The CIA and the Sheik
The Agency Coddled Omar Abdel Rahman, Allowing Him to Operate in the U.S. Now This Unholy Alliance Has Blown Up in Our Faces
by Robert I. Friedman
The Village Voice
March 30, 1993
"They were talking all the time about targeting American symbols," says the FBI undercover informant, "the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty. A few of the guys came to the mosque to pray and go home. But others gathered to conspire in small groups, talking in deep, low voices. They see the U.S. as an imperialist power, the Big Satan, the root of all the evil in the world."
The FBI operative, Mamdouh Zaki Zakhary, monitored the radical activities at the El Salaam Mosque in Jersey City, which was the headquarters of the terrorist cell that allegedly planned and carried our the of the World Trade Center on February 26. Zakhary, a heavily bearded Coptic Christian from Egypt who owned an import-export firm in Jersey City, spent a year and a half spying on the local Arab American community and the mosque, beginning January 10, 1990. During this time, he watched the first two men arrested in connection with the bombing. Mohammed Salameh and Ibraham Elgabrowny, as well as the spiritual leader who may have inspired them, the fiery blind fundamentalist cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is infamous throughout the Arab world for his alleged role in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat.
"The only thing they want is to establish an Islamic world," Zakhary told The Village Voice during an interview from his home in Alexandria, Egypt. "They will do anything to achieve it. You have to understand their desire to strike out, to avenge anything that hurts Islam. I asked Elgabrowny, 'Why do you stay here [in Brooklyn]?' And he told me, I want to earn their dollars so that I can stab them in the back."
Zakhary reported the group's subversive activities in regular meetings with his FBI handler, Special Agent Kenneth Strange. But Zakhary, who was not able to penetrate the cell's inner circle, had no advance warning that there was a plan to commit one of the most sensational acts of foreign terrorism on American soil before the bombing of the World Trade Center: the assassination of the controversial right-wing Zionist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane.
On November 5, 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a pudgy, bearded 34-year-old Egyptian American and a core member of the El Salaam Mosque, calmly walked up to the podium of a conference room in the Halloran House, a midtown Manhattan hotel, after Kahane had finished, a one-hour speech. Moments later, Kahane was shot once in the throat at point-blank range with a .357 magnum, and Nosair bolted outside. During a running gun battle down Lexington Avenue, Nosair was wounded by an off-duty postal inspector and finally captured by New York City police.
"At first, no one knew who Nosair was," recalls Zakhary, "so when I heard about it I called the FBI and identified him,' I told them he was a member of the mosque and that he was very close with the sheikh [Abdel Rahman]. I told them that, four days before, I saw with my own eyes the sheikh meeting with Nosair at a Lebanese restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was 7 p.m. There was Nosair, the sheikh, a person escorting the sheikh, and another person I don't know. They were deep in conversation."
Shortly after police arrested Nosair they found startling evidence that the Kahane killing was just the first in a planned spree. Scrawled on a bank calendar in Nosair's home was a "hit list" that included the names of a U.S. representative, two federal judges, and a former assistant U.S. Attorney. Local police searching Nosair's Cliffside Park, New Jersey, home discovered a trove of terrorist paraphernalia: bombmaking manuals, AK-47 cartridges, a stolen New York State license plate, and a bullet-riddled target board. There were also a number of passports and driver's licenses under various names, as well as articles about the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
But despite Zakhary's reports, Nosair's hit list, and the suspicious cache at his home, the authorities seemed to be downplaying all signs of a terrorist conspiracy. Within 12 hours of the shooting, New York City chief of detectives Joseph Borrelli declared the Kahane assassination was the work of a "lone gunman." Borrelli added, '"There was nothing found [at Nosair's house] that would stir your imagination."
One New York City detective close to the investigation told me that the case was handled like a routine homicide. "They [the NYPD] wanted to make it as simple as possible," said the detective. "It was treated as a homicide at the precinct level. The higher-ups didn't want to take it further. The police department stated that they got the gunman and that was it. We're not equipped to investigate international terrorism."
