There’s nothing special about my 9/11 story.
Like everyone’s story, it depends on chance. By chance that morning, I was living in a house on a hill at the tip of Staten Island. When I heard about the first plane hitting the North Tower, I rushed to the hill, where there’s a perfect view of the World Trade Center. Straight across New York harbor.
I remember standing there and suddenly feeling the second plane flying past me. It was a jumbo jet and it was coming in loud and low. The plane went streaking over the water and hit the South Tower at 9:03. I saw the fireball and the smoke.
Back then, I was a reporter for The New York Times. So I ran down to the waterfront. I pulled out a notebook and pen and tried to interview people. But nobody had anything to say. We all just fell silent and stared at the buildings. Then the South Tower disappeared and we all looked at each other like, “Did that… Did that just … ?” There was so much smoke, it was hard to tell.
A woman next to me fell to her knees and started speaking in tongues, like she was possessed. H-h-her way of handling shock, I guess.
For months, like a lot of journalists, I covered the story of 9/11 in New York. All the firefighters and cops from Staten Island who died. All the ambulances bringing debris from Ground Zero to the Fresh Kills Landfill, where workers sifted it for human remains. I did stories about the harassment of Muslims … and about some construction workers in Times Square who made sure nobody messed with their man from Afghanistan who sold them coffee everyday from his cart.
Next September will be 20 years since 9/11.
Time has flattened our understanding of the attacks. There’s this sense that they came out of nowhere -- out of the clear blue sky of the day itself. But they didn’t. 9/11 came after eleven years of deliberate moves across a global chessboard. That’s what this podcast is about: the game. Who played it, how they played it, and why.
A lot of it was played in the Middle East and Asia. But what you might not know is some of the crucial moves were made right here in the United States, on city streets in broad daylight.
Disasters overwhelm us. Understanding comes slow. But we need to revisit the evidence and question the people at the center of the story, the people who studied the board and moved the pieces in real time.
The threat of terrorism remains. We don’t have to make the same mistakes.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. I'm Jim O'Grady.
COFER BLACK: The magnitude and the significance of this threat was communicated over and over again.
Over eight episodes, we’ll follow the investigators, bureaucrats, and beat cops who chased disturbing clues about a new kind of enemy.
JOHN ANTICEV: Let’s penetrate his cell and find out what’s really going on.
We’ll track them from a non-descript warehouse in Queens ... to a seedy bar in the Philippines and to a remote camp in Afghanistan, where princes hunt with falcons.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: I have lived with Osama bin Laden for more than 12 years. Very close to him.
SCHEUER: If you wanted him dead he would have been dead two years ago for 50 cents and one round of ammunition.
EMAD SALEM: I was so very angry. I just went one day to his graveyard and I promised him revenge.
It’s also a story about small moments ... when flawed human beings made decisions under terrible pressure with partial information.
MARY JO WHITE: Look, it’s always easy in hindsight to say it’s a big mistake.
CYNTHIA STORER: Of course we couldn’t connect the dots, there was so many dots. The whole page was black!
It’s about a disaster that some saw coming but didn’t respond to until too late.
MATT BESHEER: I said, I told you, these bastards are coming back.
Episode One: The Bullet
Y’know this story is so sweeping, there are a lot of places to start it, including the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and the rise of the Western powers … but let’s go instead to a hushed little house in suburban New Jersey.
It’s November 5th, 1990. Nighttime.
A little boy named Zak is inside, sleeping safely in his bed. He’s seven years old and he’s wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas.
Zak Ebrahim is his full name. He’s shy, a little chubby -- the son of an Egyptian engineer and an American-born mother and grade school teacher.
GEORGE HW BUSH: Protect the weak against the strong.
Consider the world around him in this moment:
GEORGE HW BUSH: Until now, the world we’ve known has been a world divided.
America has just won The Cold War ...
GEORGE HW BUSH: Now we can see a new world coming into view.
… and is an empire without challengers. President George HW Bush famously proclaims there’s a new world order ...
GEORGE HW BUSH: A new world order.
… and we’re in charge of it.
Zak’s father Sayyid is a maintenance worker in Manhattan.
ZAK EBRAHIM: He loved to make us laugh. My father was a very loving man.
An affectionate husband and father of three.
ZAK EBRAHIM: We spent a lot of time playing in the playground or playing at home together. You know, we were pretty normal.
Most nights, Sayyid eats dinner with the family and then settles in at home. But lately he’s been leaving. He drives 30 minutes to a mosque in Jersey City and stays late. Zak’s mom Karen, a convert to Islam, used to join her husband. But this new mosque is stringent. She doesn’t quite feel welcome.
