SIGNPOSTS ALONG THE ROAD
"Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you,
but commit no aggression; for Allah loves not transgressors."
(The Koran: al-Baqarah 2:190)
Darkness hit the streets of Manila early that January evening. A cool Pacific breeze shuffled the plush green leaves of the acacia trees, creating a slow and sweeping sound of soothing splendor that was interrupted only by the eardrum-shattering honking of Manila traffic. Pedestrian traffic on Buendia Avenue was sparse on the night of Saturday, January 19, 1991, in front of the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center, the U.S. government's library attached to the U.S. embassy. A good old-fashioned war was being waged in the desert wastelands of the Middle East, and American and British warplanes were lobbing some of the world's most sophisticated ordnance at Saddam Hussein's all-the-weapons-petrodollars-could-buy army. Operation Desert Storm was a TV war--one waged lived via satellite on CNN twenty-four hours a day. Evening in Manila was late morning in the Gulf, and the generals always had a rousing press conference before lunch in Saudi Arabia. Buendia Avenue was an American enclave. Most of the residents were home in front of their 21-inch Sony Trinitrons having a Budweiser and watching a war.
The two men walking slowly on the avenue toward the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center that evening were also interested in the war, though they were participants in the conflict--not spectators. Built like linebackers--if the NFL had had a franchise in Baghdad, that is--both men sported olive complexions and nervous body language. They looked out of place on the avenue, even taking great care to parallel park their small Japanese-made sedan, which was something few in the Philippines bothered to do. As the two men walked side by side toward the entrance of the library, they disappeared in the bright glare from floodlights that had been rushed to the location only a day earlier to enhance security. Both men squinted into the powerful white beams of light and realized that the uniformed guards at the library would certainly be able to see them. So they decided to act. The larger of the two men, Ahmed J. Ahmed, carried a large canvas bag containing a powerful bomb. When he attempted to set the device's timer in the dark, using a ten-cent butane lighter for illumination, he set the timer backward instead of forward, initiating a blinding flash of light and an overwhelming wind of heat that explosively cracked through the Pacific night with the might of thunder. Ahmed was torn to shreds by the powerful bomb, made of PETN, a rubbery high-explosive agent.* The heat of the blast vaporized his clothes and skin, and the force of the explosion tore apart his head, his limbs, and his extremities and flung them fifty yards away. But because Ahmed was so big, he was able to absorb enough destructive power from the explosion to spare the life of his partner, Sa'ad Kadhim. Kadhim was not spared completely, however. When Ahmed disintegrated into pink mist and bone fragments, much of the Iraqi became embedded in his partner's muscular frame. He was burned over a fair portion of his body, and the destructive concussion wave that removed oxygen from his lungs and battered his head like two giant metal hands clapping made him twist and writhe in absolute agony. A taxi driver saw Kadhim walking around in a daze of pain and sped him to Makati Medical Center, one of the finest hospitals in all Manila.
* * *
Special Agent Brendon Pat O'Hanlon, the Diplomatic Security Service regional security officer, or RSO, at the U.S. embassy in Manila, knew that a building like the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center would be hit. A veteran of America's most vulnerable hotspots overseas, from Saigon to Cairo and a dozen desolate stops in between, O'Hanlon was a robust, barrel-shaped man who just knew that once the bombs began to fall over Baghdad, bombs would be used against American diplomatic posts and facilities overseas. Saddam Hussein had no choice but to resort to terrorism, O'Hanlon warned at embassy crisis management meetings with the ambassador and other Foreign Service personnel. And the only place that Saddam could strike, O'Hanlon ventured to guess, was Europe, where there was a strong Middle East terrorist network already in place, or in Asia, in a country like the Philippines, where many Middle Easterners worked and studied. DSS special agents are taught from their first day out of training to be resourceful and to seize the initiative. Good agents, instructors in the training branch insist, must trust their gut instincts and follow their hunches. A sixth sense told O'Hanlon that the Philippines, his post, was one of the Asian posts that were going to be hit.1 Special Agent Mike Evanoff, one of O'Hanlon's deputies, realized the severity of the attack when he reached the bomb scene along with assistant RSO Mike Young. The mangled pieces of Ahmed's corpse were spread throughout the area, with the torso left smoldering inside a three-foot crater. The street was awash with the unforgettable stench of blood and smoldering iron. The bomb had been a big one and, if strategically placed, could have killed dozens of innocent people. Searching through the bloody mess, Evanoff was able to uncover what looked like a bank passbook. It was, in fact, an Iraqi passport caked by blood and tissue specks, issued in the name of Ahmed J. Ahmed, passport number 072203.
* * *
Ahmed and Kadhim were no strangers to the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center. The two had already paid a visit to the library a few days earlier to, in the RSO's words, "case the joint for attack." The library was usually crowded with university students and Manila residents simply interested in going through the New York Times on microfilm. To prevent a possible bombing attack, the RSO's office went to great pains to ensure that no one was allowed into the building with a bag or a briefcase, and that no Middle Eastern visitors would be allowed entry into the building, even those with valid college ID cards. "We told the guards to do thorough checks on anyone trying to come into the building," O'Hanlon remembered, "even if it meant checking them for hemorrhoids!" O'Hanlon had good reason for concern. A few days earlier, Iraqi terrorists had tossed an explosive device into the garden of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. The bomb, a fairly sophisticated device by local Indonesian anarchist standards, had failed to detonate. But still, the failed bombing had sent a wave of heightened awareness throughout U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Far East.
The two Middle Eastern men were physically searched when they entered the building, and their bags received meticulous scrutiny. Although the contracted security guard did not want to let the two Arab men inside the building, Pat O'Hanlon ran with his gut instinct and gave the OK--If these were the bad guys, O'Hanlon thought, let me give them an inch of rope so that they can hang themselves. Their student IDs were photocopied and both men, venturing inside the library ostensibly to do research, stood nervously by the Xerox machine scanning the security arrangements and looking at emergency exits. Both young men possessed Jordanian passports and Palestinian identity cards, though in the Middle East, those were as easy to come by as a falafel and a bottle of 7-Up. Their paperwork looked genuine, but somehow suspicious. A Hercules Team, or countersurveillance guards from the indigenous Filipino force that protected the outside of the embassy, monitored their every move and even followed them outside the door. The two men stood watch over the facility for nearly fifteen minutes before disappearing into the congested streets of Manila, walking nervously toward a bustling intersection and a row of shops.
Pat O'Hanlon and his crew of assistant RSOs knew that it was only a matter of time before the library or the embassy would be attacked, so when the DSS special agents learned of the explosion outside the library that Saturday night, it did not spark surprise. The photocopied IDs taken at the library were run against U.S. law enforcement criminal databases, as well as against the records of the Philippines Bureau of Investigations. The photocopies were also run to friendly embassies, whose countries might have an interest in--and records of--Middle Eastern terrorists active in Asia. O'Hanlon and his staff also went to their contacts in the local police departments--Manila had several agencies vying for control of the city--as well as to their local foreign service national investigators, or FSNIs, for help. With the cooperation of the local power company, all streetlights surrounding the library were shut and powerful searchlights, the kind used at POW camps, directed out toward the street. "Anyone looking at the building was immediately blinded by the bright light," O'Hanlon recalled, "but we could see out." The Diplomatic Security Service Command Center in Washington, D.C., had been alerted through an urgent telegram that U.S. facilities were likely to be hit. It was just a matter of time until the trigger was pulled, or the fuse lit. A few minutes after 6:00 p.m. on the night of January 19, the phone rang inside the RSO's office at the embassy.
