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How threat-spewing Alphabet Bomber taught cops to hunt down lone wolves

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On Aug. 6, 1974, a bomb ripped through Los Angeles International Airport, killing three people and injuring 35.

A man calling himself Rasim phoned the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and told city editor Conrad Casler that he had bombed the airport on behalf of a group called Aliens in America. Other than providing the number of the locker that exploded, Rasim offered no further information and hung up quickly.

The locker number confirmed that Rasim was the bomber. But his real name was not Rasim, and his Aliens in America group was, not surprisingly, pure fiction.

As Jeffrey D. Simon reports in his new book, “The Alphabet Bomber: A Lone Wolf Terrorist Ahead of His Time,” (Potomac Books), the bomber’s real name was Muharem Kurbegovic, and his story a bizarre one of resentment over thwarted entrepreneurial ventures. He also showed, for the first time, how technology allowed one deranged individual to disrupt the lives of millions.

“He was among the first lone wolves to demonstrate that one does not need training, financial assistance, or logistical support from a larger organization to launch a major campaign of terror,” ­Simon writes.

“Muharem Kurbegovic showed how a determined and smart individual working alone can hold a city in fear, manipulate the media, build powerful and ­destructive homemade explosives, and even experiment with weapons of mass destruction.”

Born on June 1, 1943, in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, Kurbegovic immigrated to the US in January 1967, hoping for a brighter future. With the Vietnam War raging, he pretended he was mute to avoid the draft and carried on this deception for several years, communicating at work through quickly scribbled notes.

In his new home of Los Angeles, he frequented taxi dance halls, places where men could purchase a dance or conversation with a woman for 15 cents a minute. (At these clubs, he left the mute act behind.)

The shattered lobby of the Pan American World Airways overseas passenger terminal at LAX after the Aug. 6, 1974 bombing
The shattered lobby of the Pan American World Airways overseas passenger terminal at LAX after the Aug. 6, 1974 bombingMike Meadows, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Library Special Collections

In March 1971, Simon writes, Kurbegovic was using the restroom at one club when an undercover LAPD officer entered and arrested him for masturbating. Kurbegovic defended himself at trial, and successfully pointed out the physical impossibility of masturbating on the toilet seat where he was arrested. He was acquitted, but the arrest followed him. When he was laid off from a job soon after, he spent a year unemployed, eventually finding work for a manufacturer called RPM Industries.

After reading US immigration laws, he realized the arrest could potentially lead to his deportation.

Thinking about the amount of money men like him spent at dance halls, he decided to open one of his own. He began acquiring the necessary permits, but when he saw that he’d need one from the police, his heart sank.

Sure enough, when he applied for the permit, an LAPD captain wrote that Kurbegovic “has demonstrated that he is unfit to be trusted with the privileges” of the permit due to his arrest.

He appealed to the police commission, but was again denied.

With his business dream dead due to a crime he had been acquitted of, he was consumed with anger, and began to plot his revenge.

Working at RPM gave him access to all the chemicals he would need.

On Nov. 9, 1973, three homemade incendiary devices were placed outside the homes of two of the LA police commissioners and the presiding judge in Kurbegovic’s case. All were awakened in the early morning by fires in their homes, though none were hurt. Initially, as the Kurbegovic case had been a minor one for police and more than a year had passed, no one could figure out the connection.

‘One does not need training, financial assistance, or logistical support from a larger organization to launch a major campaign of terror.’

Throughout 1974, according to Simon, Kurbegovic ramped up his efforts. He made further threats to one of the commissioners and set fire to the official’s car. He called a Los Angeles radio station claiming to be from the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was very much in the news then, threatening to explode three bombs and then following through, setting several fires at apartment buildings via incendiary devices. He also sent audio tapes to various newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, threatening to drop nerve gas on the city, and claiming to be part of a group called Aliens in America.

In the hours following the LAX bombing, police received a slew of additional bomb threats, all fake.

