Authors: Tim Weiner
THE BLIND SHEIKH
HE WEEK THE
Pan Am 103 indictment came down, a murder trial opened in Manhattan Criminal Court. The defendant was El-Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian immigrant wearing a white skullcap and robes, and a follower of Omar Abdel Rahman, a holy warrior known as the Blind Sheikh. Nosair was charged with the murder of Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League, a group later labeled a terrorist organization by the state of Israel.
Among the spectators was a $500-a-week FBI informant named Emad Salem, a balding, bearded veteran of the Egyptian army. Salem sat with the defendant’s associates, chatting with them in the corridor during breaks, working his way into their lives.
Salem was an ingratiating man who had been working as a house detective at the Woodward Hotel in midtown Manhattan when Nancy Floyd, an FBI foreign counterintelligence agent, approached him in April 1991. Floyd told Salem that the hotel was frequented by suspected Russian spies. Would he help her keep watch over them?
Salem said, in so many words, Who cares about the Cold War and the Russians? I can tell you about the holy war and the Blind Sheikh.
Agent Floyd had never heard of the Blind Sheikh. Few had. But she liked Salem, which was easy to do, and she trusted him, which was a leap of faith. She recruited Salem as an informant and introduced him to a fellow FBI agent, John Anticev, who had joined the Bureau four years before and served on the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York.
Anticev was very interested in El-Sayyid Nosair. The FBI had photographed some of his associates taking target practice with semiautomatic weapons and playing at paramilitary exercises. But the FBI never saw a terrorism connection in the Kahane murder case, or the role the Blind Sheikh
had played in it. The task force had taken forty-seven boxes of evidence from Nosair’s apartment after his arrest. The FBI had warehoused them. Within them was Nosair’s diary, written in Arabic. It recorded the sheikh’s calls for a holy war. It explicitly described plans for an attack on New York aimed at “
destroying the structure of their civilized pillars … and their high world buildings of which they are proud.”
The diary went unread for three years. At the time, the FBI had only one translator capable of reading and understanding Arabic. “
If it had been properly translated, processed, authenticated and analyzed,” Buck Revell later testified, the FBI would have seen “a direct association between the assassin of Meir Kahane and the group that conspired and eventually did bomb the World Trade Center.”
Who could imagine that the spirit of the anarchists who bombed Wall Street and Washington at the end of World War I had been revived? Who could think that the Islamists who drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan were turning their anger on America? Who could believe the Bureau was about to confront another battle in the crusades between Christians and Muslims? It was all close to inconceivable in the spring of 1991. The investigations that the FBI’s counterterrorism section opened up during those months were almost all focused on small right-wing groups—the Los Angeles Area Skinheads, the Aryan Women’s League, the Texas Reserve Militia—whose members were more likely to harm themselves than to threaten the peace and security of the United States.
We were feeling pretty good” in those days, Buck Revell said. “The Cold War had ended, we believed our side had won, Communism in the U.S. and its affiliated organizations were largely defunct. Communism as a global movement was essentially discredited. Terrorism was held in check in the U.S. and was descending on an international scale … All in all we had done a good job in dealing with the threat of terrorism in spite of a lot of problems along the way.”
Emad Salem was offering the FBI a look into the future. The Bureau did not see it coming.
HAKE THE EARTH UNDER THEIR FEET
Salem started attending Nosair’s murder trial on November 4, 1991, and he quickly befriended the defendant’s supporters. They were elated when the
jurors brought in a split verdict. There was no question that Nosair had killed Kahane. Yet he was convicted only of gun possession and assault. The judge said at the sentencing that the jury must have been out of its collective mind. Then he gave Nosair a maximum of twenty-two years, saying: “
I believe the defendant conducted a rape of this country, of our Constitution and of our laws, and of people seeking to exist peacefully together.”