Cops live by their hunches, and O'Hanlon trusted his sixth sense. Upon hearing reports that one man, possibly a Caucasian, had been rushed to a hospital, the RSO ordered Evanoff to Makati Medical Center to start his search for a wounded man. The emergency room was its typical chaos that Saturday evening--Manila drivers were quite good at hitting pedestrians and one another and keeping the emergency room doctors and nurses busy twenty-four hours a day. In a ward reserved for trauma care, Evanoff came across a small army of policemen, cordoning off the area where the badly burned Middle Eastern male was being cared for. O'Hanlon had always told Evanoff that he should carry his credentials and DSS gold shield wherever he went in Manila. "The cops run the streets of the city," O'Hanlon told his deputy. "Your badge might just get you through a jam or a situation when being a cop might be helpful." Evanoff flashed his tin at the Manila cops, but they were adamant about denying him access to the Iraqi. DSS agents are taught to improvise and adapt, so Evanoff offered one of the policemen "special assistance" with a tourist visa application at the embassy. The Filippino cop happily accepted the bargain. Evanoff sifted through the Iraqi's effects, including his passport, and looked over the badly injured man. Kadhim must have thought that the DSS special agent was a doctor, because he grabbed his white polo shirt and handed him a crumpled-up piece of paper with a Manila telephone number scribbled on it. Evanoff called the number in to O'Hanlon, who ran it against files for possible hits on the embassy's system. The telephone number came back gold. It was the telephone exchange for the security office at the Iraqi embassy.
News of an Iraqi connection to the failed bombing suddenly became a matter of life and death to the RSO's office. What targets could be next? How many teams of bombers were out and about in Manila? Filipino police rushed to the U.S. embassy immediately, as well as to the homes of the diplomatic community, to cordon off all access to traffic. We have to speak to this guy, O'Hanlon thought. We need to find out what his people are up to.
U.S. intelligence assets in the embassy were also mobilized immediately following the bombing, though much to O'Hanlon's surprise, nobody at the embassy spoke Arabic. Using his New York charm and calling in a few favors, O'Hanlon located an Arabic speaker who could help interrogate the wounded Iraqi as he assembled an investigative team to uncover what was left of the network in Manila.
Passport and visa fraud is the service's criminal bread and butter, and O'Hanlon took an immediate interest in the wounded man's travel papers. Both Ahmed and Kadhim's passports--travel papers on thin cheap paper that looked like they were made in a Baghdad printing press--were sequential. The passports were completely in Arabic--no French or English, as with Syrian or Jordanian passports--and they appeared to be brand new. The documents were special editions from the Iraqi intelligence services; it was as if the teams sent overseas to carry out terrorist operations had received a special batch fresh off the presses.
Both Ahmed and Kadhim also had airline tickets in their immediate possession--both for flights from Manila to Bangkok later that evening.
Even before O'Hanlon could get back to the embassy and send out an urgent cable to the command center, Evanoff, in a resourceful style that would have made his DSS instructors proud, managed to find a contact who was able to produce, in record time, a copy of the Philippines immigration entry roster. The roster highlighted every Arab male who entered the Philippines since August 4, 1990, two days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The deputy security officer looked at the two Iraqi passports and then checked them against the computer printout. There were a total of six similar Iraqi passport holders who had entered the Philippines recently; four of them had already left the country on flights to Thailand earlier that week. Only the Mutt and Jeff bombers were still in the country.
Realizing that a major Iraqi terrorist cell was operating in Asia, possibly one belonging to Iraq's al-Istikhbarat al-Askariyyalon, or Military Intelligence, O'Hanlon rushed back to the embassy to send a "flash" cable to Washington and to his fellow RSOs stationed in embassies around Asia. In the coded world of top-secret communications, a flash was a message indicating war was imminent, and O'Hanlon, as the RSO, was not authorized to send it. But with Irish brash and the urgency of a cop determined to get the word out, the RSO's office in Manila informed Washington, D.C., and every embassy from Islamabad to Seoul that there were teams of agents maneuvering through Asia tasked with targeting American embassies and installations.
The next morning, on a warm January morning in Bangkok, a man walked into the American Embassy on 120 Wireless Road, with information on some suspicious Arabs living in a flophouse at the edge of town. He demanded to speak to the CIA station chief, though protocol demanded that the walk-in be channeled through the embassy's regional security officer. Within hours, Thai SWAT teams were raiding possible safe houses throughout the city as Iraqi operatives with passport numbers in sequences like the two men in Manila were rounded up. Within days, DSS special agents based in embassies throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Europe were examining immigration records along with their counterparts in local law enforcement. Dozens of senior Iraqi agents assigned to blow up embassies, aircraft, and other American-related targets were arrested and, as in the case of Sa'ad Kadhim, secretly whisked back to Baghdad in a covert human bazaar of captured operatives in exchange for Filipino and Thai guest workers that Saddam Hussein was holding hostage.
DSS special agents like to say that the world is their precinct. Indeed, by keeping watch in such far-flung posts as Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila, the agents had managed to save a great many American lives that winter. The CIA took a bow for the DSS operations in Asia, but that was par for the course. Most federal agencies, from the intelligence services to the FBI, often took credit for the work that DSS did overseas.
The need remained for the United States to be resolute and on guard against an Iraqi-led underground army of terrorists dispatched to the four corners of the world. The overall American intelligence and law enforcement assessment that winter was that the United States faced a clear and present danger from state-sponsored terrorist groups eager to expand the scope and battlefield of Operation Desert Storm to a global arena. The obvious enemies of America were Iraq, Libya, and Iran's puppets in Lebanon. Their war against America was overseas, and many in the halls of power in Washington believed that once Saddam Hussein was defeated, the threat would dissipate into pillars of smoke rising into the skies over Iraq. The thinking was that once Baghdad was punished, countries like Iran, Libya, and Syria would be deterred forever.
The assessment was wrong. State sponsors, in the early 1990s, were giving way to transnational movements fueled by religious rage that could not be bullied or bartered with. In November 1990, three months before the Iraqi attacks in Asia, the first shots of a long and bloody terrorist war were fired not in Baghdad or Beirut, not in Manila or even Bangkok. The shots were fired in midtown Manhattan, the heart of New York City, and the afterblast from that opening salvo is still heard to this day.
