A man who had tried to blow up Israeli targets in New York City 36 years ago was released from federal prison into the custody of U.S. immigration officials on Thursday.
His case — like those of the Guantanamo detainees — presents an intractable problem: Will the U.S. release prisoners it is not entirely sure should be released?
If everything had gone according to Khalid Al-Jawary's plan, the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in Manhattan would have erupted in flames in 1973.
At that time, the corner of Fifth and 43rd was where the Israel Discount Bank had its headquarters. The bank was one of three Israeli targets in the city Al-Jawary had hoped to blow up. He had rented three cars, put homemade bombs inside them, and parked them outside two Israeli banks and an airline office.
He wanted to time the explosions to coincide with a scheduled New York City visit by then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He had hoped to have them go off at noon so the bombs would injure the greatest number of people. But his plan was foiled by faulty detonators. The police discovered the cars and the bombs inside them days later.
The FBI's Craig McLaughlin is now running the squad handling the Al-Jawary case. He was just a kid when Al-Jawary hatched his plot. Now, he is leading a team trying to find evidence that connects the 63-year-old Al-Jawary to other attacks.
"There were explosive devices found at the scene," McLaughlin says. "They were placed in three different vehicles, and these devices also had fliers with the BSO — the Black September Organization — written across them." They picked up Al-Jawary's fingerprints on the bombs as well.
Black September was one of the headline-garnering terrorist organizations of the 1970s. It may be best known as the terrorist group that broke into the Olympic Village in Munich and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 games. Prosecutors say Al-Jawary wanted his Manhattan bombings to provide a follow-up to that attack. The explosions were supposed to take place just months later — in March 1973.
For almost 20 years, Al-Jawary was the subject of a global manhunt. In 1991, he was finally arrested in Rome and brought back to the U.S. for trial. A federal jury in New York found him guilty of not only planting the bombs, but also of being a member of Black September. Ron Kuby, Al-Jawary's defense attorney, says that by the time the FBI arrested Al-Jawary, he had hung up his terrorism hat.
"Whatever he did as a young radical, he was basically in retirement. He had become a bureaucrat," Kuby says, adding that Al-Jawary was working for the Palestinian Authority by the time he was collared for the Manhattan attacks. "The reality is whatever danger he may have posed in 1973, by the time he was arrested in 1991, he posed no danger whatsoever and certainly poses no danger today."
U.S. Still Worried
U.S. officials weren't so sure. They were worried about releasing Al-Jawary. It isn't just that he knows how to make bombs and has been a terrorist in the past; it is also that he is emerging at a time when it is easy to plug into terrorist networks. Any number of organizations targeting the U.S. would love to recruit a man with Al-Jawary's skills.
For now, the U.S. is able to buy time. They are remanding Al-Jawary to immigration officials while the FBI looks at whether it can bring new charges against him. McLaughlin and his team are reviewing the previous investigation and are actively searching for new leads that might link Al-Jawary to other attacks. While officials work out the details of Al-Jawary, the former Black September member will remain in custody. U.S. authorities are in no rush to release him.