Did Nichols and Yousef meet?
A close analysis of Terry Nichols and Ramzi Yousef timelines creates a compelling, if still circumstantial, case and offers clues to where the smoking guns may be found
By J.M. BERGER
In November 1994, Terry Nichols and Ramzi Yousef both walked on the grounds of the same college campus in the Philippines.
Whether their paths crossed is a question that dogs researchers.
But their respective itineraries are separated sometimes by a matter of yards, feet or even inches, within a span of days, hours and sometimes minutes.
Related stories: OKBOMB on INTELWIRE
Each booked a flight on the same airline, on the same route and apparently planned to travel on the same day the exact date Yousef hoped to unleash a massive September 11-style attack on the United States.
It remains unclear where lines are drawn between the two most notorious terrorist attacks of the 1990s the 1993 World Trade Center bombing masterminded by Yousef, and the Oklahoma City bombing, which Nichols was convicted of assisting (the exact extent of his involvement is still the subject of an ongoing criminal prosecution).
While myth and misinformation surrounds Nichols' possible connections to al Qaeda, the provable facts in the case are shocking enough in context, and perhaps compelling merely due to the sheer volume of the circumstances.
Although such connections have not yet been proven by a "smoking gun," the circumstantial case more that enough to support a serious investigation. Unlike many so-called "conspiracy theories," the question of whether al Qaeda had some degree of involvement with the Oklahoma City bombing seems well within the reach of a credible investigation.
The strongest evidence lies in a visit to the Philippines by Nichols from November 1994 through January 1995. While he and Timothy McVeigh were in the thick of planning the Oklahoma City bombing, Nichols simply stopped. He dropped everything and went to the Philippines, on a trip he believed was more dangerous than what he was doing in the U.S.
When he arrived in the Philippines, Nichols showed up unannounced on the campus of Southwestern University, a Cebu City college with a strong Islamic fundamentalist movement where his wife was attending classes.
Yousef visited the campus during Nichols' visit. One Yousef accomplice made phone calls to a friend on campus during the same period. Two more al Qaeda operatives may be linked to a Cebu lumberyard where Nichols and his wife used the phone.
According to his visa records and trial testimony, Nichols was scheduled to return to the U.S. on January 21, 1995, the same day Ramzi Yousef hoped to bomb almost a dozen U.S.-bound airliners simultaneously and possibly crash a hijacked airplane into the Pentagon or CIA headquarters.
Letters Nichols left behind in the U.S. expressed concern that he might die before returning from the winter trip, and included specific instructions on how to handle his money if his life insurance refused to pay out "for some reason."
Nichols tried to smuggle stun guns onto his flight when he left the U.S. On his return, he flew a Northwest Airlines route out of Manila that terminated in Los Angeles, matching one of the flights targeted by Yousef. There is a strongly compelling basis to further investigate whether Nichols was recruited as an al Qaeda operative for Yousef's plan.
EARLY PHILIPPINES TIES
THE EDWIN ANGELES QUESTION
YOUSEF, NICHOLS AND McVEIGH
WHERE THE SMOKING GUNS LIE
TERRY NICHOLS: HIJACKER?
NOTES (in new window)
EARLY PHILIPPINES TIES
Terry Nichols first traveled to the Philippines after leaving the Army in 1989. He signed up with an illegal marriage-broker (or "mail-order" bride) known as Paradise Shelton Tours, based in Scottsdale, AZ1, and departed for the Philippines for the first time in November 1989.
While Nichols was in the Philippines during this visit, several al Qaeda operatives were also in the country. A longtime associate of Ramzi Yousef, Abdul Hakim Murad traveled to the Philippines in January 1990, where he enrolled in flight training.2
At around the same time, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa (a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden) was creating a series of business fronts designed to launder money on behalf of al Qaeda.
