The Accidental Terrorist
A California accountant's coup d'etat.
On the evening of February 12, 1999, a man made his way through the potholed streets near Phnom Penh’s sprawling Russian Market, a ramshackle conglomeration of tin-and-plastic-sheeted stalls propped up by flimsy wooden beams and stretching an entire city block. It was the height of the dry season, when the temperature settled just above 80 degrees and stayed there, a nice night to sit in one of the many open-air coffee shops or karaoke bars, order a cold can of Angkor beer for half an American dollar, and croon along with the latest hits from neighboring Thailand. The man approached an establishment popular with Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese population, filled with molded-plastic chairs clustered around cramped tables, and threw a grenade into the café. The explosion that followed sent furniture and people flying through the air.
The next morning, the incident appeared in all the local newspapers—a remarkable fact given that violence in the war-numbed capital was hardly rare and no one had died in the attack. It was not unheard-of for veterans to commit random acts of aggression, especially if they’d consumed excessive amounts of rice whiskey and lost a competition for a favored prostitute.
When two attackers lobbed another grenade into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh on March 3, this time killing one person and injuring 17, a Ministry of Interior official dismissed it as a revenge attack with no political motive. It seemed a particularly plausible explanation that night because, in a separate incident, a 31-year-old man was shot in the head when he refused to hand over a karaoke microphone to five “would-be singers, suspected to be members of the military.”
Two days after, a rickety wooden shack was attacked in a residential neighborhood. Later that week, a video-game house and another karaoke bar were targeted.
On April 18, after receiving an anonymous tip about another potential attack, Phnom Penh police approached a grassy knoll along the Mekong River, passing wobbly canoe-like boats tied up along the muddy banks.
Five men clad in civilian clothes stood facing an oil storage depot. Large containers of gasoline rested on a riverbank behind locked metal gates. Owned by an ethnic Vietnamese friend and financial supporter of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, they contained potentially millions of gallons of highly flammable fuel. One of the five men held a powerful East German antitank weapon. He had been trying—for more than half an hour—to figure out how to fire it.
The police arrived just in time to thwart the attack and arrested all five men. Back at the police station, the men admitted that they belonged to an obscure revolutionary group. The next day, the name of the group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, was featured prominently in the newspaper. The leader of the group went by the code name the Thumb.
In reality, the Thumb was an affable, bespectacled California accountant, a cousin of one of the men arrested on the Mekong. His name was Yasith Chhun, and although he would later deny any involvement in these specific attacks, his struggle to launch a revolutionary movement in Cambodia would take him to the limits of American law—and possibly his own sanity. His unlikely journey from suburban climber to international dissident would come to embroil the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office, exposing the sometimes thin border between passionate politics and unhinged extremism. Chhun would become a man who ran the typical immigrant journey in reverse, unmaking the American dream he’d struggled to achieve.
A year earlier, at the height of the tax season, dozens of people queued up in a parking lot in Long Beach, California, behind the CCC Accounting office. It was 8 a.m., and their aim was a visit with a tax preparer who sat inside, a man with puffy hair and a pen stuck in his shirt pocket.
Yasith Chhun liked to think of himself as more than just an accountant, and in a way he was. People told him their problems and brought him their green card applications. They had him translate American bureaucratese into Cambodian. They asked him what to do when their sons joined the local gang. Eventually, though, all of his visitors handed over their financials, looked across the desk at the Cambodian-American with the thick glasses and gold rings on his fingers, and asked if he could get them a refund.
At the end of tax season, Chhun found himself alone, boxed in by lonely rows of file cabinets stuffed with paper-clipped tax returns. His thoughts traveled back, as they often did, to his birthplace, and atrocious images of his homeland flashed through his mind. He’d shake his head and ask why, addressing the God he’d embraced in a refugee-camp baptism 16 years before. Why couldn’t the people back home have democracy, capitalism, and peace, like in his adopted country?
One afternoon at lunch, Chhun sat in his office watching the latest violence unfold in his native Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen had taken power in a bloody coup in July 1997: Tanks had rolled into the streets of Phnom Penh, and gun battles had raged for three days. The prime minister had recently held new elections, but they had been marred by bribes, voter intimidation, and killings. During the protests in the aftermath, four people had died, and scores more had been injured.
Watching the broadcast of these demonstrators being brutalized, Chhun was suddenly transported back in time. Memories of different oppressors, clad in the black pajamas of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge army, filled his mind. He remembered slaving with massive work crews, digging irrigation ditches, eating leaves and grasshoppers to fill his empty stomach. He thought of the skulls and bones he’d seen in a muddy pond where he’d stopped one scorching day for a drink of water. He flashed back to the murder of his father.
These thoughts stayed with him as he locked up his fluorescent-lit office, climbed into his white BMW 745i, and headed home to a two-story house on the other side of town. The images of violence intruded upon him that night as a waitress poured red wine in his glass and cut off bloody slabs of top sirloin at his table at Green Field Churrascaria, the barn-like Brazilian barbecue joint where he took his kids to eat on special occasions. After he returned home, those same thoughts kept him awake.
That night, the 42-year-old accountant made his decision, one he would later explain was inspired in part by Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the skirted William Wallace, face streaked with war paint, sword glinting in defiance as he charged English oppressors in the movie Braveheart. It was a choice that would enrage one of Asia’s longest serving strongmen, cause countless headaches for U.S. diplomats, and culminate in a pitched early-morning street battle on the other side of the globe.
Chhun decided that he would overthrow the Cambodian government.
In the epic battle between good and evil that followed—at least from Chhun’s perspective—there was little question who played the villain. Prime Minister Hun Sen, then 45, was a former boy soldier and a consummate survivor, a chain-smoker with a glass eye. He was also a shrewd and ruthless leader who played chess in his spare time. His nation had endured some of the most cold-blooded brutality of the 20th century, and his regime was a fitting coda. Hun Sen himself had commanded an entire division under Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge. Several years after the Vietnamese invaded, he had risen, at 33, to become the world’s youngest prime minister.
Four years after Vietnam finally withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, Hun Sen’s political party lost a majority in UN-sponsored parliamentary elections. But he refused to relinquish power, instead reluctantly agreeing to share it with a “co–prime minister” from another faction. Despite the 1997 coup and the brutal elections, after which the government beat protestors, including saffron-clad monks, in the streets, international observers declared the results fair. Hun Sen’s grip on power had been legitimized.
It was a culture in which powerful officials behaved like gangsters: One of Hun Sen’s cronies shot out the tire of an airplane after the carrier’s handlers had lost his luggage. Hun Sen’s wife was accused of ordering a hit team to gun down the prime minister’s mistress, a beloved karaoke star, in broad daylight while she shopped for a bicycle with her 7-year-old niece. No one was ever arrested.
In the fall of 1998, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch anticommunist who’d worked in the Reagan White House, penned a resolution calling for the prosecution of Hun Sen for “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide” during the Pol Pot regime, even though no firm evidence had ever emerged linking Hun Sen to atrocities. He also accused Hun Sen of executing Cambodians during the post–Pol Pot Vietnamese occupation and of ordering a crackdown on unarmed demonstrators, among other things. It passed unopposed.
