STAND-UP - 9/11 MEMORIAL
I’m at the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. You can hear the water rushing into the voids where the towers once stood. I’m here because I wanted to tell you about six people whose names are inscribed in the black granite along with almost 3,000 others. Six adults who were not killed on 9/11.
They’re the victims of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.
Robert Kirkpatrick, William Macko and Stephen Knapp were maintenance supervisors. They were eating lunch when the bomb went off. Wilfredo Mercado worked for the restaurant Windows on the World. He was checking in deliveries. John DiGiovanni sold dental products -- he was just parking his car. And Monica Rodriguez Smith was an administrator with the Port Authority. She was 35 years old when she died, and pregnant.
So, as you know, the last episode was about how close the Joint Terrorism Task Force came to stopping the bombing. And how the near miss especially haunted FBI informant Emad Salem. He might’ve exposed the plot if supervisors hadn’t fired him at exactly the wrong moment. And to make it all worse, the master bomber, Ramzi Yousef, got away.
So February 26, 1993 -- a traumatic day for New York. But here’s how federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy described the World Trade Center bombing: It was the dog that didn’t bark. And what he meant was, it could’ve been worse.
McCarthy claimed that Ramzi Yousef laced his bomb with sodium cyanide. And that the blast was supposed to send a cloud of poison gas floating out over Wall Street, this entire financial district, and then onto the thousands of workers who thronged here every weekday. But he said the cyanide burned up in the blast and never got airborne. That charge was never proven.
But a government report later called the bombing -- and I’m quoting -- “a new terrorist challenge, one whose rage and malice had no limit.” And that Ramzi Yousef “had hoped to kill 250,000 people.”
So, strange as it sounds, it’s a miracle that only six people died. And because of that relative good fortune, we missed something crucial. We missed a message. The message was, This, right here, in Lower Manhattan … It’s only our first try.
CROSSFADE AMBI WITH THEME MUSIC
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.
MARY JO WHITE: The U.S. attorney’s office renewed the efforts to get him back inside.
EMAD SALEM: I will go again undercover and bring these evil doers out to justice.
JOHN MILLER: A cell of people who were operating under the inspiration, the guidance, ultimately the approval of the Blind Sheikh.
EMAD SALEM: I told him, “Sheikh, may I have a moment with you?”
MARY JO WHITE: We will not live in fear.
Episode Four: The Sheikh
So the FBI sent Emad Salem back undercover. His job was to re-establish a relationship with Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, the cult-like leader of a radical cell in Jersey City. The Sheikh was in no way trusting or naive. To the contrary. Salem says he was “an angry man, self-centered, and cunning.” Salem’s disappearance and then reappearance would be suspicious to the Sheikh. There would need to be an explanation.
Well, first Salem needed a cover story. And that, he got from his handlers, FBI Agent John Anticev and NYPD detective Louis Napoli. They told him to go counterintuitive. Don’t try to bluster, they said. Don’t be like, ‘I was called away on another mission.’ Do this instead: Fess up. Tell the jihadists you were scared. They think that, anyway.
EMAD SALEM: Of course the cell at that time realized that I am coward. I’m not brave enough to stand with them until the end.
He sought out the Sheikh’s top deputy, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, a man who didn’t just want to reign terror down on New York, he wanted to reign down terror creatively. Siddig Ali told Salem he was just then recruiting men -- “lions in battle” he called them -- to fulfill the implicit threat of the World Trade Center bombing. Siddig Ali wanted it understood that -quote- “We can get you any time.”
SIDDIG ALI: … we need just to defend our homes, our countries, our brothers, our sisters, and to confront our enemies in accordance to the Ayat and the command of Allah Subhanahu wa Ta'ala when he said, “O you who believe, if you see that non-believers come in ranks approaching you, in might, do not run away.”
That’s Siddig Ali giving a talk about jihad at a conference in the mid-90s.
Siddig Ali knew that Salem had learned electronic surveillance during his stint in the Egyptian Army. He knew it because Salem kept reminding him.
EMAD SALEM: I have to put my credentials and publicize it among the cell. And among my talents is that I’m electronical engineer.