But the FBI is. On the eve of Nosair's trial, a frustrated federal investigator told me that he didn't believe Nosair had acted alone. "There's nothing to prove that Nosair took it upon himself to [kill Kahane]. There are many conspiracy theories. We hit a lot of dry wells." Yet the federal agent said that the NYPD had jurisdiction in the case and that the FBI's investigation was "superficial."
What investigators would have found if they had done their job thoroughly is that Sheikh Abdel Rahman and El Sayyid Nosair were at the heart of a far-flung terrorist conspiracy. A magnet for the angry and dispossessed of the Muslim world, Abdel Rahman, through his violent preaching, has been linked to dozens of terrorist incidents in Egypt and now to the attack on the World Trade Center, an act he says he deplores.
In the aftermath of the bombing, many are wondering why there wasn't a comprehensive, wide-ranging investigation of Meir Kahane's murder. One possible explanation is offered by a counterterrorism expert for the FBI. At a meeting in a Denny's coffee shop in Los Angeles a week after the Kahane assassination, the 20-year veteran field agent met with one of his top undercover operatives, a burly 33-year-old FBI contract employee who had been a premier bomber for a domestic terrorist group before being "turned" and becoming a government informant.
"Why aren't we going after the sheikh [Abdel Rahman]?" demanded the undercover man.
"It's hands-off," answered the agent.
"Why?" asked the operative.
"It was no accident that the sheikh got a visa and that he's still in the country," replied the agent, visibly upset. "He's here under the banner of national security, the State Department, the NSA [National Security Agency], and the CIA." The agent pointed out that the sheikh had been granted a tourist visa, and later a green card, despite the fact that he was on a State Department terrorist watch-list that should have barred him from the country. He's an untouchable, concluded the agent. "I haven't seen the lone-gunman theory advocated [so forcefully] since John F. Kennedy."
Why might the U.S. government protect a militant sheikh linked to numerous acts of terrorism?
Sheikh Abdel Rahman left Egypt in 1990, in the wake of a series of bloody clashes between his militant fundamentalist group, Al Gamaat al Islamia, and the secular Egyptian government. The sheikh traveled to Pakistan, where he met with representatives of the Afghan mujahedeen, who were providing training for his underground terrorist group in Egypt, the very same mujahedeen who were receiving financial aid and training from the CIA in the war to rid Afghanistan of the Soviet Army. Even after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, the U.S. and the Saudis continued to aid the mujahedeen through Pakistan until December 1990, in an attempt to topple the Afghan government.
According to a very high-ranking Egyptian official, when the sheikh moved to Brooklyn in May 1990, he worked closely with the CIA, helping to channel a steady flow of money, men, and guns to mujahedeen bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The camps became a mecca for disaffected youth from across the Muslim world.
Of course, the mujahedeen's agenda was not exactly the same as the CIA's. While Abdel Rahman was perfectly happy to accept CIA help to chase the godless Russians out of Afghanistan, it didn't stop him from teaching his recruits his revolutionary agenda. The camps, says the high-ranking Egyptian official, were "schools for jihad," or holy war. The sacred mission was to be waged on two fronts. In the Middle East, his holy warriors were to overthrow secular, pro-Western Arab regimes and replace them with austere Islamic theocracies. The main target was Egypt, the largest and most powerful nation in the Arab world. The sheikh believes, the high-ranking Egyptian official says, "that if you take Egypt, you take all the Middle East." Mamdouh Zaki Zakhary concurs: "Abdel Rahman repeatedly preached that Egypt is the hand of Satan, and that you have to cut off the hand of Satan immediately."
The Great Satan itself, of course, is America, a state that, in the eyes of the sheikh and his supporters, has routinely committed atrocities against the Muslim world. "Americans," said the sheikh on a recent Arabic-language radio broadcast, "are descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communism, and colonialism." He advocates the destabilization of the U.S. by violent attacks on its symbols of prestige and power, while proselytizing among African Americans and other disenfranchised minorities. Abdel Rahman's "long-term goal is to weaken U.S. society and to show Arab rulers that the U.S. is not an invulnerable superpower," says Matti Steinberg, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
According to Western intelligence sources, Abdel Rahman has 10,000 fanatic disciples in Egypt and several hundred in America. But, as far as anyone knows, he never issues them direct orders. "He talks about the importance of jihad in the U.S. without being concrete," says Matti Steinberg. "It's a form of spiritual brainwashing called Dawa. All it takes is a few angry people to understand his message." A high-ranking Egyptian official agrees: "This man is instigating violence in a very clever way. You can't really hope to establish a direct link" between the sheikh and the World Trade Center bombing.