* * *
To anyone who lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan, the majesty of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center was a sight of immeasurable power and confidence. Residents of the gritty middle-class town often wondered how yuppies in the 212 area code of Manhattan could be suckered into paying $2,000-a-month rents for studio apartments in the shadows of the 110-story towers when the view from across the river, where rents were so much cheaper, was simply awe-inspiring. Some Jersey City residents, even patrol officers from the Jersey City Police Department, would drive to Liberty State Park in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty just to sit and stare at the twin towers at dusk, when the towers were bathed in a purpled and orange shower of light, and at dawn, when a unique halolike brightness covered the tandem of steel and glass. "You looked at those buildings and it was America," claimed a Jersey City Police Officer. "They were living and breathing symbols of greatness."
The towers could be seen everywhere in Jersey City. Commuters heading to the Journal Square station of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, train for the quick seven-minute ride under the river to the bowels of the World Trade Center could almost see their offices in the building as they clutched a cup of coffee and a copy of the Newark Star-Ledger. To them, as well, the towers were as much a symbol of power and pride as a place where thousands of them worked. The towers could also be seen from the rear window of the al-Salaam mosque, a beat-up second-story walk-up religious center on the 2800 block of Kennedy Boulevard that attracted a large group of worshipers. To several of the faithful in the mosque, the twin towers were symbols of American arrogance and transgression. The sermons inside the shabby mosque were provocative and incendiary. A blind Egyptian cleric was the mosque's star attraction. He spoke of religious purity and the evil of American liberty and its support of the Zionists. The cleric often spoke of the need for a holy war to wash the Western world clean with the blood of the nonbelievers.
On the night of November 5, 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a thirty-five-year-old Egyptian-born electrician and one of the mosque's most faithful sons, traveled to New York City from his home in New Jersey for a special night out. He was dressed for the occasion. Wearing a red leisure suit and white patent leather shoes, Nosair certainly stood out. But for a man known by some to be a hothead, a bitter introvert who allowed the troubles of the world to stew inside of him, he seemed at peace that November evening. Nosair had a cherubic face that offered a beguiling smile. It was cool in New York City that night, and traffic around the Marriott East Side on Lexington Avenue between 48th and 49th streets was heavy. Gridlock was part of the New York City landscape. So, too, was the endless line of yellow taxicabs jockeying for position in and around the hotels of midtown, praying for a fare to JFK.
Without trepidation, Nosair entered a second-floor ballroom at the Marriott to listen to a speech by a very special visitor from the Middle East who, like Nosair, had allowed religion to shape his political vision and destiny.
Nosair's mission that night was to assassinate militant Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane.
Kahane, too, was a man driven by a fanatic belief in God and interpretations of the Bible. The Brooklyn-born rabbi was the founder of the radical Jewish Defense League, or JDL, an organization that used terrorist tactics to defend Jewish interests in New York and other cities, as well as to protest the Soviet Union's treatment of its Jewish citizens. Rabbi Kahane emigrated to Israel in 1971, formed the Kach political party shortly thereafter, and ran for the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, in 1976 and 1980. In 1984, Kahane won a single seat for himself in the Knesset on a political platform demanding Jewish sovereignty over all of Israel--including the Gaza Strip and West Bank--and the expulsion of all Arabs, both Palestinian and Israeli citizens, from the Jewish state.
In 1988 the Knesset voted to bar Kahane from running for political office, banning all political parties that espoused racial views and edicts. With his parliamentary career in ruins, and the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, monitoring his supporters, Kahane assumed the life of a political activist, often raising funds for his causes on speaking tours throughout Jewish communities in North America and Western Europe.
Kahane's speech at the Marriott East Side the night of November 5, 1990, came at a time of heightened anti-Arab sentiment in the United States--and of great fear in the Jewish community. Iraq had threatened to launch missiles and, possibly, weapons of mass destruction against Israel, should the anti-Saddam coalition launch an attack to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Inside New York City, there was a heightened sense of fear about terrorists doing the unthinkable and striking inside the United States. At the city's John F. Kennedy International Airport, police officers patrolled terminals with shotguns and machine guns. Tactical patrols protected Penn and Grand Central rail terminals from possible terrorist attacks. There were fears that Iraqi agents, perhaps coming across the border from Canada, would poison the city's drinking water or even unleash anthrax spores through its twisting maze of subway tunnels. The New York City Police Department and the FBI, in their combined Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, feared possible Iraqi terrorist attacks against the United Nations, or even against NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza near City Hall. They did not think about sending additional officers to a hotel in midtown Manhattan.
El Sayyid Nosair had planned much of his operation meticulously. He assumed that people in the crowd--even possible Jewish Defense League thugs on hand to protect Kahane--would not be able to identify him as an Egyptian. Nosair believed that, with his olive complexion and a yarmulke acquired for the operation, he would be able to pass himself off as a Sephardic Jew--perhaps even an Israeli. He also assumed--correctly--that security would be lax.
New York City was, of course, home turf for the silver-haired rabbi from Kings County whose oratory skills and verbal eloquence peaked in his incendiary diatribes against Arabs and Palestinians. New York City was still the Jewish capital of the world. More Jews lived in the New York metropolitan area than lived in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem combined. If ever there were a place where Rabbi Meir Kahane could feel safe, it was inside a hotel ballroom in the borough of Manhattan.
Nosair had trained for the mission in midtown for months before that fateful night. He studied the art of guerrilla warfare from his friends in the mosque who were veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Nosair also went shooting, along with other Middle Eastern friends, in open-air firing ranges in rural northern Pennsylvania and in Naugatuck, Connecticut.
At the end of Rabbi Kahane's speech, following wild applause and the chanting of "Am Yisroel Chai," or "The Israeli People Live!" the devout rushed to embrace the man who had militarized right-wing Jewish thinking in the Diaspora. Few paid attention to the oddly dressed Sephardic Jew walking to the stage. Nosair removed the yarmulke he wore and drew a Brazilian-made Taurus 9mm pistol from a holster nestled in the small of his back. Without a word or a message, he aimed his weapon at Kahane and fired once. The round was well placed. It blew through Kahane's neck and sliced through his carotid artery. The rabbi was dead a few moments later.
Nosair did not seem interested in killing more people that night, nor did he want to be arrested in order to address a larger political agenda. He wanted to escape. Nosair raced out of the Marriott East Side onto Lexington Avenue, pursued by a dozen of Kahane's supporters yelling "Stop the Arab scum! He assassinated Kahane!" Midtown traffic suddenly froze. People stopped and looked to see what the commotion was about. It was hard not to notice the bearded Middle Easterner, dressed as if he was heading to an Egyptian revival of Saturday Night Fever, running for his life. What El Sayyid Nosair could not envision was the comic chain of events that characterized his thwarted escape. Overtaken by confusion and fear, Nosair hopped into what he thought was his getaway car--a taxi driven by a redheaded friend from the mosque who just happened to be a cab driver. Instead, with his heart racing and adrenaline blocking his judgment, Nosair had entered the wrong cab. The driver, separated from his passenger by a bullet-proof partition, leapt out of his vehicle. Running down 48th Street, confused, immersed in the closing world of lights and sounds crashing in around him, Nosair struggled to escape. Instead, he came across a Postal Police officer named Carlos Acosta.2
The sight of a badge and a uniform must have terrified Nosair. He raised his automatic at the police officer and fired, hitting Acosta in the chest. Acosta, however, managed to return fire. He unholstered his .357 revolver and fired one round that hit Nosair in the chin. The assassin was placed in cuffs and rushed to Bellevue Hospital.