Zak remembers this left his mother little to do after dinner but tuck the kids into bed, flick on the TV set, and flop down on the couch.
As she did on the night of November 5th, 1990.
ZAK EBRAHIM: She was watching television and her show was interrupted by breaking news and it said that Meir Kahane had been shot.
Rabbi Meir Kahane, the anti-Muslim extremist.
ZAK EBRAHIM: And so had his assailant and neither were expected to live. And then they cut to the footage of my father laying in a pool of blood being put into an ambulance.
Zak’s father, El-Sayyid Nosair, is the assailant. He’s gunned down as he flees the scene.
Zak's mother stares at the TV screen, dumbfounded. I thought I knew this man. Later, she'll learn about the boxes of training manuals and articles on explosives stashed in the attic. About weekend trips to shooting ranges and a bullet-riddled target made out of sheetrock.
ZAK EBRAHIM: My mother came flying into the room and yelled for my brother and I to wake up. And she went to our dresser and just started grabbing clothes and handing us clothes and saying we had to leave.
For Zak Ebrahim -- which, by the way, is not his birth name but the name he'll adopt to distance himself from his father and his father's ideology -- for Zak Ebrahim, nothing would be the same. This is also the moment that America’s ingrained sense of ordained invulnerability starts to erode … in the moment Zak steps out of his childhood home, clutching his blanket, never to return.
ZAK EBRAHIM: It took a long time afterward to even begin to understand what was going on.
It was hard for a lot of people to understand what was going on. At first, the Kahane assassination appeared to be just another spasm of violence from the half-century old face-off between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Only later did it become clear that it was more than that to Zak’s father, Sayyid Nosair … arguably the first combatant in what became known as The War on Terror.
So how did he go from warmhearted dad to shooter? First, let’s take a look at what he was trying to accomplish … and how.
An assassin needs an audience. Scholars have studied this, they say that’s why he creates a spectacle -- a spectacle brings the attention he craves and, if you ask him, he deserves. It carries his message into our minds on waves of shock and fascination. It’s why his victim must be famous.
Curiously, the assassin often neglects to plan out his escape. There are a couple of theories about this baffling error: He’s resigned himself to martyrdom or he’s so mesmerized by imagining his moment of blazing glory that he can’t see past it.
Sayyid Nosair fits this profile pretty well. But there’s more to the story.
Before he acts, the assassin must be laid low. Read about assassins and you’re bound to find this moment. Something springs up to remind him, “You’re powerless. You’re nothing.”
For Zak’s father, that moment came in 1986. Nosair has a job at a Jersey City power plant. His son is three years old.
ZAK EBRAHIM: My father worked. My mother stayed home and took care of her three children and we had a relatively stable childhood.
But Zak says what happened next was like a hand to his father’s back … that pushed him off a cliff.
It was an accident on the job. Nosair was standing on a ladder, holding a screwdriver, when he was suddenly and violently electrocuted. Like, thrown to the ground and knocked unconscious. His hand was charred by third degree burns. In surgery, doctors peeled the dead skin away and replaced it with a graft from his thigh.
ZAK EBRAHIM: As my mother would tell me later, he was sent home on painkillers and antidepressants.
Nosair’s slow recovery revolved around pills and unemployment and what felt to him like its petty humiliations: buying groceries with food stamps, watching his wife go off to her job while he remained in their cramped apartment in the nowheresville of their northern New Jersey town.
ZAK EBRAHIM: Over the course of several months, not being able to work and provide for his family, he became very withdrawn and introverted, and spent more and more time just reading his Quran in the corner of the living room by the heater. He wasn’t really eating very much and fell into a pretty deep depression. And it was around that time that he was looking for a Muslim community in the New Jersey / New York area, of which there are many, to become a part of.
Nosair chose the Al-Salam mosque in Jersey City across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. Just a 20-minute ride on the PATH Train from there to the World Trade Center. Al-Salam was one of a handful of mosques that was then fixated on a debate about the meaning of jihad, a concept at the heart of Islam.
For centuries, the word has primarily described a nonviolent spiritual struggle. If you were around for the aftermath of 9/11, you probably heard this point made by experts and ordinary Muslims trying to distinguish between their religion and its perversion.
AHMED REHAB: This constant misdefinition of the term that was rendered exclusively to mean criminals.
ARUN VENUGOPAL: It’s an internal struggle and can sometimes manifest itself as a physical struggle or an act of self-defense.
