TOPICS > Politics

Deadly Imitation

August 1, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We go first to the Brooklyn bomb story and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Acting on a tip, a special team of New York City police and federal agents raided a Brooklyn apartment yesterday shortly before dawn. Officers shot and wounded two Palestinian men–Lafi Khalil and Gazi Ibrahim Abu-Mezer, then arrested them. Another man was taken into custody unharmed. Authorities also seized five powerful bombs. They said at least one of the men had lunged for one of the bomb switches before he was shot.

HOWARD SAFIR, New York City Police Commissioner: They would kill somebody in an area of 25–up to 25 feet in an inside, confined area, and they would injure someone up to 100 feet in an outside area.

MARGARET WARNER: The raid disrupted life in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Police evacuated 90 residents from nearby buildings before storming the apartment, and four New York City subway lines were shut down for seven hours, inconveniencing some 100,000 morning commuters.

The apartment building where the men were arrested is just a few blocks from the Atlantic Avenue subway station. Police officials say one of the suspects later told them the station was among the group’s intended bombing targets. The two wounded suspects are being held in a Brooklyn hospital, where they are reported to be in stable condition, following surgery. They were arraigned last night in absentia in federal court in Brooklyn, charged with conspiring to bomb the subway and other structures. Also last night, the FBI and the New York Police Department issued a joint statement, saying the suspects were “planning to target U.S. and Jewish interests worldwide.”

Earlier this week, a suicide bombing in Jerusalem killed 15 people. The Palestinian group, Hamas, claimed responsibility. This morning, President Clinton was asked if there was a connection between the terrorist attack in Israel and the alleged terrorist plot in New York.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I cannot comment and cannot reach a final conclusion yet because I haven’t received a report of the direct investigation done, including the interrogation of the people who are arrested. But I think it’s important not to reach conclusions before we have ironclad evidence to support them.

MARGARET WARNER: At another press conference today James Kallstrom, head of the FBI office in New York, addressed the possibility that the alleged plot had international dimensions.

JAMES KALLSTROM, FBI Assistant Director, New York: This isn’t some simplex, you know, armed robbery or bank robbery, not that those aren’t awful crimes. It’s a very complex matter. It involves, you know, global issues and foreign policy, and the way people feel about other people, and it’s something that, you know, we don’t jump into quickly and make determinations easily, and don’t make predictions on how things are going to turn out.

MARGARET WARNER: Both Kallstrom and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said danger was only narrowly averted.

JAMES KALLSTROM: I think we were close to a disaster, and it didn’t happen. And that’s the good news.

MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI, New York: If you think about what happened in that apartment, the police officers, quite by acting as quickly as they did, probably prevented a disaster from happening there. Gazi allegedly moved toward the bomb, was able to activate one of the toggle switches, was able to knock it down. There were three others left. That was, as far as we can tell, a bomb that was ready to go off, that could have gone off. So by shooting him, the police officers possibly prevented a pretty bad explosion right in that neighborhood.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now is New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir. Commissioner, thanks for being with us. What more can you tell us–beyond what we just heard–about the dimensions of this plot?

HOWARD SAFIR, New York City Police Commissioner: (New York) Well, it’s something that we’re really going to have to investigate. We took almost a mountain of material out of the apartment yesterday, and we’re going to just have to wait and see what it shows us. It’s mostly in Arabic. It’s going to have to be translated. The New York City Police Department with its federal partners in the FBI, we have a joint terrorist task force here, and it’s just something we’re going to have to run lead by lead.

MARGARET WARNER: So lots and lots of written material, you’re saying?

HOWARD SAFIR: That’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: And then the bombs, themselves, these devices, were they sophisticated devices?

HOWARD SAFIR: I wouldn’t call them sophisticated, but they certainly were very dangerous. We had a computer signature done of them, and they would have killed anybody within 25 feet, within a confined area, and anybody within 100 feet outside would have been seriously injured or killed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, they’ve been called suicide bombs. What leads you to that conclusion, or do you agree with that conclusion?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, we’re not commenting on the exact configuration, but clearly these individuals intended to take these bombs onto subway trains, set them off, and the probability is that they and many others would have been killed.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it true that there were no timing devices on them, or–

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I’m not going to go into the actual configuration because this is evidence that’s going to be needed for the prosecution.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what tells you that, as Mr. Kallstrom said earlier, that this could have happened within a day? How do you know that?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, we’ve developed a lot of information. I mean, it was clear to us that these individuals had built this bomb and tended to use it and intended to use it probably yesterday or today.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let’s look at the question that the President was asked to address today. And I just wonder whether–anything you can tell us about–have you uncovered any evidence linking this or these suspects to what happened in Israel this week?