After Casler received his call at the Herald Examiner about the bomb, the police and the FBI set up a recording device on his phone, but Kurbegovic had moved on.

He called the local CBS television station and said he had left a tape in a nearby trash bin.

When they listened, they heard “the voice of Aliens in America, Esak Rasim, chief military officer,” telling them the airport had been bombed because it started with the letter “A.”

The second bomb, he said, “will be associated with the letter L, the third with the letter I, etc., until our name has been written on the face of this nation in blood.”

He also threatened to use sarin gas “to destroy the entire US Capitol personnel.”

From then on, Kurbegovic was known in the media as the Alphabet Bomber. As the city was gripped with fear, new threats came in, including Kurbegovic promising a nerve gas attack and saying on a tape to Casler that his group had “acquired the plans of 30 major skyscrapers’ air-conditioning systems.”

Shortly after the explosion, LAX received numerous bomb threats, and explosive detection dogs were used to search the airport.
Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

“We visit a building, see where its air inlet is … and take a walk,” said Kurbegovic, following with the chilling, “Maybe [we] watch a Dodgers game and enjoy ourselves.”

On Aug. 16, Kurbegovic left a cassette for the LAPD claiming to have stashed “an extremely sensitive, delinquent and unpredictable bomb” at a local Greyhound bus depot, and said that “whoever would have attempted to remove that bomb would cause it to explode.”

The LAPD evacuated some 1,000 people from the bus station and approached locker 625, the number provided by Kurbegovic.

After detection dogs confirmed the presence of explosives, LAPD officers attached a line to the locker door, ducked behind a concrete wall and pulled the door open to reveal a brown satchel.

They then rigged a pulley system to gently lift the satchel out of the locker and onto the floor. After a series of scares, including ripped pulley lines and various smoke and hissing emanating from the bag, they managed to get it to a nearby explosives range where it was detonated safely.

Police estimated that had the bomb exploded in the bus depot, about 100 people would have been killed. Officers were also concerned that the bomb weighed 25 pounds, double the size of the LAX bomb.

The Alphabet Bomber was escalating.

By now, Kurbegovic had basically shut down Los Angeles, as people were afraid to leave their homes and a 1,000-man LAPD task force scoured the city for clues.

Muharem Kurbegovic held up this sign at a sentencing hearing after his conviction.
Muharem Kurbegovic held up this sign at a sentencing hearing after his conviction.Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Library Special Collections

Police investigators re-listened to the tapes, and this was the beginning of the end for Kurbegovic. On the tape of Aug. 12, he had mentioned setting the fires at the homes of the police commissioners, and also mentioned the judge, saying the jurist “reaches an orgasm when he sentences an innocent alien.”

Unable to determine a connection, the LAPD re-examined all their records from scratch. But this time, they included defendants who had been acquitted, and found seven connections among the three, with one in particular sticking out given negative comments the commissioners had made about his moral character.

After a period of surveillance to determine if the Aliens in America group was real, Kurbegovic was arrested on Aug. 20 ­after the police watched him plant another cassette, in the bathroom of a Carl’s Jr. The cassette’s content gave them definitive proof that Kurbegovic was the Alphabet Bomber.

His arrest didn’t end LA’s fear, as it was uncertain whether he might have planted more bombs.

Simon describes how Kurbegovic ran the police through a gantlet, including reviving his mute act and teasing that there might be an explosive planted among the “thermonuclear toys” at an Air Force base, but no other bombs were found.

Kurbegovic stood trial in 1980, again serving as his own lawyer, and was found guilty on 25 counts, including murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, and now, at 75, has resided in several state prisons since.

Simon notes that Kurbegovic was really the first lone wolf bomber, a frightening indication that terror was no longer a group activity, but could be caused by any individual with the intelligence and the motive.

“The story of the Alphabet Bomber is one that will continue to resonate in a world where the threat of terrorism has become a permanent fixture in all our lives,” Simon said.

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