MEHDI HASSAN: Islam, like pretty much every mainstream religion is based on love, compassion, and faith.
Jihad, they said, is the inspiring call for Muslims to be true to Islam and build a just society.
But jihad is more than that. It’s a complex ethical construct. It also means holy war. In 1989, a small group of extremist preachers spread out to mosques in America to purge the word of its multiple meanings and flatten its distinctions.
They announced that jihad was about one thing now, and one thing only: violence. And violence against a decadent West full of non-believers pursuing imperialist foreign policies.
ABDULLAH AZZAM: Over time, our power was weakened. And generations fell due to the psychological defeat brought on by the Orientalists’ continuous attacks. And under the pressure of the current reality, the definition of jihad became skewed -- so that working at a company became jihad, justice became jihad, child support became jihad. And all of this is a distortion of the essence of the Quranic texts and the divine terms encapsulated in the word jihad.
This is the imam Abdullah Azzam -- a prolific and influential messenger of jihad.
ABDULLAH AZZAM: That is number one. Jihad is fighting.
Azzam specified that fighting meant “fighting with weapons.” He’s speaking in the late 80s, likely at an event in Brooklyn. He also spoke at the mosque in Jersey City, the one Sayyid Nosair joined when he was searching for a purpose. Nosair sometimes took his sons along. Zak recalls the mosque was above a Chinese takeout restaurant and a shop that sold religious items.
ZAK EBRAHIM: Qurans, Islamic artwork, things like that. And the money used was then sent to Afghanistan, to help train or to provide for the men there.
The “men there” were the mujahideen, Afghan rebels who’d spent the previous decade battling the Soviet Union’s Red Army.
TV NEWS ANCHOR JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. There was a coup d’état in Afghanistan today.
The mujahideen’s goal was simple: end the brutal occupation of their country by ejecting the Soviet troops and toppling the pro-Soviet puppet government. And it was Quixotic: tribesmen in sandals taking on tanks.
But their big break came in 1980, thousands of miles from the front lines.
Cut to: whisky-soaked Congressman Charlie Wilson in a Las Vegas hot tub with strippers.
At least that’s how he’s portrayed in the Hollywood movie about this moment and what came after it.
Charlie Wilson has a reputation as one of the worst members of Congress. In the words of Texas Monthly magazine, he’s a “hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, lightweight lawmaker.” But then, he catches a report on TV. It’s about the mujahideen … and it’s by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes:
DAN RATHER: How long has he had this weapon?
TRANSLATOR: Two months.
DAN RATHER: Does he know it’s from World War I?
TRANSLATOR: Their forefathers used to fight with swords and this is all they have.
As Wilson watches Rather in the hills of Afghanistan -- unshaven, dressed in the local robes -- he has an epiphany. Here is a cause the Congressman can romanticize -- and, if he’s lucky, use to get himself some respect.
CHARLIE WILSON: Basically, the Afghan War is a morally unambiguous war.
That’s Charlie Wilson, making his case on a TV call-in show.
CHARLIE WILSON: There’s no one opposed to the mujahideen. They’ve proven themselves to be so courageous. 10:56 - Everybody thinks the mujahideen are worthy of our support.
So how did a Congressman with a weakness for cocaine and a reputation on Capitol Hill as a womanizing buffoon -- how did this guy convince the Washington establishment to do what he wanted? Because he made a shrewd political argument. Wilson framed the mujahideen cause in Cold War terms -- as a crucial front in the twilit struggle between America and Russia.
CHARLIE WILSON: Throughout history, Afghanistan has never had any problem with their neighbors, except when their neighbors invaded them. And they have, in fact, been invaded by the Red Army. And they are, in fact, engaging Russians in mortal combat.
The idea was to bog the Russians down in a war of attrition until they scampered home, as had happened to the U.S. in Vietnam. It’s one of the major ways that America and Russia pursued their conflict at the time -- through proxy wars in Africa, Latin America and, now, Afghanistan. The CIA was already helping the mujahideen covertly. But CIA intelligence officer Arturo Muñoz says the game changed when backing the mujahideen became a priority of the Cold War ... that’s when the CIA went all in.
ARTURO MUÑOZ: Our mission then was to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan because they’re Communists. And If these Muslim jihadists want to help us well why not, and the Muslim jihadists thought the same thing about us. It was a marriage of convenience.
A marriage of convenience. At first secretly supported by the CIA but later very publicly declared … after a high-ranking official fell in love with the idea:
RONALD REAGAN: International support for the brave Afghan freedom fighters is more solid than ever. Ivan, go home.