Yasith Chhun, meanwhile, was busy preparing to take his own action against Hun Sen’s autocratic violence. While Hun Sen ruled from his military compound in Asia, Chhun mapped out his mutinous scheme, surrounded by stacks of 1040 federal tax forms in his Southern Californian accounting office. The business was located on a busy commercial thoroughfare anchoring a strip mall in a family-oriented neighborhood filled with ambitious Cambodian immigrants. Down the street was Willard Elementary, with its orange jungle gym and swing sets, where Chhun had sent several of his children to be educated.
Chhun had written letters to American politicians complaining about Hun Sen, from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to members of Congress. Nobody wrote back. He’d tried protest, traveling to Cambodia and participating in at least 11 opposition-party demonstrations. The day after he’d left the last one, the prime minister’s goons had heaved grenades into the crowd, killing 16 and wounding more than a hundred.
Given all the bloodshed, Chhun figured that rounding up some revolutionaries wouldn’t be too difficult. He’d get Cambodian exiles to bankroll his revolution. His liberation movement would stage a series of small-scale “popcorn” actions, as he called them, that would touch off an eruption of revolutionary fervor, sweeping Hun Sen from power and ushering in a new era in Cambodian history—democratic and American inspired. This eruption would have a name. He called it Operation Volcano.
Chhun shared his scheme with a local travel agent and a fellow accountant, both Cambodian immigrants. Like Chhun, his allies hated the Hun Sen regime. The trio often lunched together. The travel agent would become the first CFF secretary general; the accountant, its international treasurer.
All three hit the phones to recruit other Cambodian-American exiles. They were fishing in a well-stocked pond. More than 130,000 Cambodians had been resettled in the United States between 1975 and 1985 alone. As the end of the century approached, some reports estimated that the Cambodian community was as large as 500,000. Long Beach was home to the largest Cambodian population outside Asia. Many were haunted by trauma and survivor’s guilt. As a former Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese puppet, and brutal strongman, Hun Sen was an easy man to blame.
By the fall of 1998, when Chhun and his aging assistants flew to Thailand to begin building their army, they had scores of phone numbers of potential recruits, provided by U.S.-based sympathizers with contacts back home. They carried boxes of a CFF book, penned by Chhun, titled Psychological Military Strategies, along with a laminating machine and a still camera to create IDs for recruits. They even brought along an official photographer. They had decided ahead of time that the visit would be historic. Just like Moses, Chhun believed he was answering the call to lead his people to freedom.
Chhun was born in 1956, in a small city near the Thai-Cambodian border, around the same time the Cold War realists in Washington had begun planting the seeds of the Vietnam War. His family was wealthy by Cambodian standards, with their own tractor and hundreds of acres of fertile farmland.
By the time Chhun was a teenager, in 1970, the Vietnam War had arrived in once neutral Cambodia. That year, a U.S.-backed general overthrew Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk in a putsch, and the U.S. Army invaded. The toppling of the nation’s beloved monarch outraged many poor Cambodians and dramatically broadened the appeal of radical Maoist Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. Catastrophic U.S. carpet bombing didn’t help matters, either. But Chhun’s father considered the rebels dangerous. Throughout Chhun’s childhood, his father had spoken often about the wonders of democracy and condemned communism. Now he took Chhun to his first pro-government protests. Whenever he learned that revolutionaries had arrived in his native village, the elder Chhun did all he could to keep government soldiers apprised of their dispositions and activities.
On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Overnight, Cambodia became a blank spot on the map, sealed off from the rest of the world. Their leader, Pol Pot, carried out a radical plan to transform the country into a collectivist agrarian utopia.
The executions had already started when Chhun and his family joined the sad exodus of Cambodians driven out of the city by Pol Pot’s army, clogging the roads as they dragged what belongings they could manage. During that long march to the rural farmlands, Chhun caught his first sight of corpses in the distance, left to rot in the fields. Then he spotted bodies in ditches alongside the dusty roads, bloated and covered with a thin sheen of dirt, emitting the smell of decay. Overcome, he vomited.
“Mao Zedong’s genocide has begun in Cambodia,” his father told him in a soft, somber voice. “We will face the same fate. It’s just a matter of time before this happens to us.”
On a hot day in 1977, at the height of the dry season, Chhun was bathing in a river near his house when he heard his mother scream. He ran back to find her unconscious, covered in blood. She was lying atop his father’s lifeless body. Nearby, a group of 12 soldiers stood glaring. His father’s head was almost totally severed, attached to his body by a thin piece of flesh.
“Are you his son?” One of the soldiers demanded.
“No… no… no,” Chhun said. “I am a neighbor.”
“If you are his son, I will cut off your head, too,” the soldier said. “This man is CIA. He is our enemy.”
After the soldiers left, Chhun picked up his mother and shook her until she opened her eyes. When she revived she began wailing, and Chhun felt like “a million needles were penetrating my heart with very poisonous venom.” He wrapped his father’s bloody body in a blanket, dragged him 300 feet from the hut, and buried him under an old mango tree. Chhun’s mother wept day and night for weeks. The rest of his life, Chhun would be haunted by the thought that his father could have avoided execution had he not chosen to return to an area where his sympathy with the U.S. government was well-known. Some of their town’s inhabitants, he was certain, had sold his father out.
Several months later, three soldiers from a nearby Khmer Rouge youth camp came for Chhun and took him away to work. In the months that followed, he slaved under the hot sun for more than 12 hours a day, supplementing the rice gruel provided him twice a day with insects, snakes, rats, mice, and grasshoppers. Sometimes he was so hungry he ate banana roots and leaves to fill his stomach. But, despite his hunger, he could never rest, as soldiers sometimes beat people to death with sticks or set upon fellow workers in full view of others, suffocating them with a plastic bag. Far more often, however, people simply disappeared, never to return.
On Christmas day, 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, and by January 8 it had driven the Khmer Rouge—weakened by internal purges and famine—into the jungle. During the calamitous three-year period of Khmer rule, as many as 2 million of Cambodia’s population of 8 million had died of starvation, disease, or murder. Chhun was one of the lucky survivors. But his nightmare was not over. Khmer Rouge soldiers shackled Chhun’s ankle to the tripod of a giant machine gun and forced him to help carry it through the jungles to the front lines. He was then coerced under enemy fire to drag a cannon across a fallow field into the range of the Vietnamese and fire it at distant soldiers. He was sent to clear minefields and taught to spring ambushes. And slowly he was converted into an anti-Vietnamese guerrilla fighter. To resist meant execution or exile into a jungle filled with mines and starvation.
One day the following spring, Chhun was with a group of soldiers, hiding out in the jungle, when local villagers wandered down a trail. One of them was an agent working for another, noncommunist guerilla group. He told Chhun of a secret camp located 60 miles south, near the mountains. Soon after, Chhun slipped away, to make the perilous journey through occupied territory to the border. When he arrived, Chhun was promoted to captain, and, he says, he “openly declared myself a freedom fighter against communists.” From there he eventually moved on to a United Nations refugee camp, where his path to liberation began.
