It almost happened once before, a little more than a year and a half ago. Thats when the world was getting ready to ring in the new millennium. Its also when Islamic terrorists, directed from Afghanistan, were preparing to mark the occasion by killing Americans, here and overseas - in a series of spectacular bombings.
The operation was foiled at the last minute. But it came so close that it should have served as a wake-up call to all Americans. The millennium plot revealed, in startling clarity, exactly how the Osama bin Laden network operated and how it would operate in the future. The single most important piece of evidence was the mind of an American citizen.
Raed Hijazi was born in California. He wound up in a cage in this Jordanian courtroom last month because he is accused of playing a leading role in the plot to kill other Americans. His father, Mohammed, a civil engineer who lived in California for eight years, can't believe it.
He studied there, and he lived there," says his father. "Yeah, he got American custom. But he remained as really Islamic religious man. But ordinary. Not terrorist."
Hijazi has bruises on his forehead. They come from a lot of praying. In the Middle East, they are seen as the mark of a more-than-ordinary religious man. He wasn't always so religious. In the mid '80s, Hijazi looked like an exceedingly ordinary American teen-ager. He went to study business at Cal-State-Sacremento. In 1990, he went to Pakistan to help Afghan refugees. At leas,t that's what he told his father. He stayed in the region for four years. His father says his son didnt tell him much about his work.
At around this time, Jordanian intelligence began hearing about a radicalized American in Afghanistan. He was known to his comrades in the jihad camps as Abu Ahmed the American. His specialty was explosives.
In 1997, Hijazi went back to America, this time, to Boston where, in the shadow of Fenway Park, he got a license to drive a taxi for a Boston Cab Company. He stayed for a little over a year, sending money back to his father and, as the Jordanians would later learn, to some new friends.
"He used some of his money to buy some ingredients to manufacture explosives and other things for later use in military operations in Jordan," says Colonel Mahmoud Obeidat, Jordan's chief military prosecutor.
But the Jordanians didn't know that then. They became suspicious only at the end of 1998, when they started hearing about an operation called Bethlehem 2000. Around the same time, Hijazi left Boston and, traveling on an American passport, stopped in London, where he bought five two-way radios. Then he disappeared. Back in Amman, Jordan's capital, the intelligence services started picking up clues that a terrorist cell was being activated.
The remains of a biblical city and the ruins of the Roman Temple of Hercules lie in the heart of Amman, a reminder of the glory that was Jordan 2,000 years ago. In Decembe1999, just after Christmas, the terrorists were planning another kind of reminder. Hundreds of American tourists were expected here for the millennium celebrations. The terrorists planned to mark the occasion with a bomb. They wanted to ring in the New Year by killing Americans.
Other holy sites were on the hit list: a hill near the Dead Sea where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Thousands of pilgrims were expected there. Another target: Mount Nebo, which Moses climbed to see the promised land. But the top target was the Radisson hotel in downtown Amman, its 400 rooms fully booked by Americans and Israelis for the big millennium party. Jordanian agents got word that the man known as Abu Ahmed the American was boasting there wouldn't be enough body bags in Jordan to hold all the corpses.
Everything was set. The planning had been completed, the explosives were hidden in Amman. Abu Ahmed the American was about to return here from Afghanistan. It might have come off if Jordanian intelligence hadn't intercepted a phone call on the evening of Nov. 30 from Osama bin Laden's lieutenant in Pakistan to the cell in Amman. The lieutenant spoke in code. His words were: The grooms are ready for the big wedding.
The message had come from Abu Zubaydah. Osama bin Laden's chief recruiter. The Jordanians had heard enough. That night they raided 16 homes, and arrested 16 men. Abu Ahmed the American wasn't among them. But his name came up in interrogations. Hussein Turi, an Algerian, signed a confession naming Abu Ahmed the American as a leader of the cell. Other suspects told their interrogators about a safe house in a refugee camp in the outskirts of Amman. Police stormed the house and found hidden under a sofa five two-way radios wired as detonators. When they ripped the floor open, they discovered canisters, 70 of them, leaking and highly toxic.
"If these chemicals had been mixed and manufactured well, they would have resulted in very dangerous explosives, enough to bring a huge explosion. These chemicals were even just dangerous to breathe," says Obeidat.
All together, it added up to 5,000 pounds of nitric and sulfuric acid, enough to blow up not just the Radisson, but the entire neighborhood. Word of the plot reached Washington by the first week of December, and alarms went off.
