In 2018, on the 30th anniversary of the bombing of the USO club in Naples, Italy, this reporter referred to Junzō Okudaira as “the terrorist that time forgot.”
Although Okudaira was convicted of the bombing in absentia by the U.S and Italy, by 2018, it seemed the world had forgotten about him – there were few mentions of his name anywhere on the internet.
Okudaira killed five people in the attack on the USO on April 14, 1988 – including my coworker, Petty Officer Angela Santos. Angela invited me to go with her that night to the USO and I declined the invitation because I was too tired.
No longer forgotten
In December 2020, two years after I wrote an article calling Okudaira, “the terrorist that time forgot,” Giovanni Melillo, the chief prosecutor in Naples, Italy not only remembered Okudaira, but referred to the terrorist attack as the “forgotten massacre.”
Melillo said, “Una strage dimenticata per la quale non c’è neanche una lapide, un segno, mai un’occasione per ricordare quelle vittime,” which translates to, “A forgotten massacre for which there is not even a plaque, a sign, never an occasion to remember those victims.”
In a press conference, Melillo named Okudaira fugitive number – over 30 years later, Melillo not only remembered the attack but was now saying he wanted to find Okudaira and bring him to justice.
Full disclosure – journalists are supposed to be unbiased. I’m not. I’d like to see Okudaira caught and jailed for the remainder of his life if he’s still alive. If he’s dead, I’d like to know how and where he died.
In January 2021, shortly after learning about Melillo’s press conference, I sent him an email thanking him for remembering the terrorist attack, for trying to find Okudaira and bring him to justice.
I didn’t get a reply from Melillo and I wasn’t expecting one. Truthfully, I was just happy someone was still looking for Okudaira.
In March of 2021, I received an email from Karen Schinnerer from the U.S. Consulate in Naples.
“We are working with local city officials, including Chief Prosecutor Melillo, and the U.S. Navy based at Capodichino on a commemorative event on April 14, 2021 to honor the victims of the USO car bombing that took place in Naples on April 14, 1988,” wrote Schinnerer.
She asked if I’d like to write or video a message that could be shared – going to the event in Italy wasn’t possible because of the pandemic.
Not only did I supply a message, I also connected Schinnerer to members of Angela’s family – Angela’s sister and father both provided messages.
Angela was remembered by U.S. Navy Capt. James Stewart, commanding officer of the Naval Support Activity Naples as the “first, female U.S Navy servicemember killed in a terrorist attack” and “an American hero, full of courage, bravery and commitment.”
Angela was remembered by her father as the first, female American servicemember killed in a terrorist attack.
Stewart spoke about the other victims of the attack.
He said, “You will never be forgotten.”
And then came this surprise – a plaque was put up to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack and wreaths were placed.
The ceremony, 33 years after the bombing, had brought some closure for me but Okudaira still hasn’t been caught.
I arrived in Naples, Italy within a few weeks of the terrorist attack. Of the requirements, Americans had to do on arrival in Naples was take the Intercultural Relations Class.
It that class, we (as in Americans) were told not to gather in large groups outside of base, don’t wear uniforms or any other clothing that identifies us as American outside of base.
I was tired the night of the USO attack and that’s partly why I declined the invitation – the other part was that fresh information in my mind about not gathering in large groups of Americans.
The USO party was not on base – it was in downtown Naples and the party was held because two, U.S. ships were in port – the USS Capodanno and the USS Paul.
Additionally, the USO party was held on the evening before the second anniversary of the bombing of Libya – this was not forgotten by terrorists.
Despite the anniversary, there was no heightened security alert. None.
On April 12, 1988, just two days before the USO bombing, at a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike, Yu Kikumura, was arrested and found to have components of a bomb in his car.
“Along with the explosives was a map of New York City. Investigators found a small dot on the map of Manhattan that marked the location of the Navy and Army Recruiting Center at the corner of 7th Avenue and 24th Street,” stated the New Jersey State Police.yu_kikumurafinal-uso-naples
Among the officers that came to the scene was Detective Drew Lieb of the New Jersey State Police Arson Unit Bomb Squad – he remembers personnel from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were there too.