Siddig Ali needed exactly those skills … so he was inclined to bring him back. But he wanted to know why Salem had left. This brings up cover story, part 2.
Salem told Siddig Ali that the FBI had swept him up with other Muslim men and brought them in. That they’d been fingerprinted and questioned. This actually happened. It was part of a ruse to give the Sheikh’s men the impression that Salem was a suspected jihadist in the eyes of the law. Salem confided to Siddig Ali ...
EMAD SALEM: … that we got interviewed, I’m scared, I don’t want to be arrested.
He said, listen I’m not proud of it but that’s why I left the cell.
Then Salem looked Siddig Ali in the eye and said, I’ve regained my courage. He said it happened when he read about the “infidel” Americans arresting four of the World Trade Center bombers and charging them with crimes that could put them away for life.
EMAD SALEM: That is unfair. These infidels really doing us unjust. Why do they accuse us in everything …
Siddig Ali weighed Salem’s story carefully … and told him: You may rejoin the holy war, brother, if you do a big thing: take an oath.
Salem knew the oath. It’s called a “bayat” -- an offer of allegiance to an emir. For years, recruits to Al Qaeda had been offering bayat to… Osama bin Laden, They’d shake his hand and promise to keep his secrets. And now the custom had arrived in Jersey City with the Sheikh.
EMAD SALEM: A bayat is to go to the Blind Sheikh, hold his hand and put my head down to kiss his hand and dedicate my life to him to death.
Salem promised to do bayat next time he was alone with the Sheikh in his apartment. A couple of days later ...
EMAD SALEM: I told him, “Sheikh, may I have a moment with you?” And he said, “Yes.” So, we walk to the kitchen and I put my head down. I hold his hand, I start to kiss it and believe it or not this big guy start to cry.
“This big guy,” being himself.
EMAD SALEM: Sobbing. And I start saying, “I hope you accept my repentance Mr. Sheikh. I’m trying to repent.”
The Blind Sheikh considered the plea … and accepted Salem’s bayat.
EMAD SALEM: That mean I am obligated by his order, if he tell me you go blow up yourself I have to blow up myself.
And that’s all it took for Emad Salem to re-enter the Blind Sheikh’s terror cell: a little sobbing … and a pledge to blow himself up.
EMAD SALEM: They accepted me back very quickly
They also clued him in to their plan for another attack. It involved simultaneous explosions around New York City. Some of the targets would yield mass-casualties; others would be symbolic blows that leveled cherished landmarks.
Salem was invited to join the plot. But first, the Blind Sheikh gave him an assignment.
EMAD SALEM: The Blind Sheikh said, “Since you are electronical engineer, can you swap for bugs?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Okay I want to make sure that the FBI is not monitoring my apartment.”
The Blind Sheikh had just unwittingly asked the fox to inspect the henhouse. Salem said, I have a device at home. I’ll bring it tomorrow. Then called his handlers at the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
EMAD SALEM: I requested a sweeping device from the FBI.
And the FBI said, Fine, except you can’t use one of ours because that might blow your cover. You have to pick one up from the store. So the next morning, while the Sheikh waits, Salem goes shopping ….
EMAD SALEM: Three special agents with undercover car for five hours running around Manhattan from Radio Shack to Radio Shack to buy a device We find it’s $250. No! It’s expensive. Find it cheaper. after 5 hours I’m running out of time.
So that’s good to know: the FBI really didn’t want to waste taxpayer money.
Anyway. Salem ended up going to a shop that sold spy equipment and grabbed a gadget that emitted a whistle when you pushed a button. He brought it to the Sheikh’s apartment … and told him, If this whistles, that means there’s an FBI listening device in the room.
EMAD SALEM: I went into each room in his apartment. In his bedroom I pressed the button and it send a whistle. Toot! Then oh, you have a bug in your bedroom. We go to the other room, I press the button. Toot! Oh you have a bug in the front room. You have a bugging device.
Salem set off whistles in every room but one: the kitchen. He told the Sheikh, the kitchen is the one safe place.
He was planning his next move, which was this:
He’d maneuver the Sheikh into the kitchen -- a contained space with good acoustics where the Sheikh would feel at ease -- and record him on a portable device saying something self-incriminating. It’d be risky: most days, a handful of men lingered in the apartment. If one of them caught Salem red-handed …
EMAD SALEM: Then I’m history. I’ll be dead.
