MONTAGE OF NEWS FOOTAGE FROM 9/11/2001
It's 10 years before the 9/11 attacks. 1991. New York City.
EMAD SALEM: You cannot imagine how happy I was as just a new American citizen that the FBI wanted my help.
This is Emad Salem.
Back then, he was just another immigrant grinding his way up the economic ladder. He’d come from Egypt three years earlier and worked as a cabbie and then reinvented himself as an expert in security. And that was legit: he was a former colonel in the Egyptian Army and knew how to spy on people with electronic devices.
EMAD SALEM: I’m very fully aware about bugs and wires and cameras, hidden camera and, that's my trade.
Salem got jobs doing security -- first at a department store on 5th avenue, where he guarded the store’s secret list of holiday prices, then at a chain hotel near Times Square. Not exactly the life of a John LeCarre double agent. Until …
EMAD SALEM: One day I got on my radio that there is a female at the front desk wanting to meet the head of the security.
The hotel’s clientele was heavy on Russian mobsters and KGB agents, among whom there was a certain amount of overlap.
EMAD SALEM: And lo and behold, Nancy Floyd walks into my office, she’s an American young lady, red hair, very sharp looking, and she said I am FBI and I need your help.
Floyd was an FBI Special Agent. Her brief was to track Russian spies … and other bad actors. She told him she needed a top notch guy, a crack professional, to help her monitor shady doings at the hotel.
EMAD SALEM: I just considered it a great deal of uh, of confidence. And I said, “I will do whatever you need.”
Perhaps by accident, she’d just activated a deeply embedded response in Emad Salem: the desire to please anyone with a badge who shows belief in his abilities.
He told her, “I have a master key.” And that he could let her into the Russians’ rooms when they were away.” Floyd declined; she didn’t have a search warrant. Then Salem had another idea. He told Floyd to come back after lunch. A couple of hours later, Salem handed her a stack of papers. They were copies of documents he’d removed from a briefcase in one of the Russians’ rooms, taken to a Xerox machine, and replaced without detection. He’d also removed the cellophane wrap from a pack of cigarettes for the fingerprints … and replaced it with cellophane from a fresh pack.
EMAD SALEM: So I think she was surprised and impressed.
That’s how it started: the beautiful and sometimes fraught relationship between Emad Salem and the FBI. He and Agent Floyd struck up an informal partnership. Over the next nine months, he closely tracked the comings and goings of the Russians and reported them to the FBI.
EMAD SALEM: I never was getting any compensation for my effort but I was proud that I am Emad Salem helping the American FBI. It was a great honor for me.
Not long after that, Salem met our cops from Episode 1: FBI Agent John Anticev and NYPD detective Louis Napoli. They were a two-man team on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. And, you’ll remember, they were investigating El-Sayyid Nosair. He was the Muslim extremist who’d assassinated a Jewish extremist in front of his supporters at a Midtown Manhattan hotel.
POLICE DISPATCH: OK, is it confirmed? Shots fired?
REPORTER: Federal and local authorities continue to try to piece together the puzzle of El-Sayyid Nosair. The alleged assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane…
John Miller was reporting the story for NBC news at the time. And he remembers talking to Anticev and Napoli about their investigation. It was around this point that they realized....
JOHN MILLER: “Wait a minute this is one of those guys that we would follow from the mosque to the Calverton gun shooting range, where they were doing target practice and we were always wondering, what is this target practice for. And now he’s in the middle of this thing."
The Calverton shooting range, where a group of men from a Brooklyn mosque went to train with AK-47s … and dreamed of joining the Mujahideen. But John Anticev understood that Nosair had raised the stakes.
JOHN ANTICEV: This is not just about people training in firearms now. One of these guys has now actually committed an overt act in our own country.
And that raised an urgent question: Does this group have other targets? And if so, how to figure out what they are?
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. The story of the long, strange wind-up to the attack that remade the world … and the chances we had to stop it. I’m Jim O’Grady.
WATERFALL OF UPCOMING CUTS FROM EPISODE 2
JOHN MILLER: He said, “What next? What next is up to you.”