Just four months before the bombing, Egyptian intelligence officials warned the U.S. that the sheikh's principal mosques in America, the El Salaam Mosque and the El Farouq Masjid Mosque in Brooklyn, were "hotbeds of terrorist activity," and that the fiery blind Muslim preacher was plotting a new round of terrorist attacks in Egypt. "There were many, many contacts between Cairo and Washington," says the official.
The FBI received a violent reminder of the sheikh's agenda on November 12, 1992, when a terrorist hit squad linked to Abdel Rahman machine-gunned a busload of Western tourists in Egypt, injuring five Germans. In the last year, three Western tourists have been killed in Egypt and at least two dozen have been wounded, crippling the country's $2.5 billion tourist industry. When asked on an Arabic-language radio show in Washington, D.C., about terrorist attacks on foreign tourists, the sheikh replied, "Force is used with tourists. But tourists should use good manners. Tourism is not nightclubs, alcohol, gambling, fornicating. They should stay away from this behavior, the spread of AIDS and corruption with which they have filled Egypt."
Some three months after the attack on the tourist bus, a rental van packed with a witches' brew of sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and urea exploded in the subbasement of the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1000. "If they had found the exact architectural Achilles' heel [of the World Trade Center]," says an explosives expert who works for the FBI, "on if the bomb had been a little bit bigger, not much more, 500 pounds more, I think it would have brought her down. It's really scary."
As Americans reeled from the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, the first rumors that swept the country centered on an unidentified Serbian terrorist group. The theory was abandoned only after a sharpeyed investigator from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a New York City cop who were combing through the rubble found a tiny metal fragment with the identification number of the van rented by Mohammed Salameh. "It was a miracle that it wasn't destroyed," says the explosives expert. If it had been, the FBI might have been tracking Serbians for weeks in stead of Sheikh Abdel Rahman and his labyrintine web of local Arab terrorists
Lost in the press avalanche about the World Trade Center bombing was the news that on the same day terrorists linked to Abdel Rahman had detonated a bomb packed with rusty nails in the Wadi el-Ni cafe, a fashionable restaurant in Cairo, killing two tourists and two Egyptians, and wounding 16. "They wanted to show the Egyptian authorities that they could operate in the heart of the nation's capital says the high-ranking Egyptian- government official, who adds bitterly, "We begged America not to coddle the sheikh."
Jack Blum, a widely respected former special investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, puts it bluntly, The CIA trained the mujahedeen in terrorism, then dumped them in 1990 as part of an agreement with Moscow, leaving behind a ragtag army of anti-Western Muslim extremists burning to vent their rage on their former patrons, America. "One of the big problems here is that many suspects in the World Trade Center bombing were associated with the mujahedeen," says Blum. "And there are components of our government that are absolutely disinterested in following that path because it leads back to people we supported in the Afghan war." The first suspect arrested in the World Trade Center bombing was Mohammed Salameh, a 25-year-old Palestinian with a thick black beard and a degree from a Jordanian university in the shariah, Islamic religious law. On February 23, he rented the Ryder van that was packed with explosives and detonated underneath the World Trade Center. When it was revealed that he had returned four times to claim a $400 refund for the vehicle, which he claims was stolen the night before the bombing, many assumed he was either a patsy or the stupidest terrorist in history. What was forgotten, of course, was that the odds against identifying the van were astronomical.
"He's not a clever man, but he's not a stupid man," says Zakhary, the FBI undercover operative who met Salameh at the El Salaam Mosque. "He's an ordinary man, a working man. I think that, for him, the bombing was coming from his heart, not his brain."