But Salem knew the cell was organizing another attack on civilians. He also knew they were gaining in technological expertise and that they’d probably pull it off.
EMAD SALEM: And I was fully aware of their capabilities of violence and what damage they can create in the American street.
Now that Salem was back inside the cell, he reported directly to Siddig Ali. Salem’s first assignment had been to sweep the Sheikh’s apartment for bugs, which he had deftly turned to his advantage. Siddig Ali now gave him his second assignment: join him on a visit to the Statue of Liberty. A pleasant outing … except they were there to make plans to blow it up.
EMAD SALEM: We went to the Statue of Liberty. We walked in like regular John Doe’s but we have our eyes for the security. Because we know that one day we’re going to come with a bomb and we’re going to go into the weakest spot
Salem remembers eating a hot dog and posing in front of the statue, while Siddig Ali …
EMAD SALEM: Took my picture. He said, “It’s not going to stand here anymore.” It was heart wrenching to look at that statue and look at this man joking about destroying the Statue of Liberty.
Siddig Ali was also planning to set off bombs at heavily trafficked sites … on the same day, at the same time
MARY JO WHITE: The day of terror plot, had it been successful, would have simultaneously bombed the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, perhaps the GW Bridge, the FBI building in Manhattan, and the UN.
U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White:
MARY JO WHITE: I was supervising this ongoing investigation of the Day of Terror Plot.
The Day of Terror Plot. More commonly known as the Landmarks Plot.
EMAD SALEM: These 5 bombs will go off simultaneously in one minute. So it would’ve been like chaos in Manhattan.
FBI Agent John Anticev:
JOHN ANTICEV: Emad went to the Holland Tunnel with Siddig, with the, uh, video camera going.
Hundreds of thousands of commuters use the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels on a normal weekday.
EMAD SALEM: And Siddig will tell me, “At this spot I have to twist the camera to the ceiling so we know on video where we’re going to stop the car, which carrying the bomb.”
JOHN ANTICEV: And then they’re gonna light the fuse, and then they’re gonna jump out of the car, and leave, and then when the bomb goes off all the water will rush in and drown all the people in the tunnel.
MARY JO WHITE: So what we were doing in that period of time from March 1, 1993, until June of 1993 was monitoring this horrific terrorist plot that, had it succeeded, in a 24-hour period would have had thousands and thousands of people dying."
And Salem was telling White and the FBI how it was likely to all go down.
MARY JO WHITE: He got back inside. And enormously important that he did.
I spent months reading up on Emad Salem, including his memoir, Undercover. I still don’t know how he did it. How did he cook breakfast for his kids before school in the morning? And then how did he steel himself to spend 12 to 14 hours convincing a group of hard men he was one of them. Day after day.
One day, Siddig Ali picked up a semi-automatic rifle and pointed it at Salem’s face … just to see what he would do. Salem says Siddig Ali looked at him solemnly, “like he was shaking me down. If I panic … if I sweat, my cover will be blown. I will be dead.”
So Salem acted on instinct. He grabbed the gun from Siddig Ali and pointed it back at him. Then he made a joke about the importance of martial arts training in the grabbing of guns. Siddig Ali smiled. Then they all went back to their day.
So there’s an example.
Another time, Salem says that Siddig Ali told him he was storing explosives at his apartment in Jersey City. The FBI, with that information, could’ve busted him right then. Instead, Salem helped remove the explosives in the night. Salem then stood in the apartment and tossed handfuls of ground black pepper on the floor. When Siddig Ali asked why, Salem said, There’s a residue from the explosives in your apartment. But if the FBI comes in with their bomb-sniffing dogs, the pepper will confuse them.
Siddig Ali was impressed. Salem was crafty and, seemingly, trustworthy -- Salem, who at that moment was wearing a wire. Siddig Ali then started talking about the World Trade Center bombing, and said, “It is time for us to do our jihad. We need to do something here.”
When a judge heard the tape, permission was granted to the FBI to tap Siddig Ali’s phone. That tap caught him discussing the Landmarks Plot, including this bit of action movie dialogue: “Strong conspiracies are being weaved in the darkness.” And as he repeatedly told Salem, “We are ready to be martyrs."