President Ronald Reagan, who woke up every morning in the 1980s looking to stick it to the Russians. And that’s what happened. The American foreign policy establishment, led by the CIA, invested billions in money and military arms into the fight. And got a big return: the Red Army retreating back to Moscow in 1989. And when this story became a movie, Congressman Charlie Wilson, hot tub party boy, got to see a valorized version of himself played by Tom Hanks.
WILSON/HANKS: This is what we always do, we always go in with our ideals and then we change the world. And then we leave. We always leave. But, that ball though, it keeps on bouncing.
Tom Hanks-as-Charlie-Wilson pretty much calls it in that clip. The pragmatic alliance between the United States and the mujahideen didn’t last long. Here’s what the most militant wing of the mujahideen did once they’d expelled the Soviets ... and re-affirmed Afghanistan’s role as “the graveyard of empires.”
First, they dissolved their marriage of convenience to the U.S.
Second, they didn’t bother to inform their former ally that they were now exes -- and, more than that, enemies. These were the Arab volunteers who’d come from around the world to fight for the Afghan cause -- some had also long despised the United States for meddling in their home countries, up to and including overthrowing governments.
Third, they launched a P.R. campaign. Islamist speakers fanned out to mosques in dozens of countries to tell the same spellbinding tale about how they’d toppled a superpower … and how they could do it again.
ABDULLAH AZZAM: Jihad is not confined to Afghanistan Where do you fight? In the places you are able to reach.
That’s Abdullah Azzam again -- a man with vivid accounts from the Afghan front … and a gripping personal story. He began as an ordinary Palestinian Islamic scholar, then followed a call to become a holy warrior. And then by moving up the ranks and thinking big, he’d earned himself the honorific, “The Father of Global Jihad.”
ABDULLAH AZZAM: I shall make war my mother, and the spear my brother, and the sword my father...
“I shall make war my mother.”
That’s Azzam quoting a poem in a sermon he delivered in Oklahoma. Azzam was 48 in 1989, tall and charismatic. He had a long black beard with slashes of white on each side, like lightning bolts. When speaking to American audiences, he wore the distinctive hat of the Afghan fighter -- round-topped, woolen, earthy brown. In case you needed a reminder he’d recently been in combat.
Sayyid Nosair, future assassin of Meir Kahane, went to hear Abdullah Azzam speak at the Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn.
Before I tell you what Azzam said, take a moment to put this simple map in your mind. It’s where all of the action in the first four episodes of this podcast takes place.
In the middle of the map is Manhattan, which juts down like a tongue between two rivers. The World Trade Center is down toward the tip of the tongue. To the left, across the Hudson River, is the Jersey City mosque that Sayyid Nosair first joined. To the right, across the East River, is the Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn.
Both mosques served their communities in traditional and constructive ways. Neither responded to my repeated requests for comment. As far as we know, they still do. But in the 1980s and into the 90s, they also incubated a small group dedicated to violent jihad.
OK, that’s the map.
The Al-Farooq mosque is in a lively Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s known for its Yemeni cafes and Middle Eastern specialty shops.
The mosque is still there and still functions as a community of faith. It’s on Atlantic Avenue two blocks from the Barclay’s Center, where the Brooklyn Nets play basketball and Beyoncé struts onstage. The mosque, by its looks, has none of that glamour.
JOHN MILLER: If you went by the place, you saw a second floor mosque upstairs and a storefront that looked like nothing.
John Miller is deputy commissioner of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism operations. But back in 1990, he was a reporter working the crime beat for NBC in New York.
JOHN MILLER: Looking at it you would’ve never known what was going on behind the scenes.
That's just urban life: interesting things occuring on the back side of bland facades.
Sayyid Nosair listened closely as Abdullah Azzam poured out his intoxicating message: He told tales of mujahideen rebels whose bodies were impervious to Soviet bullets, who were accompanied in combat by angels on horseback, and who were protected from falling bombs by squadrons of birds.
Nosair was sold.
He yearned to travel to Afghanistan and become a Muslim soldier. But his American wife forbade it. He said, “Then I’m moving the family to Egypt so the children can be raised in a Muslim country.” But his Egyptian relatives told him he was nuts. They said, “You’re lucky to live in America,” and overruled him.
ZAK EBRAHIM: My grandfather basically told him, “Absolutely not. Your family is your responsibility. I will disown your family if you go do this.” I think because that avenue was cut off to him, he decided he was going to find some other way to contribute to this battle as he saw it between Islam and non-believers.
