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NY Bombing Suspect Linked to Recent Terrorist Activity

By John Goldman and Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who pleaded not guilty Thursday to masterminding New York's 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as recently as last Sunday was plotting to plant explosives on a U.S. commercial jet in Bangkok, authorities said.

They said the bombing planned in Thailand was thwarted by unspecified security measures.

Investigators also are focusing on Yousef's possible role in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Manila last month as well as other terrorist acts in the Philippines.

"There is great interest in Yousef for actions after the World Trade Center bombing as well as activities before that took place," said a U.S. government official.

There were disputed reports that Yousef was cooperating with investigators and had blamed Iraq for authorizing and providing the funds for the World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000 in one of the worst acts of terrorism in U.S. history.

"He'd have to be in a position to know," said one source familiar with the questioning of Yousef. The Twin Towers attack took place on the second anniversary of the end of the Persian Gulf War.

A well-placed Clinton administration official denied, however, that Yousef had actually implicated Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein in the bombing.

Law enforcement experts were jubilant that Yousef had decided to provide information so quickly after his arrest in Pakistan Tuesday. These officials cautioned that any of his statements had to be viewed with skepticism until they could be independently verified.

One veteran law enforcement source noted that a degree of suspicion always exists when an alleged dedicated terrorist in such a huge case turns so helpful so suddenly. He said the possibility of disinformation could not be ruled out.

Yousef's arraignment Thursday marked the end of a career of terror for one of the world's most wanted men, sought after by a host of intelligence services stretching from the United States through Europe and the Middle East to Asia. A $2 million reward had been offered for his capture by the federal government.

"The FBI has conducted a worldwide search for Yousef since he was charged shortly after the bombing on February 26, 1993," FBI director Louis J. Freeh said.

A freshly shaved and nattily dressed Yousef, who wore a dark blazer, spoke flawless English during his five-minute arraignment in Federal Court in Manhattan. He declined the reading of the charges against him.

"I plead not guilty," Yousef told Judge John Keenan in the same courthouse where Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 10 of his followers are on trial for plotting a series of terrorist attacks including bombing the headquarters of the United Nations, two tunnels linking New York and New Jersey and the Manhattan field office of the FBI.

Yousef's capture already has led U.S. officials to open new avenues of inquiry into the bombing of the World Trade Center. The possibility of state-sponsored terrorism, always in the background after the attack, has been thrust into the limelight.

"The Iraqi aspect of the investigation has always been pursued, and we're continuing to pursue it in the wake of Yousef's arrest. The role of state sponsorship is very much open and we will pursue it more now," a counterterrorism official said Thursday.

During the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis, Hussein's regime attempted to carry out several terrorist attacks against Western targets, virtually all of which were foiled. Officials noted Thursday that terrorism remains one of the few weapons still available to Iraq, whose government is under Draconian economic sanctions and whose weapons of mass destruction have all but been destroyed.

Yousef has widely been labeled an Iraqi, but U.S. officials are not sure of his real nationality. A poster offering $2 million for information leading to his arrest cited three possible nationalities - Iraqi, Kuwaiti and United Arab Emirates - based on passports that he has used in the past.

A fourth possibility is that he was born in Pakistan, possibly of non-Pakistani parentage. A Pakistanti official said Thursday that Yousef may have been married to a Pakistani woman.