-born wife, Christine Pinter, and their young son. Ibrahim’s group is named after the date of Israel’s founding.
“It’s still amazing to me that he could walk on a plane with his wife and child, and leave behind a bomb,” said Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo.
Coincidentally, Boetig’s and Rashed’s paths are crossing for a second time. Fresh from the FBI academy, Boetig was assigned to Rashed’s case in 1998 just as the convicted bomber was finishing his first prison sentence in Greece, where he was caught.
After three years of traveling the world gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, Boetig spent time with Rashed in Washington, D.C., where he faced prosecution. He often accompanied Rashed to and from court appearances.
“It was an enormous challenge,” Boetig said of his time investigating Rashed. “Collecting evidence at the crime scene is one thing, but recollecting that same evidence years later is something else indeed.”
A feat hard to fathom
The story of how Rashed smuggled the bomb on the plane and then escaped unharmed with his wife and son is hard to fathom given today’s airport security standards.
Prosecutors say he boarded the plane in Iraq and, while on his way to Tokyo, hid the bomb under a window seat, set the timer and engaged the device. He and his family disembarked in Tokyo and Toru Ozawa, a Japanese teen traveling with his parents, got on board and chose the same seat.
A few hours later, as the plane crossed the Pacific headed for Honolulu, the bomb exploded, blowing a huge hole in the cabin floor. Witnesses said the explosion sounded like a shotgun blast and filled the plane with smoke. The pilot was able to land the plane safely but Ozawa was killed, his mother and father witnesses to his bloody death.
“At the time, my honest emotion was to wish the plane would crash into the Hawaiian ocean as I had lost the will to live,” Ozawa’s father said in a statement read at Rashed’s sentencing.
As part of his plea deal, Rashed got only an extra seven years in prison – he already had spent about 18 years in custody here and in Greece – and even the judge seemed troubled by the sentence, given the bombing’s human toll.
“With great trepidation,” the judge eventually agreed to the sentence.
The government’s motivation in agreeing to a shorter-than-expected sentence was Rashed’s promise to cooperate, to blow the whistle on future terrorist acts and, even more important, point a finger at the criminals behind them. And, of course, Ibrahim was at the very top of the list of suspects.
Boetig said he couldn’t comment on the quality of Rashed’s information, but it was always suspected that Rashed could implicate Ibrahim in the Pan Am bombing and maybe other bombings, as well.
Still on the run, Ibrahim is believed to be in his mid to late 70s now. A 2009 Associated Press investigation concluded that he was still alive and most likely in Lebanon.
And still making bombs?
“He’s still wanted,” said Boetig. “Once you cross that line, you’re a terrorist and you have to be held responsible for your actions.”
As Rashed awaits his deportation, one of the big unanswered questions is where he will go. His plea deal gives him the right to pick a country, but that depends, of course, on whether the host nation will accept him.
Kramer wouldn’t comment on his client’s plans for the future except to suggest that, after 25 years in custody, Rashed is looking to be left alone.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “He just wants to go and live a peaceful life.”
Released from the custody of the federal prison system in March of last year, Rashed was recently sent to the 360-bed immigration facility in Batavia. Historically, the length of an inmate’s detention at Batavia has varied and can depend on the issuance of travel documents from the destination country or the detainee’s right to appeal deportation orders.
The agency in charge of Batavia, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, also has the authority to detain an inmate if that individual poses a public safety or national security threat. An ICE spokesman said the agency could not comment, except to confirm that Rashed is there “while the agency continues to finalize his removal from the United States.”
During his time at Batavia, Rashed has filed legal papers challenging his detention. Sealed by a court order, those papers remain secret. When asked if the papers address Rashed’s ability or inability to move to another country, Kramer declined to comment.
Wherever Rashed ends up, he will be remembered as one of the first terrorists to blow up an airplane. At the time of the Honolulu bombing, hijackings were a much more common form of terrorist activity.
But that quickly changed, culminating in the Lockerbie bombing six years later – 243 people died aboard a Pan Am flight flying over Scotland –and numerous other airplane bombings in the years that followed.
For Boetig, the lessons to be learned are obvious. First and foremost is the importance of fraudulent documents such as passports and visas in how terrorists carry out their attacks. Rashed relied on them and so did many of the terrorists who followed him, including the 9-11 hijackers.
“Time hasn’t changed anything,” Boetig said. “It’s the same things we were fighting 32 years ago.”
Rashed, meanwhile, waits in Batavia for word of his future. Wherever he lands, he’s hinted that he may use his newfound freedom to write about his life as a terrorist.
After the Associated Press ran its story on Ibrahim in 2009, Rashed wrote to the news agency and said he planned to “write all in two or three books.”