The seeds of Salameh's discontent were sown in Bidya, a dusty, nondescript farming village of 6000 Palestinian Arabs near the Nablus-Tel Aviv Highway, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The squat, ramshackle, cinder-block homes line unpaved streets that are strewn with garbage. Indoor plumbing is rare, and the town doesn't have a single telephone. The gray concrete walls of Bidya's four schools are covered with pro-PLO graffiti and fierce tirades against Israel.
Bidya is a glaring contrast to nearby Ariel, the gleaming suburban settlement of 15,000 secular Jews that was built on land expropriated from Bidya and other nearby Palestinian villages in the mid 1970s. Ariel has the look and feel of an American Sunbelt suburb in the midst of a boom. At the mall in the heart of town, shops sell everything from falafel for $ 1.50 to expensive clothes. A large outdoor swimming pool attracts suntanned Jewish settlers, who moved to this West Bank outpost for its front yards and scenic vistas.
Bidya has a long history of violence and rebellion. In 1936, when Palestinian Arabs began a three-year revolt against the British Mandatory authorities then ruling Palestine and the Jewish minority who were struggling for statehood, Bidya became a staging base for fedayeen, or Palestinian guerrillas. The British Army was far more brutal putting down the revolt than the Israeli Army has been during the intifada. British planes strafed Arab villages, thousands of Palestinians were herded into concentration camps, and authorities passed emergency laws that made the possession of a gun or even a bullet a crime punishable by death. More than 10,000 Palestinians were killed in the fighting; Bidya suffered hundreds of casualties.
After Israel's 1948 War of Independence, the Jordanian Arab Legion occupied the West Bank, and Bidya spearheaded Palestinian opposition to Jordan's King Hussein, a Hashemite originally from Saudi Arabia who treated West Bank Palestinians with high-handed contempt. In 1959, 15 high-ranking officials of the Jordanian military, including a leading notable from Bidya, plotted King Hussein's assassination. But the Jordanian mukhabarut (secret police) discovered the scheme, and the plotters were sentenced to death. Mohammed Salameh was born in Bidya in September 1967, just three months after it was occupied by Israeli troops in the June 1967 Six Day War. "When the Israelis came to our village' says Osama Odeh, a distant cousin of Salameh, "they made a gentlemen's agreement with my father and uncle, who is a lawyer. 'We know your Family is very nationalistic and won't accept occupation,' they said, 'so if the fedayeen come to Bidya, you can feed them so long as you then tell them to go. We will give you money for your new school and build roads and sewers."'
But from the onset of Israeli rule, Bidya's residents waged a fierce guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation, and Mohammed Salameh's family was in the forefront of that opposition. Salameh's maternal grandfather, one of Bidya's largest landowners, was active in the 1936 Arab Rebellion and later joined the PLO. He was arrested in the early 1980s for membership in the PLO, and, in spite of his advanced age, was imprisoned by the Israelis and allegedly tortured. He died soon after his release. Salameh's uncle spent 18 years in prison for a PLO attack on Israeli civilians. Odeh told me that Salameh's "hate" comes from the "injustice" of the Israeli occupation, his uncle's and grandfather's imprisonment, and Ariel's rapid expansion. "Ariel," says Odeh, "is growing, and sucking the red blood of our land."
When I last journeyed to Bidya, in the fall of 1990, the main entrance was blocked by a knot of heavily armed Israeli soldiers in riot gear. "A shooting took place," explained a soldier, who looked no more than 18. "The road is closed. If you go in, we will shoot you."
Earlier in the day, students had gathered in the center of Bidya, shouting anti-Israeli slogans under a huge banner that read FATAH AND HAMAS TOGETHER. (Hamas is the large Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group dedicated to Israel's destruction.) Then hundreds of Palestinian youth marched to the Nablus-Tel Aviv Highway, where young boys and girls began to throw stones at Israeli cars. Soldiers raced to the scene and fired into the air, trying to disperse the demonstrators. Several armed Jewish settlers got out of their cars and fanned out among the almond trees that line the side of the road and started shooting. Akhlam Abed, a 13-year-old girl, was killed. She was Bidya's first casualty of the intifada.