EMAD SALEM: I know how to make bombs. I know how to shoot guns.
JOHN ANTICEV: It was the worst possible moment
REPORTER: There has been a bombshell verdict in a Manhattan courtroom tonight.
STEVE COLL: Radicals who had essentially been fired up by the anti-Soviet war, in search of a new cause, new enemies, new targets.
NAPOLI: “Wow, this is a find and a half.”
Episode 2: The Mole
It was Nancy Floyd who recommended Emad Salem to FBI Special Agent John Anticev.
JOHN ANTICEV: She said that he was a very good guy, trustworthy, former Egyptian army officer who immigrated to the United States. Now he was the head of security at a hotel.
Anticev and his partner Louis Napoli invited Salem to a get-to-know-you sit-down.
JOHN ANTICEV: The very first time we met, we met in a very small coffee shop. And it was me, Louis and Emad and just the crazy coincidence a very young Kiefer Sutherland sitting right next to us eating a hamburger. Why he was there I have no idea. It’s just very funny.
I’m gonna conjecture that Keifer Sutherland was hungry. So check out this mashed-up New York City scene: over there, a celebrity chowing down on his burger and over here, an Egyptian immigrant in aviator shades sitting down to what might turn out to be a life or death conversation.
Emad Salem is 41 years old. He’s a burly guy with a rocky outcrop of a jaw. He’d grown up in Cairo where he attended The American School as a boy.
EMAD SALEM: I was treated very nicely in my American school.
It was there, he writes in his memoir, that he learned to love three things: “Sharp cheddar cheese, chocolate milk, and the American flag!” Exclamation point.
He was a fan of the James Bond movies and wanted to grow up to be Agent 007. Except it hadn’t worked out that way. He was middle-aged man living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan -- the borgeous landscape of When Harry Met Sally -- with an American wife and two kids.
Reporter John Miller says Salem, more than anything, “wanted to be one of the good guys.” Especially if that put him in the middle of some action.
So now Salem is at this diner with Anticev and Napoli. They start him off with a test.
EMAD SALEM: They showed me a picture of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, and they said, “Do you know this man?” I said, “Yeah, this is the Blind Sheikh.”
This answer really pleased Napoli.
LOUIS NAPOLI: Now, he knew exactly who he was. I mean our faces must have, you know -- must have shined liked, “Wow, we got, you know -- this is a find and a half.”
Test passed. Salem was very familiar with the Blind Sheikh -- a charismatic Egyptian imam associated with Islamism, a political movement that would put Islam at the center of the life and laws of Muslim countries.
Islamism is a sprawling movement -- it has taken many forms and varies from country to country but the vast majority of Islamists are peaceful. And then there are the Islamist extremists. The Blind Sheikh was one of those. His name had kept cropping up in Napoli’s investigation of Nosair’s spiral into violence.
LOUIS NAPOLI: We were just doing normal investigation work. And we got a wire back from the Egyptian intelligence stating that Nosair was an associate of Sheikh Rahman, who by the way is in New York.
Sheikh Rahman’s first home base in the United States was the Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn. That’s where Sayyid Nosair had met him in the years leading up to the Kahane assassination. But that’s not all.
JOHN ANTICEV: The police had gone to his home in New Jersey and seized a bunch of boxes of evidence from his house.
Forty-seven boxes, to be exact, in Nosair’s attic. Some contained dozens of cassettes with diatribes in Arabic calling for Muslims to assail the West. Passages such as: “Cut the transportation of their countries. Tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes.” The speaker was Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh.
PETER BERGEN: The United States effectively was in the early stages of a war that they didn’t really understand was happening.
CNN reporter Peter Bergen has spent decades covering the roots of modern terrorism, which he says is in part the story of cultural misreadings and missed signals by the West.
PETER BERGEN: The war had been declared and acted upon by jihadists militants but we didn’t kind of receive the signal.
He says that in 1991, a figure like the Blind Sheikh was utterly strange to American eyes -- starting with his signature look: a red fez cap with white trim and jet black shades. It was easy to write him off.
