This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. I’m Jim O’Grady.
Today we pause from chasing terrorists to focus on one man. He and I talked in the summer of 2020 and all he would say of his whereabouts was he was living on the Eastern Seaboard: His name is Emad Salem.
Now close listeners to this podcast will notice his name is pronounced a bunch of different ways:
[WATERFALL: “Emad” “Emad” “Emad” “Salem” “Salem” “Salem”]
He pronounces it Emad Salem [eye-MAD SAY-lem].
His former FBI handler calls him, Emad Salem [ee-MOD sah-LEM].
And when I asked him about it he told me to call him Emad Salem [EE-mod SAY-lem] … because, he said, that seems to be the easiest for non-Arabic speakers.
Translating. It’s what he does. Salem has been working as a kind of translator between American and Middle Eastern cultures since he first went undercover for the FBI in the early 1990s.
EMAD SALEM / EPISODE 2: I was proud that I am Emad Salem, helping the American FBI. It was a great honor for me.
If you haven’t listened to the first four episodes of this show, we recommend you go back and check them out. This interview will make more sense if you have all the plot points.
You’ll hear about how Emad Salem was approached by handlers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Those were FBI Special Agent John Anticev and NYPD Detective Louis Napoli. They asked him to infiltrate a group of terrorists and he agreed. And that operation ended up thwarting the Landmarks Plot, which could have killed thousands of people. And he did it by getting close to Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the Blind Sheikh. Salem became his right hand man.
EMAD SALEM / EPISODE 3: We used to send faxes to Osama bin Laden, requesting money, discussing logistics and I was present so many times when he did that.
From the start, Salem told the FBI to take the Blind Sheikh seriously -- and to take his core group of followers seriously when they discussed assassinations and mass casualty attacks.
EMAD SALEM / EPISODE 4: I was fully aware of their capabilities of violence and what damage they can create in the American street.
Another of Salem’s translations was between the separate sides of his life undercover. He describes himself as a family man who would dote on his two kids … then leave the house to play the role of a terrorist plotting to blow up people on their way to work -- a role he had to fully inhabit because anything else might give him away … and his wife and his children wouldn’t see him again. And maybe they’d be killed, too.
So I had questions about his double life. Like, how did he decide what to tell his family about the risks he was taking and the danger he might be putting them in? And how was he able to befriend someone he was trying to send to prison?
If you have heard the previous episodes, you know that Salem’s stories are dramatic, sometimes verging on bonkers. But they’ve been fact-checked and are part of the public record.
What you’re about to hear in this interview are other stories from his personal experience.
I was able to independently verify the broad brushstrokes of some of what he said, but not all of it. So keep in mind that when Salem tells a story, he makes himself the hero … and he obviously relishes the intrigue of covert operations. However you cannot discount him. He really was an FBI informant, and he really was critical to taking down that bombing plot.
Speaking of which, some of the people he mentioned to me have not been convicted for the activities he describes -- so you’ll hear that we’ve bleeped out their names.
Here’s our conversation.
JIM: This really was a dangerous assignment, signing on y’know to go undercover for the FBI. Why did you sign on for it?
EMAD: See, my country -- the word, “my country” -- is something significant for me as an army man. Once it is my country, then it is my obligation to protect it. I'm a warrior.
JIM: So it sounds like you have a sense of mission.
EMAD: Yes, definitely. Absolutely.
JIM: All right. That leads to my next question, which is, can you just describe, like, if there's such a thing as an average day as an undercover asset with the Blind Sheikh? Do you wake up in the morning and, like, kiss your kids on the forehead and send them to school and then go through a metamorphosis before you go undercover?
EMAD: It sounds like that, yes. I wake up in the morning. I am the cook in my household. So I have the task of the kitchen, coffee for my wife and breakfast for the kids and lunch boxes. And then they go to their school and I'm on my way in to start from Abu Bakr Mosque in Queens a couple of hours and then I go to a New Jersey Al-Salam mosque. Then couple of hours I go to Al-Farooq mosque Brooklyn.
EMAD: And the Blind Sheikh's operations mostly was being plotted in the basement of Abu Bakr mosque.
JIM: Oh, why is that, to give him distance?
EMAD: Yes and it has a basement and in the basement, you are very isolated.