In the wake of Israel's lightning victory in the June 1967 Six Day War, Salameh's parents left Bidya for a squalid shantytown on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, forfeiting their home and possessions, as did tens of thousands of Palestinians. Like all Palestinian youth, Salameh passionately followed the course of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in the Gaza Strip in December 1987 and quickly spread to every Arab town, village, and refugee camp in the Occupied Territories. Every day Jordanian television broadcast images of Palestinian boys, their faces swathed in black-and-white-checkered kaffiyehs, their eyes unafraid, hurling pomegranate-sized stones at Israeli troops brandishing automatic weapons. The children of the "stone revolution," as they are called, gave Palestinians around the world a collective sense of pride and determination.
Salameh, one of 11 brothers and sisters, was an indifferent student with a poor self-image. According to Odeh, he became a devout Muslim in his teens. Salameh's parents have expressed surprise about his alleged role in the World Trade Center bombing. "The Jews, this is from the Jews, who have done this and blamed my son," Salameh's mother, Aysha, told The New York Times.
Aysha might well blame Sheikh Abdel Rahman for leading her wayward son down the combustible path of Islamic fundamentalism. Salameh, who received a tourist visa from the American consulate in Amman in December 1987, moved to New Jersey, where he worked at menial jobs, constantly changing addresses. He met Abdel Rahman not long after the sheikh arrived in Brooklyn; he was captivated by the sheikh's call for jihad and the downfall of America, becoming his sometime gofer, according to one U.S. law- enforcement source. Salameh quickly fell into a circle of like-minded Muslims, including Nidal Ayyad, a chemical engineer of Palestinian descent who allegedly concocted the World Trade Center bomb.
In Egypt, Abdel Rahman's name lives in infamy for his role in the October 6, 1981, assassination of Anwar Sadat, who was cut down in a hail of grenade and automatic-weapons fire while he reviewed a military parade. In 1980, Abdel Rahman had issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that called Sadat an infidel for turning his back on Islam and for making peace with Israel. This made Sadat a prime target for assassination, an act eventually executed by the operational arm of Abdel Rahman's organization, Al Gamaat al Islamia, which had penetrated the Egyptian army and security services.
During a tumultuous trial in which the defendants publicly charged they had been tortured by police interrogators, the sheikh was acquitted. The sheikh, who continued to agitate against the Egyptian government while his followers carried on a campaign of lethal bombings, was imprisoned for three months in 1985, for one month in 1986, and for four months in 1989. He finally left his homeland in 1990, saying, "It was too much for me."
After brief stays in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the sheikh slipped into Pakistan, where he forged operational links with mujahedeen strongman Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of a radical Afghan Islamic fundamentalist army that was being covertly backed by the CIA. According to Stephen Van Evera, an affiliate of Harvard's Center for Science and International Affairs, Hekmatyar "strongly chastised the United States and its 'immoral' society, even while Washington lavished him with aid." In Hekmatyar's guerrilla training camps, American advisers taught everything from using explosives to shooting down enemy planes with shoulder-held Stinger missiles.
The mujahedeen base camps in Peshawar were also places where militant Muslims were caught up in the spirit of the two supreme moments in recent Islamic history: the revolution in Iran, which transformed the country into a self-righteous bastion of zealous fundamentalism, and the Afghan war. "Iran symbolizes the rise of the Islamic state," says the Egyptian official, "and the Afghan war was a real battlefield for these people to acquire the stamina and capabilities to wage war." And since these two events were successful, the militants "decided to pursue this march and spread their revolutionary message to other countries."
In America, Abdel Rahman raised funds and recruits for the mujahedeen, many of them first-generation Muslim immigrants. His mosques in Jersey City and Brooklyn also attracted fundamentalists expelled from the Gulf Emirates after the Gulf War. But many Muslims repudiate his radical preachings. Mosques across the country closed their doors to the rabble-rousing blind man. Local Muslims grew even more wary in March 1991 when Mustafa Shalabi, a 39-year-old Egyptian electrical contractor living in Brooklyn, was found lying face down on his kitchen floor in his pajamas. He had been shot once at close range near the left ear and stabbed in the back and stomach.