"I remember that we were all really astonished just at the bits and pieces that came in at the beginning, at the amount of firepower that was involved, explosive, also the number of conspirators, because it was quite a lot of people," says Daniel Benjamin, who was in charge of transnational threats at the White House. He says there could have been hundreds of casualties.
What about Abu Ahmed the American? Investigators discovered that on June 20, he had crossed the border from Jordan into Syria on his way to Afghanistan. They obtained passport photos of everyone who crossed the border that day and showed them to the men they had already arrsted. The prisoners pointed to one picture, the man they knew as Abu Ahmed the American. His real name - Raed Hijazi.
At the time, they couldn't find Raed Hijazi. So he was tried and convicted in absentia. The crime: terrorism. The sentence: death.
Hussein Turi, the Algerian who'd been the first to own up about the plot in Jordan, also revealed the existence of another terrorist cell, which was run by fellow Algerians in Montreal. Jordanian intelligence suspected that this cell was also planning an attack to coincide with the millennium, and that the target would not be Canada, but the United States.
In early December, the Canadians began monitoring a group of Algerians in Montreal. But they didn't notice when one of them, who went by the name of Benni Norris, slipped out of his apartment building and started driving west. Norris checked into a Vancouver motel and asked for a room in the back. No one really paid much attention when strange chemical fumes began coming out of his window.
Then Benni Norris took to the road again. On Dec. 14, 1999, he drove to Victoria, a coastal town in British Columbia. That's where he took a ferry. His car was the last to board on the last ferry of the day. Destination: Port Angeles - the port of the angels - a fishing and logging town in Washington State. With his Canadian passport in hand, Norris was one checkpoint away from disappearing into the United States. Then he met Diana Dean.
"He approached in my lane, and I just started to ask him a couple of routine Customs questions," says Dean, a U.S. customs inspector for 20 years. That night, she was ready to go home.
"So I asked him where he was going. And he replied "Sattle," with an accent. And I said, "What, what are you, why are you going to Seattle?" And he said, "Bisit." And by this time, he was becoming very agitated, and, and rummaging around in the console of his car."
"There was just something - something that wasn't quite right and something that needed a little closer look." Dean asked Norris to open his trunk. Two other inspectors joined her.
"One inspector took a bag out of, the one bag that was in the trunk, took it out and started to look at it," Dean remembers. "The other inspector unscrewed the wheel cover, and lifted the cover off the wheel well. And it was right there. There were just big bags of something."
At that point, Norris made a run for it. He got to the main street and tried to hijack a car. He was finally tackled by inspector Mark Johnson, who brought Norris back to the customs post.
"I'm sitting at the desk thinking, What in the heck do we have here?" Johnson remembers. "He ran from us for a reason. And I remember those black boxes that were sitting, little, plastic, rectangular boxes sitting on top of the bags in the trunk. I opened up one of those boxes. And I saw a circuit board, and I saw the, the little Casio watch."
"I looked at it and I just felt the blood just go out of my body. I just - ll the blood just drained to my toes, saying I knew what we had. And it wasn't good," says Dean.
They had the material for a bomb. They soon learned from the FBI that the man they'd arrested might have had a Canadian passport with the name Benni Norris. But he was really an Algerian and his real name was Ahmed Ressam.
"When I looked into his eyes that night they were dead. His eyes were dead. There was no soul. It was no light. There was nothing in his eyes. They were just flat," Dean says.
In Ressam's trunk, 100 pounds of explosives. In the car, a map of Los Angeles, with a circle drawn around LA's International Airport. Ressam's target was a terminal at LAX.
"What has happened with the religiously-motivated terrorists of the last 10 years is that they clearly see carnage itself as a, as a goal, and causing as many casualties as possible. So it was clear from that perspective that we were dealing with the Jihadists centered around bin Laden," says Benjamin.
Ahmed Ressam revealed in his trial that Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's key lieutenant, had recruited him and paid for his training in Afghanistan.
The Jordanians learned more about bin Laden's connection to the millennium plot last year, when they finally captured Raed Hijazi, alias Abu Ahmed the American. Officials say he made a full confession in prison.
"He admitted in a statement that he was in Afghanistan, that he trained in the manufacture of explosives and that he planned to undertake military-style operations in Jordan," says Obeidat, the prosecutor.
Hijazi and his father say his confession was beaten out of him. But American intelligence believes Jordan has its man. Not only that. The FBI is now investigating whether Hijazi had financial dealings with two of the hijackers who slammed into the World Trade Center. And looking at the sky where the twin towers once stood puts what almost happened in December 1999 in a fresh and frightening perspective.
When New Yorkers looked up the night the millennium changed, the only thing clouding the skies was confetti. That seems such an awfully long time ago.
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