PETER BERGEN: The Blind Sheikh looks like a combination of Father Christmas and Ray Charles and probably people thought what a big deal could he be? But in fact he was a very big deal for the people associated with the movement because he’s a genuine religious scholar.
Also: a natural-born rabble-rouser. He’d been blinded by diabetes in childhood but developed a commanding, convincing voice.
OMAR ABDEL-RAHMAN (in translation): We conquer the land of the infidels and expand Islam through the call to Allah, so that if they oppose it, then jihad for the sake of Allah it is. And any solutions other than this are too removed from what Allah has ordained and what was brought upon by the great Islam.
Nosair’s son, Zak Ebrahim, says his father fell under the spell of the Blind Sheikh and became his ardent follower.
ZAK EBRAHIM: You know, the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, was one of the most influential men in the world for finding volunteers and raising funds for the war effort in Afghanistan. Once my father started to interact with the Blind Sheikh our lives changed a lot.
One change: Nosair spent a lot more time at the mosque in Brooklyn -- the Al-Farooq mosque, which was a pillar of support for the Aghan rebels, known as the mujahideen, in their war against the Soviets. The Blind Sheikh gave sermons there.
He’d typically tell his audiences that American foreign policy was the project of Zionists and colonialists. And he called American citizens “descendants of apes and pigs.”
The Blind Sheikh was extreme … but he had his followers. At the end of a speech, a collection would be taken up for the mujahideen. The money rolled in.
EMAD SALEM: These radical people after two things: power and money.
Of course raising money is not a crime. But Agents Anticev and Napoli thought maybe something more was occurring at Al-Farooq mosque. Maybe some of its members had turned their sights from Afghanistan to targets closer to home. And that Nosair might not be the last jihadist to mount an attack in America … on Americans.
JOHN ANTICEV: Once we tied Nosair back to the mujahideen training and the Blind Sheikh, it started to gel that this was an operational cell. Let’s penetrate his cell and find out what’s really going on.
That’s where Emad Salem comes in.
In the Manhattan diner, Anticev and Napoli lean in and made their pitch. Would Salem go undercover and be a mole inside what might be a terrorist cell? Could he get close to the Blind Sheikh, win his trust, and discover his plans? In short, would he risk his life for them? Salem said, Sure. I already know how to do it.
EMAD SALEM: I am very well trained in that back in Egypt because I was a colonel. When you are in that rank you lead almost 2,000 people. So you have to have a special course in security and in that course you learn a lot about how to infiltrate, because you have to have ears and eyes among your people in your platoon to understand if the Muslim Brotherhood penetrated my platoon or not.
The Muslim Brotherhood: a lot of the people in this story can trace their ideological roots to this group. For more than a century, they’ve been a major player in Egyptian politics.
The Muslim Brotherhood sprang up in the 1920s. They were part of a nationalist movement to overthrow British colonial rule in Egypt … and succeeded. Over time, they renounced revolutionary violence and became a more mainstream political party. But their focus has always been on transforming Egypt based on a strict intrerpretation of Islam.
Emad Salem had a harsh view of the Muslim Brotherhood. He considered them enemies of the state and says that as an Egyptian Army officer, he was on the lookout for infiltrators from the Brotherhood.
EMAD SALEM: We see that the history of terrorism in Egypt started by creating the Muslim Brotherhood as a political religious organization and they used violence to convey their message.
The Muslim Brotherhood had a contentious relationship with Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat. And the Blind Sheikh detested him.
In 1981, the sheikh was still boiling with rage over Sadat’s decision to make peace with Israel three years earlier by signing the Camp David Accords. The sheikh despised the deal. And he was not alone, according to CIA intelligence officer Arturo Muñoz.
ARTURO MUÑOZ: With the peace agreement, it was a fundamental realignment in that we were now going to accept Israel -- their right to exist. We’re now going to have a normal relationship with Israel. There was a segment of – of die-hard Islamists who just couldn’t accept that.
So the Blind Sheikh issued a fatwa. It said, a heretical leader deserved to be killed by the faithful. He didn’t mention the Egyptian president by name … but members of an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood took it as their cue to kill Sadat.
