Terror at 37,000 Feet

updated 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

Members of South London's Brixton Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center were not entirely shocked when they heard the news last month. On Dec 22 fellow worshipper Richard C. Reid had allegedly packed plastic explosives into the hollowed-out heels of his black suede high-tops, boarded Miami-bound American Airlines Flight 63 in Paris and tried to blow the Boeing 767—and the 197 people aboard—out of the sky. "Everyone who saw his picture said, 'Oh, my gosh, it's him,' " says Abdul Haqq Baker, chairman of the mosque where Reid, 28, an ex-petty thief, worshipped from 1996 to 1998. "Initially he seemed very happy-go-lucky," says Baker, 35. "Then we saw the change."

Baker believes that Reid was recruited by extremists tied to al-Qaeda. Once affable, Reid took to wearing combat fatigues and making fiery statements against the West. Then in 1998, he left Brixton. "He didn't say goodbye," says Baker, who has complained to authorities about radicals preying on his congregation. "He just disappeared."

The mosque faithful would not see Reid again until authorities in Boston took him into custody, after his mission was dramatically thwarted by Flight 63's passengers and crew. According to the FBI, flight attendant Hermis Moutardier, 46, caught Reid trying to light his sneaker with a match. An altercation ensued, and several passengers strapped the 6'4", 200-lb. Briton to his seat with belts. Then two doctors on board sedated him. "He was very powerful," says Kwame James, 23, a Trinidadian who plays pro basketball in France. "There were three guys and me—I'm 6'8" and 240 lbs.—and still we were struggling with him."

Escorted by U.S. fighter jets, the plane was diverted to Boston. Reid is now in a Plymouth, Mass., jail, charged with hindering the flight crew by intimidation and assault. He faces up to 20 years in prison, and more serious charges may follow.

So far there is no solid evidence linking Reid to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. But captured al-Qaeda fighters reportedly have claimed to recognize him from one of their Afghan training camps. And one of Reid's fellow congregants at Brixton was Zacarias Moussaoui, 33, the "20th hijacker" charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. Then there is his itinerary since July. Reid traveled to seven countries, including Israel and Pakistan, fueling speculation that he was part of a large, well-funded terrorist cell and was testing airline security. He reportedly made several visits to a Paris cybercafe and bought his explosive, triacetone triperoxide, or TATP—enough to blow a hole in the fuselage—in Amsterdam. On Dec. 7 he renewed his British passport in Brussels.

Months ago, according to Britain's News of the World, Reid sent his mother, Lesley Hughes, a message from Pakistan: "You will never see me again. You had better all convert to Islam." Superficially he seems an unlikely Muslim suicide bomber. He was raised in the gritty Kidbrooke section of London, the son of Robin Reid, now 51, a rail worker frequently jailed for theft, and Lesley, his wife. They divorced in 1984. "When he was 15 or 16," says an ex-schoolmate, Reid "got into mugging." This avocation earned Reid 13 convictions and at least two jail stretches for theft. During his incarceration he turned to Islam, apparently encouraged by his father, who had previously converted—though, Robin told Britain's Daily Mail, "the sort of Islam I encountered wasn't about blowing up planes."

Nor was that of the Brixton mosque, which Reid joined after his release in 1996. Located in a high-crime area of South London, the mosque is known for shepherding ex-cons back into the workforce. Reid secured a job making and peddling incense. Living briefly with an aunt, he studied Arabic and knelt on prayer mats five times a day. He also adopted the traditional Muslim garb and renamed himself Abdul Raheem. Then, four years ago, Reid began drifting toward the radical groups often seen disseminating leaflets outside the mosque.

Reid's movements after leaving Brixton remain murky. What is clear is that on Dec. 21 he arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport with a round-trip ticket for Antigua via Miami. With no luggage but a small backpack, the scruffy Reid was questioned by security and missed his 10:40 a.m. flight. American Airlines put him up at the $280-per-night Copthorne Hotel, where staff reportedly heard him praying in his room. The next day French police saw no reason to detain him, and Reid boarded Flight 63, settling into a window seat in row 29.

"I was asleep and heard screams and girls crying," says Kwame James. Once he and the others subdued Reid, the panic eased and an in-flight movie, the comedy Legally Blonde, flashed onscreen. James tried to chat up Reid. "I told him there were a lot of good people on the plane. Why us? He smirked." The effect was chilling. "We were a match strike from not being here," James observes. "Every time you say goodbye, make sure you have love in it."

Richard Jerome
Nina Biddle, Pete Norman and Caris Davis in London, Dietlind Lerner in Paris, Anne Driscoll and Carolyn Eggert in Boston, and Siobhan Morrissey in Miami

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