New York Times
December 29, 2001

The Shadowy Trail and Shift to Islam of a Bomb Suspect


LONDON -- He is a gangling giant of a man with immigrant roots in Jamaica, a record of crime and a sense that his Christian upbringing was not enough to shield him from the violence, poverty and racial bias of south London.

The profile fits Richard C. Reid, 28, the man accused of trying to ignite explosives-packed sneakers on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22. It also fits his father, Robin C. Reid, 51, a man with whom he had little contact growing up but whose life seemed to be a model for the son's until last week.

Since his arrest there have been increasing indications that Richard Reid's travels in the last three years to Pakistan, Cairo and the Gaza Strip had dark purposes as well. On one such trip, according to British press reports, he may have met with Nabil abu Aukel, identified as a member of the Hamas terrorist group. Mr. Aukel was arrested in June 2000 by Israeli authorities and, in an indictment, accused of collaborating with Hamas and several Arab-Israelis on plots aimed at military and civilian targets inside Israel.

The indictment stated that Mr. Aukel, a Palestinian, had received training in explosives and chemicals at the Abu Khabab camp in Afghanistan in 1998. Israeli officials said at the time that Mr. Aukel's arrest was the first time Israel had uncovered an Al Qaeda cell inside its borders.

But if Richard Reid had grand ambitions in international terrorism, it was in stark contrast to the routine of his life in Britain where, until last week, he was very much his father's son, following a life of minor crime and a conversion to Islam, a faith that provided a new identity and a new name, Abdel Rahim.

His father and mother, Lesley Hughes, divorced for years, had little contact with him. Both said they believed that for the last three years he had moved to Pakistan or Iran, a period in which the British police say he spent little time in England. The British authorities, too, took scant notice of him, although, with hindsight, his clumsiness seemed almost devised to invite detection.

Neither was he, apparently, on any international watch list. "If you are asking me if, in a perfect world, could this man have been discovered, I expect in a perfect world he could have been," the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said today.

Even now, as Mr. Reid faces trial in the United States, his movements outside Britain since 1998 seem, in part, as mysterious as the source of the funds he used to pay for his travels, including the cash payment for his American Airlines ticket.

In an interview published today, Robin Reid discussed his relationship with his son, saying he had counseled him to convert to Islam, a course he himself had embarked on in prison as a comfort against racial discrimination. "I suggested to him, `Why don't you become a Muslim, they treated me all right,' " said Mr. Reid, whose parents came to Britain from Jamaica after World War II. "I don't feel guilty about encouraging him to be a Muslim because the sort of Islam I encountered wasn't about blowing up planes, it was about loving mankind."

What seems clear, too, is that Mr. Reid 6 feet 4 inches tall to his father's 6 feet 8 inches was either remarkably fortunate in his narrow escapes, or very skilled in deception.

On at least three separate occasions before Dec. 22, this lanky, unkempt man aroused official suspicions in a way not usually associated with hard-core terrorists. In July, before boarding an El Al flight to Israel, he was briefly detained and searched because his behavior seemed suspicious, according to the Israeli airline. Israeli officials said today that they were trying to reconstruct his activities in the five days he spent in Israel.

On Dec. 12, he renewed his British passport in Brussels, even though pages had been torn from his old one and a separate renewal application had been made in Karachi, Pakistan, earlier in the year, according to the British Foreign Office.

On Dec. 21, 13 years to the day since 270 people were killed when Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, he tried to board the American Airlines flight in Paris but was held up for questioning because he was carrying no baggage for the long flight. He was allowed to board the flight the next day.

For his parents, though, the first indications of their son's notoriety came when his photograph appeared in newspapers after his failed attempt to set fire to his shoes. His mother's lawyers issued a statement on Thursday in which she said she was "deeply shocked as any mother would be." His father said: "He's not a bad lad. I can't imagine him doing anything like this without being involved with somebody else."

The younger Mr. Reid was born in 1973, one year after his parents met while Robin Colvin Reid was working on the railroad and his wife-to-be, the daughter of an accountant and a magistrate from northeast England, was visiting London on a college- level study course.

A photograph taken when the son was 3 showed Mrs. Reid who has now reverted to her maiden name, Hughes barely reaching to her husband's shoulder and a curly- haired Richard sitting jauntily in the crook of his father's arm.

According to people who knew Richard Reid, he turned to Islam while serving a sentence for muggings at the Feltham Young Offenders Institute in west London.

Abdul Haqq Bakr, the chairman of the Brixton mosque in south London where both the younger and older Reids worshiped at different times, said Richard Reid was not an Islamic militant when he began attending the mosque after his release from prison in 1995.

But evidence seems to be building that the prisons themselves have become centers of Islamic fundamentalism, with the authorities acknowledging that since the Sept. 11 attacks they have suspended two of Britain's 130 prison imams for anti-American preaching. One of the suspended imams was identified as Abdul Rahman Qureishi, from the same Feltham Young Offenders Institute where Mr. Reid served his sentence.

Prison officials said Mr. Reid had been discharged before Mr. Qureishi took over as imam from his father.

The Brixton mosque figures significantly in Mr. Reid's story because he may have worshiped there in the same period as Zacarias Moussaoui, imprisoned in the United States as the suspected "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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