Starting around 1988 and continuing through the early 1990s, Khalifa created several organizations and businesses These included Benevolence International Corp., a rattan furniture exporter; the International Islamic Relief Organization, a charity non-governmental organization (NGO); and Khalifa Trading Industries, a lumber and furniture import-export company.3
Khalifa's businesses were based around the country, particularly in the southern regions where the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) terrorist gang was active. Khalifa funded ASG with front operations in Cotabato and Zamboanga.4
Meanwhile, Nichols was staying in Cebu City, just north of the region where Abu Sayyaf was most active. Cebu was the capital of the country's rattan industry. There, he met and eventually married a Filipina named Marife Torres. At various times through 1996, Marife Nichols lived with her parents in an apartment attached to a Cebu lumberyard.5
A considerable mythology has sprung up around Nichols' travels to the Philippines. Some sources have repeatedly alleged that Nichols made dozens of trips to the Philippines, with and without his wife. These accounts are rarely sourced in detail, and they have almost certainly been elaborated based on some claims, Nichols could hardly have spent any time in the U.S. at all between 1990 and 1995.
However, a few trips have been confirmed in published accounts and trial testimony. Nichols wed Marife in November 1990, in Cebu, and he stayed in the country through January 1991.6 Abdul Hakim Murad traveled to the Philippines in November and stayed through February 1991.7
Published accounts conflict about when World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef first traveled to the Philippines, but it's generally accepted that his first visit began around the summer of 1991.8 Yousef trained Abu Sayyaf fighters in the south of the Philippines during this visit, an effort that led directly to the testimony that is most and least damning in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing.
THE EDWIN ANGELES QUESTION
There is only one piece of direct testimony which explicitly ties Ramzi Yousef and Terry Nichols. In the final analysis, it comes up short.
Edwin Angeles was one of the founders of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an al Qaeda-linked Islamic terror organization in the southern Philippines. Angeles was also a sometime government informer.
Angeles is often cited as a primary source on the Abu Sayyaf Group by historians and law enforcement officials, but his reliability has been called into question.
Angeles told the Philippines National Police (PNP) that he was present for a meeting between Yousef, Murad, Wali Khan Amin Shah and an American he referred to as "The Farmer," whose appearance approximated that of Terry Nichols.9 The meeting allegedly took place in the southern Philippines.
The original claim was apparently made during a videotaped interrogation of Angeles by the PNP. The tape was later obtained by an attorney for Timothy McVeigh. When viewed by CNN correspondent Maria Ressa, the audio content of the tape was indecipherable.
The story has been retold in several versions, including an alleged "deathbed confession" from Angeles' wife, a report which is of doubtful pedigree. Conflicting dates have been cited for the alleged meeting. One of the alleged dates for the meeting was November 1991. Yousef, Khalifa and top al Qaeda operative named Wali Khan Amin Shah were all reported to have been in the southern Philippines in January 1992.10
Murad (named by Angeles as a participant) was attending flight school in the U.S. at the time. Nichols' whereabouts are unclear, but legal papers relating to his marriage were filed in Michigan that month.
The details of the Angeles claim have never been confirmed and some appear to be simply wrong. Angeles was murdered in 1998 by unknown assassins. In the absence of further documentation, the story must be considered unsubstantiated as of this writing.
YOUSEF, NICHOLS AND McVEIGH
But there are ample other avenues for investigation. For instance, Yousef can be directly tied to a documented al Qaeda effort to recruit Gulf War veterans.
Nichols appears to have spent most of 1992 in the United States, working at his brother's farm in Decker, MI, where he moved with Marife after their wedding.
Yousef traveled to the U.S. in September 1992 to begin work on the World Trade Center bombing plot. He and a traveling companion arrived in New York City carrying bomb-making manuals that included detailed instructions on how to build a truck bomb virtually identical to the one believed used in Oklahoma City.11
In New York, Yousef made contact with a Brooklyn al Qaeda cell operating out of the al Kifah mosque in Brooklyn. The cell provided support and accomplices for the bomb plot, even as it laid its own plans for a "Day of Terror" attack later in 1993.
A key Brooklyn cell member was Clement Rodney Hampton-El, a U.S.-born black Muslim who had trained and fought for bin Laden in Afghanistan. Hampton-El was described as an expert bomb maker, like Yousef, who was also an Afghan veteran.