Emad Salem says he was there when it all went down. In Cairo. He was in full dress uniform, taking part in a military parade. Suddenly, four rogue soldiers jumped out of trucks and rushed the presidential reviewing stand. They threw grenades and cut down Sadat in a hail of bullets.
LOUD GUNFIRE / CHAOS AT THE SADAT ASSASSINATION
EMAD SALEM: I was three to four hundred feet from the stage where he was assassinated on because I was among the troops securing the parade. I was so very angry. It changed my life. I just went one day to his graveyard and I promised him revenge.
EMAD SALEM: I was happy to infiltrate people who are followers of the Blind Sheikh because the Blind Sheikh committed the biggest catastrophe to my life: assassinating my president on my watch.
Sitting in the diner, Emad Salem realized, this was his chance for payback. He knew that the sheikh was dangerous. And it gave him this sense - I don’t know - this, this sense of foreboding. He’d later write, “I will not allow ANYONE try to harm my America. You will have to deal with me.”
This is Blindspot, the Road to 9/11.
In 1981, the Blind Sheikh inspired the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat. In the aftermath of that crime, the Sheikh was rounded up with 300 others. Twenty-four defendants, including the Sheikh, were held in a cage in a Cairo courtroom and tried for the killing. The Blind Sheikh led his fellow defendants in chanting, "There is no god but Allah. "
AMBI - DEFENDANTS YELLING FROM THE CAGE
And urged them to keep faith with their version of jihad.
OMAR ABDEL-RAHMAN: [chants of “There is no God but Allah”] We can’t but have faith in jihad for the sake of Allah and the people of truth.
Emad Salem, a witness to the assassination, followed the trial closely.
EMAD SALEM: Some of the assassins who took a direct role were hung to death.
The Egyptian government executed five of the conspirators: two by hanging and three by firing squad. Salem was fine with that part of the verdict. But not the other outcome.
EMAD SALEM: some of them were able to be released, like the Blind Sheikh.
The sheikh had sanctioned such an act, but he hadn’t pulled the trigger. So the court let him off. Salem had a hard time letting It go. He kept tabs on his nemesis. He knew the sheikh had been under house arrest in Egypt until 1986 and then charged with inciting a riot in 1989.
Soon after, the sheikh pulled off a daring escape. By one account, his supporters put him in a washing machine that they were pretending to take out for repair and then smuggled him out of the country. He landed in Sudan.
But now it’s 1991. New York City, Emad Salem is sitting in a diner with a pair of law enforcement officers who want to pay him $500 a week to get close to the sheikh and win his trust. But Salem is confused. Are these guys telling me they want me to move to Sudan?
EMAD SALEM: John Anticev told me, “Well, unfortunately he is here in America.” I said, “How come? He is a terrorist!”
The Blind Sheikh was on a State Department watch list for his role in the Sadat assassination. That should’ve been a waving red flag for embassy officials. But somehow it wasn't. In the spring of 1990, when he applied to travel here, the U.S. Consulate basically said, “No problem. Have a tourist visa!”
If there is ever a Museum of The War on Terror, that visa should be in it. The visa that opened the door for the cataclysm to come. I’d put it in its own glass case with a spotlight. And a label that reflected the debate to this day about how this guy, of all people, got his paperwork approved.
There are, as they say, competing theories.
Number 1. Spy stuff: Press reports would later claim that the CIA basically ushered the Blind Sheikh into America. Perhaps it was their way of thanking him for helping to kick the Russians out of Afghanistan. Or maybe the CIA wanted to develop the sheikh as an asset -- a turncoat they could exploit for information. There was also the feeling that this guy had the ambition and the following to possibly wind up on top in Egypt … so we might need to keep an eye on him, even get on his good side.
Later, at a congressional hearing, CIA officials were asked about it … and denied everything. As of course they would.
Theory number 2:
STEVE COLL: I think mostly the Blind Sheikh got in the United States because of bureaucratic incompetence.
Steve Coll is the author of Ghost Wars, an essential book on 9/11. It cites a federal commission that compiled a mind-boggling list of screw-ups that smoothed the Blind Sheikh’s way into the country -- everything from rubber-stamping a fake passport to that time a consular officer looked him up and down and decided he was -quote- “a charming, little old man.”