Police sources say Shalabi had been running guns to the Afghan rebels, as well as raising money for the legal defense of El Sayyid Nosair before his trial on charges of assassinating Rabbi Meir Kahane. Earlier, Shalabi had helped Abdel Rahman find an apartment in Brooklyn. Police speculate that Abdel Rahman had Shalabi murdered for pocketing some of the money. Shalabi "had a lot of enemies," says a police source. "There was also a lot of intrigue and infighting at his mosque in Brooklyn."
Shalabi worshipped at the El Farouq Masjid Mosque, located in a bleak storefront building at 554 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The Friday sermons were delivered by Abdel Rahman, until the directors of the mosque expelled him soon after Kahane's assassination.
The sheikh then moved entirely to the El Salaam Mosque in Jersey City. The founder of the mosque is Sultan Ibraham El Gawli, a wealthy 55-year-old Egyptian businessman who was convicted by a federal jury in July 1986 for conspiring to export 150 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives to Israel for use by the PLO in a Christmas bombing. El Gawli, who sports a full, white Santa Claus beard, served 18 months in prison before returning to Jersey City. He often marched in front of the courthouse during Nosair's trial, carrying banners with fierce anti-Israel slogans. "It's no crime praying together, is it?" El Gawli asked me when I questioned him about his friendship with Nosair.
It was the infiltrator Mamdouh Zaki Zakhary who helped U.S. Customs set up the sting operation that netted El Gawli. Zakhary , a frail man afflicted with blindness in one eye and a large goiter on his neck, wore a wire into El Galwi's office at a travel agency he owned, Sultan Travel, recording five incriminating conversations. "There were some references on the tapes about doing it [transporting the explosives] for God," recalls Kevin McCarthy, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted El Gawli.
"Sultan El Gawli was the brains behind the terror cell at the mosque," says Zakhary . "There were lots of meetings in his office. He also got foreign money from the PLO and Iran. Many times he entertained and was visited by officials from Saudi Arabia, the PLO, and Iran."
"I always thought the El Gawli case was just scratching the surface of what was really going on [in the El Salaam Mosque]," admits a federal official who worked on the case. "First, El Gawli himself was this businessman who seemed to be trying to do things for the money, not for any grander scheme. And secondly, since Mamdouh was a [Coptic Christian], I thought he wouldn't have access to the real inner world of whatever was going on in the mosque. At the same time, I didn't have any indications that there was more stuff going on in the mosque."
After testifying as the key witness in a Camden, New Jersey, courthouse, Zakhary entered a federal witness-protection program. At first, he and his new bride lived in New Orleans, before he became convinced the PLO was stalking him. He moved throughout the Southwest, driving the federal marshals responsible for him crazy with complaints about the program.
Homesick and desperate for cash, Zakhary offered to return to Jersey City to spy on the Arab American community and the El Salaam Mosque, this time for the FBI, under the code name Mubarak. He stayed away from the mosque itself except for three visits gathering what information he could -- through friends and acquaintances.
"I didn't know Salameh very well," says Zakhary, who was better acquainted with Ibraham Elgabrowny, a cousin of both El Gawli and El Sayyid Nosair.
"Elgabrowny was a very extreme fundamentalist. He belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In 1985, when the TWA plane was hijacked to Beirut, Elgabrowny said he was very happy. He said, 'lf I was the kidnapper, I would start executing passengers right now."'
In 1991, a year and a half after he began to work for the FBI, Zakhary reported to his handler that he had overheard a plot to assassinate the two U.S. senators from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D'Amato. When incredulous FBI agents hooked him up to a lie detector, Zakhary failed the test. He blames the result on prescription medication he was taking at the time because of an automobile accident. The FBI did not believe him and terminated his employment.