Siddig Ali meant it … and the FBI knew it. It was time to intervene. But there was a hitch: they still needed evidence of active preparations for the bombing. So agents Anticev and Napoli set up a sting. If they could pull it off, they’d get videotape of a group of men brewing up the bombs for the Landmarks Plot. Emad Salem volunteered to help them. He told Siddig Ali and the others, he had access to an empty building that would be perfect for secret activity.
JOHN ANTICEV: A friend of mine had just finished an operation using a warehouse in Queens that was fully wired and ready to go.
Wired with recording devices. Agent John Anticev made it available for Salem.
EMAD SALEM: The FBI give me the keys for that safe house, and they said, “Once you walk in, we have you on microphone, we have you on camera.”
The cameras began recording the bombmakers at work.
JOHN ANTICEV: They got people involved to bring in fuel oil they got people to bring in other components.
EMAD SALEM: We obtained their fingerprints when I served them with tea, and then I gathered the cups.
Also gathered: hours of video evidence.
MARY JO WHITE: We were trying to continue to monitor this ongoing plot, to get more evidence, to get more players in the net.
JOHN ANTICEV: The only person we didn’t have is the Blind Sheikh.
The Blind Sheikh was strongly suspected as having sanctioned a series of traumatic attacks: the Sadat and Kahane assassinations ... and the World Trade Center bombing from four months before. But he’d always managed to wriggle free. NYPD Detective Louis Napoli knew he had to get the Sheikh on tape authorizing the Landmarks Plot before it went down -- And the man to get that tape was Emad Salem.
So Salem takes a break from his bomb-making work at the warehouse in Queens and ...
LOUIS NAPOLI: Emad goes into the Sheikh’s apartment where he’s got the mic in this briefcase.
A briefcase with an FBI recording device inside. Salem says he also wore a wire but the FBI didn’t trust it. They thought their briefcase would work better. So Salem is gripping the handle as the two men stand close to each other in the kitchen. It’s the scenario that Salem had set up earlier. After pretending to sweep the apartment for bugs, he’d assured the Sheikh, Here, you can speak freely.
But the briefcase has a flaw.
JOHN ANTICEV: The only thing that was kind of silly about it was that it had a red light on the outside.
A red light that blinks when the briefcase is recording.
LOUIS NAPOLI: You know, we didn’t have the best equipment at the time. But thank God the Sheikh was blind so he didn’t see the thing blinking.
Yes, thank God. But can I point out that not everyone in the apartment is blind? Salem clutches the briefcase and crowds the Sheikh, praying no one walks in, as he tries to coax him into revealing how he feels about the plot.
EMAD SALEM: That was my moment. And I say, “Sheikh, Siddig and I making a big job -- a big job will bring the UN upside down.” The Blind Sheikh answer: “Don’t do it.”
Don’t do it. Salem is flummoxed. He thinks the Sheikh has changed his mind and is cancelling the Landmarks Plot.
EMAD SALEM: I said, “Don’t do it why?” He said, “The United Nation is a center of peace and they will think that the Muslim against peace. It is better…” And then, he got his mouth into my left ear to whisper. I’m holding him under my arm because he is blind and I have to lead him. Now he is whispering and I’m afraid that my microphone will not picking him up, so I have to bring my briefcase all the way up to my nose…
This is now the most unnatural-looking conversation in the history of kitchens.
EMAD SALEM: And he’s whispering in my left ear, and he said, I quote, “Find a plan to inflict damage on the American army.” I said, “Okay, Sheikh,” and I dropped the briefcase quickly before somebody see me in that awkward position.
JOHN ANTICEV: The Sheikh knew about it, and gave a blessing to do a terrorist attack in the United States.
JOHN MILLER: And that was the piece of evidence, the moment in time when he put his stamp on it.
Reporter John Miller.
JOHN MILLER: that's the audio tape that goes from it being a conspiracy of a cell of people who were just rank terrorists to a cell that was operating under the inspiration, the guidance, ultimately the approval, of the Blind Sheikh.