JIM: Okay, so you’re going from place to place, you’re picking up details, getting names, maybe you’re learning the organizational structure, and you’re clueing into these plots. And that’s your job. But let me get you back into your own mind and your own heart when you cook breakfast and you bring coffee to your wife and you're in this loving domestic scene, right? And then you have to walk out your door and become a terrorist for, you know, Anticev said sometimes for 12 to 14 hours, you know, sometimes till 3 in the morning. How do you do that?
EMAD: You have to compartmentalize.
JIM: But what does that mean? How does it feel?
EMAD: It feels that you have to forget that you are the father. You have to forget that you are a husband. And you have to talk like a terrorist. You have to think like a terrorist. You have to eat like the way they eat. It's a whole different story.
JIM: I had a friend who did undercover narcotics work in the NYPD. And he said he had to stop after a while because being with criminals so much, he started to think like a criminal. Did you ever have that?
EMAD: I don't think so, no. No, because that is the difference between hunting drug dealers, different from hunting, like, mafia, and hunting fanatics. Fanatics is all religious curtains. You hide behind that to be able to accomplish your goals. They are not really, really religious as they claim. I mean, how some of them who were standing in the mosque on Friday to give the Friday speech and midnight, he put his wife in bed and go have a phone sex with a prostitute. So when you dissect these people, which I have been -- I slept with them in the basement. I ate with them. I traveled with them. And I always looked at them, how they operate and how they recruit. And I immediately have to explain that to my agents to educate the difference between hunting a drug dealer or hunting an American criminal, from Middle Eastern
fanatics. It's a big difference.
Salem kept his two lives very separate. But there were some things he didn’t keep from his wife. For example, he says she knew that he was working with the FBI. And as you’ll hear in a minute, she was even willing to help her husband with a particularly … odd request. But she didn’t know the details of his operations -- how dangerous they were, the risks he was taking, or even the implications for their family.
EMAD: I did not tell her that I'm infiltrating radicals because she is so -- I mean, my wife is the sweetest, most delicate woman you can meet in your life. She will faint if she knows that.
JIM: So you didn't tell her anything?
EMAD: No, I did not tell her. Except that last week when we already built five bombs for the day of terror And I felt that they are going to take the case down. And it was explained to me that I'm going to go to the Witness Protection Program. So, I had a discussion with her and I told her that we have to leave here -- and of course, it was very bad discussion for her because she felt that I'm betraying her and I am destroying the family. And I told her, “You saw that they succeeded to blow up the World Trade Center.
EMAD: And I couldn't wait until they blow five targets all at once.
“I'm not going to tell you. You're going to hear about it in the news.”
JIM: So she was mad?
EMAD: Oh, she was mad until the point the FBI told her, “Okay, we have to take Emad and his kids and you can stay in the apartment and we can give you some money.” And she said, “No, wherever my husband go, I go with him.”
JIM: What is your wife's name?
JIM: Karen, I thought so.
EMAD: She used to be Karen. She went through name changes or identity changes 16 times with me because I live at this time under assumed identity. My name at this moment is not Emad Salem. My name now is the 16th identity I live under.
JIM: Was there ever a time when your undercover life and your real life bled into each other?
EMAD: I'll tell you how. There is a time when my wife picked up the phone by mistake. I went out with John Anticev and Louis Napoli to tell them what I had done the night before. The phone rang and accidently she picked up and XXXXXXX say, “Where is brother Emad?” And she said, “Oh, he went out with his friends from the FBI.” And immediately, there is flags being raised in XXXXXXX's ears. And he said, “Okay, we'll wait for him when he come back.” I finished my briefing and I thought, let me give her a call if she wants me to pick some milk or something from the store. “Hi, honey. I'm done with my work coming -- heading back home. You want anything?” She said, “No, nothing, just want you to know that XXXXXXX called. I said, “Who? How did you know?” She said, “Well, I just answered the phone.”
“Oh my God. What did you tell him?”
She said, “I told him that you went with your friends.”
She said, “The FBI.”
Oh, my God. I'm dead now. Now I am killed. The result of that, XXXXXXX and XXXXXXX came to me at the lobby of my building and they said, “Brother Emad, come downstairs. We got to go for a ride.” And I know when he said that, that that is the ride of my death. They are taking me to kill me. And we start to drive In Brooklyn, we went to elementary school. The metal door is locked by chain and lock because it's Sunday. XXXXXXX came out of the car unlock the padlock, open the metal gate. We drove the car inside in the middle of the school and they lock the gate again and all of a sudden, they took me to a classroom. Of course, there is nobody whatsoever in the school. And in the classroom, my adrenaline is spiked high in the sky and I am -- my heartbeat is very high and but all of that has to be suppressed because if I show that I am in a panic, then they shake me down.