Salem visited Nosair at the notorious Attica state prison, making the long drive upstate and back with members of the sheikh’s circle. Soon he was listening in as they plotted to bomb the symbols of American power. Salem met the sheikh, the intellectual author of the plot, and he heard firsthand about the plans to bring the jihad to America. “
Salem’s penetration had been so thoroughly successful that he’d had intimate access to Abdel Rahman himself, almost from the start,” marveled Andrew McCarthy, a gung-ho federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
Salem gave the FBI the names and identities of almost every one of the men who were plotting to blow up the World Trade Center. He did not know their target. But his new friends told him it would be something big, something the world had never seen before. This was something new in the annals of the FBI: firsthand intelligence on a terrorist plot as it took shape.
The cell could have—and should have—been uncovered long before the attack. But the FBI’s investigation stopped dead at the end of June 1992, when the Bureau dropped Emad Salem as an informant.
The decision was made by Carson Dunbar, the thirty-nine-year-old chief of the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence squad in New York. He suspected that Salem was a double agent for Egyptian intelligence. Significantly, the fear that Salem might be a foreign spy outweighed his warning of a terrorist attack. But Dunbar and his agents had a deeper dread.
We couldn’t let you make a bomb,” FBI agent Anticev told Salem. “If that bomb, let’s say, goes off at a synagogue and kills two, three people, and that it comes out that an agent of the FBI participated in making the bomb—forget it, they would go berserk, the press would say we knew, we’d be sued, people would be fired.” The Bureau would have had to bear an unspeakable shame.
FBI agent Floyd was shocked by Dunbar’s decision. “This thing was handled completely wrong from the very beginning,” she told Salem. She thought that “the people on the squad didn’t have a clue of how to operate … That the supervisors didn’t know what was going on. That they hadn’t taken the time to learn the history.”
Salem knew the history better than most. The Blind Sheikh had been one of the leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization for many years. He preached that political violence was sanctioned by God. His imprisonment in Cairo had followed his ideological support for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
The sheikh had been on the State Department’s terrorist watch list, with good reason, yet he had won a visa to the United States in 1990. A CIA officer working undercover as a State Department consular official had issued it—an inexplicable snafu, since the CIA’s own files described him as “
Egypt’s most militant Sunni cleric and a close associate of the Egyptian Jihad movement.”
The sheikh made no great secret of his aspirations. “We must be terrorists,” he said in a January 16, 1993, sermon at his Brooklyn mosque. “We must terrorize the enemies of Islam and frighten them and disturb them and shake the earth under their feet.”
HIS WILL DRIVE THE WHOLE WORLD CRAZY
A palace coup struck the FBI on January 19, 1993, in the final hours of the presidency of George H. W. Bush. William Sessions was accused of official misconduct in his capacity as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Isolated at headquarters, detached from his daily responsibilities, entranced by the ceremonial perquisites of his power, Sessions had frittered away his authority. An internal revolt at the Bureau had been rising in the eighteen months since Sessions sent his most powerful rival, the well-connected Buck Revell—everyone’s favorite FBI agent in the Reagan and Bush administrations—to serve out the end of his career in Dallas.
Now the Justice Department had completed a 194-page report accusing Judge Sessions of petty corruption—trying to shave his income taxes, using government funds to build a $9,890 security fence at his house, blocking an investigation into an alleged sweetheart deal on his home mortgage, arrogating his powers of office for his pleasure and comfort. None of these were criminal charges. Nonetheless, the report was read as a political and personal indictment of the director’s integrity and character. “I must ask you to do the right thing for your Bureau and your country,” Revell wrote to Sessions. “Resign while you still have some semblance of dignity and before you do further harm to an agency that you have professed to honor and respect.”
Every director of the FBI since Hoover had been confirmed by the Senate to serve a ten-year term, at the pleasure of the president. Bush could act upon the recommendation of his attorney general and remove Sessions from office before the next president was inaugurated on January 20. Or he could do nothing, and let Bill Clinton solve the problem. He decided to leave the problem to the new president, a malevolent parting gift.