In the end, the briefcase did the job. The Joint Terrorism Task Force has solid proof of the attack … which could happen at any moment. All they have to do is stop it in time.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
It’s the summer of 1993, four months after the World Trade Center bombing. A follow-up attack is in the works. The brainchild of Siddig Ali and blessed by the Blind Sheikh, The Landmarks Plot is days away. Thousands could die. A crew of jihadists, including FBI informant Emad Salem, have set up a bomb-making shop inside a Queens warehouse. There the crew mixes diesel oil and explosive nitrates to make five powerful bombs like the one Timothy McVeigh would use in Oklahoma City. That bomb collapsed ten buildings and ended 168 lives.
EMAD SALEM: If you remember the damage happened in Oklahoma, that is the magnitude of each bomb of these bombs.
But the plotters are being watched.
JOHN MILLER: The bomb factory is wired by the FBI for sound, for video, and you can actually see Emad Salem, Siddig Ali, the other conspirators stirring this stuff together a “witches’ brew,” that’s gonna make this massive bomb.
EMAD SALEM: It’s a very, very dangerous operation. And any spark could’ve blow up 5, 6, blocks.
Given the threat, and convinced they’ve gathered sufficient evidence, the FBI moves in.
MARY JO WHITE: You always want to get as many players in the net as you can, but you never want to compromise the public’s safety. So, the plot had to be taken down.
A SWAT team raids the warehouse.
EMAD SALEM: Around 1 o’clock in the morning when we were building the bombs …the SWAT team opened the front door and they came from the back door. And all of the sudden I get shoved to the ground and one of the squad people put his big ugly boot on my neck. Put the shotgun in my head. “Don’t move. I’m going to blow your…” And it was big chaos in the bomb factory. And all of a sudden, silence. Everybody's under control or under a gun.
Including Salem. The SWAT team knows there’s an undercover in the warehouse but not who. So Salem lies there under “a big ugly boot” as the NYPD Bomb Squad rushes in and removes the explosives.
Salem’s time as a mole is over. He’ll now enter the Witness Protection Program with his family, including his sister, who’ll move from Egypt to America. From hiding, Salem will prepare to do his last job for the FBI: testify in court.
REPORTER: There are reports that the Justice Department is finally ready to detain Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman.
The Blind Sheikh and nine of his followers were held in the Manhattan Metropolitan Detention Center on multiple counts of criminal conspiracy. The charges relate to the World Trade Center bombing, the Landmarks Terror Plot, and even the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane. And they brought a familiar face back to the courthouse.
JOHN MILLER: The military helicopter descended in Lower Manhattan carrying a principal player in this conspiracy according to federal authorities: El-Sayyid Nosair.
The radical Muslim who’d shot a Zionist extremist at a public event in Midtown Manhattan, a political murder if there ever was one.
And a murder that strongly suggested other people were involved. But at the time, NYPD chief of detectives Joseph Borelli had preferred to keep it simple:
JOSEPH BORELLI: Everything indicates he was acting alone.
LOUIS NAPOLI: when Borelli said, “Oh, it’s a lone gunman. Here’s the guy. We got him. You know, send him to trial, convict him, send him to jail. Case over.
Lone gunman. Cut-and-dry. No need to open a can of worms. In a book about the bombing and its investigation, a team of Newsday reporters gave this take on Detective Borelli’s approach: “There hadn’t been any political assassinations in New York in more than a decade and Borelli didn’t want one on his watch.”
But now four years later, the not-so-lone-gunman, El-Sayyid Nosair, is descending on Manhattan in a government helicopter. He’s to be tried as a member of multiple conspiracies. And it is a stunning development. The authorities are admitting that the initial investigation had gotten it wrong. That, from the beginning, Nosair had been embedded in a network of jihadists. And still was. From his prison cell, he’d helped call the shots on the Landmarks Plot.
How did they get it so wrong?
Well, here’s another mistake: they ignored crucial evidence that they had literally held in their hands. When Sayyid Nosair was arrested in 1990, he left a treasure trove of clues about his terror cell and its ambitions.
JOHN ANTICEV: The police had gone to his home in Jersey City and they had seized a bunch of boxes of evidence from his house.