EMAD: What they trying to do is to shake me down.
JIM: To expose you, to make you react.
EMAD: Exactly. And I have to be as cold as ice. And they start to say, “what happened with the FBI yesterday?” I said, oh, you know, “these fat ass son of a bitch. The agent, he wants me to spy on the mosque.” And this and that. The story I cooked it in my mind to be able to diffuse “going out with my friends.”
JIM: So, you said, “That's why the FBI is talking to me. They're trying to recruit me and I said no.”
EMAD: Correct. They didn't believe me. So XXXXXXX got a nine millimeter handgun out of his vest and he said, “OK. We heard that you're a martial artist.” I said, “Yes, I am a black belt.” He said, “OK, come here.” And took me to the blackboard, spread my legs, spread my hands, my face to the board. And he had the gun in my back, in his right hand and his left hand, he start to frisk my chest. He think that I am wired.
JIM: Under your shirt.
JIM: But you put the wire … someplace else.
EMAD: Here's what happened. XXXXXXX got very angry and he got the gun, put it in the back of my head with his right hand and his left hand again to my chest. So at that time, I have to come out of that. So I put my hands into my pants, the back of my pants and my underwear together. And I put them down to my knees and I said, “Check my butt. Maybe I have a microphone there.” And I bent over exposing my butt to him.
EMAD: So he said, “Man, put your clothes on.” And I immediately went into a rage. But more than the rage, was important is that I exposed my behind. Then they got bashful and they backpedaled from that. And they end up to make up with me, took me to a Chinese restaurant --
EMAD: -- and they ordered shrimp fried rice to make me feel a little better.
JIM: Emad, by pulling down your pants, you did two things at once. You shocked these guys.
JIM: And you hid the mic in your pants.
EMAD: Yes, because the mic was in my crotch front area. I pulled the pants from the back. And the mic is intact up front.
JIM: And you had anticipated that they might frisk you for a mic, right?
EMAD: Well, I did. Yes. That's why I asked my wife to sew some compartment in my underwear, because I know that if they will frisk me, they will frisk my shirt. Nobody will come to catch my, my crotch.
JIM: How do you do this, man? You're crazy.
EMAD: You can call it crazy, but I think as you said it yourself, I was on a mission.
Salem grew up watching James Bond movies … and I think at times he imagined himself as Agent 007.
And now, I know the question you have on your mind: Does it work to wear a wire … in the crotch of your pants?! Well, we asked John Anticev and Louis Napoli: Is it possible to get a recording from this location?
Confirmed. Although they added that hiding electronics down there could make it … pretty warm.
And now you know.
JIM: Did you ever like any of these guys and feel bad that you're trying to betray them?
EMAD: Yes, yes. I liked Ibrahim El-Gabrowny
JIM: This is Said Nosair's cousin.
EMAD: Correct, because he took me home and he cooked dinner for me And I really liked him until he told me, “I want you to build a big bomb.” Then I have to stop and go back to my mission and leave my emotion aside.
JIM: So during the period where you liked him, where he cooked for you and he was generous and nice to you and introducing you to his family members, did you ever have a moment of doubt about betraying him?
EMAD: No, I felt some kind of guilty because I saw him going eventually to prison. But immediately what comes to mind that if I stop him, there is at least five, six hundred people's life gonna be saved.
That’s Emad Salem, the only guy I know who got out of having a gun held to his head by making a group of terrorists feel bashful.
Up next, we’ll learn about the profound impact that entering the Witness Protection Program had on Salem and his family -- and how they’re still feeling the effects.
More of our conversation in a minute.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
Before the break, we heard Emad Salem explain how he was able to gather evidence against a man he was friendly with, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny. Although some people pronounce it El-Gabrowny [el-GAH-brow-nee]. Anyway. He did it by thinking about the thousands of people who could’ve been killed in the Landmarks Plot. Salem felt very differently about the ringleader of that plot, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali. Salem considered Siddig Ali especially fanatical in his devotion to violent jihad. And says it was satisfying to testify against him at trial. In 1999, Siddig Ali pleaded guilty, and because he cooperated with the authorities, he was sentenced to only 11 years in federal prison. He was released. And then, not that long ago ...