Hampton-El counted weapons procurement and recruiting among his chief responsibilities in the cell, and he traveled to gun shows around the region to further these goals. In late 1992, he was tasked to recruit former U.S. servicemen as trainers and mujahideen fighters for al Qaeda.12
Shortly after a December meeting in which Hampton-El was given a list of former U.S. servicemen to recruit, Terry Nichols abruptly left the U.S. and traveled to the Philippines for a trip of about 60 days.13 He was likely in the Philippines on the date of the WTC bombing in February.
McVeigh had traveled to Florida, where a burgeoning al Qaeda operation was busy recruiting U.S.-born operatives, including Jose Padilla, a former Latino gang member who converted to Islam around the same time.14
While working at gun shows in Florida, McVeigh met Roger Moore, a gun dealer with at least casual ties to domestic antigovernment and white separatist movements which would later play a role in the plot to bomb the Murrah building.15 Both al Qaeda and local white power organizations had operations based in the area at the time, and the local gun show scene was known as a venue for terrorists seeking weapons (including a regular show at the Fort Lauderdale Armory which was attended by McVeigh).16
Nichols went to the Philippines at a time when al Qaeda was recruiting and training Abu Sayyaf Group members. Several members of the Brooklyn terror cell said under surveilliance they planned to travel to the Philippines and wage jihad from there once they had completed their terrorist attacks in the U.S. Hampton-El traveled to the Philippines himself in May 1993. Like Terry Nichols and Jamal Khalifa, and in keeping with standard al Qaeda procedure, Hampton-El intended to marry a Filipina, which would facilitate his travel and residency in the country.17
WHERE THE SMOKING GUNS LIE
The circumstances around Nichols' November 1994 trip to the Philippines bear the closest examination and offer the tantalizing prospect of a smoking gun that may yet be uncovered.
By November 1994, Nichols and McVeigh had stolen or purchased substantial amounts of explosive material for the Oklahoma City bombing, housing the chemicals in storage lockers located mostly in Kansas.
On Nov. 4, in Chicago, Ill., Nichols applied for a standard 60-day visa at the Philippines consulate.18 On Nov. 5, he made a reservation to fly out of Kansas to the Philippines but changed this arrangement later so that he would fly out of Las Vegas.
While in Las Vegas, he stayed with his ex-wife and visited with their son. When he left the country Nov. 22, he left her with a sealed package and instructions to open it if he didn't return within 60 days. Inside was a sealed letter to Timothy McVeigh, with instructions to send it after Jan. 28, 1995.
Nichols had left an estimated $60,000 to $80,000 in cash and goods secreted around his ex-wife's house and in a nearby storage locker. Some of the material had been stolen from Roger Moore, McVeigh's gun dealer associate, a few weeks earlier.19 Other material may have been associated with a bank robbery gang that has been linked to the Oklahoma bombing plot.20
On Nov. 23, Nichols unexpectedly showed up on the campus of Southwestern University, where his wife was attending classes in physical therapy. She expressed surprise at seeing him. 21
Southwestern University was known as a center for Islamic fundamentalists in Cebu City, according to several leading experts in terrorism and al Qaeda. Ramzi Yousef was known to have associates on the campus, and he visited the campus throughout the fall and winter of 1994.
Yousef had entered the country around September 1994. His other accomplices, who arrived at various times throughout the year, were Abdul Hakim Murad, Wali Khan Amin Shah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. They had come to Manila to plan a series of spectacular terrorist attacks against the West on behalf of al Qaeda.
Yousef is documented to have visited Cebu on at least two specific occasions during this period, while testing explosives in November and December 1994, once to set a bomb in a shopping mall and the second time to set a bomb on a Philippines Airlines flight which killed a Japanese businessman in early December.22
Murad made phone calls during the same period to Khalid Hassan, a former roomate, staying in Cebu City. According to Murad, Hassan was there studying dentistry (there are two dentistry schools in Cebu City, one is Southwestern and the other, the Cebu Doctors' School, is nearby).23
Further connections, while not yet fully documented, offer a tantalizing glimpse at where definitive evidence might be found. The family of Marife Nichols stayed in an apartment attached to a lumberyard in Cebu City, she testified at her husband's trial. Her family used the lumberyard office's phone, which was presented as the reason for numerous phone calls made to the yard on a long-distance calling card used by Nichols and McVeigh.
