In light of what we know now we need to look back at a whole bunch of things that happened in the 1990s to see if there might be an al-Qaida connection and that would include the Oklahoma City bombing and the TWA 800 flight. There may be no connection to terrorism, but boy do we need to take a second look at it.
– Herbert Meyer, Reagan-era special assistant to CIA director, on “Fox and Friends,” April 15, 2004
In this generation, no single reporter has done more resourceful legwork than Jayna Davis, the author of “The Third Terrorist.” For those who have followed the fate of TWA Flight 800, one of Davis’ adventures has particular relevance.
In the summer of 1996, more than a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, the intrepid KFOR-TV reporter received a tip on her unlisted home phone line to check out a certain garage, International Auto Mechanics, located a mile or so north of the Murrah Building site in Oklahoma City.
“The Iraqi soldiers had been seen hanging out at the garage,” the caller told Davis, referring here to the suspects that Davis had fingered as helping Timothy McVeigh deliver the fatal bomb. The caller’s boyfriend, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who worked at the garage, had started noticing a heavy influx of calls from Iran and London in early 1995.
Then, in February 1995, the new owners shut down the garage unexpectedly and let all the workers go, only to rehire them a few months later, “after the big boom downtown.”
The new owners, Davis learned, were a pair of Pakistani nationals, one a full-time student and the other, a New York cab driver. The pair had shown up in November 1994 with $25,000 in cash, bought the garage, and prepaid the lease through August 1995. Before the lease was up, the pair abandoned the business and gave it back to its original Iranian owner, himself a questionable character.
On July 14, 1996, Davis, accompanied by her husband Drew, found her way to the Pakistani student. Unprepared for the interview, he dissembled his way through Davis’ questions. He gave no good explanation as to why he would absorb a $25,000 loss and then hand the keys back to the original owner, a man the student claimed had tricked him into buying the shop in the first place. When Davis asked about his partner, the New York City cab driver, the Pakistani student told her that she had better catch him soon as he was heading back to New York.
To her surprise, Davis found the cab driver’s name in the phone book. This time, she had Drew, a trained U.S. Army linguist and Gulf War vet with a knack for accents, make a phone call. When the Pakistani cab driver answered, Drew identified himself as “Mohammed” and ascertained that the Pakistani cab driver was indeed leaving for New York City.
In a stunning bit of chutzpah, Drew managed to solicit from the unsuspecting cab driver his New York phone number. When the cab driver started growing suspicious, Drew terminated the call, called the number in New York and asked for the cab driver by name. “He will be here on Tuesday,” a man answered with a thick Arab accent. This man, too, grew quickly wary, and Drew hung up.
At 1:17 a.m. on Tuesday morning, July 16, 1996, Jayna Davis got a phone call on her unlisted line. “Jayna, don’t try to run away. You’re not going to get away with this,” the caller growled in his foreign accent. “See you in hell.” This was Davis’ first and only death threat.
Later on that same day, the Islamic Change Movement issued a threat, this one received at the highest levels in Washington. The group’s communique promised an attack of great “magnitude” to embarrass “the foolish American president.” The threatened time was “morning dawn.”
The next day, July 17, as morning dawned on the Arabian peninsula, and the sun set on Long Island, hundreds of Long Islanders – pilots, fishermen, surfers, vacationers – watched helplessly as flare-like objects ascended off the horizon, zigzagged upward, made last second course corrections and exploded violently in a bright white light. The Serbo-Croatian word for such a blast is “bojinka.” Some endless seconds later, TWA Flight 800 erupted in an orange fireball of great magnitude and fell immediately into the sea
That very day, National Liberation Day in Saddam’s Iraq, Ramzi Yousef had been standing trial in a New York City federal court. Evidence strongly suggests that Yousef had conspired with Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols in the Philippines in the months prior to the Murrah Building bombing. “We do know that Nichols’ bombs did not work before his Philippine stay,” writes Richard Clarke in “Against All Enemies,” “and were deadly when he returned.”
Although Yousef also oversaw the first World Trade Center bombing, he was being tried in July 1996 for his role in Operation Bojinka, a plot both to blow up American airliners with bombs and to use planes as missiles to attack American targets.
The independent analysts who have looked at the fate of TWA Flight 800 – and this includes scores of airline pilots, safety investigators, munitions experts, physicists, TWA mechanics, FAA investigators, Boeing engineers and retired military through the ranks of admiral – agree almost to a person that missiles were indeed fired, and that those missiles resulted in the destruction of the aircraft.
Given the restraints on evidence gathering, these independent investigators differ on the details. One school holds that terrorists launched the attack, most likely from the sea and with missiles likely more powerful than the much-discussed Stingers. In “First Strike: TWA Flight 800 and the Attack on America,” James Sanders and I advance the theory that U.S. Navy missiles fired at and struck an explosive-packed terrorist plane in close proximity to TWA 800.
Either of these terrorist scenarios would demand a support team. When Jayna Davis heard of the TWA 800 disaster on July 17, she connected it immediately to her death threat and the cab driver’s arrival in New York, both on July 16. Horrified at the implications, she had to wonder whether she had actually called the team’s safe house.
This connection needs to be explored. If former CIA honcho Herbert Meyer believes that it is worth a “second look,” perhaps the 9-11 Commission should oblige him.