STEVE COLL: Part of the reason he got in was just that the people reviewing his application didn’t recognize who he was and didn’t connect him to the watch list that he was on.
That’s what the CIA told Congress. They even blamed a “cumbersome” microfiche machine at the embassy in Khartoum. They said it prevented them from finding the sheikh’s file. Not everyone bought it. As a critic of the agency put it to a reporter after the hearing: “Left with the choice between pleading stupidity or else admitting deceit, the CIA went with stupidity.”
Letting the Blind Sheikh enter the U.S. was a mistake. But was it low level bungling or overreach by senior intelligence officials?
It’s a question that dogs this entire story. In a later episode, you’ll hear me ask it again. It’ll be when I try to figure out who knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the country but didn’t stop them. And this at a time when every warning sign said, BIG ATTACK COMING. Was it simply poor communication between government agency staffers -- or was the CIA trying to turn the dangerous pair into assets … and then blew it?
MARC ROSSINI: This is the great mystery.
FBI Agent Marc Rossini.
MARC ROSSINI: One thing I’ve always wanted to understand: what does the CIA know?
So do we. But that comes later. At the moment, it’s still 1991.
A young Kiefer Sutherland eats a hamburger at a Manhattan diner. A diner that has just hosted a consequential meeting for the FBI. Emad Salem, an Arabic-speaking security expert with electronic surveillance skills has agreed to go undercover. His high-risk mission is to insert himself as a mole inside the Blind Sheikh’s circle of jihadists.
FBI Agent John Anticev and NYPD detective Louis Napoli have an idea. It starts with the trial of Sayyid Nosair in Manhattan criminal court for the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane … and the angry protests it’s provoking.
NPR REPORTER MAEVE MCGORAN: New York City police said about 60 people demonstrated outside the courtroom today, and a scuffle erupted ...
REPORTER: A street fight between Jewish and Muslim activists broke out while jury selections got under way.
AMBI - TURMOIL OUTSIDE COURTHOUSE: [chanting] Death to Nosair! Death to Nosair!
Anticev and Napoli instruct Salem to join the crowd outside and dive into the tumult. Here’s Napoli:
LOUIS NAPOLI: What happened was now Nosair goes to trial, and you have an influx of Muslims outside the courthouse on one side, and other side, people from the Jewish community on the other side. Both ranting and raving.
There’s CNN video of the wild scene outside the courthouse. And you do not have to look hard to see Salem in the middle of it. He’s the large man on the Muslim side, cursing a cop. The cop’s reply is to menace him with a night stick.
ONE MORE BEAT OF TURMOIL AMBI
Outside the frame but standing nearby is Ibrahim Elgabrowny, an influential figure in jihadist circles. He’s also the cousin of Sayyid Nosair.
FADE DOWN COURTHOUSE AMBI
JOHN MILLER: Now brahim Elgabrowny was a guy with a long beard, uh, older than Nosair. He is talking to the lawyers and visiting Nosair in prison.
Impressed by Salem’s aggression, Elgabrowny takes the bait.
JOHN ANTICEV: I think within the first day or two of being there, he asked him, “We’ve never seen you before. Who are you? Why-why are you here?”
JOHN ANTICEV: And he responded that he was here to make amends with God for wasting his life serving an illegitimate government of Egypt.
Creating a backstory -- part real and part fabricated. This part of the job, Salem loved. He crafted his undercover persona as carefully as a screenwriter.
EMAD SALEM: I surrounded myself with some rumors. “I’m a jeweler in a jewelry business,” means I have money. “I’m a ex-military Green Berets.” That mean two things: I know how to make bombs. I know how to shoot guns.
Salem’s performance quickly won Elgabrowny’s confidence. So much so that Salem often found himself at Elgabrowny’s side. And able to record his movements. Miller explains, that led to the discovery of an intriguing foreign connection.
JOHN MILLER: We’re now kind of waiting for the Nosair trial, Elgabrowny goes overseas to Peshawar in Pakistan and is meeting with Osama bin Laden. Gabrowny meets with him and says, “We’re raising money for the defense fund for El-Sayyid Nosair my nephew who shot Kahane.” And the investigation reveals he got about $20,000 of that money and brought it back.
