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Terrorist bomber held here finds new home in West Africa

Even before Lockerbie, there was Mohammed Rashed.

It was 1982 and Rashed, a top lieutenant in the pro-Palestinian 15th of May group, planted a homemade bomb on a Pan Am flight that later exploded, killing a 16-year old boy and injuring 12 others.

Convicted and sentenced to prison in the United States, Rashed did his time. But after his release, he found himself without a country willing to accept him.

At the age of 66, he also found himself at the Federal Detention Center in Batavia, fighting for his freedom and a new place to call home.

His lawyer says he found it in the West African country of Mauritania.

"He's quite happy," said defense lawyer Robert L. Tucker of St. Louis. "I think all is well."

The news that Rashed, one of the world's first airline bombers, has been removed from the United States ends a story that, even now, 34 years later, garners headlines across the globe.

One of reason why is the unsolved part of the mystery that surrounds Pan Am Flight 830 – the alleged role played by Abu Ibrahim, the so-called “Bomb Man.”

The FBI says Ibrahim, who is still a fugitive on its Most Wanted Terrorists list, made the bomb that killed Toru Ozawa, the Japanese teen who boarded the plane in Tokyo that day in 1982.

In Rashed, federal prosecutors had a potential key witness in the event Ibrahim was ever captured and tried. Ibrahim is believed to be in his mid to late 70s now and living in Lebanon.

Rashed's lawyers made no mention of Ibrahim or the 15th of May group -- named after the anniversary of Israel's independence --  in their court appearances seeking Rashed's release. However,  they repeatedly suggested the government was dragging its feet in finding him a new home.

When Rashed filed a lawsuit in Buffalo federal court last year, government lawyers insisted they were working with the Department of State to find Rashed a place to live. His first choice was the West Bank, an option that required the cooperation of Israel and never materialized.

But in Mauritania, he found a nation with a large Palestinian community, according to his lawyer.

"He knew it was imminent," Tucker said of Rashed's release.

Rashed, who was born in Jordan, will always be remembered as an architect of one of the world’s first aviation-based terrorist plots, an attack that preceded 9/11 and even the 1988  bombing of Pam Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270. At the time, hijackings were a much more common form of terrorist activity.

Prosecutors say Rasheed, who boarded in Iraq, was already on Flight 830 and, while on his way to Tokyo, hid his homemade bomb under a window seat, set the timer and engaged the device.

Rashed and his family – he was traveling with his wife and young son – disembarked in Tokyo, and Ozawa, who was traveling to Honolulu with his parents, got on board and chose the same seat.

A few hours later, as the plane crossed the Pacific, the bomb went off, blowing a huge hole in the cabin floor. Witnesses said the explosion sounded like a shotgun blast and filled the plane with smoke.

The pilot was able to land the plane safely, but Ozawa died.

“At the time, my honest emotion was to wish the plane would crash into the Hawaiian ocean as I had lost the will to live,” Ozawa’s father said in a statement read at Rashed’s sentencing.

Rashed, who admitted his guilt and went to prison, finished his sentence three years ago but soon found himself in a Buffalo courtroom, fighting for his freedom

From Day One, the government insisted it was “operating at the highest levels” to find Rashed a new home; but his lawyers, skeptical of those claims, continued to press his lawsuit .

It also became clear that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, the Buffalo judge handling the case, had serious concerns about the constitutionality of Rashed’s three years of post-prison detention in Batavia.

“The man served his sentence,” Arcara said at one point. “I’m concerned about the open-endedness.”

Earlier this month, Tucker filed court papers suggesting Rashed would petition Arcara for his release. He said his client was prepared to live in the U.S. and indicated Rashed had a support system in Washington, D.C., that would allow him to remain free.

"One thousand three hundred and fourteen days in preventive detention is simply unconscionable and contrary to some of our country's most cherished values," Tucker said in his court papers.

Rashed's lawyer would not comment on why the government finally succeeded in finding Rashed a new home, but court records, many of them filed under seal, indicate their search came to a conclusion in the past month.

It's also not clear when Rashed left Batavia, although Tucker confirmed his arrival in Mauritania.

By the time Rashed faced charges in the U.S., it was 1998 and he had already served eight years in Greece, where he was first arrested. He eventually took a plea deal here and the government, eager to see him blow the whistle on other terrorists and future terrorist acts, agreed to a shorter-than-expected sentence of 17 years.

Despite Rashed's guilty plea, government lawyers continued to portray him as a terrorist who expressed hatred for the U.S and who communicated with radical individuals.

“He has not changed his tune one bit,” Christopher Dempsey, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, told Arcara at one point this year. “We need to get him out of here.”

Rashed's lawyers called the allegations baseless and accused the government of conveniently using the word “terrorist” to stir up fear about Rashed. They also claimed their client's sole wish was to go somewhere and be left alone.

Earlier this week, lawyers on both sides, in the wake of Rashed's removal from the U.S., agreed to end his lawsuit.

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