The lumberyard was identified as "Star Gladh," according to testimony and evidence given at trial. The identification appears to come from an FBI Form 302 interrogation report detailing the interrogation of the lumberyard's owner, Serafim Uy.
INTELWIRE has not been able to confirm the particulars of the lumberyard, including its name, spelling, ownership and location (although there are Gladh timber operations worldwide). The name was taken down as a handwritten notation on the 302 by the FBI agent who conducted the investigation. Phone records used at trial did not correctly record the name of the lumberyard.
Cebu is the leading producer of rattan and plywood in the Philippines. The specifics of the lumberyard connected to Nichols' family are important in light of the business fronts used to fund al Qaeda operations in the Philippines.
Jamal Khalifa ran several furniture-related businesses in the Philippines, including a rattan import-export company. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who would later mastermind the September 11 attacks on America, posed as a plywood exporter named Salem Ali while in Manila working with Yousef.24
A direct connection between the lumberyard and one of Khalifa's business concerns would constitute a tangible link running from al Qaeda to Oklahoma City. INTELWIRE continues to research this possibility.
TERRY NICHOLS: HIJACKER?
Previous investigations have focused on the proposition that Nichols met Yousef in order to receive bomb training, with some justification. But we now know that there were numerous al Qaeda trainers already on U.S. soil who could have assisted the Oklahoma City bombers.
But bombs were not the potential interest Nichols and Yousef shared. During the 1994-1995 trip, Yousef could have been looking for someone with an American passport to serve as a suicide hijacker.
As documented during his trial, Nichols left his ex-wife a note that specified how she should distribute the money he left behind "if for any reason my life insurance doesn't pay." There are three primary reasons why any given life insurance policy might fail to pay its beneficiary if the insured commits suicide, if the insured dies in the course of commiting a crime, or if the insured is murdered by the policy's beneficiary. (There is no evidence to suggest Terry Nichols was afraid of being murdered by his wife.)
Project Bojinka, which was underway at the time, would have bombed 11 airliners over the Pacific Ocean during a 48-hour period. When Murad was arrested, he confessed that another part of the plan involved a plot to crash an airplane into CIA headquarters or the Pentagon, a clear precursor to the September 11 attack.
Terry Nichols left for the Philippines on Nov. 22, 1994, on a standard 60-day visa which would have expired on Jan. 21, 1995. 25 Ramzi Yousef was planning to launch Bojinka on Jan. 21, 1995. 26
In November 1994, when boarding his flight for the Philippines, Nichols was almost stopped at the gate when U.S. airport security discovered he was carrying two stun guns on his person.27 In late 1994, Yousef and Khalid Shaikh flew several test runs in which they measured airline security by smuggling various Bojinka components onto planes.28
Nichols flew back to the U.S. on Northwest Airlines. His flight number was not available as of this writing, but the flight arrived in the U.S. in Los Angeles, Calif. (Nichols then took a connecting flight to Las Vegas, his final destination.) 29 As part of Bojinka, Ramzi Yousef planned to have one al Qaeda operative on board Northwest Airlines Flight 30 from Manila to Los Angeles.30
On January 6, 1995, Ramzi Yousef and his Bojinka plot were exposed when the hallway of the apartment building filled with smoke after an apparent accidental fire caused while Yousef and Murad were mixing chemicals for the Bojinka bombing.31 Murad was arrested on the scene.
On January 7, Yousef fled the Philippines.
On January 11, Wali Khan Amin Shah was arrested.
On January 14, Terry Nichols called his ex-wife in Las Vegas and told her he would return to the U.S. January 17 (four days before his visa would have expired).32
On January 15, Wali Khan broke out of prison, possibly with outside assistance, and fled the country. 33
On January 17, the FBI arrived in Manila to examine the Bojinka plot materials.34 Later that day, Terry Nichols left the Philippines for the last time.
On April 19, 1995, an imprisoned Abdul Hakim Murad told his U.S. captors that he and Ramzi Yousef were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. He repeated the claim to the FBI the next day.35
The notion that al Qaeda may have been behind the Oklahoma City bombing can produce a reaction ranging from polite disinterest to outright contempt from many news consumers.
