WASHINGTON - Mohammed Rashed slipped a bomb beneath the jetliner seat cushion, set the timer and disembarked with his wife and child when the plane landed in Tokyo. The device exploded as Pan Am Flight 830 continued on to Honolulu, killing a Japanese teenager in a 1982 attack that investigators linked to a terrorist organization known for making sophisticated bombs.
It would be 20 years before the bomber - and one-time apprentice to Abu Ibrahim, currently featured on the FBI list of most wanted terrorists - would admit guilt in an American courtroom.
Now, credited for his cooperation against associates, Rashed will be released from federal prison within days after more than two decades in custody in Greece and the United States.
The release does more than spring loose a convicted terrorist. It also could deprive the government of a star witness in the event that Ibrahim, a Palestinian master bomb-maker who authorities say orchestrated the Pan Am attack and similar strikes around the world, is ever captured. A former top lieutenant, Rashed would be able to implicate Ibrahim as the architect of the attack and help establish his identity in case prosecutors ever had a chance to bring him to the U.S. to face justice. Once freed, it's not clear that he would continue cooperating, though the Justice Department says it has enough other evidence for a conviction.
"They certainly could teach people coming along. Whether they would or not, of course, I don't know. Their ability to make bombs go off is quite extraordinary," said Bob Baer, a former top CIA officer who worked clandestinely in the Middle East.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the charges against Ibrahim, who was indicted in 1987 along with Rashed and Rashed's Austrian-born wife, remain active and that the government still seeks his prosecution. He wouldn't comment on the potential impact of Rashed's release, but noted that prosecutors indicted Ibrahim long before Rashed was in custody or had begun cooperating.
"The Justice Department does not bring charges against a defendant unless it believes it has sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law," he said in a statement.
Rashed's 2002 guilty plea required him to cough up information on other terror plots in exchange for a release date of March 20, 2013. The agreement also stipulated that Rashed, a Jordanian-born Palestinian from Bethlehem, would be deported to a country of his choice upon his release. His lawyer wouldn't comment on Rashed's plans. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which lists Rashed as 63 years old, also would not comment.
The plea deal reflects the balancing of two government interests that are sometimes in conflict: securing lengthy prison sentences for dangerous felons while also creating incentives for them to their cooperate against higher-value targets through the prospect of an early release. Though Ibrahim remains at large, Rashed's cooperation has already been extensive by some accounts, including providing information about a 1986 airplane explosion that killed four Americans and a 1982 Berlin restaurant bombing that killed a child, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General David Kris wrote in a 2011 article for the Journal of National Security Law & Policy.
U.S. authorities have long seen Rashed as a critical link to Ibrahim, who in 1979 formed his own terrorist faction - "15 May" - named after the date of Israel's founding. Ibrahim lived in Iraq for a time under the protection of Saddam Hussein, and former intelligence officials have said he was closely aligned with the Iraqi intelligence service, and documents show 15 May received monthly "support funds."
A devout Sunni with an engineering background, Ibrahim - whose real name is Husayn Muhammad Al-Umari - was known for crafting sophisticated plastic explosives that could be smuggled in bags and suitcases and that relied on a unique delayed-timing device.
The indictment links the group to five bombing missions, including a bomb that malfunctioned aboard a Pan Am flight in Rio De Janeiro, but the FBI believes the organization was responsible for many more attacks in cities around the world. Australian media reports last year said Rashed had been interviewed in prison about the 1982 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Sydney.
"Simply stated, they were involved in a worldwide bombing escapade, if you will," said retired FBI explosives expert Denny Kline, who investigated the Pan Am bombing. He says the FBI was able to connect at least 21 devices to Ibrahim.
A 2009 Associated Press investigation revealed Ibrahim was still alive, and law enforcement officials say he's believed to be in Lebanon. Now in his mid-70s, he's faded from the spotlight as authorities have poured resources into dismantling al-Qaeda.
After the investigation was published, Rashed wrote AP from prison - even though his plea agreement prohibited media interviews - saying he and Ibrahim met in Iraq in the 1970s and bonded "over the Palestinian cause and other politics topics." Rashed emerged as a top lieutenant and bomb courier as Ibrahim prepared explosives intended for American and Israeli targets.
The Aug. 11, 1982, bombing of Pan Am 830 was set in motion when Rashed, wife Christine Pinter and their son traveled to Tokyo with phony identification documents. Rashed tucked the bomb beneath window seat 47K and got off in Japan. Toru Ozawa, a 16-year-old vacationing with his family, occupied the same seat on the next leg.
The bomb exploded as the plane crossed the Pacific Ocean, killing Ozawa. More than a dozen others were injured. The pilot managed to land the plane despite a gaping hole in the cabin floor and bulge in its exterior.
Rashed flew back to Baghdad after the bombing, and though at large for years, was arrested in Athens in 1988.