EMAD: I was surprised that I met Siddig Ali in Atlanta airport face-to-face. And --
EMAD: Yeah, I was going to give a speech for the counter terrorism task force. And once I am traveling, I cannot carry my weapon with me. And that's why I have to have a hat, I have to have glasses. I constantly change my appearances during traveling between airports. And in Atlanta, I was walking from gate to gate to take my second flight, and here is Siddig Ali coming head on to me and I immediately took a side and I monitored him But thankfully, he did not recognize me. He did not look behind him. He continued walk straight. And I immediately take my precautions not to be close by this area.
JIM: Wow. When was this?
EMAD: I would say three years ago.
JIM: Yeah, so it’s because your enemies are still out there that you’ve changed location and identity at least 16 times. Is that in the whole time since you testified?
EMAD: Correct. I changed my identity a lot. And I changed my location so many times. Actually, I was not smart enough that I bought myself a house in California. And that's after I finished testimony and everything. I took my family and we lived there. So my daughter went to school one day. She was like eleven, twelve years old at that time. And the teacher introduced her to the class: “This is Jennifer.”
JIM: Which is not her real name, right?
EMAD: Yes. Of course, that was her new identity she assumed from the Marshals Service.
EMAD: The teacher said, “She is a Muslim. And there is some good Muslim people help us to catch the bad people.” And she got the newspaper with my picture in it to show to the class to vouch for what she's saying. My daughter saw my picture and she said, “Oh, that's my dad.” Proudly --
EMAD: -- Of course, the teacher was shocked and immediately took her out, went to the principal. They called me and they said, “Well, your daughter said that your picture in the newspaper and you are this, you are that.” I called the Marshals Service. They said, “You have three hours. You have cars in front of your door.” They took me out of my house. I never went back. And I lost the house -- big time. I lost a lot, a lot of money in -- they have very strict rules to protect the witness.
JIM: How many years were you in Witness Protection?
EMAD: I started in 1995. I think, like seven years later when my sister left that program and went back to Cairo, I left the program right after.
EMAD: During the testimony, I requested from the U.S. Attorney I said, “Please bring my sister and her family. Otherwise, she is in trouble back there in Egypt.” And kindly, he brought my sister and her family to America. They lived few years here. And then they said, “We want to go back home.” Now, at that time, the Witness Protection Program Service said, “your sister cannot leave with her husband and her kids knowing your current identity and your current location. So either we have to move you again and change your name again or you have to sign off the program.” And I choose to sign off.
JIM: So when you left the Witness Protection Program, you sort of learned how it worked and you've been running your own Witness Protection Program on yourself it sounds like.
JIM: Can you say how long you've been living in your current location?
EMAD: I will say since last identity change, and that is two years and half.
JIM: Okay, what's the longest you ever stayed in one place?
EMAD: Oh, I stayed in some places for a few years and I start to get established. Actually, it was in Florida at that time until this incident, my wife asked me to take the garbage out. So I walk through my building into the back gate to go to the dumpster. And I saw white van parked next to the dumpster in the back of the building. And the minute I walked out, they floored the gas high speed and they came to me. I thought it's gonna be shooting, but they slammed the brake and two guys jump from the van with tasers and I was ready to pull my gun, but I choose not to. And I just ran the other way and I used my knowledge of the location to hide myself and I got away from them and I left the state immediately, for almost a month, to figure out who was these people
EMAD: Since then, I have to change identity again, move out of the state, take my wife and start a new life again. My daughter cut me off because she was mad at me for choosing to work for the FBI and destroy their education because everytime they have to move with me. So they eventually dropped out of their education and they put the blame on me and pointed the finger at me to the point that it came a time when we coming to move, they refused to move with me anymore, refused to change their names anymore. My kids’ names is different than my current identity at this time because they are tired of the lifestyle we going through.
JIM: And what is your relationship with your two children like today?
EMAD: We text each other and we talk on the phone on Father’s Day and my birthday.
JIM: Okay, do they ever express admiration for what you did?