He arrived in Georgia in 1982, his English still formal and new, with a wife he’d met in a refugee camp and a baby girl in tow. He quickly embraced the American lifestyle. He worked at what he called a salad factory, chopping vegetables, and purchased an old Chevrolet for $500 with his first paycheck. He discovered a passion for American movies—he enjoyed Star Wars and action flicks.
Eventually, he moved to California and started delivering pizzas. Then he traded up to a job in San Dimas, east of Los Angeles, manufacturing police badges. At night he earned his GED and, in time, his accounting license.
Along the way, Chhun divorced his wife and quickly took up with a new woman, whom he met on a neighboring treadmill at the local branch of Bally Total Fitness. She was named Sras Pech, had full lips, and proved willing to put in long hours in his tax business.
By the late 1990s, Chhun had a total of four unofficial spouses—a practice frowned upon in much of Cambodia but not unheard of in the countryside—and 10 children who relied on him. One night he was spotted dining with his “wives” and many of his children at an In–N-Out Burger, sparking gossip in Long Beach’s sometimes chatty Cambodian community that has yet to die down. As Chhun later explained it, “I am a polygamist, but none of them are married to me legally. I married them with my heart certificate. It’s between me and God.”
Chhun was proud of all he had achieved. He had given his kids a family life that was sunny and American: They played volleyball, jogged on the beach, and played the racing video game Gran Turismo together. But he couldn’t quite shake the past. Despite his pleasant existence in Long Beach, he was haunted by his former life. As a result, he began to develop fantasies of righting the wrongs he had suffered. He started to see himself as Cambodia’s George Washington.
In 1998, Chhun and his compatriots set up their revolutionary headquarters in the border province of Aranyaprathet, Thailand, where a friend’s stepbrother had rented them a two-story house. It was just a mile and a half from Cambodia’s busiest border crossing and not far from neon green rice fields. It was also close to the refugee camp where Chhun had lived before moving to the U.S..
The house became a kind of revolutionary magnet. Veterans of several disparate armies came to meet Chhun there, including Khmer Rouge, the Royalist faction deposed in the 1997 coup, and Hun Sen’s own soldiers. Over the course of the previous year, Hun Sen had cut a deal with the prince he’d overthrown and had lured back many of his troops in subordinate positions; Chhun was certain that many remained disgruntled. (He wondered out loud how Hun Sen’s former troops could not see that the leader intended to “squeeze their necks like sugarcane and throw them away.”)
Most of the would-be revolutionary soldiers arrived by bicycle taxi, traveling over a bridge connecting a Cambodian border town to Chhun’s headquarters in Thailand. When the taxis pulled away from the house, Chhun emerged to greet them as if they were his best tax clients. He’d sit them down in front of four electric fans—one in each corner of the room—and hand them cold glasses of water. Then he made his pitch for a new Cambodia. He always sent the soldiers back loaded down with pamphlets. He welcomed these would-be conscripts all day long. Chhun assigned his recruits code names straight out of a Hollywood thriller. There was Tiger 1, White Snake, Black Cat, and Golden Eagle—animal names were popular, turning the insurgents into a veritable menagerie—as well as 77 and Magic Monk.
For himself, Chhun chose the code name Meday, the Cambodian word for “thumb,” because “the thumb is the most important among all fingers,” he’d put it. “Without a thumb, the other fingers cannot grasp anything firmly.”
In October, after weeks of meet-and-greets, Chhun called his recruits back for a special conference. It was a sweltering day even with the doors and windows open, and Chhun’s shirt was soon soaked through with sweat. He practiced his speech for half an hour as he waited for the soldiers to arrive. Standing at the front of the room, electric fans in each corner, and gripping a microphone, he surveyed a crowd of between 50 and 100 recruits. These commanders formed the backbone of his army, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
The revolution would comply with the Geneva Convention, Chhun decreed. It would be supported by a nonprofit corporation formed in the United States, registered legally with the secretary of state of California, where its headquarters were located. Chhun vowed to return to the United States to prepare for the new government, which, he told them, had the support of the U.S. Congress. The house burst into applause.
A few months later, in early 1999, the mysterious grenade attacks ripped through the capital city of Phnom Penh, culminating with the April arrest of those five Cambodian Freedom Fighters caught preparing to blow up fuel tanks. Chhun later denied responsibility for the attacks, but they sent a clear message nevertheless: The revolution had begun.
The FBI first paid a visit to Chhun’s East Long Beach offices in September 1999. An agent from the bureau, accompanied by a member of the U.S. Secret Service, arrived to determine whether Chhun had any plans to assassinate Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was set to arrive in New York City and address the United Nations General Assembly.
In the months since he’d returned from Thailand, Chhun’s accounting office had been transformed. He’d tacked up a map of the Thai-Cambodian border and painted a huge bald eagle, wings spread wide, on the wall above his computer. On the PC tower next to the monitor, Chhun placed a smaller bronze eagle mounted on polished wood. He also hung color photographs of himself in military fatigues holding a weapon and posing with various commanders in the jungle. The centerpiece was the official flag of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. He’d designed it himself: It contained the American and Cambodian flags, and the crest was in the shape of a police shield.
Chhun talked to the FBI and Secret Service agents about Cambodian politics. He waved his hands and spoke rapidly, with growing energy, about injustice and the need for change. He acknowledged that he and 10 others intended to go to New York City to protest Hun Sen; he said he expected to be joined by as many as 100 more. He told the agent that, yes, he founded CFF to overthrow the government of Hun Sen. It was to be a peaceful overthrow, he claimed.
When the agent asked if Chhun knew of the soldiers reportedly encamped on the border of Thailand, training possible revolutionaries, he denied ever having met any. When she asked about the April rocket attack, Chhun’s excited demeanor suddenly became subdued. He acknowledged that he had read about the failed attack, but he insisted that the German weapons used were very expensive. “We couldn’t afford weapons like that,” he said. Hun Sen was claiming that the CFF was involved with the attacks, Chhun added, but it was a lie.
The FBI agent still found cause for suspicion. As she and her Secret Service colleague were walking out the door, they spotted the photographs of Chhun in civilian clothing standing with fatigue-clad soldiers in the jungle. They asked him whether those were the troops on the border that he had just denied having contact with. He acknowledged that they were. But he still insisted he was nonviolent.
The agents didn’t believe Chhun was telling the whole truth. Back at the local FBI headquarters, they filed a report on their suspicious interview with Chhun. But they had no hard evidence that he was doing anything other than exercising his First Amendment rights.
On and off throughout 1999 and 2000, Chhun went on the road to raise money and line up recruits, hopscotching across the United States like a presidential candidate on the campaign trail. “We have plenty of freedom here,” he would tell potential donors and recruits. “Butterflies should not forget what and where they come from. Wake up, Cambodian-Americans!”
To inspire his supporters, he held weekly meetings where he played clips from American movies—Saving Private Ryan for its portrayal of valor, Braveheart for its heroism, A Few Good Men because the line “you can’t handle the truth” conveyed, he thought, the ruthless nature of doing one’s duty. Chhun sometimes attended these screenings in military fatigues and tunic. He encouraged others to do the same.