Proudly defiant, Sessions refused to acknowledge the accusations. He pretended that he could not hear the calls to step down, though they came from within the Bureau itself. Six months passed—six crucial months—with a punch-drunk and powerless man sequestered in his chambers at the FBI.
The ability to command and control the FBI did not prove to be one of President Clinton’s talents. Sessions sat in silent defiance. Clinton’s first two nominees for attorney general quickly failed; both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies, in violation of the law. Without an attorney general, he could hardly fire the head of the FBI. Three weeks into his administration, on February 11, 1993, Clinton made his final choice: Janet Reno, the chief state prosecutor in Miami. She became the first woman attorney general and the longest-serving holder of the office in the twentieth century. As was the case with her president, she would find the FBI a source of constant sorrow.
Quickly, when I came into office, I learned that the FBI didn’t know what it had,” Reno later testified. “The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.” Agents at the dawn of the Internet age lived in a sixty-four-kilobyte world. By the time the FBI installed new information technology, it was already obsolete. Reno was shocked to discover that the FBI could not do basic database searches. The Bureau could not put its case files into a computerized system to store and retrieve information. Field offices worked in isolation from one another and from headquarters. Agents had no way to connect with one another. Even at the elite terrorist task forces, paper files stacked up on floors, potentially devastating wiretaps went unread for lack of translators, patterns went unseen.
“Sometimes I thought we had made progress, but then we’d find something else that we didn’t know we didn’t have,” Reno said. “It was very difficult for the FBI to get that problem solved.”
She began to learn the best and the worst about the FBI a few days after she took office.
On Friday, February 26, 1993, a 1,500-pound bomb loaded into a rented truck detonated in the six-story basement parking garage underneath
Tower One of the World Trade Center. It was the biggest terrorist explosion in the United States since the Black Tom blast shattered Manhattan and scarred the Statue of Liberty from across New York Harbor in 1916.
Six people died in the World Trade Center explosion, and more than a thousand were injured by the shock waves, the smoke, and the shrapnel. The concrete tiers of the basement garage collapsed down to the bedrock. The bomb crater was roughly 110 feet wide. A crucial fragment came out of the wreckage three days after the explosion: a shattered truck frame, bearing a vehicle identification number. It came from a Ryder van rented the week before in New Jersey. It was the great good fortune of the FBI that one of the conspirators was foolish enough to return to the Ryder rent-a-truck company, report the van stolen, and demand the return of his $400 deposit.
The speed at which this occurs and the luck involved here is just phenomenal!” marveled Richard Hahn, on the scene at the World Trade Center, two decades into his FBI career as a terrorism investigator. Four of the conspirators were arrested. But the round-up was not rapid enough.
The bomb maker had fled the country. Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim—better known as Ramzi Yousef—was a twenty-five-year-old Pakistani who had arrived in the United States from Afghanistan in December. Poised and articulate, Yousef spoke seven languages, and he had studied chemistry and engineering at British universities. He was part of a global network that reached from the canyons of Wall Street to the mountains of the Hindu Kush.
The conspiracy was still alive. Its outlines were barely visible to the FBI. Many of its members were underground in New York.
Hat in hand, the FBI’s John Anticev went back to Emad Salem and asked him to go undercover again. Their conversation was bitter. Salem was furious that he had been forced out of the investigation.
I told you they will blow bombs in New York City and you didn’t do nothing about it,” he railed. “You drop me out of the case.”
Anticev said he had been “blocked at every turn” by the “bureaucratic bullshit” of his cautious superiors.
“I want to talk to the head of the FBI,” Salem said. “The information I supplied, it was expensive and valuable enough to save the country’s ass from this bomb … How many disasters would be created if the World Trade Centers collapse out of some stupid assholes trying to play Muslims?”
Salem did not talk to the head of the FBI, who was in any case all but incommunicado. But after an agonized debate, he went back on the FBI
payroll as an informant. Salem received more than $1 million for his work. He was brave to the point of danger. At crucial turns he came close to playing the role of agent provocateur. But he made the case that put the Blind Sheikh in prison.