Zak remembers it was around then that his father stopped playing baseball and soccer with him and began spending more time at the pair of mosques that bookended Lower Manhattan. One in Brooklyn and one in Jersey City.
ZAK EBRAHIM: My father was not a fool. He was a very intelligent man. I think that when he no longer had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan to fight, that he wanted to find some way to do it in the United States.
Nosair would’ve heard Azzam claim that the victory in Afghanistan was only the beginning. In his talks, Azzam would declare, “Oh brothers, after Afghanistan, nothing in the world is impossible for us anymore. There are no superpowers or mini-powers anymore. What matters is the willpower that springs from our religious belief.”
The call was clear. It was time to confront new enemies. Choose new targets. Sayyid Nosair started making a list.
ZAK EBRAHIM: He was also quicker to anger and to becoming impatient. I noticed that he and my mother were arguing more, which was a surprise to me, because you know they didn’t really argue very much. They were a very loving couple for the most part. even to a young kid like me, I could see it in my father that he started to change to the point that one Friday afternoon, coming from the mosque, you know, I asked my father, when did you become such a good Muslim? Because I interpreted his zealousness for piety, I guess. And he basically said, ‘When I came to the United States and saw everything that was wrong with it.’ And you could see the anger on his face.
That’s when Nosair made his decision.
STAND-UP OUTSIDE MARRIOTT HOTEL
I’m outside the New York Marriott East Side in Manhattan.
This hotel has the same grand entrance as it did back in the 90s: Corinthinian columns topped by gargoyles. And then, as now, the sidewalk is crowded with pedestrians and the street was jammed. Cars honking. Hey, I’m walkin’ here!
On the night of November 5th, 1990, the Marriott was hosting a conference on Zionism for 70 members of a group called, The Jewish Idea. And their keynote speaker was Rabbi Meir Kahane.
FADE DOWN ON AMBI
Meir Kahane was 58 years old -- in his prime as a public figure … an ultra-nationalist with both angry detractors and followers who extolled him as a prophet.
KAHANE: As long as the Arabs are here inside Israel, there will be Jews killed every single day. The only answer is, out. I want them out.
Sayyid Nosair slipped into the second floor conference room and quietly took a seat. He wore a yarmulke. It wasn’t much of a disguise … but it would prove surprisingly effective. Nosair was patient: Meir Kahane talked for more than an hour, turning the heat up under his rhetoric as he went. Things like:
MEIR KAHANE: The Arab is a cancer in our midst and you don’t coexist with a cancer.
I imagine Nosair sitting with his legs crossed, blending in by looking curious and nonchalant … grinding his teeth at every word.
Reporter John Miller was out that night on the Upper East Side, not far from the Marriott.
JOHN MILLER: I was having dinner with basically the response team for the Manhattan Homicide Squad in an Italian restaurant. And just as the food hit the table, the beepers went off.
Moments before, at the hotel, Kahane had finished speaking and was standing at the front of the room, signing books for his fans. That’s when Sayyid Nosair pulled out a .357 magnum, draped his coat over it, and said, “This is the moment.” Nosair held the gun at hip level so no one could jar his outstretched arm and send his shot astray.
He reached Kahane ... and fired.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
Sayyid Nosair’s shot rips through the rabbi’s throat. Kahane goes down. In the pandemonium, Nosair flees toward a rear exit. A Kahane supporter grabs him and tries to put him in a bear hug … but Nosair shoots the man in the leg. He then hurries out and down a set of stairs, runs through the lobby and bursts onto Midtown's busy streets.
John Miller says:
JOHN MILLER: The gunman jumps into a taxi, pulls out this pistol and tells the taxi driver, ‘Go! Go!’
They drive a couple of blocks before they're stopped. It's not clear why ... Either another Kahane supporter blocks the cab or, the more New York explanation, there’s just too much damn traffic.
JOHN MILLER: At this moment, a U.S. Postal Service police officer is coming up the street, and he sees a guy pointing a gun to the head of a taxi driver.
Right then, a Kahane supporter spots Nosair and starts banging on the window. In the confusion, the driver leaps out his door to safety. Nosair slips out the other side of the taxi … only to find himself facing the postal service policeman, who’s aiming a pistol right at him.
JOHN MILLER: So he engages the suspect and then gets in a shootout on Lexington Avenue.
In front of witnesses who described the scene to reporters.
MAN ON STREET: And the guy was running down the street, and the guy shot at the post office man, um, and it hit it in the arm and then the post office man shot him.