Many people are dismissive simply because, in the days following OKC, speculation ran rampant that Islamic terrorists were behind the bombing. When Timothy McVeigh was revealed a few days later, many news consumers felt that they had been "had" and chalked up the speculation to a cautionary tale about media excess.
In the intervening years, the concept of a conspiracy involving "others unknown" in the OKC bombing has been significantly marginalized for a number of reasons not having to do with the credibility of the basic premise.
I plan to write more on this subject later, but the specifics are secondary at the moment. The important point is that the public's interest in and openness to alternative views of the bombing have fallen sharply even as the evidence to support such views has dramatically grown.
Two FBI internal investigations, fully available to the public, have shown that the agency was guilty of mismanaging the case at best, and malfeasance at worst.
Credible, independent investigations by the Associated Press, the McCurtain Gazette and criminologist-author Mark Hamm have demonstrated that white supremacists associated with the militia movement and the Elohim City compound in Oklahoma almost certainly played some in the bombing.
New stories appear every day detailing the infiltration of the United States by al Qaeda sleepers. Some lived in Texas and Arizona, others in Oklahoma. Some were white Christian males including a National Guardsman who previously pursued ties with the militia movement. al Qaeda is now known to have recruited former U.S. servicemen, including Gulf War veterans like Timothy McVeigh, as first reported on this site.
How much circumstantial evidence needs to accrue before the premise of an al Qaeda role in the OKC bombing is considered effectively true?
The mass media, and to a lesser extent the general public, will determine that threshhold. But even though the evidence remains circumstantial, as above, the premise can no longer reasonably be considered extraordinary nor even particularly unlikely.
1. By Blood Betrayed, Lana Padilla, 1995
2. PNP interrogation record, Abdul Hakim Murad, provided to INTELWIRE by Motley Rice law firm
3. Author research, DNB Business Records, Khalifa v USA (1995 civil lawsuit), US v Benevolence International Foundation indictment
4. Ibid., see also Seeds of Terror, Maria Ressa, 2004
5. US v Terry Nichols, 96-CR-68
6. US v Nichols, PBS Frontline report citing McVeigh defense team notes (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/documents/mcveigh/)
7. Contemporary Southeast Asia, Volume 24, Number 2, August 2002, "The Role of Philippine–American Relations in the Global Campaign Against Terrorism: Implications for Regional Security"
8. The New Jackals, Simon Reeve, 2002
9. Others Unknown, Stephen Jones, 2001
10. Seeds of Terror, ibid.
11. US v Omar Abdel Rahman et al, S5 93 Cr. 181
12. INTELWIRE: Al Qaeda Recruited U.S. Servicemen: Testimony Links Plot To Saudi Gov't, US v Rahman (ibid.)
13. By Blood Betrayed; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, July/August 2002, "The Thrill of a Good Conspiracy" By Cate McCauley
14. INTELWIRE: Jose Padilla Backgrounder
15. In Bad Company, Mark S. Hamm, 2002
16. USA Today, "Gun shows give terrorists easy access to firearms," 12/12/2001; US v Ali Boumelhem, No. 00-81013; NOW with Bill Moyers, 11/15/2002; Pritchard v. Miami Beach, 1992; US v Adham Hassoun, 2004
17. US v Rahman
18. 1000 Years for Revenge, Peter Lance, 2003
19. US v Nichols
20. In Bad Company
21. US v Nichols
22. The New Jackals, 1000 Years, Seeds of Terror, US v Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Abdul Hakim Murad, Wali Khan Amin Shah, S1293CR.180(KTD)
23. PNP documents on interrogation of Abdul Hakim Murad, provided to INTELWIRE by law firm Motley Rice; author research.
24. US v Yousef et al, Dow Jones News Service, 1000 Years
25. New Jackals
26. New Jackals, PNP reports
27. By Blood Betrayed
28. Seeds of Terror
29. By Blood Betrayed
30. US v Yousef
31. US v Yousef, et al
32. By Blood Betrayed
33. Recent media reports indicated that Jemaah Islamiah chief Hambali, among others, assisted Wali Khan's escape from prison.
34. US v Yousef.
35. FBI FD-302 record of interrogation, Abdul Hakim Murad