Ramzi Yousef trial

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(Host) The current inquiry into the September 11 attacks has given commentator Christopher Wren a strong case of the deja vu’s.

(Wren) It was eight years ago, when I first heard about a terrorist scheme to crash an airplane into an American landmark. It was the summer of 1996 at a federal trial in New York City. The prime defendant was Ramzi Yousef, later convicted of masterminding the bombing of the World Trade Center in early 1993, which killed six people, and injured hundreds more.

Yousef, who has been tied to Al Qaeda, demonstrated an obsession with crashing airplanes at the trial that I covered for the New York Times. In 1995, he was preparing to blow up a dozen US airliners in Asia on a single day. He rehearsed this by hiding a time bomb on a Philippines jetliner. The small bomb killed a Japanese passenger.

Watching Ramzi Yousef for three months in court, I was struck more by his blunders than his notoriety. His co-defendants, Abdul Hakim Murad and Wali Khan Shah, looked even less threatening. Hatred is no substitute for competence.

They were found out in Manila, when smoke from chemicals they were cooking on the stove of a rented apartment billowed out the windows and attracted the Fire Department. The firemen saw the bomb factory and called the cops. Yousef escaped, but was captured in Pakistan at a cheap hotel linked to Osama bin Laden.

Yousef abandoned his laptop computer in Manila. Investigators downloaded the details of his plot, including flight schedules of the planes he was going to blow up. He bragged about his exploits to a pair of U.S. lawmen flying him back to New York. He even drew a sketch showing where his bomb was parked under the World Trade Center in 1993. Then he grabbed the paper back and tried to swallow it.

Yousef ensured his conviction by firing his lawyer and defending himself in court. And it came out that his co-defendant, Murad, had confessed to interrogators that he and Yousef had also discussed grabbing a plane, perhaps a jumbo jetliner, and crashing it into a dramatic target, like CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Yousef and his cronies have been locked up inside a Federal prison for nine years now. That’s a lot of time to follow up on the idea of turning a plane into a missile. Complacency tripped them up. But when our government gets complacent too, we lose.

A final thought. A juror told me later that she found it odd none of the three defendants had day jobs. So who was paying their bills?

Extending the juror’s logic, none of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 had day jobs either. Nor have most suicide bombers we hear about. Given the link between unemployment and youthful rage in the Middle East, why not add another weapon to the anti-terror arsenal? Jobs.

This is Christopher Wren of Fairlee.

Christopher Wren is a former reporter and editor for the New York Times. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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