The officer actually takes a slug not to his arm but to his bulletproof vest. His shot drops Nosair.
JOHN MILLER: The ambulance get there. One takes Meir Kahane, who is gravely wounded, to Bellevue Hospital. El-Sayyid Nosair also to Bellevue Hospital. And then in this surreal moment, they end up side by side, separated by a few feet, while doctors work feverishly to save the target of an assassination and, right next to him, the assassin.
In an extra bit of symmetry, Nosair also had been shot in the neck. Doctors feared that removing the bullet would tear his artery. So they left it in and sewed up the wound. Nosair survived.
TV NEWS ANCHOR PERRI PELTZ: For more on that part of the story we go now to Jon Miller live at Bellevue Hospital, John…
JOHN MILLER: Perri, this is where Meir Kahane was pronounced dead after doctors fought to revive him.
Outside the hospital, reporters swarmed Joseph Borelli, the NYPD’s chief of detectives, for information on the shooter.
JOSEPH BORELLI: I guess the obvious question is, ‘What is he?’ Apparently it looks like a Middle Eastern name. I am not a judge of, uh, what nationality he might be and all. Everything indicates he was acting alone.
Witnesses had noted Nosair’s yarmulke and concluded that, like most of the men in the room, Nosair was Jewish, which they told the police. The next day, Borelli stuck to this theory at a press conference. Nosair, he insisted, was a “lone, deranged gunman.”
Alone? Sure, in the sense of the guy who pulled the trigger. But in the bigger picture, Sayyid Nosair definitely did not act alone.
He was a member of a new kind of terror cell in America -- a cell with links to a brand new group called Al Qaeda. A cell made up of like-minded extremists, who would go on to pull off more and more spectacular attacks … against the United States.
You could write a pretty good buddy cop movie about the team that caught the Kahane case. Louis Napoli was a rumpled, blunt detective with the NYPD. Loud sports coat kinda guy. You know those precinct interrogation rooms on Law & Order? The ones with the bare bulb and the cop staring across the table at the perp like, “Listen, I’m gonna ask you this once, ya’ fuckin wiseguy.” That’s him.
LOUIS NAPOLI: I came from the police department in 1968 where I did patrol work. Had close to hundreds of arrests, from homicides to narcotics to, you know, the full gamut. You’re dealing with a person that had street smarts.
His partner, John Anticev, was an FBI Special Agent.
JOHN ANTICEV: if you had asked me when I was in high school what you want to be when you grow up uh was to be an FBI agent.
Close-cropped hair, buttoned-down suit, fastidious. Anticev was Napoli’s stylistic opposite. But they were a team.
Anticev and Napoli were part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a collaboration between the FBI and local law enforcement. Both had grown up in Brooklyn but Napoli says that’s about all they had in common before their bosses paired them up.
LOUIS NAPOLI: John came on in 1987 from banking. You’re talking about a person coming on that had book smarts. and John was very timid at in the beginning.
John Anticev takes issue with the word “timid.”
JOHN ANTICEV: I had my share of street fights growing up. So I- I could debate Louis on that anytime.
But Louis Napoli’s bulldog style rubbed off on him right away.
JOHN ANTICEV: What I learned from Lou-Louis was a tenacious, can do, don’t take no for an answer type of attitude.
There’s always a scene in the buddy movie where the partners warily size each other up … One day Anticev and Napoli were driving in the city …
JOHN ANTICEV: And I was sitting in the passenger seat, and we were stopped at a- at a red light and it turned green, and he wasn’t paying attention. So I kinda just looked at him and said, “It ain’t gonna get no greener,” and he just started cracking up, and then he took off, and uh we had a good rapport after that.
Now picture them: they’re driving through the embattled, broke, y’know the bombed-out parts of 1990s New York. John Gotti, peep shows, “Crack is Whack” -- the flip side of the affluent, gentrified playground the city would become.
I’ve been a reporter in New York for more than thirty years and even I forget how bad it was back then. Street crime rampant, that was just a given, but there was a whole other category of violence. Groups of foreign extremists trying to make a name for themselves by staging deadly attacks on political targets, like embassies, in New York, America’s media capital.
Reporter John Miller was there too.
JOHN MILLER: If you look at 1990’s in New York City, New York was kind of the United Nations of terrorism…
FEMALE REPORTER: Bombings, armored car heists, bank robberies, and assassinations.
JOHN MILLER: We had, uh, the anti-Castro Cuban terrorists who had been blowing up, the Cuban Mission.