When he was arrested and subsequently tried, the popular consensus in New York City was absolute--a fanatic Arab had killed a fanatic Jew. Case closed. Many in the NYPD figured the assassination of Kahane to be a clear-cut example of hate and rage mixed together with the lethal effects of a 9mm bullet. But Nosair was far more than a lone gunman, and the FBI field office in New York City was worried about him. On November 8, 1990, FBI and Jersey State Police troopers raided Nosair's New Jersey home. Investigators could not believe what they had found. Reams and reams of classified material, sensitive military documents from the U.S. Army's Special Operation Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were uncovered. The apartment looked like a billboard for an Islamic revolution, littered with countless cassettes of Arabic prayer sermons. More ominously, though, investigators found the actual plans for the destruction of skyscrapers in New York City. The FBI and prosecutors at the time could not fathom that the blueprints found in Nosair's apartment were plans for future operations. Many in law enforcement viewed the Egyptian as a lone-wolf zealot.
* * *
El Sayyid Nosair was the first warrior of a jihad, or holy war, to be launched against the United States from within. The origins of El Sayyid Nosair's rage can be traced to a mysterious Palestinian cleric named Abdullah Azzam. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam was born near the West Bank town of Jenin in 1941. A prodigious academic who studied throughout the area, from Jordan to Syrian, Azzam became a teacher, specializing in the intrinsic justice of the sharia, or Islamic law. Azzam became preoccupied with religious warfare. "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues" was his motto.
As a man in his late twenties, Azzam had already earned a reputation as a spellbinding orator in the mosques and gathering halls of the West Bank and the lower Damascus salient. His sermons, laced with hate-filled diatribes against the Jews, were a combination of modern Arabic poetry combined with the blood libel of Eastern European anti-Semitism. Even in his early years, Azzam's interpretation of modern history harked back the Christian crusades, insisting on the necessity for Arab states to avenge the humiliation and indignity they had suffered at the hands of crusaders and later Western powers. Speaking in the mosques of the West Bank, often under the watchful eyes of Jordanian security men who feared his fiery antimonarchy sermons, Azzam had hoped to spark a fundamentalist Islamic guerrilla campaign to eradicate Israel and create an Islamic Palestine. The June 1967 War destroyed Azzam's dreams forever. Like tens of thousands of other Palestinians fleeing the West Bank across the bombed-out bridges spanning the Jordan River, Azzam entered Jordan a refugee. He quickly joined the ranks of the clandestine and outlawed Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and soon made contacts with compatriots in Egypt. Inside the mosques of Amman and Cairo, in secretive meetings held at great risk, men seeking a greater Islamic nation, an Arab superstate with the sharia as its code, gathered to discuss strategy. Azzam often spoke of an unforgiving military strategy that would be required to bring the name of Allah back to the nonbelievers.
But in 1970, a different type of war was fought in Jordan. Palestinian guerrillas, who had used the Hashemite Kingdom as a base of operations from which to launch terrorist attacks against Israel and targets in Western Europe, were defeated in a brutal civil war by Jordanian forces. The bloodletting, known in Arabic as ailul al-Aswad, or "Black September," forced Palestinian radicals to flee. Most escaped to Lebanon. Azzam ventured to al-Azhar University in Cairo, eventually obtaining his Ph.D. in principles of Islamic jurisprudence in 1973.
In the mid-1970s, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam traveled to Saudi Arabia to take a teaching position at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah. But the academic position would be short-lived. In 1979, Azzam abandoned the Arabian peninsula for a one-way ticket to Islamabad and then moved on to Peshawar. In Pakistan, Azzam founded the Beit-ul-Ansar, better known to the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies as the Mujahadeen Services Bureau. The bureau's original objective was to offer assistance to the Afghani jihad and the mujahadeen and to support the many Muslim volunteers flocking to the Afghani frontier. Soon, the "bureau" began to train volunteers itching for blood in what was turning into a modern-day countercrusade against the Soviet invader. Then the bureau, with Azzam at the helm, began to recruit volunteers around the Arab world and to campaign for cash to fund the jihad. Azzam viewed the war as an opportunity to establish Khilafah, or "Allah's rule on earth," which he believed to be the responsibility of each and every Muslim.
For all his anti-Western diatribes and venom, Azzam was pragmatic. The lanky figure with the fire of hell in his belly was aided in his cause by Western men who spoke with northern Virginia accents, men who represented "the Company." The CIA agents, called "Virginia Farm Boys" in some Mujahadeen circles, were supporters of Azzam's bureau, allies bringing weaponry and cash. Azzam did not refuse American help. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been the currency of day-to-day life in the Near East for centuries. Abdullah Azzam and the Afghan Arabs knew how to make the most out of this ancient wisdom.
Another visitor to Azzam's bureau offering the promise of cash, guns, ammunition, and infrastructure was a lanky Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden, who ventured to Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly after the Soviet invasion.
* * *
Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born in 1955, the youngest of some twenty sons of one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest and most prominent families. His father, a Yemeni immigrant, was a businessman builder who earned the trust of the Saudi royal family and virtual exclusivity on all construction contracts in the kingdom. The family quickly became one of the richest in the kingdom, surpassed, perhaps, only by the royal family. Osama bin Laden's mother was reported to have been a Syrian-born beauty and his father's favorite--he had three other wives. Little has been recorded on Osama bin Laden's early life, but it is known to have been one immersed in luxury and opulence. In 1968, when the young bin Laden was only thirteen, his father was killed in a helicopter crash, and the family fortune was distributed among the fifty children, wives, and other dependents. It is said that bin Laden inherited over $50 million upon his father's death, as well as shares in the Bin Laden Group, the family's multinational construction conglomerate. Several reports have listed the young bin Laden as a deeply pious teenager completely immersed in Islamic studies. Other reports indicate that he was a typical spoiled Arab millionaire, traveling to Beirut, the sexual and alcohol paradise of Dubai, and other places in the area for some good naughty fun.
What is known about Osama bin Laden is that the year 1979 was a turning point in his life. The Ayatollah Khomeini had seized power in Iran, forging the Islamic revolution, Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel, and the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. Initially, the young bin Laden was reluctant to join the fight in Afghanistan--palatial homes and Filipino servant women, chosen for their beauty rather than their domestic skills, were hard to give up. Bin Laden traveled, studied, and, were it not for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, seemed destined for a life of splendor inside the kingdom.
