• U.S.

The Shoe Bomber’s World

16 minute read
Michael Elliott

It was the scream that people noticed. Monique Danison, an American college student, had just finished lunch on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami when she heard a woman cry out in terror. “When someone screams the way she did,” says Danison, “you know something bad is happening.”

Bad is right. Richard Reid, a British passenger on the Boeing 767, was trying to light a fuse protruding from his shoe, witnesses say. According to the FBI, packed in the sole were enough high explosives to blow a hole in the fuselage of the aircraft. But the attempted bombing was foiled. Two flight attendants struggled with the tall, unkempt man after one of them noticed the sulfurous smell of a lighted match. Danison remembers one of the attendants crying, “Oh, my God! Somebody help me!” and then calling for “water, contact solution, anything you have.” Passengers passed cups and glasses back to the scene. One of the attendants poured a bottle of water over Reid, who was then restrained with passengers’ belts and sedated with drugs from the onboard medical kit. For the rest of the tense flight–the captain had warned that Reid might have accomplices onboard–passengers and crew guarded their prisoner, one of them keeping a grip on his long ponytail. Escorted by Air Force fighters, Flight 63 was diverted to Boston, where Reid was taken into custody. He was denied bail on Dec. 28, and is awaiting trial in Plymouth, Mass.

Immediately after the incident, it was tempting to view Reid more as a lone nut than a cog in a terrorist machine. On Dec. 21, when he first tried to fly to Miami, he raised enough concerns–he paid for his ticket in cash and had no checked bags–that airport officials questioned him so long that he missed the flight. When he showed up the next day, his appearance–long-haired, disheveled, druggie–seemed almost calculated to draw attention. At the boarding gate, says Annie Joly, a Frenchwoman on the flight, “I was immediately struck by how bizarre he looked.” After Reid’s arrest, the bare bones of his life as a small-time London crook came out, and he claimed to have made the bomb from a recipe on the Internet. He seemed to be what he looked like, the ultimate loser.

Few now think Reid was a bungling amateur. On Jan. 16, a U.S. federal grand jury indicted Reid on nine counts, including use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty. The indictment alleges that Reid received training at camps in Afghanistan run by al-Qaeda, the organization headed by Osama bin Laden. The bomb inside his shoe was a sophisticated one. In fact, it turns out to be a favorite of European al-Qaeda operatives. Both FBI and French law-enforcement sources tell TIME there were palm prints and hair on the shoe that didn’t belong to Reid. Clearly he had had help.

Reid certainly seems to have had friends in strange places. In January the Wall Street Journal published an astonishing tale. Journal reporters in Kabul purchased a secondhand computer whose hard drive contained thousands of files written by al-Qaeda members. One file was a detailed account of the travels last summer of “Abdul Ra’uff,” who flew from the Netherlands to Israel, Egypt and Turkey scouting locations for terrorist attacks. Abdul Ra’uff’s itinerary matched one known to have been taken at the same time by Reid. FBI analysts now firmly believe that Reid and Ra’uff are the same man. Moreover, in the past two weeks, European investigators have linked Reid to some of the best-known terrorist cells on the continent.

The story of Richard Reid, however, is about more than one failed terrorist attempt. An investigation of Reid’s case by TIME has underlined a truth that experts on terrorism know very well, even if you rarely hear it mentioned by officials in the Bush Administration. As the fighting in Afghanistan winds down, the Administration seems ready to prosecute the war against terrorism and its state supporters elsewhere–in the Philippines, Somalia or even Iraq. But the heartland of Islamic extremist terrorism is now western Europe, where U.S. military power has less to offer by way of a solution. That’s why understanding Richard Reid’s world is so important.


Reid was not born to Islam; he is a convert with a convert’s zeal. His grandfather was a Jamaican immigrant to Britain, and his father Colvin Robin Reid met and married Lesley Hughes, a white woman who was the daughter of an accountant and magistrate. Richard was born in London in 1973, by which time his father, known as Robin, was in jail for car theft. All told, Robin has spent about 20 years behind bars. “I’ve seen the inside of most of London’s prisons,” he says. “I was no great example to my son.”

Richard’s parents divorced when he was 11. He left school at 16, as soon as he legally could. By then he had drifted into the south London world of street crime and car theft. At 17, after mugging a senior citizen, he was jailed for the first time. In the next few years, Richard was in and out of prison, and when he bumped into his father in a shopping mall seven or eight years ago, he seemed depressed and downhearted. “He was born here in Britain, like I was,” says Robin. “It was distressing to be told things like ‘Go home, nigger!'” For once Robin, who had converted to Islam while in prison in the 1980s, had a suggestion that seemed to make sense. Muslims, he says, “treat you like a human being.” Plus, he says, they get better food in prison. Richard took his father’s advice. The next time he was incarcerated, he converted.

In so doing, Reid became a member of the fastest-growing religion in Britain. Nobody has an accurate count of the number of British Muslims–estimates range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million–but they run the gamut of all social classes. In the West End of London, rich playboys from the gulf states are staples of the clubbing scene. In rundown mill towns in the north of England, by contrast, thousands of native Pakistanis struggle in an environment where jobs are scarce, racism is rampant and arranged marriages are the norm.