Chhun had also received inspiration from the DreamWorks cartoon The Prince of Egypt. When Chhun watched the cruel cartoon Egyptians beating the Jewish slaves, he couldn’t help but see parallels to his own struggle. He was spellbound when cartoon Moses accepted his role as the savior of his people and faced down the ruthless Pharaoh Ramses. By the time God parted the Red Sea and Moses finally led the Jews to liberation, Chhun was weeping. He was certain God was sending him another message: that he was meant to liberate his people.
In May, Chhun summoned CFF delegates from around the nation to the Queen Mary, a luxury liner that had been converted into a hotel and convention center and permanently moored in Long Beach’s harbor. When Chhun heard cheers and enthusiasm from his audience, he started to think of himself not only as Moses but also as John F. Kennedy. (He also claimed he received more than $200,000 from the eager émigrés at the event.)
He met with his “cabinet” to hash out a new Cambodian constitution, with three branches of government—legislative, judicial, and executive, just like the United States—and reform its politicized judiciary, pliant National Assembly, and oppressive prime minister’s office. Chhun and his CFF delegates decreed that if their party came to power, politicians would be required to declare their assets and any stock ownership prior to taking office. They would try to prevent the prostitution and sex trafficking endemic in Cambodia. They would push through anti-infant-mortality initiatives and establish national institutes for language and technologies.
Economic development and smart trade policies would help pay for their plans. But there would be plenty of international aid, too: Almost every year since 1993, the international community had pledged some $500 million in aid, a substantial portion of Cambodia’s gross domestic product. Much of it, Chhun and his cohorts believed, had been plundered by corrupt public officials. Besides, he figured, once he established an American-style democracy, the United States would be eager to contribute.
Chhun kept in regular contact with his military commanders back in Cambodia, keeping apprised of recruitment and training. He knew he had to go back and launch Operation Volcano.
As Chhun’s mother and Sras Pech, one of his wives, prepared to send him on his travels, the mood was somber. No one in his family wanted him to go. But Chhun was resolute.
Chhun’s destination was a three-bedroom French colonial house just across the border from Cambodia in Surin, Thailand. It had a huge four-car garage—perfect for storing equipment. And it was located off the main road, with its own dirt path shielding it from view.
Given the reports he was receiving from his commanders and secret agents in Cambodia, Chhun thought he had nearly enough recruits. Now he prepared to take the final steps toward unleashing Operation Volcano. He installed a computer network to store military data, syncing it with a trusted agent inside Cambodia—a Cambodian-American electronics engineer from Oregon with the code name Magic Monk. It was also synced with his Long Beach accounting office, so he could keep up with his tax work.
He began to distribute the $200,000 from the treasury to pay for radio equipment, cell phones, transportation, food, and computer and office supplies. Much of the money went to the commanders of his army, who, he believed, would use it to pay their soldiers. The more soldiers they recruited, the more money he paid them.
Finally, he set a date—the volcano would erupt in late July.
A June 28 memo to Commander in Chief Chhun from one of his deputies reported a frenzy of activity across the border. Two special agents were working on renting houses in Phnom Penh, to be used in the operation, and reported that they were ready to deliver “50 more” missiles and the materials needed to fire them. They were also stoking popular discontent with small-scale popcorn actions. A team of CFF special agents had detonated a grenade loaded into a plastic container filled with gasoline—the cable assured him he would read about it in the papers—and two more attacks were scheduled.
Chhun kept his cabinet and supporters back home informed about his activities, faxing reports in which he claimed to have met with various Cambodian generals and received more assurances of support. In one, he compared his coming effort in Cambodia to that of General Douglas MacArthur liberating the Philippines in World War II.
Around that time, a Green Beret–trained Cambodian-American named Heng Tek from Alexandria, Virginia, decided to travel to CFF headquarters in Thailand and then proceed across the border into Cambodia to see how the movement was developing. An executive chef by day, Tek had been working as Chhun’s nominal military adviser. When Tek arrived, he saw that things were starting to fall apart. As far as he could tell, nobody in the provinces he visited had even heard of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. The number of CFF forces the adviser had been able to confirm was far from the 16,000 troops Chhun estimated. Tek couldn’t even find 1,000 people ready to fight. Some commanders, the adviser concluded, were just interested in taking Chhun’s money. Others might participate if things looked like they would go well. They were likely, however, to sit on the sidelines during the crucial early hours, waiting to see what the outcome of a revolt would be.
There were two possible outcomes to Chhun’s plan: overthrow of the government, or the CFF crushed under the heel of the regime. Tek thought he knew which was more likely. Launching Operation Volcano, he warned, would prove calamitous. “You better go back to the United States,” he told Chhun.
Chhun’s face, Tek would later recall, went pale and then reddened. “I came here to do my job,” Chhun told him, rejecting his suggestion. Then he derided the adviser as a “dishwasher”—a grave insult to an executive chef. Tek returned home alone, where he promptly shared his findings with Chhun’s Long Beach board.
Three of Chhun’s most crucial co-revolutionaries promptly resigned, including the travel agent and the accountant buddies who’d been among his first recruits.
Chhun decided to delay the coup for a few months. Then on July 10, he sent a fax to several of his men. “Our ship is ready to hit the bank,” he wrote. “Some weak leaders got more scared and worried since the war is about to explode. Our soldiers here don’t care how U.S. leaders are reacting, since they are the ones that do the fight to liberate our country. We need more tiger style leaders and not chicken ones.”
The next day, two Vietnamese were killed and 15 were injured when someone bombed a Phnom Penh nightclub.
Soon other problems emerged. Golden Eagle, the code name for CFF’s vice president—the man responsible for recruiting the organization’s troops—announced that he needed more than $100 million to carry out the military operation. It was a questionable request, and in any case Chhun didn’t have $100 million. The vice president resigned. Meanwhile the CFF’s treasury had depleted. Chhun says he asked Pech to wire him $100,000.
At the same time, he drew up a military operations plan that drew on guerrilla tactics. CFF loyalists would pretend to be government troops and raise white flags of surrender. All announcements would be conveyed by screaming or through loudspeakers to confuse enemy troops.
Operation Volcano was rescheduled for November. A week prior to the attack, Chhun summoned some 30 commanders to Thailand to go over final details. They were assigned 291 targets. The commanders were given CFF flags with the signature police-badge crest and bald eagle and told to hoist them over captured buildings.
The plan was that 800 soldiers would wait on the Cambodia side of the border to convey President Chhun to Phnom Penh, where he would remain in a secret location, ready to direct the attacks. He would be accompanied at the headquarters by his trusted aide Magic Monk.
At the appointed hour, four commanders would move their units from their positions to take up the attack, securing targets across the capital city, including the ministries of Interior and Defense, army garrisons, and weapons depots, as well as television and radio facilities, Hun Sen’s personal residence, and many other smaller targets. One commander would later recall leaving the meeting certain that an army of 40,000 stood ready to rise up.
Chhun called Black Eagle, a captain of the weapons arsenal who had agreed to covertly arm the troops.
“It’s almost time to cook,” he said. “Are you ready to give us some ingredients?”
“Yes,” came the reply.
Operation Volcano was a go.
After months of preparation and a frenetic day spent arming troops and testing communications equipment, Magic Monk took up a position on a roof in the center of town. He had received the disappointing news earlier that day that President Chhun wouldn’t be arriving until after the battle. (The reason for his absence was unclear.)