"Mamdouh [Zakhary] is an honest man with very good intentions," Richard Kennan, a U.S. Customs agent, told the Israeli newspaper Ma ariv. "[He] prevented a mass terror attack on Christmas 1985. Unfortunately, he didn't understand the American system. He was confused. I'm very sorry about what happened to him. We tried to get him asylum in the U.S., but his behavior didn't help." The U.S. has had a long and tortured history with the Islamic world. While most Americans see Muslims as the aggressors, Muslims view the West the same way. In fact, the U.S. and the Islamic world have been trading acts of terrorism for years. In 1986, Libyan-backed terrorists bombed the La Belle discotheque in Berlin, killing two American servicemen. In response, the U.S. bombed Libya, killing 36 civilians and wounding 92. On July 3, 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S.S. Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane over the Gulf, killing 290 people. Six months afterward, Pan Am 103 disintegrated in a shower of fire and debris over Lockerbie, Scotland. No one claimed credit, but it is widely believed in intelligence circles that the Pan Am bombing was Iran's revenge.
The U.S.-funded attack that killed the greatest number of innocent civilians took place on March 8, 1985, when the U.S. tried to liquidate what it believed was the very symbol of international terrorism: fundamentalist Muslim leader Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, the head of Hizbollah, the Party of God. On October 23, 1983, Fadlallah had sent a suicide bomber barreling into the Marine compound in Beirut, killing 241 Marines. CIA director William Casey contracted out the job of retaliation to Saudi intelligence, which sent a car packed with explosives into a Beirut slum near Fadlallah's headquarters. A city block was devastated and more than 90 people were buried under the rubble.
Because of the persistent fear of Arab terror during the Gulf War, Arab Americans say they have been unfairly targeted for special surveillance by federal agencies. Actually, there has been little evidence of Arab terrorism on American soil. The PLO raises money and spreads propaganda in the U.S., but has refrained from attacking targets here -- although it has staged murderous assaults against Americans abroad. Ironically, the week the World Trade Center was bombed, a PLO official was being tried in a Brooklyn federal court for planting powerful time bombs in rented cars parked outside two Israeli banks in Manhattan and the El Al terminal at Kennedy Airport in 1973.
Most Americans would be surprised to learn, however, that the terrorist group that led the hit parade through much of the 1980s was the Jewish Defense League, Rabbi Meir Kahane's fanatical right-wing Zionist organization. By 1985, the JDL was ranked by the FBI as the most lethal domestic terrorist group in America, overtaking the Aryan Nation, the American Nazi Party, and the Puerto Rican Revolution. The JDL has been linked to dozens of bombings and at least two assassinations, including the widely admired regional director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Alex Odeh.
For years the Brooklyn-born Kahane had been calling for the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel. After moving to Jerusalem, he established the Kach Party and was elected to Israel's parliament in 1984. He drafted a slew of bills that were never passed, including one that would have made it a crime punishable by two years in prison for a Jew to have sex with an Arab. Israel's High Court banned Kahane from running for reelection in 1988 on the grounds that his party was racist and antidemocratic.
It seems certain now that Kahane's fanatical ideas made him the target of terrorism himself. On November 5, 1990, he gave the last speech of his life. "My whole life has been ideas which eventually were taken up by other people and succeeded," said Kahane in his characteristic stutter, an impediment since childhood. "Today Jewish defense is an accepted thing. A patrol in a neighborhood is an accepted thing." But patrols were no longer adequate to defend Jews in a country that was becoming increasingly anti- Semitic, Kahane warned. He urged his Jewish audience to move to Israel before a new Holocaust engulfed them in America. "They hate us with a passion out there," thundered Kahane, "with a virulence that's frightening to see."
Following Kahane's speech, El Sayyid Nosair approached the podium wearing a black yarmulke, as if to ask a question. Moments later, Kahane was dead. In the irony of ironies, the FBI put the New York branch of the Kach Party under surveillance to prevent it from avenging their slain leader. The FBI failed, however, to monitor activities at the radical mosques.