Osama bin Laden is known to have spent the first few years of the war in Afghanistan raising cold hard cash for the war effort against the Soviets. His fund-raising effort was centered on Saudi Arabia. He hit up members of the royal family and business associates of his father. The who's who of the Saudi political and business spectrum shoved dollars and dinars into bin Laden's war chest. The money was transferred through hundreds of money transferring enterprises, facilitated by a system known as Hawala, located throughout the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and the Asian subcontinent to locations inside Peshawar and Afghanistan. Hawala, literally the "transfer of debt," dates back to the prophet Mohammed, who encouraged the free movement of goods and the development of markets. Moslems were the first to use promissory notes and assignment, or transfer of debts via bills of exchange, and Hawala is an extension of that practice. Hawala consists of transferring money, usually across borders and even continents, without the physical or electronic transfer of the actual funds. For an organization that would, in years to come, live--and die--by secrecy, the age-old Hawala apparatus allowed money transfers to remain paperless, wireless, and without any fingerprints that could one day be used in a court of law. Money changers received cash in one country--no questions asked--and then a dealer in another country, contacted by a phone call, a letter, an e-mail, or even a messenger knowing a predetermined codeword, would dispense the transferred amount, minus a minimal fee and commission, to a recipient.
* * *
For bin Laden, the war in Afghanistan created a rift of rage and anger inside his soul that would, for the next twenty-two years, be expressed through violence and savagery. As time went on, and the war in Afghanistan intensified, bin Laden sought a more active role for himself. In 1984, bin Laden moved to Peshawar to fight against the Soviets. He began to don military jackets over his traditional robes and was always seen, day and night, clutching a captured Soviet-made assault rifle. Some say that bin Laden killed a Russian soldier, in hand-to-hand combat, to seize the weapon.3 The truth behind bin Laden's combat record remains a mystery, one often wrapped in folklore. But in a fight to the death against a superpower, folklore is important.
Through the Bin Laden Group, Osama bin Laden had earthmoving equipment, trucks, and other construction tools brought to the Pakistani frontier so that they could be smuggled into Afghanistan. The bin Laden equipment would be used to build roads and to burrow caves. Some of the most sophisticated and elaborate defensive tunnels and bunkers were built in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden's money. Often, bin Laden would supervise the effort personally.
Azzam and bin Laden established a recruiting office that they called the Maktab al-Khidamat, or MAK. The MAK advertised all over the Arab world for young Muslims to come fight in Afghanistan; it set up branch recruiting offices all over the world, including in the United States and Europe. Bin Laden paid for the transportation of the new recruits to Afghanistan and set up very sophisticated facilities to train them. The Pakistani government donated land and resources, while bin Laden brought in experts on guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and covert operations from all over the world.
With bin Laden's cash and Azzam's zeal, the march toward jihad was a furious one. Azzam became such a hero among the Islamic militant movement around the Middle East that Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic Palestinian movement, named their West Bank terrorist squads the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Azzam also traveled the world seeking more cash and more men for the war. According to noted journalist Steve Emerson, "Between 1985 and 1989, Azzam and his top aide, Palestinian Sheikh Tamim al-Adnani, visited dozens of American cities, exhorting their followers to pick up the sword against the enemies of Islam."4
The international army assembled in Pakistan and Afghanistan was over 20,000 strong. Men came from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Persian Gulf states, Yemen, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, Turkey, Indonesia, and even the Philippines. Azzam wanted to coordinate the multiethnic force of holy warriors for the next stage of the struggle, but bin Laden wanted to create a covert network of operatives for future operations. Slowly, bin Laden began to steal much of Azzam's thunder, and the relationship became fractious. While Azzam labored to improve the conditions in mujahadeen front-line clinics, bin Laden began networking with the international who's who of Islamic militancy that would flock to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan for a look of their own.
Inevitably, bin Laden and Azzam began to compete for prominence and control of the movement. Osama bin Laden wanted to continue the work of the jihad and take the fight to Saudi Arabia and beyond. Azzam continued to focus on support to Muslims in Afghanistan to create a base of operations for the next step. In the end it was bin Laden's vision that prevailed. On November 24, 1989, three bombs planted along a mountainous route in Afghanistan that Abdullah Azzam regularly traveled to on the way to his mosque detonated as he passed. Sheikh Azzam was killed, along with two of his sons. Rumors have consistently linked Osama bin Laden to Azzam's assassination, though there has never been any definitive proof. Nevertheless, with Azzam dead, it was bin Laden who would lead the global effort.
Interestingly enough, bin Laden would carry on Azzam's vision and create an organization called al-Qaeda, or "the Base," a loosely organized network that would continue the struggle of a global holy war. Al-Qaeda would not be a terrorist organization in the conventional sense of the word. Unlike other terrorist groups, such as the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, and the various Palestinian groups, al-Qaeda's quest was not regional. Al-Qaeda was not after national liberation or political autonomy. Unlike other terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, al-Qaeda did not require a state sponsor to furnish its foot soldiers with guns, explosives, safe houses, and documents. Instead, al-Qaeda was designed as a multinational corporation with offices, or branches, in virtually every country on earth. Osama bin Laden was the corporation's founder and CEO, his lieutenants served as chief executive council, and the many veterans of the war in Afghanistan, returning to their homes in the four corners of the world, would serve as the company's loosely knit but highly dedicated staff. Like any successful multinational corporation, bin Laden's al-Qaeda had global ambitions and, in nations like Afghanistan and Sudan, he had "business-friendly" headquarters from which to operate.
Osama bin Laden had envisioned al-Qaeda as a springboard for a global Islamic underground movement to topple corrupt regimes not adhering to Islamic principles. To get his struggle off the ground, Osama bin Laden looked no further than Egypt, and the fearless and visionary Egyptian lieutenants who had served with him in Afghanistan.
* * *
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided many of the disil-lusioned zealot-wannabes throughout the Arab world with a cause. A monolithic atheist empire, a superpower that since the revolution of 1917 had systematically persecuted its own Muslim minority, was now attacking a defenseless and primitive people who believed that Allah was the One True God and Mohammed His Messenger. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the attempts, by the Soviet military and their Afghani puppets, to install a Communist regime in Kabul outraged Muslims all over the world. In response, Muslim volunteers flocked to the Khyber Pass to take arms in the holy struggle. But the volunteers who flocked to the camps to pledge their faith on the banana-clip magazine of an AK-47 assault rifle were focused on Afghanistan. The vision of a global jihad came to the volunteers courtesy of the Egyptians.
Cairo had, for centuries, been considered the capital of the Arab world, and Egypt, with its forty million souls, long considered the dominant Arab power. But modern Egypt had never been truly able to profess its power and greatness in this century. Dominated by the Ottoman Turks and then the British, Egypt was a country beset by poverty and strife, desperately clinging to the tatters of papyrus and the Pyramids as symbols of a long-departed greatness. Poverty, and a sense of diminished greatness, helped spark the reemergence of fundamentalist Islam. The emergence of Islamic political zeal in Egypt did not appear with the conquering Arab army that, with Lawrence of Arabia at the helm, liberated the Arabian Peninsula and what is today Jordan and Syria from Turkish rule. The rush of fundamentalist Islam began in the universities and mosques of the greater Cairo metropolis as an answer to foreign occupation and a quest for empowerment.
The Muslim Brotherhood Society was founded in March 1928 in Isma'aliya, Egypt, by Hassan al-Banna, a firebrand and cleric who would soon build one of the largest political parties in Egypt whose goal was to build a society based solely on the sharia. The Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood Society was, in essence, a movement of national liberation inasmuch as it worked for the liberation of Egypt from Western control and non-Islamic influences. It would not be long until British forces in Egypt found themselves the target of the Brotherhood in random and violent hit-and-run attacks. Brotherhood terrorist cells were known for their brutality and random indiscriminate attacks. British troops garrisoned in Egypt feared "the Brothers."