As midnight approached, he anxiously watched the seconds tick down. Then, when the clock struck 12, he waited expectantly for the telltale gunfire or an explosion signaling that the coup had started.
In the minutes that followed, he tried to contact his ground commanders. He managed to reach one briefly, but before he could get a situation report he lost the connection. He tried others but got no answer.
Finally, he reached a commander named An Mow, a lean, dark-skinned Khmer in his late twenties code-named Tiger 1. Mow had set up his headquarters near the Ministry of Interior, and he too was perplexed by the lack of action. He had called his subordinate commanders in Phnom Penh and the provinces just before midnight, and they had all assured him they were ready to go. His subcommanders had told him that he had 3,000 soldiers ready to take up arms. What were they doing? The problem, the electronics engineer and Mow decided after much discussion, was that nobody wanted to go first. Mow would have to start the attack himself.
Mow proceeded to a vast encampment of homeless squatters in the rail yards behind Phnom Penh’s Art Deco railway station, the hiding place for a contingent of between 50 and 100 men who had agreed to join the attack. They wore flip-flops and headbands dyed in the orange saffron of Cambodian monks. Some had donned T-shirts emblazoned with an American eagle and the words “Cambodian Freedom Fighters.” They held CFF flags, and they appeared to be drunk on rice wine. All they needed was a little push.
Mow gathered the men together, ordering homeless people who wandered over to leave the area or “go back to sleep.” Then he led his men out of the camp and gave them weapons. Sometime after 1 a.m., heavily armed with semiautomatic rifles and grenades, they broke into the shuttered train station and readied themselves for war.
Key targets—the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Defense, the state television station TV3—lay just a couple of blocks away on Russian Federation Boulevard, a wide, four-lane concourse separated by a grassy median dotted with palm trees. To get there, all Mow had to do was exit the train station, lead his men about a block past a gas station, and then charge down the thoroughfare.
It was raining and dark outside as Mow ordered the first of his men to head into the street. Outside, a Cambodian National Police commander sitting in the cabin of a truck spotted the first man hopping over the fence as his team patrolled near the train station. Five others wearing orange headbands were right behind him. The police commander concluded that the men were probably chasing a thief and ordered his driver to approach and offer a hand.
“Brother,” shouted one of his officers, hopping off the truck, “what is happening?”
“The Vietnamese are coming!” one of the men in the headbands shouted to his fellow CFFers.
A soldier tossed a grenade, and the others fired their weapons. Thirty to forty more men surged over the fence and lit up the truck with gunfire and grenades. The police commander slumped on the dashboard and played dead. Several other police officers were struck with shrapnel and bullets and fell bleeding to the ground.
Around the corner at a gas station, an unarmed security guard was eating a sandwich and reading the newspaper when he spotted men in headbands emerging from another entrance. One of them approached, pointed his gun, and said, “Stay still, I’m going to shoot you.”
“I am a private security guard,” the man responded. “I don’t have a weapon.”
When the gunfire rang out down the street, the soldier shot the security guard in the leg, tossed a grenade, and walked away.
Mow was still in the train station when the air outside convulsed with explosions and the rat-tat-tat of AK-47’s and M-16’s suddenly opening up at once. He charged out the exit and spotted the bullet-riddled police truck and officers bleeding on the ground. Some were screaming for help.
“Stop firing!” he yelled as he approached a police officer cowering behind the truck.
Mow ordered his men to continue on toward the boulevard and had others help him move quickly among the wounded policemen, taking their weapons. One police officer saw the CFF soldiers approach him trying to take his rifle as he lay bleeding on the back of the truck. “I’m Cambodian police,” he said. He attempted to crawl away, but the man threw another grenade at him. It blew off part of his foot.
Mow’s men had turned onto Russian Boulevard and encountered the first government troops. As Mow ran to the front, several of his men were struck by bullets and thrown backward. Lying on the ground, they screamed for help. Mow fired into the dark, aiming for the muzzle flashes down the road. He was having trouble seeing the government soldiers ahead. But from the flashes it was clear that they were up against at least 20 men and perhaps many more. The government soldiers were ready—it was as though they had been waiting for the freedom fighters. One after another, Mow’s men were hit. He ordered them carried back from the firing line. Then he and his men advanced toward the entrance to the Ministry of Defense as continuous volleys of gunfire raged for almost two hours, according to Mow.
Then Mow heard a chilling sound in the distance, the clanking rumble of an approaching armored vehicle. Soon, two Russian-made personnel carriers rolled into the middle of Russian Federation Boulevard, turned their turrets toward Mow’s cowering force, and fired four machine guns capable of unleashing 600 rounds of armor-piercing bullets per minute. The bullets pounded into the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Development buildings, ripping chunks out of the walls, and tore into several CFF soldiers.
Soon after, in what some later dismissed as a bald publicity stunt, Phnom Penh’s governor drove his armor-plated Chevrolet into the middle of the boulevard, headed straight for the cowering attackers, and shouted, “I’m taking back my town!” (According to later reports, he had received word of the impending attack at least three days before.) Mow called his commanders together and quickly ordered a retreat to the railway station. He collected the rifles from the soldiers around them, threw them on a pile, and told them to flee. Then he sat down on the pile and waited to be arrested.
A small group of men had also charged a base on the outskirts of town, about four miles from the site of An Mow’s assault on the Ministry of Defense. One reporter who later visited the site recalls being told that the defenders had advance warning and that the attackers had been quickly repelled. According to the reporter, there hadn’t been more than five people firing their weapons.
Chhun was nowhere on the scene. He’d stayed in Thailand through the entire would-be revolution. “Our hopes,” Chhun remembers telling those gathered around him in his Thai headquarters, “have melted away.” He then called whatever commanders he could reach and told them to melt away.
At least seven people were killed and 12 wounded in the attacks that night. Though Chhun’s electronics engineer had briefly made radio contact with one commander, the connection had dropped before he could determine whether he, too, was attacking. The two small-scale insurrections launched by Mow and his men were the only ones carried out that night. It was not Washington’s Potomac. It was, as one journalist wrote, “pathetic.”
As news of the bizarre events that night filtered out, journalists, political analysts, and diplomats in Phnom Penh were immediately cynical. Who were the Cambodian Freedom Fighters? Were they even real? Truckloads of CFF soldiers were driven to the Municipal Police headquarters, bound, and blindfolded—they all looked like clueless farmers from the provinces. Some said they had been offered a few dollars to hold a gun. And though the bullet holes were certainly real, by the standards of Phnom Penh’s battle-hardened press, NGO, and diplomatic communities, the attacks of November 24, 2000, were laughable. Even harmless. One diplomat referred to the CFF as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”
The diplomatic repercussions, however, were immediate. Within hours, Hun Sen had accused the CFF of orchestrating a terrorist assault on government offices, revealed that his government had had advance knowledge of the plan, and demanded that the U.S. arrest Yasith Chhun.
To the sleep-deprived diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy, the news that the attack appeared to have been orchestrated by an accountant from California came as a shock. They had been woken up in the middle of the night and conveyed straight to a secure situation room to monitor the unfolding events, focusing on ensuring the safety of American expatriates.
