March 4, 2009 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced today that Khalid Al-Jawary, a dangerous Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist convicted of a 1973 New York City bomb plot and implicated in multiple terrorist attacks spanning two decades, was deported to Sudan yesterday. He had served only half of his thirty year sentence. Recently declassified information additionally reveals that Al-Jawary got help from New York’s Iraqi diplomatic mission in communicating with his PLO masters.
In March of 1973, Al-Jawary and possible accomplices planted three powerful car bombs: two along 5th Avenue near Israeli owned banks, and one at Kennedy Airport. Timed to explode upon the arrival in New York of then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the bombs fortunately never detonated. Al-Jawary then fled the United States and remained on the run until 1991 when he was nabbed in Italy and turned over to the FBI. While Al-Jawary always maintained his innocence, 60 of his fingerprints were lifted from the bombs and related evidence.
In addition to the 1973 bomb plot, Al-Jawary was suspected in a worldwide mail bombing campaign in the 1970s and the midair bombing of a TWA airliner in 1974 which killed all 88 on board, including 17 Americans. He was arrested and held for a time in Germany in 1979 for another bombing attempt. His bomb-making signature – a certain kind of electronic timing device – also linked him to other fatal bombings throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
"He's a very dangerous man," said Mike Finnegan, the former FBI counterterrorism agent who captured Al-Jawary. "A very bad guy."
At Al-Jawary’s April 16, 1993, sentencing, Judge Jack Weinstein stated that his bombs could have: "killed and maimed hundreds, caused large fires and terrorized thousands of people,” adding that “It is highly likely that were this defendant released he would continue his dangerous terrorist activities.”
Nonetheless, on February 19th, Al-Jawary was released from the Bureau of Prison’s Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado, and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation.
How did this happen?
According to the Bureau of Prisons, because Al-Jawary’s conviction stemmed from a 1973 incident, he was sentenced under “old law.” Under old law, any federal prisoner was eligible for “good time” equal to 10 days per month served as long as he kept his nose clean. He was also eligible for additional “good time” based on work performance while incarcerated. When added to “time served” i.e. the two years he was incarcerated before sentencing, this reduced Al-Jawary’s time by a total of 5,168 days (fourteen years and two months).
So Khalid Al-Jawary, a career terrorist who will very likely return right back to his deadly trade, goes free at age 63 after serving only 15 years and ten months of his thirty year sentence. Had he been forced to serve out his full sentence, he might have died in prison, or failing that, would have at least been slowed down by age. And he’s deported to Sudan, of all places. Why Sudan?
A number of news sources have claimed that the FBI was pursuing new charges against Al-Jawary, in hopes of derailing his deportation. On February 19, for example, NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston reported:
For now, the U.S. is able to buy time. They are remanding Al-Jawary to immigration officials while the FBI looks at whether it can bring new charges against him. [FBI case agent Craig] McLaughlin and his team are reviewing the previous investigation and are actively searching for new leads that might link Al-Jawary to other attacks. While officials work out the details of Al-Jawary, the former Black September member will remain in custody. U.S. authorities are in no rush to release him.
Jim Margolin, spokesman for FBI’s New York field office would not confirm or deny that the FBI had pending charges but said: “The file isn’t closed and wasn’t when [Al-Jawary] was sentenced.” He added that the FBI has expressed a “continuing investigative interest” in Al-Jawary.
Pursuing this case further theoretically does not depend on Al-Jawary remaining here. The FBI pursued him around the world for eighteen years before catching him in 1991. But even then they got lucky. Having him safely behind bars in the U.S. while new charges were sought would sure have made life easier for the FBI – not to mention his potential future victims.
The ICE announcement identifies Al-Jawary as “a native of the Palestinian Territories” who has “dual citizenship with Iraq and Jordan.” While ICE claims that deportation to countries other than the deportee’s home country is not uncommon, the choice of Sudan is interesting. With a radical Islamic government conducting genocidal wars against its own non-Muslim peoples, and its long-time support for terrorist organizations, Sudan can only be described as “Terrorism Central.” I suspect we will be hearing from Al-Jawary again.
But whatever Al-Jawary does from now on, his release underscores the absurdity of treating acts of terrorism as law enforcement matters, subject to the vagaries and inadequacies of the U.S. court system in dealing with what are in fact acts of war.
Changes in the law supposedly make this kind of scenario less likely for terrorists prosecuted in the U.S. today. However, laws are always subject to change. Politicians can also issue pardons, as former President Bill Clinton did for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists, or turn the criminal justice system on its head, as retiring Illinois Governor George Ryan did by commuting death sentences for 171 death row prisoners in 2003.
Furthermore, treating terrorism as a criminal matter makes it less likely the real culprits are caught. Al-Jawary was a skilled bomb maker, but he was expendable. The true perpetrators were top level PLO planners, who carried on, only temporarily inconvenienced – if at all – by the loss of one “technician.”
Our criminal justice system of necessity focuses on people like Al-Jawary. Prosecutors have an incentive to “win” cases. This means getting ironclad evidence against those apprehended or those thought to have actually committed the crime. In terrorist investigations those who actually commit the crimes are usually the lowest level actors and thus least relevant in bringing down the organization that orchestrated the attack. At the same time they are the most likely to be caught and the easiest to prosecute. Indeed, they are often considered "throwaways", deliberately left to be caught while the big fish swim away.
Those behind the plot, the real “masterminds,” plan it to minimize their risk of capture. Thus, even with Al-Jawary behind bars, the PLO leadership remained free to plot and execute murderous plans. And plan and execute they did.
Finally, terrorism cases tried in court may require divulging military secrets to the defense. This not only threatens our national security, but can prove fatal to undercover operatives working on our behalf.
Regardless, the Obama administration has made it crystal clear they will treat acts of terrorism in just this fashion, undermining our ability to take the fight to the enemy, while guaranteeing that we expend excessive law enforcement resources chasing targets of limited value. And the day may yet come when we see the most dangerous al Qaeda terrorists currently residing at GITMO seek and receive early release for “good behavior.”
Part II will discuss Iraq’s involvement in the 1973 bombing.