I interviewed Nosair for The Village Voice in a tiny detention cell on Rikers Island on the eve of his trial. Nosair, who was wearing a white tunic and a white skullcap with the words ALLAH WILL BE VICTORIOUS knitted in bold blue Arabic calligraphy across the front, began our 90-minute talk by handing me a number of pamphlets showing why Islam was the true path. "I started to practice my religion as much as I can since I came to the United States," said Nosair. "Of course, I read a lot. I read about different religions -- Christianity, Judaism -- I studied all these religions that led me to believe that Islam is the true way of life. You face many different doors" in America, continued Nosair, who had immigrated to Pittsburgh from Egypt on July 14, 1981. The true path is behind one door, he explained, while evil lurks behind the others. "Because I believe that Islam is the true way of life, I began to preach Islam, to prove to people from their own [religious] books that Islam is the correct way of life." Islam, he told me, is encoded in each of us at birth. Each person is created in submission to Allah. We pervert nature, he said, when we embrace Judaism or Christianity. "Judaism has a lot of materialistic rituals with a minimum of spiritual rituals, and that's why Allah sent Islam to mankind," Nosair said. Judaism is an abomination, he explained, not because of race or blood (the Arabs too are Semites), but because the Jews refuse to accept Mohammed as the Prophet.
I asked Nosair if the Koran says there is such a thing as a just killing. "Of course, there has to be," he replied. "We have to have an Islamic state -- that's why we try to preach Islam to everybody."
Nosair admitted he is a big "celebrity" in the Muslim world, where he is credited with killing Kahane. When Nosair's wife, Caren, a blue-eyed Irish Catholic convert to Islam, and three children traveled to Egypt a year after Kahane's murder, they were met at the airport by government officials and driven through Cairo in a motorcade. Caren's chaperone was none other than Nosair's cousin, Ibraham Elgabrowny.
Elgabrowny had helped raise more than $250,000 for Nosair's legal defense. The trial turned out to be one of the most shocking in New York history. The Manhattan D.A.'s case against Nosair was as narrowly focused as the investigation had been. The prosecution didn't present any of the evidence police found in Nosair's apartment suggesting his terrorist connections' and never offered the jury an explanation of Nosair's motive, despite the fact that Manhattan Assistant District Attorney William Greenbaum knew that Nosair was bragging to fellow inmates at Rikers Island that "Allah chose me to kill the big Jew." At least one inmate reported Nosair's confession to the D.A.'s office, according to sources close to the investigation. After close questioning that included a lie-detector test, the inmate was deemed highly credible by the D.A. But in a catastrophic miscalculation, Greenbaum decided not to put the inmate on the stand.
The D.A. believed there was ample evidence to convict Nosair without delving into his motive, which would have led the trial into the swamp of Kahane's radical ideas, 50 years of Arab-Israeli enmity, and the internal politics of Israel and Egypt. What looked to every observer like an open-and-shut case ended with Nosair's stunning acquittal; he was, however, sentenced to 22 years for related charges.
"In this case the result is so jarring that has tempted people to talk about taking the law into their own hands," former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani wrote to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Otto Obermaier after the verdict.
Giuliani recommended that the FBI reopen the Nosair investigation. The Justice Department refused, and the case dimmed from public memory until the World Trade Center was bombed.
The authorities are just now reopening the Kahane investigation. It is possible that Nosair will be tried in federal court for violating Kahane's civil rights, much as the police in the Rodney King case are now being tried. A new investigation may find that the bombers of the World Trade Center were also Kahane's killers. The connections seem strong. Both Elgabrowny and Salameh visited Nosair in Attica. And federal agents found forged Nicaraguan passports made out to Nosair and his family in Elgabrowny's Brooklyn brownstone. Attica officials are currently investigating whether an escape was being planned.
Another suspect in the case, Mahmud Abouhalima, a New York City taxi driver and an associate of both Nosair and Salameh, fled the U.S., reportedly for Egypt. Investigators believe he may now be in Pakistan, where he had trained with the mujahedeen and later fought in the Afghan war. Investigators are also looking for links between the bombing suspects and Mir Aimal Kansi, who is being sought for the slaying of two CIA employees in front of the agency's Virginia headquarters. According to a federal prosecutor, Kansi had told his roommate that he was going to commit a violent act to protest what he perceived as Western mistreatment of Muslims.
This much is certain: Just 12 hours after Kahane's killing, the government
was espousing the lone-gunman theory and Nosair's terrorist connections were
ignored. Had the investigation into the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane been
vigorously pursued, the World Trade Center bombing may never have happened.
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