“Oh, my God. An accountant in L.A.?” one diplomat remembers saying. “No shit? This is amazing!”
Some in the diplomatic corps requested American authorities investigate the matter to determine whether any U.S. laws had been broken. Conspiracy theories circulated. Hun Sen had been under increasing pressure by the international aid community to slash the size of his military budget. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy had been gaining support among the populace. Could the coup have been a staged event intended to serve as a pretext for more military funding and a violent crackdown on nonviolent opposition groups? Or had the group somehow been co-opted by secret agents and manipulated into a fiasco?
The morning after the attack, Chhun received a call from one of his missing commanders in Phnom Penh: He and some of his team had fled through the Cambodian border crossing at Koh Kong to Thailand, the commander said. They needed help. Chhun sent a truck to pick them up.
An hour later the phone rang again. Now it was one of Chhun’s special agents with devastating news. The electronics engineer from Oregon had tried to catch a flight to Thailand out of Cambodia’s Siem Reap Airport and had been arrested. Reports of other arrests soon poured in. As Chhun began to piece together the events of the previous night, he realized that not only had the government been ready and waiting at the locations targeted by An Mow and his troops, they also had the names of those involved in the CFF and were rounding them up one by one. Within 24 hours, the government had arrested at least 58 of his men.
Then, just as Chhun was planning to flee to Bangkok, one of his secret agents called: The government had supposedly placed a $3 million bounty on Chhun’s head. Soon after his cell phone rang. It was a call from a prominent genocide researcher in London, phoning on behalf of Amnesty International, who had obtained Chhun’s cell-phone number from his Long Beach office.
“Your life is at risk,” Chhun recalls the human-rights researcher telling him. “If you fall into Hun Sen’s hands, your life is over.”
He told Chhun to find a safe place to hide.
Others warned Chhun that if he attempted to escape through the Bangkok airport, he would be arrested immediately. He would have to go overland to Malaysia instead and catch a flight back to the United States from there. They advised him to wait until Thailand’s elections, more than a month away, when much of the country would be distracted.
Chhun’s nephew lived in Bangkok, and Chhun hid out at his apartment with ten other CFF delegates, all of them from the United States. They called Chhun’s accounting office in Long Beach daily to keep up with the latest developments. Sras Pech tried to lift Chhun’s spirits, assuring him that she supported him and had their business under control. She continued to wire him money.
Meanwhile, a Cambodian-American jewelry-store owner who lived in suburban Virginia took to the podium at a National Press Club event in Washington and publicly claimed responsibility for the CFF attack.
Around the same time, Chhun rented a taxi and took a six-hour drive to the Thai and Malaysian border. He handed his passport to the customs officer and waited anxiously as the official entered his information into a computer. Chhun tried to read the screen over his shoulder: In his anxiety, he forgot he knew no Thai. Chhun’s tourist visa had expired some 40 days earlier, but he was ready. He handed over a stack of 16,000 baht—about $520—and the agent stamped his passport. Chhun walked about 100 yards before he heard a commotion behind him.
“Chhun Yasith! Chhun Yasith!” someone screamed.
A chill ran down Chhun’s spine, but he sped up and did not look back, willing himself through the Malaysian customs booth and out of reach of Thai agents. Then he caught a taxi to Kuala Lumpur Airport and flew back to L.A.
Chhun was deeply depressed when he arrived home from Thailand. He didn’t eat for two days and kept telling Pech how sad he was. “He tended to believe only what he wanted to hear,” a psychiatrist would later write of Chhun. Chhun realized, in retrospect, that he was getting advice from “two different directions and that he tended to believe the individual who said that he had many thousands of soldiers behind him when he had only a few poorly armed soldiers.” Chhun recognized too late, wrote the psychiatrist, that “he used poor judgment.”
In the days following the attack, more than 200 people were arrested across Cambodia. Many were later released, but 32 were brought to trial the following June, charged with conspiracy, terrorism, and membership in an illegal armed group. Human rights organizations accused the Cambodian government of denying their new captives adequate counsel. Thirty citizens received sentences ranging from three years to life in prison. Three of Chhun’s captured recruits—including the electronics engineer and An Mow—received life sentences. Chhun was sentenced to life in absentia. When the verdicts were read, the wives of some of those sentenced wailed and fainted in the courtroom.
The following November, 25 more men were convicted, and 64 additional suspects were rounded up. Many of these Chhun had never heard of. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the L.A. Weekly that Yasith Chhun’s Operation Volcano was “the greatest gift to Hun Sen” because he was able to use it as an excuse to round up and incarcerate political opponents.
Despite these setbacks, Chhun, like many revolutionaries before him, was reenergized by the media attention. He listed his address and phone number in Long Beach on the CFF website and greeted visiting reporters as if they were old friends.
“We’re definitely going to try again,” he told one.
The U.S. government has “never given me a red light,” he said. “That means there’s a green light.”
Not long after, staffers for Thomas Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, called and asked Chhun to raise money for them in the Cambodian community. He was appointed to the committee’s business advisory council. He attended a fundraising dinner for George W. Bush.
As the months passed without an arrest and Yasith Chhun continued to speak openly of revolution and prepare tax returns, many speculated that he was being protected from prosecution by powerful allies in Washington.
Two months after the failed coup, however, the FBI returned to Chhun’s office to interview him. The accountant seemed eager to talk and cheerfully welcomed them in. “I’ve been waiting for you guys to come talk with me,” he told Special Agent Donald Shannon, a tall, beefy former infantry officer assigned to the FBI’s joint terrorism task force.
“Well, we’ve been waiting to talk to you, too,” said Shannon.
Chhun appeared relaxed, dressed in a white-colored shirt, the top buttons undone, and casual business slacks. He led the agents to an office in the back, offered them soft drinks, and asked them to sit down. Then Chhun pulled out a stack of photographs. Some depicted Chhun in the jungle meeting with various commanders. One showed his companion Sras Pech wearing makeup and full camouflage, draped with bandoliers and holding a semiautomatic rifle while striking a sultry pose.
Chhun showed the agents the constitution he had drafted. He pulled out the medals he had ordered from his old employers in San Dimas to hand out to Cambodian Freedom Fighters worthy of recognition. He displayed pictures of his fundraisers on the Queen Mary, talked up the CFF website, and offered the agents a business card: “Yasith Chhun, President, Cambodian Freedom Fighters.”
Yes, he had hoped to overthrow the government, but in “a peaceful way to minimize loss of life,” he told them. He had simply told disgruntled commanders in the Cambodian army that America supported them and “would like to see Hun Sen overthrown.” He reminded the agents of Congressman Rohrbacher’s resolution that labeled Hun Sen a war criminal.
Shannon listened carefully, skeptical of Chhun’s account. He noticed the oversize military map of Cambodia on the wall behind Chhun’s big wooden desk, with notations in grease pencil. Planning a military attack from the U.S. against a nation with which the U.S. was at peace was a violation of the Neutrality Act, Shannon thought to himself. Launching an attack overseas with intent to kill and destroy property was also illegal.