It was long assumed that the growth of Islam in Britain was simply a function of immigration. But that underestimates the religion’s appeal. Since the early 1980s, Bangladeshi and Pakistani imams, often associated with evangelist Islamic groups, have targeted young black inmates of British prisons. “Islam is a sort of natural religion for underdogs,” says Ziauddin Sardar, a British scholar of Islam, “and that’s one reason why Afro-Caribbean people have found its message very attractive.” Prison authorities have allowed imams to bring literature into the jails–everything from copies of the Koran to anti-American leaflets highlighting the importance of jihad. Only since Reid’s arrest has there been any vetting of the publications.

At first Reid did not align himself with extremist groups. On leaving prison in 1994, he gravitated to the Brixton Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center, a rundown Victorian house in the heart of black London. The Brixton mosque has a reputation for homeyness. Each morning children stream into the mosque’s schools, brought by mothers in head scarves or veils. The mosque doesn’t ask many questions about a believer’s past. When you come to Islam, says the mosque’s chairman, Abdul Haqq Baker, you make a fresh start. Each Friday 400 to 500 worshippers attend prayers, the majority of them black Britons.

Reid, says Baker, was soft-spoken when he first attended the mosque and “very anxious to learn.” Another member describes him as gentle and amiable. That distinguished him from Brixton’s most notorious alumnus. Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman who was detained in Minnesota last August and later charged with complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, worshipped in Brixton while studying in London. Moussaoui is remembered in the mosque as a committed hard-liner.

The precise nature of the relationship between Moussaoui and Reid is unclear. They certainly overlapped at Brixton, but Reid, after spending a while there, moved to the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, notorious for the radicalism of its message and the number of suspected terrorists who have worshipped there. Moussaoui was a regular at Finsbury Park, as were other al-Qaeda operatives, such as Djamel Beghal and probably Kamel Daoudi, two Frenchmen currently being held for their alleged role in a plot to blow up the American embassy in Paris. Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian former professional soccer player now being held in Belgium, who is alleged to have been the designated suicide bomber in the Paris-embassy plot, is also thought to have frequented the mosque.

Finsbury Park is at the heart of the extremist Islamic culture that French authorities call “Londonistan.” So are the prayer meetings held by Abu Qatada, a fiery Palestinian cleric originally from Jordan. Britain’s Muslims aren’t necessarily more radicalized than those in communities elsewhere in Europe, but extremists among them may have greater liberty to operate. The British have no system of national identity cards. And the police have traditionally adopted a policy of “watchful tolerance” of extremists, aimed at keeping them aboveground. From afar, that policy can look lax. Watchful tolerance makes sense only if someone is actually watching. Abu Qatada, who has been named in American court testimony as a member of al-Qaeda’s fatwa committee, disappeared from his home in west London around Christmas, just before he could have been detained under new antiterrorist legislation.

The mosque in Finsbury Park epitomizes the British attitude. It is the sort of place where you can buy stomach-turning videos (lots of throat slitting) made by Islamic extremist groups. The sermons of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the mosque’s one-eyed, steel-clawed imam, continually stress the importance of jihad. Baker says the mosque is dominated by adherents of Takfir wal Hijra, the neo-fascist Islamic ideology influential among European operatives of al-Qaeda. However extreme its message, Finsbury Park is undeniably popular. At midday prayers on a recent Friday, Abu Hamza preached to a congregation of about 1,200, who came from all over London. Sardar explains that the mosque attracts “younger, more disaffected Muslims, mainly from working-class backgrounds, mostly unemployed, unmarried. These guys see themselves as totally under siege. For them, jihad is a salvation.” Sardar might have been describing Reid.


By 1998, jihad was Reid’s chosen path. He took the name Abdel Rahim and on his trips back to Brixton harangued listeners. “We warned him where the extremist ideas he was adopting had led people,” says Baker. “But he found our beliefs too passive, too slow.” Reid told his parents he was going overseas. Robin says his son sent him a letter from Iran, but if Reid visited there at all, it was probably on his way to a madrasah, an Islamic school, in Pakistan. In 1999 and 2000, Reid appears to have spent much of his time in Pakistan. He seems certain to have crossed the border from Pakistan to a terrorist camp in Afghanistan–probably Khalden, not far from Kabul.

Reid had friends there. Roland Jacquard, a French expert on terrorism, says his sources tell him the former head of the Khalden camp, now detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has identified Reid as a former student. Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in the U.S. in 2001 for his part in the “millennium” plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport and who is now singing to the feds, is a Khalden graduate and is prepared to testify that he saw Moussaoui there in 1998. The camp seems to have specialized in welcoming recruits earmarked for operations in Europe and North America. On Feb. 4, in an important new development, French authorities arrested Yacine Akhnouche, a 27-year-old Franco-Algerian who has become so chatty that an investigator described him as “going Ressam.” Akhnouche, says this official, has said he saw Reid, Moussaoui and Ressam at training camps during his visits.