Lieb said, “we went back to their (FBI) office in Newark.”
Did the FBI warn the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the Department of Defense or any other agency, foreign or domestic, that there might be other terrorists out there ready to strike?
While Lieb can’t speak for the FBI, he said, “I don’t think we knew what his target was until several weeks later – in fact, I knew we didn’t.”
Ron Kuby, a New York-based attorney specializing in criminal defense and civil rights, was on Kikumura’s defense team.
When asked if he remembered if NCIS was involved, Kuby said, “No – I think I would recall had they been.”
NCIS was asked if the FBI let them know Kikumura’s arrest.
“NCIS does not have records dating back that far, so we are unable to confirm,” stated .Jeff Houston, a spokesperson for the agency. “Records initiated around that timeframe had a retention rate of 25 years. I had our FOIA team conduct a records check just to be sure and they confirmed.”
A freedom of information act (FOIA) request to the FBI was submitted on March 2, 2023 asking whether they alerted NCIS, any Department of Defense agency or any foreign, allied military organizations (such as the Italian Carabinieri) about Kikumura’s arrest.
My mistake was not asking for specific records of communications.
As such, the FBI responded, “The FOIA does not require federal to answer inquiries, create records, conduct research or draw conclusions concerning queried data. Rather the FOIA requires agencies to provide access to reasonably described, nonexempt records. The questions posed in the referenced letter are not FOA requests because they do not comply with the FOIA and its regulations. Therefore, your request is being administratively closed.”
Could I go back and ask for more specific records? Yes, but given that NCIS told me they have a retention rate of 24 years, it could be a waste of my time.
Even if the FBI didn’t know what Kikumura’s target was when he was arrested in New Jersey, the agency most certainly knew of one his associates – Junzō Okudiara.
Beginning in 1984, with a confidential informant inside a terrorist training camp in Lebanon, the FBI learned that both Okudaira and Kikumura, members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA), were at the camp at the same times – they lived together at the camp in 1986.
According to court documents from Kikumura’s case, “Between the spring and autumn of 1986, JRA members moved into the camp and built their own barracks for housing. Among the JRA members who moved into the camp were Junzo Okudaira. In the autumn of 1986 another JRA member arrived at the camp. This man, known to the informant by his Arab name, ‘Abu Shams,’ was identified as Kikumura.”U.S.-v.-Kikumura
In other words, when Kikumura was arrested in New Jersey two days before the terrorist attack in Naples, the FBI knew he had trained with Okudaira – add to that the anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Libya and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think there were more terrorists out there ready to attack American targets in the U.S. and beyond.
Okudaira had already arrived in Naples when Kikumura was arrested in New Jersey.
And then came the party at the USO – a party that could’ve been postponed or cancelled had authorities in Italy been warned of Kikumura’s arrest.
Those of us who were in Italy and serving in the U.S. military were not on heightened alert until after the terrorist attack at the USO – that was too late.
“I still vividly remember this exact guy (Okudaira) walking into the USO and demanding that someone should remove the Captain’s rental car so that he could park closer to the entrance,” stated Brian Waggoner, a Navy veteran who was at the USO on April 14, 1988. ” Fortunately, the USO Personnel refused his demand.”
Unfortunately, Okudaira, with a bomb in a rental car, still killed Santos, Vincenzo Chiariello, Assunta Capuano, Guida Scoza and Maurizio Perrone – several others were injured.
Lieb asked if I had heard anything about the whereabouts of Okudaira and I told him I hadn’t.
He said there was a theory Okudaira was in North Korea.
I asked where the theory came from.
“I’m sure it was the FBI,” said Lieb.
North Korea sheltered other JRA members – it wouldn’t be surprising if Okudaira went there to avoid capture.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there were questions about agencies not sharing intelligence with one another and how that played a part in the terrorist attacks that day.
23 years before 9/11, two terrorists who the FBI knew trained together, were planning their attacks on American targets – one succeeded two days after the other was arrested.
Perhaps questions should’ve been asked in 1988 about federal agencies sharing intelligence with one another.
Donna L. Cole is an award-winning investigative and multimedia reporter. She’s also a Navy veteran.