47 boxes of documents, training manuals, and cassette tapes of the Blind Sheikh exhorting his faithful to “mount the steeds of war” against the West.
OMAR ABDEL-RAHMAN: So we must be terrorists, and we must terrorize the enemy of Islam, and frighten them and bother them and shake the ground beneath their feet.
But it was a giant pile of material, mostly in Arabic. And Agents Anticev and Napoli were given only a few days to sift through it ...
LOUIS NAPOLI: I mean we saw it, but it was in Arabic, and John and I didn’t un- couldn’t read or understand Arabic. So it was just Arabic writing to us.
And then the boxes were whisked away to the offices of the Manhattan DA. The DA had jurisdiction in the Kahane case.
MARY JO WHITE: You can’t overstate the importance of the information in those boxes of evidence collected in connection with the Nosair trial. But you want to be looking at that the moment you have it and that didn’t happen.
And so no lessons were learned. The boxes sat largely untouched for years … until the Landmarks Plot made it obvious something big was going on. That’s when the DA assigned an Arabic-speaking investigator to re-open the boxes and go through them.
JOHN ANTICEV: He was looking through the notations in one of the spiral notebooks. He found like a little poem written in pencil in Arabic about we will show them, something to the effect of we will show them about taking down the tall buildings of which they are so proud.
JOHN MILLER: what they talked about was attacking America; bringing war to the United States, and toppling its tallest towers.
One box had maps of the World Trade Center. Another contained a manual on “storming an airplane.” It was still in fragments, but the idea for the 9/11 attacks was there in those boxes. And the FBI had it … a full eight years before it happened.
In hindsight, we know what they should’ve done. But put yourself in that moment, when attacks like the ones on 9/11 were nearly inconceivable. How much fault can you find with investigators for not making more of these fragments? A lot, a little, you don’t know?
LOUIS NAPOLI: To the Bureau it became problematic because, “Oh, attack tall buildings.” But New York is full of tall buildings. Which tall building are you talking about? And who? And what? And where? And so it was crazy.
It WAS crazy. And that's the terrorist's advantage. He makes a conceptual leap that’s hard to thwart because it’s nearly beyond imagining. After the World Trade Center bombing, officials tightened up security in the towers’ underground garages. Because it’s what they always do: protect against the last attack. But nobody who read the manual that described taking over an airplane imagined that a group of men could turn those planes into missiles by flying them at the Twin Towers.
But now back to a federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan. September 1995. Sayyid Nosair is standing trial for his role in the Landmarks Plot. His co-defendants include the Blind Sheikh, Siddig Ali, and seven others.
The New York Times called it “the biggest terrorism trial in the nation’s history.” And the main attraction was Emad Salem on the witness stand.
LAURA SYDELL: The cornerstone of the government’s case was the testimony of Emad Salem.
He described the plotters' actions and recounted their conversations.
LAURA SYDELL: Salem collected hundreds of hours of secretly made tapes of the defendants.
The evidence was plentiful … and damning. The Blind Sheikh knew it. At one point, he stood up and screamed at Salem: “You are Satan!”
NOAH ADAMS: The nation’s largest terrorism trial in history is coming to an end.
The Times reports that on the day of the verdicts, no spectators were allowed inside the heavily guarded court. Even Salem was required to sit outside.
The judge was Michael Mukasey, who later became U.S. Attorney General in the second Bush administration. Mukasey said from the bench, "There are thousands of Muslims in this country who contribute as productive, loyal and peaceful citizens." The small group of extremists, led by the Sheikh, were not among them.
Mukasey turned to the jury and asked for their verdict. Salem learned it from a prosecutor who found him in the hallway: the 10 defendants had been found guilty on 48 of 50 charges.
EMAD SALEM: I said, “Including the Sheikh?” He said, “Including the Sheikh.” And I was sitting on a chair, I don’t know how I fell off the chair but I really fell off the chair.
Salem remembered his visit to the grave of Anwar el-Sadat, where he’d sworn to take revenge on the Sheikh.
EMAD SALEM: I was very happy that I finally -- I finally did my president justice and put that Blind Sheikh away.
At sentencing, the judge tried limiting the Blind Sheikh’s statement to an hour … but the Sheikh blew past it.
