Ramzi Yousef – who has also gone by the aliases Najy Awaita Haddad, Paul Vijay, Adam Sali, Adam Adel Ali, Adam Khan Baluch, Doctor Adel Sabah, Doctor Richard Smith, and Abdul Basit Karim (which is probably his birth name) – currently resides in a cell at Colorado’s Supermax Prison. He is there as a result of his conviction for the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center Bombing (WTC) and a foiled plot to destroy eleven commercial airliners in mid-flight.
Not much is known of Ramzi Yousef’s early years. His main influence seems to have been his uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks against the same World Trade Center eight years later, and who is also incarcerated in an undisclosed federal prison.
What we do know is that Yousef studied electrical engineering in the United Kingdom. In the late 1980s he began taking numerous trips to Pakistan, where he may have begun to learn the bomb-making skills required of a budding terrorist. In 1992 Yousef entered the United States with a fake Iraqi passport. His partner, Ahmed Ajaj, who also had a false passport, was arrested on the spot after his passport was discovered to be fraudulent, and bomb-making instructions were found in his luggage. Since there were no available INS holding cells due to overcrowding, Yousef was released and instructed to return in one month; he did not return. Instead he traveled around New York and New Jersey and established telephone contact with radical Muslim preacher Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The plot to bomb the World Trade Center began to take shape. Yousef joined up with other accomplices, including a Palestinian named Nidal Ayyad and an Egyptian named Mahmud Abu Halima.
On February 26, 1993, Yousef rented a Ryder van and loaded it with explosives laced with cyanide gas. He drove into the garage of the World Trade Center, parked it below ground, and set a timer to detonate the deadly cargo. The plan, Yousef later told investigators, was to take out the structural parts of the foundation of one tower to make it collapse into the other. Had the attack gone as planned, tens of thousands of Americans would have died between the towers’ collapse and the inhalation of the gas. However, the tower did not fall, the cyanide gas was consumed in the heat of the explosion, and only six people were killed.
Yousef went into hiding and began to concoct further plans to kill again in the name of Allah. He managed to escape to Pakistan, where he met up with some terrorist friends under the tutelage of his uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He spent his time being shuttled between safe houses that were purportedly funded by Osama bin Laden.
During his stay in Pakistan, Yousef plotted the assassination of the that country’s then-President, Benazir Bhutto (the plot failed), and a violent sectarian attack in Iran in which he succeeded in killing some Shiites. It was at this time that Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed met with Abdul Hakim Murad, who was an old friend. The meeting was pivotal, as its subject was the implementation of some of their plans as well as a new, master plot hatched by bin Laden which involved airplane attacks against the United States.
After a few more months in Pakistan, the three saboteurs were on their way to Manila, the Philippines, in order to set their plans into motion. These plans included the assassination of Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton. There was also bin Laden’s even more ambitious plan to blow up eleven U.S. commercial aircraft at once, in mid-flight, which would have killed at least four thousand people, crippled the airline industry, and devastated the American economy. The bombs intended for the airliners were to be constructed of a liquid explosive (nitroglycerin) designed to pass unnoticed through airport metal detectors. While mixing the chemicals, however, Murad accidentally started a fire. Fleeing the blaze, he left behind his computer which contained details of the plots.
This and other items found by police led them to arrest Murad, whom they tortured until he confessed the following information: Yousef’s plan called for a minimum of five al Qaeda operatives to work in concert to destroy eleven U.S.-bound airliners over the Pacific Ocean almost simultaneously on January 21, 1995. The terrorists were to have boarded planes with layovers bound for the U.S. and planted the bombs. Each would then disembark during the layover, having set a timer to detonate during the second leg of the flight. The accomplices’ plan was to thereafter meet in Pakistan and celebrate their deed. (During the course of his confession, Murad, who had trained as a pilot, admitted that he had also been selected by bin Laden to become a martyr by hijacking a commercial airliner and crashing it into a U.S. landmark. Possible targets included the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and CIA headquarters.)
Yousef had actually tested one of his bombs on a flight from Manila to Tokyo on December 11, 1994. He assembled the bomb in the lavatory of the plane and left it under his seat when he disembarked in Cebu, the Philippines. It exploded later on the way to Japan, killing a man who had taken over his seat. The plane managed to land successfully, thanks to the heroic effort of the pilots. Disappointed that only one person lost his life, Yousef resolved to make future devices even more powerful. After Murad’s arrest, Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed met in Pakistan in January 1995. One month later, U.S. and Pakistani officials tracked Yousef down and arrested him (on February 7). Mohammed, who was in the next room at the time of Yousef’s apprehension, escaped unnoticed (he was later arrested on March 1, 2003).
Once in custody, Yousef was flown back to the United States and was convicted of both the WTC bombing and the airline plot, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Judged a high escape risk, he was sent to the Supermax prison in Colorado, where his fellow prisoners included the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), and Terry Nichols (McVeigh’s accomplice). After McVeigh’s execution, Yousef wrote of him: “I have never [known] anyone in my life who had so similar a personality to my own.”