Soon, a new garbage man showed up on the Long Beach Sanitation Department truck that arrived once a week to empty Chhun’s dumpster. He was an undercover FBI agent. Once a week, at four in the morning, a groggy team of agents waited at the city dump out by Long Beach Airport, rakes at the ready to comb through Chhun’s garbage. Chhun shared his dumpster with the Indian restaurant next door, which meant the agents had to plug their noses against the smell of rotting food, brush maggots off of the voluminous tax papers coming out of CCC Accounting, and stare down menacing seagulls voraciously eyeing the bounty. Often, after the agents finished the job of combing through the trash, Shannon would try to raise morale by offering to buy breakfast. He never got any takers.
One morning, the agents found a scrap of paper that made it all seem worthwhile. It read: “Volcano 2.” Chhun did, in fact, seem to be planning on trying again. They wondered if an attack was imminent.
On September 11, 2001, at 5:46 a.m.—8:46 Eastern time—Shannon and two other agents sat in a bland government sedan outside CCC Accounting’s office preparing to execute a search warrant. They were listening to the radio. The first plane hit the World Trade Center. A few minutes later the second plane hit, and Shannon knew the world was about to change. He called his boss immediately to ask if he should return to help deal with what was now clearly a terrorist situation.
“You might as well execute the warrant today,” his boss told him. “Who knows when we’ll be able to get back to it.”
Chhun arrived at work a couple of hours later to find his office cordoned off.
“Don, this is a very sad day for the CFF and Americans,” Chhun told Shannon outside. Shannon explained that he was executing a search warrant and told the accountant to go home for the day.
The warrant turned up what would later prove to be a treasure trove of documents establishing Chhun’s deep involvement in the botched coup. But it would be months before anyone at the FBI would have time to devote their attention to the case again. The U.S. was at war with Al Qaeda. Shannon himself would be transferred to the FBI’s Washington headquarters in 2003.
Before he left, Shannon returned to Chhun’s office one last time, wearing a wire, to see if he could get the loquacious accountant to incriminate himself.
On Shannon’s last visit, there were more pictures. Chhun had just returned from a White House dinner, where he had dined with President George W. Bush and some 7,500 other business supporters. The photos showed him eating filet mignon, seated with a police chief from Texas and a general who served in the Korean War.
Then Chhun answered a series of questions in ways that seemed to directly implicate him in the violation of a number of U.S. antiterrorism laws. He admitted to traveling to Thailand and devising a plan to overthrow the Cambodian government. He talked about his 291 targets, his plans to arrest Cambodian leaders. He acknowledged that his actions might have caused the loss of life. He mentioned George Washington.
When Shannon left for his new post in Washington, D.C., he believed that the assistant U.S. attorney was nearly ready to indict Chhun. But then the assistant U.S. attorney became seriously ill.
Almost a year later, Chhun was still a free man when a reporter from The New York Times arrived to write a story on him. During the visit, Chhun compared Hun Sen to Saddam Hussein, who had recently been removed by U.S. troops after years of vocal activism by Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi. (The reporter had also visited Representative Rohrabacher, who compared Hun Sen to Adolph Hitler. The congressman told the reporter that if armed resistance in Cambodia had any chance to win, “we should be happy” to aid them.)
When the reporter asked Chhun about the FBI investigation, he laughed. The FBI had visited his office three times since 2000, Chhun said. He told them he was planning more violence and showed them his files. They went away.
“Next time,” Chhun boasted, “We will attack the whole country.”
In the winter of 2005, however, Chhun’s file landed on the desk of assistant U.S. attorney Brian Hershman. Hershman looked the part of the successful, conservative American lawyer: Thick brown hair swept back off a high, pale forehead, cut high and tight around the ears. The curling, thin-lipped half-smile of a born skeptic. He’d grown up in St. Louis watching 1980s legal bellwether shows like L.A. Law and the movie The Verdict, graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley, then went on to Yale Law School. He was not the sentimental type, and he had little patience for lawbreakers.
“We want you to look at this,” the deputy chief of the fraud division told him one day as he dropped off Chhun’s file. What were the appropriate charges, and could the case be indicted? the deputy chief asked Hershman. The case was “important,” and the office was committed to providing whatever resources Hershman needed “to make sure it’s done appropriately.”
Hershman had never heard of the Yasith Chhun case before.
As Hershman dug into the files, he found the first allegation against Chhun relatively routine: The accountant and Pech had apparently been claiming earned-income tax credits for a number of unemployed clients on welfare, filling their forms with fictitious jobs. It was certainly an indictable offense and worthy of prosecution. But Hershman had seen antics like this many times before.
The other charges, though, got Hershman’s attention in a hurry: a coup d’état? In his 12-year career, Hershman had seen his share of violent cases, bank robberies, drug transactions, and other smaller crimes. Never anything as glamorous as this.
As Hershman dug into the bizarre case, he realized he would have to move fast. There was no statute of limitations on one of the possible charges: conspiracy to commit murder. But the clock was ticking on some of the others, particularly violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. He would have only a few months to reach his conclusion.
Hershman read the New York Times article “The Strip Mall Revolutionaries,” in which Chhun had all but confessed to the crime and boasted that the FBI supported him—an assertion the agents now assigned to the case had read with no small degree of shock. The article depicted Chhun as a hapless dreamer, not entirely in touch with reality but relatively harmless.
While Chhun’s actions might well have been criminal—that Hershman needed to determine—maybe, the agent thought, he was just misguided, making foolish decisions because he was a true believer in democracy in Cambodia.
A few weeks later, Hershman began to interview witnesses, and his opinion started to change. Early on, he traveled east with a new FBI case agent, Miguel Luna, to visit Chhun’s military adviser, the one who had warned him so vehemently that Operation Volcano would be calamitous. They sat in Heng Tek’s cramped apartment in Alexandria, the pungent smell of fish oil wafting through the air, and listened as the slight, aging former soldier recounted his warnings to Chhun. And that’s when Hershman’s internal outrage meter first began to quiver.
Tek, Hershman recalls, told them he had quickly come to the realization that Chhun’s generals were trying to take his money and that there was no realistic possibility that the coup could succeed. They were recruiting people who really had no resources. And by offering them a little bit of money, they were likely sending those people to their deaths.
It’s one thing to be misguided and believe in a cause, Hershman thought. It’s another to essentially send people to their slaughter knowing that you have no chance of success and no real idea of what you’re doing.
As Hershman began to look more deeply into the case, he decided Chhun was perhaps not so unique after all. He resembled a well-known archetype in the fraud unit of the U.S. attorney’s office, that of the classic narcissist or snake-oil salesman, selling a story that “wasn’t at all tethered to reality,” generally for their own personal benefit.
Earlier in his career, Hershman had been involved in the prosecution of Victor Conte, the man who founded the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), which enlisted high-profile athletes to help peddle nutritional supplements of questionable efficacy while secretly providing them with illegal designer steroids. The scandal ensnared baseball’s home-run king Barry Bonds and track star Marion Jones, and earned Conte international media attention. Hershman had also prosecuted Lynne Meredith, the celebrity tax protestor whose best-selling books and sold-out seminars convinced millions of people that taxes were voluntary.