There he is: Osama bin Laden, the great white whale of 9/11. It’s the first inkling we have that, from the other side of the world, he’s taken an interest in funding jihadists in America. The first hint that this wealthy Saudi with ties to the Afghan War is acting on a grudge against the U.S. and its allies...
JOHN MILLER: Now remember, we’re talking the early to mid 90’s now.
Nobody in New York or very much in Washington really understood who Osama bin Laden even was, let alone who he was going to be.
By appearances, bin Laden is little more than a ripple on the surface of this story. But now he’s there … with his agenda already in place.
Speaking in high-born Arabic, and in a soft voice very different from the hectoring tone of other jihadists, bin Laden described it most simply in 1999:
OSAMA BIN LADEN: I am at war with, and have animosity, hate, and resentment for the Americans.
“War,” he says.
The scene around the Nosair trial felt like a skirmish. Outside, protestors hurled insults and brawled with each other. Inside, the defendant served up tabloid titillation by sitting in court and, as the proceedings went on around him, calmly drawing sketches of Princess Diana. The People’s Princess. Nobody knew why. Then the jury delivered its verdict and everything got worse.
REPORTER: There has been a bombshell verdict in a Manhattan courtroom tonight. The man accused of killing radical Rabbi Meir Kahane has been acquitted of murder.
FEMALE REPORTER: The jury felt that not enough evidence was preserved by police the night of the attack.
The defense had made much of the fact that witnesses originally said the gunman was Jewish because he was wearing a yarmulke. Nosair’s attorney used that confusion to propose an alternative theory of the shooting: that it was carried out by one of the rabbi’s supporters. Or maybe a rival. Anyway, it was enough to sew reasonable doubt among members of the jury. The judge was furious.
REPORTER: Judge Alvin Schlesinger referred to the jury’s murder acquittal as devoid of common sense and logic.
REPORTER: Giving Muslim El-Sayyid Nosair the maximum sentence for a string of lesser charges.
The lesser charges included assault for shooting the men who’d tried to block his escape, along with illegal gun possession. The judge sentenced Nosair to up to 22 years, which he began serving at Attica Prison in upstate New York.
By this time, Salem and Elgabrowny were tight. Salem also had the confidence of the men who’d joined Nosair to the Calverton Shooting Range. All of them agreed: Salem should now visit brother Sayyid in prison. Sayyid’s cousins took him.
EMAD SALEM: And, uh, they introduced me as Brother Emad. He’s a good Muslim. He’s a ex-army. And Sayyid Nosair accepted me as a friend. they trust me.
JOHN MILLER: They’re saying, “Well so, you know, what next?” And he said, “What next? What next is up to you.”
EMAD SALEM: Verbatim words on Sayyid Nosair: “I had done my part. Now it is your duty to do that jihad.”
Jihad in the militant sense.
In some ways, Nosair was more influential in prison than out of it. His fellow jihadists viewed him as a hero. In return, he browbeat them to follow in his footsteps.
For example, he said, Y’know, someone should kidnap former president Richard Nixon and hold him hostage until the authorities agree to free me from prison. As John Miller dryly notes in his book, The Cell, “Perhaps Nosair had been misinformed about how most Americans felt about Nixon.” But Anticev says the plots got more realistic after that … and potentially deadly.
JOHN ANTICEV: It eventually morphed into them asking Emad to make twelve pipe bombs. And then it became a serious issue.
EMAD SALEM: Sayyid Nosair described to me how to buy the ingredients in Chinatown. So I bought a fuse, I bought some ingredients, and I went back to John.
Salem told John Anticev there was a hit list. It included Nosair’s trial judge, a U.S. Senator and other politicians. And the Blind Sheikh had greenlit the operation. That alarmed Anticev.
JOHN ANTICEV: They wanted to kill twelve people. It was starting to really get intense.
Should the FBI immediately break up the plot and try to get convictions with the evidence they had -- mostly testimony from Emad Salem? Maybe. But the Nosair trial had just shown them you can have multiple eyewitnesses to a very public murder and it might not be enough.