MALE REPORTER: Omega 7 has taken responsibility…
JOHN MILLER: We had the Jewish Defense League terrorist who had been blowing up the Russian Mission to the UN.
FEMALE REPORTER: At least four people are injured.
MALE REPORTER: A Turkish group calling itself the Justice Commandos claimed responsibility.
MILLER: We had Armenian terrorists attacking the Turkish mission.
FEMALE REPORTER: The explosion flattened the car and sent pieces of it flying for several blocks.
JOHN MILLER: We had Croation terrorists attacking the Yugoslav Mission.
The job of the Joint Terrorism Task Force was to just wade into this mayhem and try to sort it all out.
JOHN MILLER: So you had a task force that were very busy trying to keep track of all of these small disparate groups, but there was nothing on the radar like Al Qaeda. It wasn’t even really a concept.
On November 5, 1990, very few people in American law enforcement or intelligence circles had even heard of Al Qaeda. Detective Napoli and Agent Anticev sure hadn’t. That night, all they knew was they were investigating a shooting, more brazen than most and apparently driven by ideology, but one of many in New York.
They went to Bellevue Hospital, where they eyeballed Nosair.
LOUIS NAPOLI: The face looked familiar So about four, five o’clock in the morning when we finally got back to the office, you know, John and I said, “You know, let’s take a look at some of these photos that we had.”
Photos from a case that Anticev and Napoli had been working for months.
LOUIS NAPOLI: And lo and behold… there was Nosair.
The agents had been running surveillance on the Al-Farooq mosque on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The same mosque that had helped radicalize Nosair.
LOUIS NAPOLI: About 1989, I get a call from a source that I had, and he says, ‘Lou.’ He says, ‘You know, there’s something very funny here. I had an Imam from a mosque in Brooklyn who stated that he wanted to purchase some ammunition.’
JOHN ANTICEV: Approximately twenty-five thousand rounds of ammunition for AK-47s on a monthly basis, which is extraordinary.
LOUIS NAPOLI: So I says, ‘That’s a clue [LAUGHS] that something is wrong.’
Unbeknownst to the rest of the mosque’s members the imam was part of a group of men who were training with semi-automatic weapons.
LOUIS NAPOLI: When we went down, we saw, like, flyers on the mosque walls…You know, “All Muslims should learn how to use firearms.”
The flyers had a drawing of a man on one knee, arms forward, shooting a handgun.
LOUIS NAPOLI: So we had the surveillance go and follow them.
JOHN ANTICEV: They were leaving the mosque usually on Saturdays and Sundays and going to various places to learn how to shoot…And we figured the reason for that was they were trying to recruit people to become mujahideen to go fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
As we know, the mujahideen cause and the American cause were one in the same. So in principle, there was no problem with Muslims training to fight the Soviets. But to be safe, Anticev and Napoli checked the paperwork on the Al-Farooq group’s weapons and ammo. And found no red flags: It had all been legally purchased.
JOHN ANTICEV: There was no indication that they were partaking in any kind of terrorist acts. All the firearms they were using were registered properly.
In other words, no one had done anything arrestable. Zak Ebrahim says he went on one of the group’s trips to a shooting range on Long Island, which felt like a family outing.
ZAK EBRAHIM: I was excited to go.
He was seven years old.
My father basically showed me how to aim at the target. And I wasn’t very good at first, but on the last turn I hit the orange light that sat on top of the target, and it exploded. And I thought that I was in trouble, but my father seemed to be quite happy with that. And my uncle turned to the other men, and in Arabic, said, “Ibn abu,” which means, like father, like son. And I didn’t really understand what they meant by that or why so many of them laughed when he said it. It really wasn’t until years later that I realized that he basically meant that I was exhibiting the same kind of… potential for destruction that my father was.
Zak’s father never got to realize his “potential for destruction” in the way he really wanted: by decamping to Afghanistan and fighting in the war. Instead he brought the war to a hotel in Manhattan. And as with so many other unintended consequences of Charlie Wilson’s war, the CIA failed to anticipate Nosair’s bullet. That and everything else that grew out of US support for the mujahideen.
LEON PANETTA: Assistance was provided, stinger missiles were provided.
That’s former CIA director Leon Panetta.
LEON PANETTA: The CIA was deeply involved in trying to build that resistance. But I also don’t think that there was any discussion about whether we were in a sense investing in our future problems.
The term for these “future problems” is “blowback.”