By the summer of 2001, Reid was back in London. In July he obtained a new British passport in Amsterdam, claiming that he had accidentally put his old one through a washing machine, and flew to Israel on an El Al flight. Once in Israel, according to security sources there, Reid spent most of his time in Tel Aviv, where he cased the mall and office complex called the Azrieli Center as well as the local bus and train stations. (“Abdul Ra’uff” also checked security at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.) After 10 days in Israel, Reid crossed into Egypt and from there flew to Turkey and back to Pakistan before being debriefed (if the Journal’s Abdul Ra’uff is in fact Reid) in Afghanistan.

He didn’t stay there long. On Aug. 9, Reid was back in Amsterdam. It was a good choice. Amsterdam is an open city. In its streets and bars, a rough-looking and by all accounts singularly malodorous Englishman would hardly merit a second glance. He spent much of his time sending e-mails to addresses in Pakistan from Internet cafes. Presumably, it was during these months that the plan to bomb Flight 63 took shape.

Reid had another reason for choosing the Netherlands. The country, says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has become a center of al-Qaeda activity. In September, Dutch police raided houses in Rotterdam and picked up Jerome Courtailler, a French convert to Islam arrested as a suspected associate in the Paris-embassy plot and yet another young European who was known to have attended the Finsbury Park mosque. Dutch investigators now speculate that before he was arrested, Courtailler helped Reid find temporary employment in Rotterdam.

On Dec. 5, Reid was off again, this time to Brussels, where he applied for yet another new passport; an embassy spokeswoman says his previous one was worn. He stayed at the Hotel Dar Salam in the Belgian capital’s Arab quarter, where travel agencies offer bus trips to North Africa and the air smells of figs, oranges and cous-cous. On most days, Reid walked into the city center to send e-mails from the Easynet Internet cafe.

By Dec. 17, Reid was finally in Paris, hanging out in the Goutte d’Or neighborhood, a center of the city’s Arab and African population. On Dec. 21, he made his first attempt to fly to Miami. French authorities have discovered an e-mail exchange made afterward with an interlocutor in Pakistan who urged Reid to try again the next day. “They obviously didn’t want him spending a lot of time sitting around, where he might have changed his mind–or been caught,” says a French investigator.

Reid’s movements in Paris have been traced to fast-food restaurants and Internet cafes. But French authorities have found no evidence that he stayed at a Paris hotel. This has spooked the French police, who are convinced that the bomb was made locally, implying the existence of an unknown terrorist cell in Paris. “He stayed with someone,” says an investigator. “When we find that bit of thread and pull it, a lot of larger tissue will unwind.”

That unwinding may have begun. Investigators are combing through the hard drives of computers in the Internet cafes from which Reid e-mailed his contacts in Pakistan. They have discovered a “testament” that Reid sent to his mother describing his “martyrdom to Islam.” French sources say many of Reid’s e-mails were sent to an address in Peshawar, Pakistan, which they think provides postal-drop and forwarding services for al-Qaeda operatives in Europe.

Meanwhile, Akhnouche’s testimony has cheered French officials. “His address book is a veritable resource of Islamist operatives,” says one. And European officials tell TIME that Reid’s old prepaid telephone cards have been discovered. One was used to place calls to the cell phone of Nizar Trabelsi, the alleged would-be bomber of the U.S. embassy in Paris. (Trabelsi has denied that he was ever part of a terrorist group.)

As authorities pick away at Reid’s case, the web of terror in Europe is slowly beginning to become clear. The Sept. 11 attacks, the Paris plot and the attempt to destroy Flight 63 all share a common cast of characters. Reid seems to have known Moussaoui, Beghal and Trabelsi; Moussaoui was connected to Ramzi Binalshibh, a fugitive alleged by the FBI and German authorities to have been a member of the Hamburg cell that planned the Sept. 11 attacks; Akhnouche knew them all. A French official says, “My personal theory is that all these radical Islamists have crossed paths in Afghan camps, London or often both.”

But identifying terrorists is only half the job. The real challenge is to figure out why the Muslim community in Europe has become such a rich recruiting ground for Islamic extremists. Plainly, Islam exerts an appeal to those born into the faith who feel oppressed by societies that treat them like second-class relics of European colonialism. Islam also promises something to converts–like Reid and Courtailler–who feel marginalized by modern life. For Europeans, the presence of the terrorist networks should suggest that there is something rotten within their rich societies.

There are messages from Europe for Americans too. In the wake of the Afghanistan war, the U.S. has signaled that it will take action against terrorists and their supporters wherever they may be–in Yemen or Iraq or Indonesia. Yet with the camps in Afghanistan destroyed, many of the world’s most dangerous terrorists are not in the Islamic world at all but in the cities of western Europe. They will be brought to justice not by U.S. special forces or B-52 pilots but by skillful forensic work and international cooperation among criminal-justice professionals. After the triumphs in Afghanistan, it’s tempting to think that the American military machine, on its own, can rid the world of terrorism. The lesson of the shoe bomber’s story: it can’t.

–Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Helen Gibson and Assif Shameen/London, James Graff/Brussels, Nadia Mustafa/New York, Andrew Rosenbaum/Amsterdam, Sean Scully/Los Angeles, Elaine Shannon/Washington and other bureaus

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