The war in Palestine, from 1936 to 1949, transformed the Muslim Brotherhood into an accepted tool of the greater Arab struggle against the fledgling state of Israel. By March 1948, Hassan al-Banna claimed to have 1,500 Brotherhood volunteers in Palestine. At the same time, the Egyptian military, originally wary of the threat the Brotherhood posed to the regime of King Farouk, authorized the training of volunteers for the fight in Palestine in order for them to wage a jihad. Camps were opened up along the border near Gaza and contacts made with local fundamentalists. Following the war, Egypt annexed the Gaza Strip and took under its control the 750,000 Palestinians living there, subjecting the local populace to an often repressive occupation. Gaza was the definition of misery: crowded, poor, unsanitary, and underdeveloped beyond mere neglect to the point of malice. There was no industry in Gaza, no hope for work, and often no hope at all. The power and promise of Islam became the sole hope to many, and the only way most of the refugee population had to vent their anger and rage.
The establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 transformed the Muslim Brotherhood into a political force to be reckoned with not only in Egypt. On December 28, 1948, King Farouk's prime minister, Mahmud Fahmi Noqrashi, was assassinated by Brotherhood gunmen in Cairo. The Brotherhood, outraged that the Egyptian monarchy had led the Arab world to a humiliating defeat against the upstart Jewish state, began to call openly for a resurrection that would bring Islamic rule to Egypt. Although secret police operatives working for King Farouk assassinated Hassan al-Banna in Cairo a year later, the 1948 debacle would continue to breed revolution inside Egypt. In 1952, with tacit support of the Brotherhood, Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser seized power in a military coup. But Nasser, a socialist cut from pragmatic cloth, angered the fundamentalists when he allied himself with the Soviet Union and Socialist regimes throughout the world for the struggle against Israel.
Nasser would ban the Muslim Brotherhood and dispatch his secret service agents to the slums of Cairo and the villages around the Nile Delta to round up the activists. The Muslim Brotherhood responded by launching several unsuccessful assassination attempts against him. Nasser vowed to crush the underground movement as part of his effort to make Egypt a great and modern state. In 1966, Nasser ordered the execution of Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of transnational Islamic fundamentalism, and the Brotherhood military commander. Other Brotherhood leaders would soon find themselves swinging from the gallows in Egypt's most desolate maximum-security prisons.
June 1967 would be a watershed year for the underground Islamic fundamentalist movement in Egypt. In May, in daring moves designed to rally the Arab world behind him, Egyptian President Nasser sent his armies into the demilitarized Sinai Desert, closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea to Israeli shipping, and vowed to push the Jewish state into the sea. On June 4, 1967, the upstart state of Israel struck first, launching a multipronged series of preemptive air strikes against targets in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. In six days of combat, an Arab army of some one million men was vanquished by Israel's citizen-soldiers. Egypt lost the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert. Jordan lost the West Bank of the Jordan River, and Syria lost the Golan Heights. Secular Arab nationalism had disintegrated over the smoldering desert battlefields of Sinai, and was disgraced by the Star of David flying over the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The 1967 calamity brought new life to fundamentalist Islamic movements in Egypt. Young men flocked to the mosques and to the Islamic universities to seek answers to yet another humiliating defeat at the hands of the Western powers. Crowds of angry young men, some openly expressing their desire to fight in a global holy war, flocked to hear the sermons of such noted orators of the cause as Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric who was becoming famous throughout North Africa for his calls for a pan-Arab Islamic revolution.
Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman was born in May 1938 into a poverty-stricken family in the Nile Delta. Blinded by diabetes when he was ten months old, Rahman was offered few choices in life. Egypt did not help its crippled. They were often discarded in the trash piles of poverty and indifference. Islamic studies was one of the few options the young blind boy had. And the young Rahman was a brilliant religious student. By age eleven, it has been reported, he had already memorized a braille copy of the Koran.5 Egypt's 1967 military debacle changed the twenty-nine-year-old Islamic student forever. He was outraged by the national humiliation from a war he, as a blind cripple, could not fight in; the military defeat left him zealous and bitter. Most of his rage was directed against the political leadership, or the "New Pharaohs," as they were known in the mosques of southern Cairo.
One such man who attended Rahman's sermons was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a young up-and-coming physician from a prominent Egyptian family. Born into wealth and prestige, al-Zawahiri forsook a promising medical career, money, and family to become one of the founding members of al-Jihad, a highly secretive underground movement dedicated to establishing Islamic rule in Egypt. There would eventually be two sects of the al-Jihad group--Zawahiri's faction, considered the fanatical movement, and something called Vanguards of Conquest (Talaa' al-Fateh) led by Ahmad Husayn Agiza. Both al-Jihad groups accepted Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman as their spiritual mentor, though Zawahiri was a proponent of the Takfir wa Hijra, or "Anathema and Exile," the bleakest offshoot of fundamentalist Islamic thought, which condoned the killing of both Westerners and Muslims alike in purifying the earth of nonbelievers and traitors.
Another Egyptian group was the al-Gama'a al-Islamiyah, a terrorist faction that emerged as a phenomenon rather than an organized group, mainly in Egyptian jails, and later on in some of the Egyptian universities, during the early 1970s. Following the release of most of the Islamic prisoners from the Egyptian jails by President Sadat after 1971, several groups of militants began to organize themselves. These militant groups or cells took names such as the Islamic Liberation Party, Excommunication and Emigration, and Saved from the Inferno. Each cell operated separately and was self-contained, a fact that allowed the organization to be structured but at the same time loosely organized.
Initially, the Muslim Brotherhood accepted the rule of Nasser's successor, Anwar es-Sadat, who assumed power after Nasser succumbed to a fatal heart attack in September 1970 while brokering a cease-fire between Palestinian guerrillas and Jordanian troops attempting to evict them from the Hashemite Kingdom during the Black September crisis. Sadat, realizing the potential of the Islamic underground to wreak havoc, instituted the sharia as the law throughout Egypt and pardoned all Brotherhood leaders imprisoned by the government in the mid-1960s. But the movement worked best underground. Faithful members of the cause were recruited from inside the Egyptian military and officer corps. The tide and rage of Islamic zeal inside the Egyptian military reached its zenith during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Launched during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer, the initial Egyptian and Syrian offensive scored impressive battlefield successes before Israel managed to turn the tide of the war. After eighteen days of brutal fighting that risked superpower involvement, Israeli tanks were an hour's drive from Damascus and well on the road to Cairo.