EMAD: My son, yes, because I taught my son a lot. I taught him how to scuba dive, how to swim, how to shoot guns, and stuff like that and I’m his old man, so he is kind of proud of me for what I did. But I get criticized a lot by my daughter because, of course, it impacted their life very much. The only one stuck by me is my wife.
JIM: Is it hard on her?
EMAD: It is hard on her, but I don’t know why she choose to stick by me. I guess that’s her -- I guess I did something good, I don’t know, I’m not sure.
JIM: Alright, well, let’s leave that --
[door chimes: “motion detected at the front door”]
Oh I hear your alarm going off.
EMAD: Yeah, the sensor say somebody at the door. So, I immediately, see who is at the door, and as you understand, that’s for my security and I have to be close to my weapons and so on and so on
JIM: So you have a closed-circuit camera?
EMAD: Well, I have 6 cameras, some of them visible, and some of them hidden. And then I have infrared alarms. The minute the infrared alarm got triggered, that's when they cut the beam, and I get warning and I get screen turned on, I see who’s at the door.
JIM: So, that’s what we just heard?
So you have the video screen right where you are, you can just glance at it.
JIM: And who -- was it a jogger? What was it?
EMAD: No, somebody was just crossing by from the neighbors.
JIM: Okay. Wow. Okay, well I’m glad you’re safe.
JIM: Emad, what kind of gun do you have?
EMAD: I have 12 guns because I cannot have one in one place,
EMAD: So I have one at my desk, one next to my bed, one in my front room, one in my bathroom, one in my car, you know, I distribute them accordingly so to have it handy to me if I ever need it, but I really don’t so far need it because I have a bodyguard.
JIM: You have a bodyguard?
EMAD: Yes, that’s God. [laughs]
JIM: [laughs] Oh, you got me to walk right into that.
EMAD: [laughs] God is my bodyguard, absolutely. No matter how many guns I have, he is my protector.
JIM: Right. If I remember right, you told the LA Times that you carry a gun on you, even when you’re in public, and that you keep the safety off?
EMAD: Correct, I have no time to load and unload, the safety is off. Even the day the people in the van came and attacked me, I was wearing a short and a tank top, yet, I was carrying my weapon, so I always carry it. Even if I go take a shower, it’s next to me in the shower.
JIM: Oh my gosh, okay.
EMAD: Yeah, it’s a hard, hard way of life, but I think that was -- I choose to do it, so I have to put up with it.
JIM: Yeah, well, let me just sort of review this hard life that is a result of what you did. You’ve moved 16 times.
JIM: You have to carry a gun and you have 12 guns distributed around wherever you might be.
JIM: You made your wife very mad at you when you made her just leave her life and her job in a moment’s notice.
JIM: Your daughter was estranged from you.
JIM: You lost your house in California. The list goes on and on. So, Emad, this is probably the most important question: Was it worth it?
EMAD: It is, of course, especially after the 5 bombs for the Landmark, the Day of Terror trial, just imagine Judge Michael Mukasey wrote that at the end of the case, “It if wasn't [for] Mr. Salem on our side, the catastrophe in Manhattan would have be as worse than the Civil War.” End quote. So, if Judge Mukasey saw that, and I know that God helped me to stop these 5 bombs from going off in the Lincoln Tunnel and Holland Tunnel, and so on and so on, I think God helped me to protect some lives. I failed to protect the 6 lives in the first bombing.
JIM: In the first bombing of the World Trade Center. But in the Landmarks Plot, you succeeded.
EMAD: Thank God because I came back and I did it my way.
That’s Emad Salem. He texted me to say he didn’t want to be known as an infiltrator, but an asset. So that’s Emad Salem, former FBI asset. He’s the author of two memoirs, Undercover and On The Run.
“Blindspot: The Road to 9/11” is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Our team includes Jenny Lawton, Ursula Sommer, Joe Plourde, Michelle Harris, and 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, Bill Moss, Jennifer Goren, and Celia Muller. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
[sound of knocking on door]
JIM: What’s your plan today?
JIM: You’re gonna play legos? What are they?
JIM: Oh, Mandalorians, from “Star Wars.”
YAROSH: Yeah, Marvel, Marvel is from the future.
JIM: Wait, you have legos from the future?
JIM: [laughs] And who are you gonna play with?
YAROSH: Maybe Doug, maybe you.
JIM: Okay, well, play with Doug. I gotta work. See ya!
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.