The CIA itself coined the word “blowback” to describe the unintended consequence of a covert action, especially one that boomerangs on America. Like, sponsoring the coup that took down the democratically elected government of Iran … and sowing so much anger that the result was the Iranian revolution. So here’s how it happened in this case. The CIA did more than support the mujahideen, Afghanistan’s homegrown rebels. The CIA also backed a secret program calling on radical Muslims from around the world to come to Afghanistan. Senior intelligence officer Arturo Muñoz:
ARTURO MUÑOZ: It was a world-wide movement to recruit jihadists to fight the Russians. And we were completely supportive of it.
I guess the CIA could’ve taken out ads in Arab-language newspapers saying, “Uncle Sam Wants You … to Fight and Maybe Die To Further Our Anti-Communist Goals.” Yeah, no. What they needed was a partner who’d be credible to Muslims.
The obvious candidate was the intelligence service of Pakistan. 1) It was experienced in exactly this type of operation and 2) it was graciously willing to accept plane loads of money from the CIA. So the Pakistanis got the job … then promptly hired someone else to carry out the recruiting. A jihadist group. And who was the leader of this group? None other than Abdullah Azzam.
ABDULLAH AZZAM: The pages of history are few, and only the names of the great are written in them.
The man with the lightning bolts in his beard.
ABDULLAH AZZAM: How did their names appear? Only by their deeds, only by their jihad.
The man whose fiery sermons against the West had activated Zak’s father, Sayyid Nosair, in Brooklyn… and inspired him to assassinate Meir Kahane. The CIA had made an indirect but massive investment in Abdullah Azzam. Textbook blowback.
I’m Catholic … so I can’t help but view this decision by the CIA in terms of original sin. At least from the American side. The CIA did a lot to lure many of the world's most militant Islamists to gather in one place -- Afghanistan -- where they were armed, trained, and financed. It turned Afghanistan into the Harvard Business School of jihad, where the students learned the latest lessons about mounting an insurgency … and where a great deal of personal networking led to dynamic future partnerships.
As in the most famous example of all blowbacks, which was gestating at this very moment.
It involved a rich Saudi who’d studied economics and emerged from the Afghan War a hero to some in the Muslim world: Osama bin Laden.
It was Abdullah Azzzam who convinced bin Laden to join the Mujahideen in the first place and who fought with him in the war. Bin Laden then made a confounding decision -- or, at least, it was confounding to U.S. intelligence. He declared war on America. And to do that, he founded an organization that, for its kind, was unprecedented in ambition and, eventually, global in its reach ... Al Qaeda.
But go back to the little boy, Zak Ebrahim, in suburban New Jersey.
While he slept, it was his father, Sayyid Nosair, who answered the call to bring jihad to America. To Ebrahim’s dismay, his father’s killing of a rabbi that night earned for him bin Laden’s lasting gratitude.
ZAK EBRAHIM: Osama bin Laden released a videotape saying, ‘Remember Nosair. Remember the sacrifice he made.’
Next time on Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
The chase begins.
JOHN MILLER: And they say wait a minute -- this is one of the guys who we would follow from the mosque to the Calverton gun shooting range.
And the detectives discover puzzling connections.
JOHN MILLER: He goes overseas to Peshawar in Pakistan and is meeting with this Osama bin Laden.
PETER BERGEN: The United States effectively was in the early stages of a war that they didn’t really understand was happening.
JOHN MILLER: He’s the Mozart of Terrorism.
Blindspot: the Road to 9/11 is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Our team includes Jenny Lawton, Ursula Sommer, Joe Plourde, David Lewis, and Michelle Harris. The music is by Isaac Jones.
This podcast is based on the TV documentary “Road to 9/11” produced by Left/Right for HISTORY, and was made possible by executive producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. Special thanks to Eli Lehrer, Jessie Katz, Jennifer Goren, Celia Muller, Emily Botein, Sarah Qari, and Meg Cramer -- and to Steve Emerson for providing archival audio of Abdullah Azzam used in this episode. Additional archival footage from NBC News Archives, New York Public Radio Archives, and WPIX. All of our Arabic language tape was independently translated by Lara Atallah. Our voice over actor this episode was Ramsey Faragallah. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
Production Note: This podcast was recorded at an inn under quarantine in upstate New York. In residence was Yarosh, an 8 year old boy in constant search of playmates.
[sound of knocking on door]
JIM: Who is it?
JIM: How are you?
YAROSH: Good. Can you play with me?
JIM: I can't play with you right now. All these people are saying, "Give me the thing, give me the writing, I can't play with Yarosh."
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.