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An Oklahoma Mystery

Either convicted Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were part of a conspiracy, possibly involving Middle Eastern and Filipino connections, or they were not. Seven years later, the authorities have still not fully examined this question.

But taking on this issue would seem to fit the mission of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which are jointly investigating intelligence failures by the FBI and CIA before 911. Chaired by two Floridians -- Republican Representative Porter Goss and Democratic Senator Bob Graham -- the Committees’ began their closed-door work by focusing on two areas: U.S. investigations of terrorism since the CIA established a counterterrorism unit in 1986 and Osama bin Laden‘s role in sponsoring international terrorism since the mid-1990s.

Back in 1995, several Congressional Committees did search for international ties to the Oklahoma City attack, but came up empty, explained former Representative Bill McCollum in an interview. Still, the reports issued by the House Republican Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, which McCollum chaired until 1995, were quite prescient.

”The task force was on the mark when it came to their warnings about the emerging threat of Middle Eastern terrorism,“ McCollum said. ”I can tell you that we were very concerned about the possibility of a Middle East connection to Oklahoma City. But we never found any evidence there was one.“

McCollum, however, said he never heard of the reporting done by TV journalist Jayna Davis, which connected McVeigh and Nichols with Middle Eastern figures in Oklahoma City and the Philippines. Nor did he know of Davis’ ongoing communications with Yossef Bodansky, executive director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. ”Seffy [Bodansky] never told me anything about that,“ he said. ”This is all news to me.“

After the bombing, Bodansky marshaled his intelligence sources and began an investigation. He found some of the same Middle Eastern connections uncovered by reporter Davis. ”The stories you are telling fit very closely a with the stories I have,“ he told Davis, in a taped conversation on April 24, 1996.

In the tape, Davis asks if the names are tied to the bombing. And Bodansky responds, ”I didn‘t get them because I am trying to run a private, one-man census of the Oklahoma City area.“

The government also turned up experts who believed they found possible evidence of a Middle Eastern signature on the bombing. In 1997, Stephen Jones, lead attorney for McVeigh, filed a motion claiming the defense team had acquired a one-page summary of a government report by two unnamed Israeli experts who examined the Murrah Building. ”Their conclusion was the Oklahoma City bombing bore the indisputable earmark of Middle Eastern terrorists,“ said Jones in an interview.

The men were eventually identified as Dorom Bergerbest-Eliom, chief of security for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Yakov (or Yaskov) Yerushalmi, a civil engineer and Israeli government consultant. Attorney Jones filed a court motion complaining to federal Judge Richard Matsch that the government had wrongly denied the document to McVeigh’s defense team.

”We never did get the full report,“ Jones continued. ”Judge Matsch reminded the prosecutors they had a legal obligation to turn over any exculpatory material to the defense. However, the judge left it to the Justice Department to decide what was exculpatory.“

Davis, the former TV reporter for KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, began investigating the bombing the day after the attack. In seven years, she‘s accumulated 26 affidavits and more than 100 hours of taped interviews. In particular, she zeroed in on a group of Iraqis who worked for Samir Khalil, a Palestinian-born businessman and owner of a property-management company in Oklahoma City. Davis also did pieces on John Doe No. 2, the mysterious figure identified in initial police bulletins as having been seen fleeing the federal building after the bombing. The FBI later announced that John Doe No. 2 never existed.

One of the Iraqis, Hussain Alhussaini, later came forward and identified himself as the person being fingered in Davis’ television reports as John Doe No. 2. He sued the reporter for defamation. A federal judge dismissed the suit; Alhussaini has appealed. (See: Heartland Conspiracy, published in the L.A. Weekly, Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2001.)

The TV reporter, who has since quit the station, also interviewed Lana Padilla, Nichols‘ first wife. She told Davis that McVeigh had given her ex-husband thousands of dollars and paid for his first trip to the Philippines. Nichols, who is now awaiting trial in Oklahoma City on state murder charges, traveled extensively to the islands and eventually married a Filipino woman. Padilla has now been subpoenaed as a prosecution witness in Nichols’ state case.

Davis also turned up material that appeared to connect Nichols to Ramzi Yousef and Abdul Hakim Murad. Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is now serving a life sentence in federal prison. He also had hatched unrealized plans to blow up 12 airliners and to assassinate Pope John Paul II.

Murad, a confederate of Yousef, is also in federal custody. He told Philippine police about a plot to hijack an airliner and crash it into CIA headquarters. Murad also claimed in 1996 that a large number of Middle Eastern men were being trained at U.S. flight schools in connection with these plots. This information was passed on to the FBI. What the agency did with it is unknown.

Court documents, related to this alleged Filipino connection, were attached to a motion filed by McVeigh‘s defense team in 1996. One is an FBI memo detailing a conversation between Murad and a U.S. prison guard after the Oklahoma City bombing. Murad told his jailer that the Filipino Liberation Army was responsible for that attack. The memo also cites a note Murad gave his guard, reiterating this claim.

Another exhibit from the defense motion is an affidavit filed by Edwin Angeles, a founder of Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino terrorist group. Angeles, who was assassinated by former comrades, wrote in 1996 that he was at a 1991 meeting in Davao City, attended by Yousef, Murad and Nichols, at which, they discussed ”bombing activities, providing firearms and ammo“ to terrorists and ”training in bomb making and handling“ of explosives. Nichols, he claimed, was introduced to him as ”the farmer.“

In February 1995 -- months before the Oklahoma City blast -- the House Task Force on Terrorism issued a warning that Middle Eastern Islamists, under the leadership of Iran, were preparing a series of terrorist attacks against the U.S. An update, issued in March 1995 -- just a month before the bombing -- stated the target list had shifted from Washington, D.C., to government installations and buildings in America’s heartland. The task force distributed these alerts to federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. In 1996, terrorism-task-force director Bodansky gave a copy of the original warning and update to Davis. Reportedly Bodansky, recently passed on Davis‘ affidavits and taped interviews to the U.S. House Government Reform Committee, about which he refuses to comment. ”I work for the government, and I can’t talk about Oklahoma City,“ he said.