It was the aftermath of the 1973 fighting and Egyptian President Sadat's acceptance of a unilateral Egyptian-led diplomatic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that marked a turning point for the underground Islamic movements in Egypt. President Sadat's acceptance of the Jewish state was viewed by the clerics, especially the fundamentalist clerics like Sheikh Rahman, as unforgivable religious treason. Although blind and physically hesitant in his movements and gestures, Sheikh Rahman was a mesmerizing orator, and his sermons on Islamic betrayal at the hands of the modern Arab state sparked furious applause from the poor and disenfranchised, and the ire of the security police. Sheikh Rahman would soon become a regular at the headquarters of the fihaz amn al Daula, or Egyptian State Security. When President Sadat prepared his historic flight to Israel to seek peace, Rahman would become a threat to Egyptian national security.
That Sadat would venture to a Jerusalem under Israeli control was viewed by members of al-Jihad as incomprehensible betrayal. In signing a peace treaty with the state of Israel in March 1979, Sadat was signing his own death warrant. Many in the lower ranks of the service were sympathetic to the fundamentalists, and the peace accords with the Israelis pushed many into becoming active operatives in the Brotherhood. In a complex assassination operation that required the coordination and complicity of the many arms of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Egyptian President Anwar es-Sadat was murdered on October 6, 1981, as he sat in a reviewing stand in central Cairo commemorating the eighth anniversary of the crossing of the Suez Canal. The terrorists, leaping from transport trucks participating in the military parade, fired their AK-47 rifles with great precision as they riddled the velvet-draped presidential section of the stand. Dozens of grenades were tossed and dozens were killed in the chaotic gun battle that ensued--all televised live to forty million viewers inside Egypt.
Over 2,500 men--from imams as old as eighty and suspects as young as twelve--were arrested by Egyptian authorities and tried in chaotic courts where the verdict was usually "guilty." Those directly responsible for the assassination were executed. Those even circumstantially connected were imprisoned. Hell awaited the hundreds of men who escaped execution only to find themselves inside the docket of an Egyptian courtroom. Life in an Egyptian prison was harsh and brutal for common criminals. According to reports by Amnesty International, there were "widespread and indiscriminate" incidents of torture and ill-treatment in Egyptian police stations and detention centers. Prison life was nightmarish for enemies of the state implicated in the assassination of Sadat. Torture was a daily activity. Prisoners were tortured with electric shocks, beatings, whippings, suspension by the wrists or ankles, suspension in contorted positions from a horizontal pole. They were also subjected to various forms of psychological torture. Prisoners were often threatened with death, including mock firing squads. Many were threatened with rape and sexual torture. Some male prisoners were even raped by guards and interrogators. Often, security service interrogators threatened to rape the wives, sisters, and daughters of those being questioned. "Do you want to know the difference between life in prison four hundred years ago and life in prison today?" an Egyptian secret service officer said in a Cairo meeting with U.S. intelligence officers. "Today you get a plastic bucket to shit in!"
Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was sentenced to three years of prison time for his role in the Sadat assassination. He was convicted only on weapons charges, though his role in the killing was far more involved.
The brutalization endured in Egyptian prisons hardened the fundamentalist operatives beyond Western comprehension. Men whose faiths saw them through the most barbaric of treatments had survived and, ominously, had lived to fight another day. Many of those let out of Mubarak's jails went underground, heading to the untouchable universe of Cairo's slums and religious schools. Other militants set up bases of operation in southern Egypt, or in Sudan, where the Islamic call to arms was finding a sympathetic ear. Others, including Dr. al-Zawahiri, petitioned the Egyptian government to provide them with exit visas to Pakistan, where they could join a fight--any fight, in fact--in the name of Islam. By 1985, the stream of Egyptian volunteers to bin Laden's Arab army had swelled. Some Western intelligence organizations believe that over 2,000 Egyptian holy warriors ventured to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.
According to reports, Osama bin Laden met Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden provided money, arms, and facilities to the Arabic-speaking warriors; Dr. al-Zawahiri provided medical care to wounded mujahadeen. The two men were ideally suited to one another's visions. Osama bin Laden was the banker, the facilitator, the Robin Hood of the Islamic revival who could turn a rabble into an army that could vanquish a superpower. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was an ingenious plotter. If ever there was a terrorist field marshal who knew how to coordinate and manipulate small cells of operatives for a larger cause, it was al-Zawahiri. And al-Zawahiri knew, if there was one religious leader who could lead the call for an underground Islamic movement, it would be Sheikh Rahman. Soon, the blind Egyptian cleric, looking out of place in his white robes in a land where the AK-47 ruled, began his journey to Peshawar.
* * *
The one element of true genius linking bin Laden and al-Zawahiri was their understanding of just how small a place the world had become. Jihad emissaries, recruiting fighters and raising cash in Western Europe and the United States, had set up headquarters, mosques as covers, and a myriad of travel agencies, financial institutions, and other businesses that could all service the cause in Afghanistan. Middle Eastern migration to Western Europe, to cities like Hamburg, London, Manchester, and Brussels, provided an endless address book of safe houses and facilitators throughout the continent. In the United States the network was even larger. Not only was there a vibrant Arab presence in New York City and New Jersey, but in Tampa, Chicago, and even the American heartland, Oklahoma City. Culturally, Afghanistan might be 2,000 years away from the reality of America's modern technologically advanced society, but it was only a fifteen-hour flight with a good connection through London or Frankfurt. Money could be transferred between accounts in hours, if not minutes, and phone service, even to remote stretches of Peshawar and Jalalabad, made communications effortless.
By 1989, after Azzam's death, the organization that bin Laden and the fire-spewing "martyr" from Jenin had begun and that bin Laden had transformed into a truly global underground army was ready to spring into action. By 1990, with much of the fighting over in Afghanistan, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. The monarchy, bin Laden would argue in sermons, was corrupt and not true to the Islamic principles incumbent upon the kingdom as caretakers of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Osama bin Laden, the Yemeni, a perennial outsider in a kingdom that tolerated only its own inner circle, would use his charisma and wealth to change the face of a kingdom that just happened to fuel much of the modern world.
The other Arab veterans of the Afghanistan fighting, riding a high of ballistic victory, returned home to Algeria, to Egypt, to Sudan, to Yemen, and to Palestine. They also returned to the United States.
* * *
Many of the Arab Afghans crisscrossed the Near East and North America during those critical years in the mid-1980s. Some of the travelers were Arab émigrés who were permanent residents in the United States and green-card holders; others were naturalized U.S. citizens. The Afghan Arabs sent emissaries to the Arab Diaspora communities of Brooklyn, Jersey City, Detroit, and Chicago to raise money for the struggle. Impassioned speakers, including key officers in bin Laden's network, lectured the faithful at conferences in Marriott hotels, Holiday Inns, and even inside the homes of wealthy Muslims. The talk was of the struggle against the Soviets and, invariably, the Zionists. Money was always raised. Sometimes, volunteers would follow, as well. One such volunteer was Mahmoud Abouhalima.
Born in 1959, in a ragtag slum suburb of Alexandria that was fertile ground for future operatives in al-Jihad and the al-Gama'a al-Islamiyah, Mahmoud Abouhalima was a man who stood out in a crowd. Well over six feet tall and the owner of orange-red locks and a bright red beard--a parting gift to his ancestors from the Crusaders, as an Egyptian security official liked to joke--he was a man who was easy to notice in a cause where notoriety generally bought a one-way ticket to the torture chambers of the Egyptian Muchabarat. And, in the Egypt of October 1981, notoriety often got you killed. Abouhalima was granted a tourist visa to Germany and settled in Munich, where he married a German girl, got divorced, and then found another German bride--though this one was a willing convert to Islam. In 1986, they moved to New York.
