In 1973 three bombs, timed to explode with the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to the U.S., were found in rental cars in New York City. The cars were parked near two Israeli banks and the El-Al cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The explosives did not go off, but rendered fingerprints that led investigators to Khalid Duhham Al-Jawary, a known passport forger affiliated with Black September, a militant group that targeted world leaders during the 1970’s. It took eighteen years to track Al-Jawary down, and once he was found in Rome, the U.S. needed Italy’s permission to arrest him there.
Getting the authority to arrest and extradite Al-Jawary required the skillful negotiations of U.S. Ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia. Secchia spent months working individually with Italian ministers to get the votes for extradition. He recalled this episode in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in June 1994. Please follow the links to learn more about terrorism, Black September, and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro.
“This time we were going to do it right”
One day we received a phone call that the British intelligence people at the airport in Rome had spotted someone who they thought was an Arab terrorist. He had a briefcase with several identifications in it. We had a good relationship with the British and they called my people and my people called me saying they had this guy and think he is someone important. We need to stall his departure because we have to prepare the federal papers so that everything is done legally.
This is how we got in trouble on the Achille Lauro [the hijacking of a ship off the coast of Egypt that involved one American fatality.] We didn’t have the right papers filed to keep Abu Nidal in Italy. So this time we were going to do it right. I don’t want to compare careerists to non-career, but because I had friends that I had made through friends, I was able to get his departure delayed.
While his departure was delayed overnight, our people worked around the clock preparing documents to give to the Italians that we thought this was a bad person of great significance. We were able to present those papers in the morning. Our Department of Justice people did an outstanding job working with the FBI to come up with who they thought this guy was. We arrested him. He had, I think it was nine different ID packages…I’m a little fuzzy over the years. We finally identified him as Al-Jawary, a man who had provided the false identification for most of the Arab terrorists over the years. (Al-Jawary is seen at left.)
“‘Peter, get Al-Jawary.’”
For several years we had had terrible terrorism in Naples, Frankfurt, Pan Am 103, Greece; it was [targeting] our diplomats and our military… and we needed to apprehend these people. We then proceeded to wait a year and a half…
I can remember when [President George H.W.] Bush came to a NATO summit in Rome in November 1991. We were flying back to the airport and the last thing he said to me before he got on his new 747… no, I was on his helicopter, Marine One, with him, [White House Chief of Staff John H.] Sununu, [U.S. National Security Advisor Brent] Scowcroft and [Secretary of State James] Baker…all four of them said to me, “Peter, get Al Jawary.” They said it different ways like “You have an important task, you must get this guy.”
The Italians meanwhile had been threatened by the Arab terrorists. If they gave him up, two Italian ambassadors in North Africa would be “taken care of.” The Italians were at times always willing to help us but would only go so far if their own people were threatened. This was a difficult issue for us. We tried to work all kinds of deals. Would we transport Al Jawary to a friendly third country for trial? Would we put him there and kidnap him there? Would we have U.S. marshals arrest him at an international airport? We tried every scenario. We didn’t think the Italians would give him to us.
There were five people on their decision board and we needed three votes to make this work. The President of the Republic, the Foreign Minister; the Minister of Justice, and the Prime Minister, who was the president of the council… We started working on them one by one. I would report back monthly how I thought I was doing. The Italians kept postponing it. A year and a half went by.
“‘We will get you, you son of a pup’”
Finally, one day during the Gulf War when most of the terrorist organizations had been neutered and Saddam Hussein, who had been funding a lot of this, was on his knees, it was an appropriate time for the Italians to make a move and they did. They gave us Al Jawary. So we had to secretly whisk him out of Rome and fly him home. We never made an issue of it. We never went public because the retaliation threats were still there. We just did it very quietly. He came home and was debriefed.
I received a cable of “Bravo, well done.” If you go back historically, all the assassinations, all the problems we had, the bombings at the USOs, we never have extradited… We still are trying to extradite the Libyans of Pan Am 103. We never, never in the history of our country extradited an Arab terrorist, or any terrorist that I know of. They usually get tried in Greece or Germany and then they are under that law. The Italians were the first… to give us a terrorist. So the relationship had a lot of value for the Americans. (Ambassador Secchia is seen at left.)
This sent a signal. Seventeen years ago Al Jawary blew up, in New York City, an El Al office. He had used two [letter] bombs. One did not go off and had his fingerprints on it. Seventeen years later we found him. The signal that action sent out, the Al Jawary extradition, might have been the beginning of the end for the Arab terrorists. They learned that after seventeen years one finger print on a suitcase in a car in New York City, and we got him.
So that was a watershed. It was an interesting moment but a very important signal. For our intelligence community it was a great victory because it said, “We will get you, you son of a pup, no matter how long it takes.” So the Al Jawary incident never got put into the press, but he is here and has been debriefed and we are learning a lot.
[Al-Jawary served only about half his 30-year sentence for planting three car bombs in New York City in 1973; he was released in February 2009 and deported to Sudan.]