HOWARD SAFIR: We have a lot of work today. We’re going to have to talk to foreign countries, to the Israelis, and to a number of other countries and services of other countries, as well as to go through all of this material. I’m hesitant to speculate until we really know.

MARGARET WARNER: But when you issued this statement, or your department and the FBI last night, that you’d uncovered “evidence” that they intended to target Jewish and U.S. interests worldwide, what was that evidence, or how widespread did you think it was going to be?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, my concern is, of course, with New York City, and the FBI is looking at the worldwide implications.

MARGARET WARNER: I see. Now, there is a report on the Reuters wire this afternoon that law enforcement authorities say these suspects made frequent phone calls and local neighborhood stores to various or Hamas organization offices in the Middle East. Can you confirm that?

HOWARD SAFIR: I’m not going to confirm this. All I can tell you is that we have thousands of telephone numbers to track down. That’s exactly what we and the FBI will do, and we’ll see where they lead.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let’s look at these two suspects; Mr. Abu Mezer, first. What can you tell us about it–about him?

HOWARD SAFIR: I can tell you that he came into the United States via Canada. He applied for an application for political asylum, and although that application was not granted, he was allowed to stay in the country.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry. In which country?

HOWARD SAFIR: In the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States.

HOWARD SAFIR: And, of course, my concern as a local law enforcement official is that somebody who comes into the country, who states in his application that he was accused of being a terrorist by the Israelis, and that’s why he’s seeking political asylum, as a local law enforcement official, I think this is something that the Immigration & Naturalization Service certainly should have notified us about.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, are you sure that he actually used this application. You know, someone from the State Department said today if that had been on the application, he would never have gotten a visa.

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I’ve not seen the application. I can only tell you the information that’s been passed on to me by federal officials.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. And the other suspect, Mr. Khalil.

HOWARD SAFIR: We know very little about him. That’s something that’s going to be the subject of this investigation, and we’ll develop that as we go along.

MARGARET WARNER: What can you tell us about the person who tipped you off about this?

HOWARD SAFIR: I don’t discuss sources at all. So I can tell you very little.

MARGARET WARNER: Is this person in custody?

HOWARD SAFIR: Again, we don’t discuss the nature of sources, or where our information comes from. I mean, that’s something that is extremely confidential and something that is really very sacred in the law enforcement community.

MARGARET WARNER: And there have been all kinds of news reports that this was an Egyptian who’s just been in the country two weeks; his name has been in several newspapers.

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, it’s one thing for the media to report it. It’s another thing for law enforcement to confirm or verify what the media is reporting. I mean, I have heard many, many incorrect facts put out by the media on this case in the last day or so, and it’s not my job to confirm it.

MARGARET WARNER: To help us do our job. Yes. Did law enforcement have any inkling of this before you got the tip?

HOWARD SAFIR: We had the first information on this at 10:35 on Wednesday night, and I will say that the police officers involved in this case did an outstanding job in taking it seriously, following it up. Our emergency service unit did an outstanding job in going into that apartment, arresting the individuals, and making sure that the devices did not go off. And, as you know, one of the individuals attempted to detonate the device during the raid.

MARGARET WARNER: Does it trouble you that if this one tipster hadn’t come forward that there wasn’t–I mean, if law enforcement didn’t know a thing about it, that this could have happened?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, you know, when we have a free society like we do, where you don’t round people up, where you can’t keep tabs on every individual, you have to rely on intelligence and you have to rely on good law enforcement. You have to rely on a little luck as well.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, do you think others were involved, or are you confident you’ve basically got your men?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I think we have the group that was going to cause damage with these bombs in New York, and I think we have the devices. I would be hesitant to speculate whether or not there are others involved, and until we complete our investigation, it’s really speculation.

MARGARET WARNER: And, who, which different agencies are now moving forward, and what kind of investigation?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, here in New York we have a joint terrorist task force made up of the NYPD, the FBI, and all the other federal agencies. And we will coordinate with foreign governments and other law enforcement agencies around the world, and take all of this information and follow it wherever it leads. I mean, this is going to be a very widespread, intensive, and global investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Commissioner, very much for being with us.