While Conte had gained prestige due to his close access to famous athletes and Meredith had amassed money and notoriety, Hershman concluded that Chhun’s motives were equally clear: He was trying to escape from his mundane existence in his tax office. “He was not going be a tax accountant anymore,” Hershman says of Chhun’s desires. Instead, he “wanted to run a country.” While Chhun had no ability or knowledge to achieve this, Hershman says, the entire operation was “very much about his personal desire to be more important than he was.” Chhun didn’t listen to his military adviser’s warning to go home because “he had his own agenda and his own narcissistic beliefs,” Hershman says.
Later, Hershman would fly to Cambodia, where he met with people who had been maimed in the attack, as well as relatives of some of those killed. He sat through depositions with Chhun’s lieutenants, who had been sentenced to life in prison. Sitting in a dingy room in Phnom Penh, Hershman and his team provided them with bottled water, and it seemed to him that they were behaving as if he had just given them “a lobster dinner.”
“This water is so clean,” one the men told him. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had water that tastes this good.”
When he heard them extolling the water, Hershman’s personal outrage meter tipped. He had already made his decision: Yasith Chhun deserved to go to prison for a very long time.
As the statute of limitations approached its final days, Hershman entered the office of his division chief and rendered his opinion: They should move to indict Yasith Chhun.
Chhun was indicted May 31, 2005, charged with conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, conspiracy to damage or destroy property in a foreign country, and engaging in a military expedition against a nation the United States is not at war with. The most serious of these charges have been used repeatedly in recent years in cases against Al Qaeda terrorists tried on U.S. soil. They carry a potential penalty of life in prison without possibility of parole. Both Chhun and his companion Sras Pech were also indicted on 19 counts of federal income-tax fraud.
A federal agent arrived at Chhun’s East 10th Street office with a Long Beach police sergeant Chhun knew, asked him how he was, then signaled an arrest team of between eight and ten agents. The couple were held in separate cells overnight, then sat together in the same room one last time before Pech was released. Even then, neither expected the separation to last.
In the years that followed, Chhun would switch attorneys four times. Prosecutors and attorneys made at least two trips to Phnom Penh to interview witnesses. The trial finally began in 2008, by which point Hershman had already left the U.S. attorney’s office. Before he departed, Hershman says he sat Chhun and his attorney down and told them he was giving them one last chance to make a deal. The stakes were high; Chhun was facing life in prison. “We have overwhelming proof,” Hershman told them. In exchange for pleading guilty, Chhun would be allowed to make a presentation to the judge and request leniency, and the devastating evidence would not be presented.
Hershman had been troubled by the impact the attacks had had on those who were injured. The police officer set upon outside the train station had placed a mangled foot on the table and wept. Hershman heard about a stray bullet that had gone through a wall and had hit the father of a newborn baby. The father died in his wife’s arms.
Once those victims are on the stand, Hershman argued—once the judge and jury saw “what I saw,” as he put it—it would be very difficult to convince the judge that a sentence of life in prison was not appropriate.
Chhun rejected the deal.
On April 16, 2008, after two days of deliberation, a jury found Chhun guilty of three counts of conspiracy and one count of engaging in a military expedition against a nation the United States is not at war with. Two years later, the judge sentenced him to life in prison. In March 2011, he was sentenced to 37 additional months for tax evasion.
Chhun’s current attorney, Richard M. Callahan Jr., filed a 74-page appeal with the Central District of California, seeking to overturn the conviction. The most poignant argument contained in it was that his client had been a victim of shifting political winds, a sacrificial lamb offered up in exchange for Cambodia’s cooperation with the war on terror. Callahan noted that Hun Sen angrily accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for failing to vigorously pursue Chhun after he returned from Cambodia, but the U.S. ambassador Kent Wiedemann had responded that the two countries did not have an extradition treaty and that it was up to the U.S. to determine whether Chhun had broken any U.S. laws. “It’s not the business of the Cambodian government,” he said.
After 9/11, however, the Bush Administration began to consider Southeast Asia a second front in the global war on terrorism, focused especially on the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah. This, Callahan writes, caused a “pendular shift in U.S.-Cambodian relations. Cambodia was taken off the list of illegal drug producing countries. The following year, Secretary of State Colin Powell signed an agreement with Cambodia to strengthen counter-terrorism training, exchange financial and immigration data, and work to create joint programs.”
All the while, however, Hun Sen’s government complained that Chhun remained a free man. “At this point, we are wondering that if the U.S. is the master of the fight against international terrorism, why is the U.S. ignoring this terrorist case,” Hun Sen said in 2001. “What is the real value of the U.S. suggestion to Cambodia to offer cooperation against international terrorism?”
When Chhun was finally indicted, Hun Sen told reporters the arrest was “part of the cooperation in the fight against common terrorism that both Cambodia and the United States have an obligation to.” In a memorandum, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Charles Ray, conveyed his “appreciation and congratulations to the L.A. Division, to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to all those who moved this case forward.” Within months of Chhun’s arrest, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole made a trip to Phnom Penh to announce plans to establish an FBI office in the U.S. Embassy and train Cambodian police in counterterrorism measures. He presented awards to Cambodian officials “in recognition of their important contributions to the prosecution of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters counterterrorism case.”
“The correlation between the opening of the new FBI office in Phnom Penh and the prosecution of Mr. Chhun was unmistakable,” Callahan wrote. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, FBI Director Robert Mueller noted that Cambodia would serve as an important country in the U.S. antiterrorism campaign because of its potential to be used as a transit point or base for terrorism.
“Mueller then noted that following the inauguration of the FBI office in Phnom Penh,” according to Callahan’s appeal, “the United States intended to make Yasith Chhun ‘face justice in the near future. … Before 9/11, Hun Sen was viewed by the United States government as a murderous despot.” After 9/11, he wrote, “the playing field changed; the rules changed, and the priorities changed. Hun Sen didn’t change; the world did.”
The U.S. attorney’s office has not yet completed its response. But those involved in investigating and prosecuting the case deny it was ever politicized.
Special Agent Shannon says he was serious about investigating the case from the start. Far from sealing Chhun’s fate, 9/11 only delayed it, he insists. After the attacks on the twin towers, his attention, like that of many in the bureau, turned to Al Qaeda.
“If it weren’t for Chhun, we would never have had to work on this together and we would never have gotten this colleague-type atmosphere with Cambodia,” Shannon says. “This case opened up doors into working drugs, working fugitives, working human trafficking, child-prostitution rings, and all that stuff, because those doors and those lines of communication were open. The momentum just kept going.”
Chhun is still in prison, outside Scranton, in northeastern Pennsylvania. He resides in cell 217 at the high-security United State Federal Penitentiary-Canaan, a sprawling complex surrounded by rolling green hills. He is allowed to watch television, read books, and email and call his family. He says he is “in hell, but stronger than I was outside.” None of his former CFF comrades have remained in contact: Many are scared that they, too, will be prosecuted. They will not speak about Chhun. Yet Chhun still has hope for the future. Ever the optimist, he believes his case will be overturned on appeal.
He finds solace in God and still draws lessons from American films, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which follows the final hours of the Messiah’s life, ending with the resurrection. “When Christ was arrested and escorted to be crucified, his followers turned their backs on him,” Chhun said recently. “Part of the story is similar to mine.”