AP REPORTER WARREN LEVINSON: The Sheikh spoke for an hour and forty minutes before he was sentenced, claiming that the United States had put Islam on trial. That he was being tried for his religion.
The Sheikh claimed America was an “infidel country” trying to wipe Islam from the face of the earth.
LEVINSON CONT’D: “I have committed no crime,” the Sheikh said through a translator, “except to spread Islam.” He said he would be happy to go to jail for life among the martyrs and the saints.
And what happened to Siddig Ali, the toughest talking, diedhard-est jihadist of all?
Well, in the middle of the trial, he flipped on his co-defendants -- his “lions in battle” -- and began testifying for the feds. And he admitted an error. He told the judge that the Landmarks Plot -quote- did “not represent Islam . . . because God did not tell us to kill innocent people for his sake.”
Siddig Ali would have been sentenced to life in prison. But after U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White vouched for his importance to the prosecution’s case … the judge reduced his time to eleven years. Afterward, White made sure to hold a news conference on the courthouse steps to take a parting shot at Siddig Ali by rebutting the threat he’d made back when he was a tough guy, before he got caught.
MARY JO WHITE VIA AP: The leader of these terrorists has said, “We can get you any time.” Law enforcement's answer is, 'No, you cannot.’ We will not be driven from our community. We will not live in fear. And we will not permit the likes of these defendants to terrorize our city.
The Blind Sheikh got his martyrdom: he was sentenced to life in prison. He died there in 2017. His co-defendant, Sayyid Nosair, also received a life sentence. Nosair is in the high security penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.
The convictions were a triumph for law enforcement. The trial itself had told the story of how the Landmarks Plot was stopped in its tracks, almost certainly saving lives. And the American public got the chance to reflect on, to soberly consider, what had been revealed about a growing threat of terror from abroad.
If only. Because another trial was held around the same time and Americans seemed a little bit more interested in that one.
ON THE MEDIA HOST: OJ Simpson, OJ Simpson, OJ Simpson.
ROBERT SIEGEL: An astonishingly long and highly publicized criminal trial, a trial which seems to have blurred the line between drama and real life, turning it into one gigantic mega-series with glamorous characters and convoluted sub-plots.
MARY JO WHITE: It was frustrating to see the amount of media attention paid to the OJ Simpson trial. very little attention, almost an empty courtroom, being paid to the Day of Terror Plot. So, you know, it’s really a study in contrasts.
Former White House security advisor Richard Clarke says the intelligence community did pay attention … and the trial’s success made them complacent. He wrote, “It seemed like the counter-terrorism machinery was working well.” But then there’s a paragraph break and his next sentence reads, “It wasn’t.” He says the FBI and the CIA should've been able to answer the question, Who are these guys? The real answer was a group they still hadn’t heard of: Al Qaeda.
Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, says there was plenty of evidence that this new kind of threat was not going to be extinguished by one trial. But:
STEVE COLL: Political leaders, media leaders really didn’t call attention to this, didn’t understand it.
STEVE COLL: If you were paying attention to what was happening in the courtroom, the evidence that was being introduced described quite far flung and violent, uh, network that was on the move.
And Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the WTC bombing, the Mozart of Terrorism, was still out there.
Next time on Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
BERNARD HAYKEL: if you could bring the World Trade Center down, you could bring down symbols of capitalism and of America as an economic power.
- ROMMEL BANLAOI: They were planning to assassinate the Pope
MATTHEW BESHEER: We were doggedly determined to track down and arrest Ramzi Yousef.
MARY JO WHITE: I considered Yousef to be one of the most dangerous people on the planet.
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, Bill Moss, and Celia Muller. Thanks also to Will Chase and NPR’s Research, Archives & Data Strategy team for archival audio research -- and to Steve Emerson for providing archival audio of Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali and Omar Abdel-Rahman. Additional archival footage from AP Archive, 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 Youssif Kamal. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
[sound of knocking on door]
YAROSH: Can I come in?
JIM: Yeah, hi Yarosh!
JIM: What are you doing, you’re popping the bubble wrap?
YAROSH: Yeah, and singing happy birthday. Happy birthday to you...
JIM: Oh, called away by his mother.
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.