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Time running out to catch master terrorist

NEW YORK — As Pan Am Flight 830 descended toward Honolulu and passengers finished their breakfast, a blinding burst of light washed over them.

And then, Boom! The 747 shuddered violently. Confusion erupted as the airliner nose-dived. Screams and thick smoke filled the cabin. Oxygen masks dropped.

In the rear of the plane, Toru Ozawa, 16, lay injured in the aisle. He called out for his mother and father; they watched in horror as he died.

The Aug. 11, 1982, explosion was no accident. Ozawa was murdered — killed by a sophisticated bomb, one of many that spread like a virus around the world in the 1980s, killing and injuring scores in more than two dozen terrorist attacks.

The man behind them: Abu Ibrahim, a Palestinian who controlled a web of dangerous operatives while living in Baghdad under the protection of Saddam Hussein.

Long forgotten and even presumed dead by some, Ibrahim is very much alive, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ibrahim had managed to elude coalition forces — possibly while aiding the Sunni insurgency — before he recently crossed into Syria, federal law enforcement and former CIA officials think.

The FBI is eager to catch Ibrahim and has ramped up efforts to find him, releasing an age-enhanced sketch of Ibrahim the first known picture of him ever made public.

But time is running out.

As American forces draw down in Iraq, the FBI worries that locating Ibrahim could become harder if he slips back into the country. And a key witness who could testify against Ibrahim will be released from a Colorado prison in four years — if not sooner.

"This is an unfinished war on terrorism, and he's part of that war," said Bob Baer, a former top CIA agent who worked clandestinely in the Middle East. "He was the most capable and the most dangerous bomb maker in the world barring none during my time as a CIA officer. He's a man who could open up a lot of old cases."

Ibrahim, 73, is an almost mythological figure in terrorism, a sort of mysterious puppet master — always out of reach, in the background, pulling strings.

Pictures of him are rare. He didn't tape and broadcast his anti-Israel, anti-American manifesto to the world. He let his bombs do the talking and taught a group of protégés his formidable skills — acquired studying chemical and electrical engineering and later learned from the KGB.

He's been described as a "genius." The "grandfather of bomb makers." A "Michelangelo." Or as one former Pentagon official said, "Dr. Frankenstein."

His infamous career goes back decades. He has been linked to several terrorist organizations, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

But it wasn't until Ibrahim broke away from the PFLP in 1979 and formed his own outfit called "15 May" that he began forging his reputation as a master bomb maker, attracting the attention of foreign intelligence services around the globe.

Named after the date on which Israel was founded, Ibrahim based 15 May in Baghdad and began perfecting his unique bombs. At his little workshop, he developed a blend of plastic explosives that he lined in suitcases or bags that used a delayed-timing device called an "e-cell."

Together, this became his signature as a bomb maker.

With the assistance of Iraqi intelligence, Ibrahim carried out many attacks. He struck in London, Rome, Athens. In West Berlin, an infant was killed and 24 people were wounded after one of his bombs detonated at an Israeli-owned restaurant.

His most well-known plans, however, involved trying to sabotage Pan Am and El Al airlines.

On Aug. 11, 1982, Mohammed Rashed, a top 15 May lieutenant, boarded a flight from Baghdad to Tokyo along with his Austrian-born wife and their child.

Before Rashed, Ibrahim's apprentice, disembarked in Tokyo, he activated a bomb under the cushion of window seat 47K. Once on the ground, Rashed and his wife got off the plane, which continued to Honolulu. Ozawa, who was on vacation with his family, sat in Rashed's seat.

The bomb killed Ozawa and injured 14 others, but Rashed's mission was only a partial success. Despite a large hole in the cabin floor exposing the cargo area, the plane managed to land safely.

The FBI did eventually arrest Rashed in 1998, after he was released from a Greek prison. The Jordanian pleaded guilty in December 2002 to bombing the 1982 Pan Am flight.

The FBI declined to discuss specific efforts to find Ibrahim, but an official did say the window to bring him to justice is closing. Rashed is scheduled to be released from prison in 2013 — which would leave any case against Ibrahim without its star witness.