So what should the FBI do?
JOHN MILLER: What their bosses are saying is, “Okay, so that’s really interesting, but we need to get this on tape.”
The decision was, go back and record the suspects discussing their murderous conspiracy. Salem was the obvious guy to do it … but when he thought about the risk for himself and for his family, his blood froze.
EMAD SALEM: They start to ask me to wear a wire, and I understood that once I wear a wire, I have to testify in court. If I testify in court and my identity became public, then Sheikh Omar’s followers in Cairo, they will kidnap my sister and behead her.
Napoli remembers this is when an agitated Salem took him aside and told him:
LOUIS NAPOLI: “This is why I can’t and won’t wear a wire.” And so this is when, um, supervision in the bureau said, “Well, We’re letting you go.”
Anticev and Napoli’s bosses would not compromise. Their decision was firm. Cut ties with Salem.
JOHN ANTICEV: When I heard Emad was gone I said, “I – I can’t believe it.” I was so…you know, disheartened and nervous and mad.
LOUIS NAPOLI: I mean, I let them know exactly what I thought. I said, “This is insane.” I says, “You know, you- you have a guy that’s worked his butt off getting us this information, and God only knows what else is out there, and we’re stopping this?”
EMAD SALEM: The suits up there have no idea about surveillance, no idea about intelligence gathering.
Reporter John Miller:
JOHN MILLER: If you have a plot unfolding that may involve terrorism and you have one source who’s inside, not three, not two, just one, the question you would ask looking back is, “Can you really afford to fire him?”
Salem’s kiss-off to the FBI was blunt.
EMAD SALEM: “Guys, when the bomb being built by somebody else and it goes off, don’t come and knock on my door.”
So now Napoli and Anticev know something is in the works … but what? And where and when? Losing Salem was crippling.
LOUIS NAPOLI: Now the fun part of this is is we have nobody else in here.
JOHN ANTICEV: It was the worst possible moment to lose Emad.
Anticev and Napoli decided they didn’t have time to try and place another mole. Besides, Emad Salems don’t come along every day. Doing nothing was too risky. So they decided to force this issue.
JOHN ANTICEV: The first thing Louis and I did was, we went to the U.S. Attorney’s office and we got subpoenas for everybody involved in the twelve pipe bombs.
LOUIS NAPOLI: Put them in a room where their pictures that were taken by surveillance were all over the walls. We figured, wow, these guys come in and they see their pictures, “Uh oh, the FBI’s got pictures of me?” it would have stopped you.
Yeah, you’d think so …. But that didn’t happen.
JOHN ANTICEV: Unfortunately, we were thinking like Americans. We were thinking “Western.” I reflect on this often. When I met mujahideen - and these were former mujahideen - they ran into Russian machine gun fire. They went behind the lines to kill Russians. A harsh interview from me and Louie is nothing compared to the experiences they had on the battlefield.
These men were hardened. That was obvious. But it was not obvious at all that there were more cells than the one at Al-Farooq ... and that they belonged to an international network of jihadists determined to turn on their former patron, the United States -- the country that had helped make their victory in Afghanistan possible.
It was an act of betrayal, no question. Or so you’d say if you were thinking like an American. Thinking “Western.” But what if you weren’t? What if you were thinking like the Blind Sheikh?
Then you’d understand his view of the world in 1991: the West had just won the Cold War and looked strong … but that was deceptive.
Sure, the United States bullied Middle Eastern countries and overthrew their governments. But Islamists could overthrow governments, too. That’s what the Iranian revolution had accomplished twelve years earlier. The sheikh envisioned a wave of Islamic takeovers in the Middle East, starting with Egypt, which he would one day rule. And what was the Middle East, anyway? Countries artificially created by the West after World War I, as Arturo Muñoz of the CIA points out.
ARTURO MUÑOZ: The Europeans divided up the Muslim world in colonies. This was humiliating.
The Blind Sheikh said, Don't be fooled by the West’s invincible aura. In reality, they’re weak: addicted to materialistic and sensuous pursuits. The sheikh was fond of quoting Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritative theorist. Qutb had surveyed the sweep of modern history and written: “The turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived.”
