- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

Charged with guarding some of the most dangerous international terrorists in federal custody, Louis Pepe reported to work each day at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan knowing that catastrophe could strike at any time. One of those terrorists, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a former top aide to Osama bin Laden, was sentenced to 32 years in prison last month for a vicious attack on Mr. Pepe.

Mr. Pepe served as a member of a unit responsible for guarding 10-South, the high-security wing of the prison. In the fall of 2000, the inmates there included Salim and four other suspected al Qaeda associates. The other four have since been convicted for participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 persons, including 12 Americans. Mr. Salim was awaiting trial on charges that included attempting to purchase nuclear weapons components on bin Laden’s behalf.

On Nov. 1, 2000, Mr. Pepe was escorting Salim back to his cell at 10-South to retrieve some papers for a meeting with his attorneys. Suddenly, Salim plunged a sharpened plastic comb into the guard’s eye. As a result of this attack, Mr. Pepe suffered severe brain damage. His left eye is gone, and he has lost 60 percent of his vision in his right eye. He is partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. He has suffered a stroke, and undergone close to a dozen operations.

Prosecutors claim that Salim’s cellmate, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed (now serving a life sentence for his role in the 1998 Tanzania bombing) participated in the brutal attack on Mr. Pepe, but Mohamed has not been formally charged.

Parts of the case are still shrouded in mystery. Jail regulations required that prisoners at 10-South be escorted by three guards every time they exited or entered their cells. But Mr. Pepe was apparently the only guard taking Salim back to his cell. Closed-circuit cameras that should have filmed the attack were not working that day. About the only thing that seems clear is that Salim’s comb-knife was lodged three inches into Mr. Pepe’s skull.

Mr. Pepe heroically refused to give Salim what he most wanted: the keys to other cells in the maximum-security unit. Notes found in his cell suggest that Salim was planning to seize hostages in an effort to break out of jail.

Louis Pepe’s ordeal serves to remind us that, in federal prisons across the country, even correctional officers are on the front lines in the war against terrorism.

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