The U.S. State Department announced the Tuesday before Thanksgiving that it is offering a reward of up to $5 million for a Palestinian bomb-maker suspected of once targeting commercial airliners and of aiding the Iraq insurgency.
Abu Ibrahim, whose real name is Husayn Muhammed al-Umari, stands accused of a spate of bombings in the 1980s. He was indicted in the 1982 bombing of Pan Am Flight 830 that killed a 16-year-old boy and wounded more than a dozen passengers as the plane headed to Honolulu from Tokyo.
The FBI has been trying to catch Ibrahim for decades. It has upped its efforts recently, releasing an age-enhanced sketch of him earlier this year and working to dramatically increase the potential reward for information leading to his capture. He is about 73 years old.
Previously, the reward for Ibrahim had been $200,000 – apparently not enough to get someone to turn on him. With the new amount, former law enforcement officials who hunted Ibrahim say the FBI might finally nab him.
“If he is still out there and functioning, we’ve got a good chance now. Better than we had before. Money talks,” said Denny Kline, a retired FBI explosives expert who investigated Ibrahim’s terrorist organization.
Ibrahim ran the organization, called 15 May, according to federal court documents and terrorism experts. The group was named for the day after Israel was founded, when Arab armies launched an attack against the new country.
Former CIA operatives who also tracked Ibrahim say he lived in Iraq, beyond the long reach of the spy agency and the FBI, for about three decades and thrived with the help of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Before the 2003 Iraq invasion, Ibrahim – known as The Bomb Man – lived in a suburb of Baghdad, and his terrorist group received a monthly stipend from the IIS, according to captured Iraqi documents.
The Iraqi government used him to conduct terrorism operations against Syria and Iran. In his book, former CIA spy master Duane R. Clarridge wrote that Ibrahim had a talent for constructing ingenious machines of death, such as refrigerator trucks whose cooling pipes were filled with liquid explosives.
Ibrahim is accused of teaching the art of bomb-making to a slew of operatives, including Mohammed Rashed, who’s behind bars at a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado. Rashed was convicted in the 1982 Pan Am bombing. He is scheduled to be released in 2013.
In April, the AP published a story about Ibrahim, whom many people thought dead.
Court documents indicate Rashed has agreed to cooperate in the case against Ibrahim as part of a plea agreement, meaning the FBI needs to catch Ibrahim before Rashed’s release. But Rashed disputed he’ll testify against Ibrahim. In a May letter to The Associated Press, he wrote: I am not a witness against nobody.
In 2004, the military raided a bomb-making factory in Mosul and found telltale signs of Ibrahim and his devices, suggesting that he or his pupils were supporting the insurgency. Federal law enforcement officials also confirmed they had had no reason to believe Ibrahim had given up his deadly trade.
Experts believe his bomb-making signature can be seen in other bombings or attempted bombing in the 25 years since his indictment, according to an FBI news release.
The FBI also put Ibrahim on its list of most-wanted terrorists, a group that includes Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In May, the AP reported that Ibrahim, a devout Sunni, had fled to Tripoli, a city in northwest Lebanon, where his second wife, Selma, was born.
The FBI said Ibrahim could be in either Lebanon or Iraq and is known to carry a gun at all times. Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but is a member of Interpol, which has also issued an alert seeking Ibrahim’s arrest.
Ibrahim has been linked to several terrorist organizations, including Black September and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He broke away from the PFLP in 1979 and founded the Baghdad-based 15 May. He’s believed to have received training from the Soviet Union’s KGB and Irish Republican Army.
The State Department says people with tips should contact its Rewards for Justice program, any U.S. embassy or consulate or any U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Ibrahim was also indicted by the French for his alleged role in the 1985 bombing of the Marks and Spencer Department store in Paris and the Leumi Bank. One person was killed and 14 others injured at the store; nobody was killed in the bank bombing.