ARTURO MUÑOZ: The great psychological impact of the jihad in Afghanistan is that for the first time it showed the Muslims can win, that jihadists can win. The mujahideen won against the Soviet Army.
Author Steve Coll says the result was ...
STEVE COLL: ...loose networks of these radicals who had essentially been fired up by the anti-Soviet war, in search of a new cause, in search of new enemies, new targets and constantly in conversation with one another doing the same thing in several places in the early 90s.
And one of those places was New York City.
Emad Salem had deftly set himself up as a mole in the Al-Farooq cell, only to be pulled out by the FBI at a crucial moment. But some in the cell didn’t realize he was gone yet. So he kept hearing chatter.
EMAD SALEM: They continued for a month after I walked out, calling me every day. “Hey brother, you gotta come to finish what you started.” Sayyid Nosair called me from Attica Prison. “Brother, don’t be afraid. I have a lot of money to hire attorneys for you if something goes wrong. Brother, you gotta come finish cooking.” And of course I’m not a cook. What I was cooking is about to build a bomb.
Salem found it hard to let go.
EMAD SALEM: Every time I get these calls I call John Anticev, and I immediately reported that to John.
Then the calls stopped coming. What Salem would learn too late, along with the FBI, is that the cell had found a new “cook.”
JOHN ANTICEV: When Emad left the group in July of ‘92 another individual came in, uh, September. And that person was Ramzi Yousef.
Also known as Ramzi Yousef. He was born in Kuwait, schooled in Great Britain in electrical engineering, and trained at mujahideen camps in Afghanistan in how to blow things up. Camps organized and funded by Osama bin Laden.
Yousef was 24 years old in late 1992 when he stepped off a plane at JFK Airport. He had scars on his hands and face from previous mishaps with explosives. And he was dressed in a pair of oversized pants and a billowy shirt. An FBI agent later said Yousef had been trying to look like “a poor Arab refugee wearing his only good clothes.”
It worked. Yousef presented an Iraqi passport and said he needed asylum from persecution by the Saddam Hussein regime. Customs agents wanted to hold him in lockup until he could be questioned at a hearing. But the lockup was full. So they released him on a promise that he’d come back.
LOUIS NAPOLI: And where does Ramzi Yousef go? He goes to the Al-Salam mosque.
The Al-Salam mosque in Jersey City. The mosque that Sayyid Nosair first joined. The mosque that the Blind Sheikh had recently moved to and made his new home base. Ramzi Yousef arrived with a hefty resume. Reporter John Miller:
JOHN MILLER: He is an expert bomb maker. He is an expert plotter.
He’s the Mozart of Terrorism. And now He’s found his way into this cell. And he said, “Why do seven, little attacks when you can do one really big one?”
Why, indeed? Ramzi Yousef sat down with the Blind Sheikh and pitched a new plan. The sheikh listened … and supported it. The old plot to assassinate politicians -- cancelled. Yousef had been set loose to make the attack of his dreams come true. He got to work.
Next time on Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
Emad Salem goes deep undercover.
EMAD SALEM: I used to go to the Blind Sheikh at 6 and 7 o’clock in the morning, clean up his house, cook for him
And discovers something big.
LOUIS NAPOLI: Emad calls us. He says “You’re not gonna believe this.” He says, “It’s not over. They want to do more.”
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, and Sarah Qari. Thanks also to Will Chase and NPR’s Research, Archives & Data Strategy team for archival audio research -- and to Steve Emerson for providing some of the archival audio, including that of Omar Abdul Rahman, used in this episode. Additional archival footage from WPIX. All of our Arabic language tape was independently translated by Lara Atallah. Our voice over actors this episode were Louis Sallan and Youssif Kamal. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
[sound of knocking on door]
JIM: Yeah? Come in.
YAROSH: Can I come in?
JIM: Yeah, hi! Thank you for the hug.
JIM: That's it? You just came to hug me?
JIM: Alright. [LAUGHS]
JIM: He winked at me on his way out the door.
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.