Like millions of other permanent tourists who come to the United States each and every year to live and work in the cash-only world of undocumented-immigrant status, Mahmoud Abouhalima and his German bride allowed their tourist visas to expire. Fortunately for them, their papers ran out at a time when the U.S. federal government was offering an amnesty for "visitors" to the United States with expired papers. The Abouhalimas applied for amnesty from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and, in 1988, were awarded temporary legal residence. Abouhalima, like so many Arab immigrants before him, obtained a hack license from the Taxi and Limousine Commission and picked up fares for a living.
According to an article in Time magazine by Richard Behar, Abouhalima's cab was a mini-mosque and jihad recruitment center. Abouhalima's cab was filled with copies of the Koran and other Islamic decorations. Anyone hapless enough to enter his taxi--he is reported to have been cited over a dozen times for traffic violations and suspended licenses--was assaulted by cassettes of fiery sermons from Egypt calling for the death of President Hosni Mubarak, Israel, the United States, and just about anything else that was non-Islamic. Many of the sermons were by a man he had come to idolize--Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Abouhalima also volunteered to work at the al-Kifah refugee center in Brooklyn, funneling men and money to the Arabs fighting in Afghanistan. Watching his Palestinian, Algerian, Jordanian, and Egyptian brothers travel to Pakistan on discounted tickets on Pakistan International Airlines arranged through the refugee center, Abouhalima wanted to be much more than a circumstantial Islamic holy warrior who just happened to escape Egypt by the skin of his teeth. Abouhalima became friendly with Mustafa Shalabi, a member of the al-Gama'a al-Islamiyah on the run from the Egyptian authorities who just happened to be the New York City agent who ran the al-Kifah refugee center in Brooklyn. Abouhalima and Shalabi became close friends. Within months, Abouhalima ventured to Afghanistan to join forces with the mujahadeen.
In Afghanistan, during his numerous trips to the embattled land in the late 1980s, Abouhalima soon found himself in a training camp with other fellow Arab volunteers learning how to strip apart and then assemble an AK-47 in less than ten seconds, and learning how to lay an ambush for Soviet armored personnel carriers. The Arab soldiers were equipped lavishly. The United States and the Central Intelligence Agency invested close to $3.3 billion in the foreign volunteers; Saudi Arabia was reported to have matched the CIA dollar for dollar.6 The Arabs were disliked by their Afghan comrades. The Arabs kept to themselves. They felt and acted superior to the illiterate rabble who had been fighting the Soviets since 1979. But the Arabs were fierce--truly fanatical--on the battlefield. According to one Middle Eastern intelligence veteran, "They would attack without quarter and without warning. Russians who were lucky were killed when the first RPG was launched and the first 7.62mm bullets impacted the convoy. Those wounded by the combat and left to die became miserable experiments of what knives and petrol could do to the dwindling remains of a human life."7
Some of the Arabs came to Afghanistan for the duration. Others, like middle-aged American businessmen traveling to Florida for baseball fantasy camp, came on one-month vacations of close-quarter bloodletting before heading back to the bodegas and yellow cabs of New York City, where they could earn enough money for yet another plane ticket and another month of combat.
It is reported that Mahmoud Abouhalima made several trips to Pakistan in 1989 and 1990. The entry turnstile into the United States provided the global jihad network with enormous opportunities.
In early May 1990, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman's representatives walked into the U.S. embassy in Sudan on the tree-lined Sharia Ali Abdul Latif in Khartoum and sought an entry visa for him to the United States. Sheikh Rahman, at the behest of the Egyptian authorities, had been on a terrorist watch list for his role in the assassination of Anwar es-Sadat and his involvement with the al-Jihad movement since 1987. On May 10, 1990, Rahman was granted a one-year visa to enter the United States. He arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in July. It remains a mystery to this day how, despite his record in Egypt, Rahman ended up in the United States, shuttling between the al-Salaam mosque in Jersey City and the al-Kifah refugee center in Brooklyn's Arab Atlantic Avenue enclave, though his apparent enlistment by the CIA as an "asset" in rallying the troops in Afghanistan appears to have played a crucial role in his earning the right to visit the United States.
"Nobody ever gave a second thought to the mosque in the bustling shopping district of Jersey City," claimed an officer in the Jersey City Police Department's Emergency Service Unit. "There were so many Arab residents of that part of town, who knew what they were up to?"8 In New York City the traveling holy warriors sparked little interest or concern from local cops; NYPD Intelligence Division detectives were far more concerned with Jewish vigilante operations against Arab-owned businesses on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue than they were with mysterious guerrilla veterans milling about the al-Kifah refugee center.
In November 1990, shortly after the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the sheikh's visa was supposed to have been revoked by the State Department, though miscommunication with the Immigration and Naturalization Service resulted in Rahman being approved for permanent residency status.
Sheikh Rahman, in his religious robes, dark glasses, and white turban, became a source of inspiration to Arabs in the New York City metropolitan area who felt disenfranchised in their new homes and alienated in a strange culture. Rahman struck a raw nerve among those who were homesick and those who were pious but felt strange about expressing their religious beliefs in a city that was moving forward, rather than backward in time. Many of the young and middle-aged men who ventured to Sheikh Rahman's sermons felt powerless in the United States. Tales of the fighting in Afghanistan and the mysterious Saudi millionaire who abandoned wealth and luxury for a cave and an AK-47 assault rifle sparked fantasy and religious pride.
Mahmoud Abouhalima became Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman's part-time bodyguard and chauffeur. Others who flocked to worship with the sheikh and become one of his followers included El Sayyid Nosair; Nosair's first cousin, Ibrahim Elgabrowny; and Nidal Ayyad, a Kuwaitiborn chemical engineer who worked for Allied Signal, the giant Morristown, New Jersey, chemical company. Another member of the inner circle was Wadih el Hage, a Lebanese native and naturalized U.S. citizen. Initially el Hage was a devout follower of Abdullah Azzam but came to know--and work for--Osama bin Laden. While many in the Brooklyn al-Kifah crew were always wary of not overstepping the bounds of criminal behavior in order to avoid possible deportation, el Hage was known to boast that his American passport allowed him to travel around the world without hindrance.
Another key member of the inner circle was Emad Salem, a former Egyptian Army intelligence officer who had converted to the side of the "righteous." Salem was, in fact, an informant supplying the FBI with information on this growing underground group traveling back and forth between Jersey City and Brooklyn.
August 2, 1990, was a turning point. On August 2, 1990, America became the target.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, had some of the earmarkings of another Third World act of bloodshed that would quickly be forgotten by the international media. War was no stranger to the region, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein had always squabbled with his weaker neighbors over border disputes, oil exports, and the other Byzantine elements of bravado that marked Middle Eastern politics. But the Iraqi invasion wasn't just a ten-hour incursion designed to intimidate and extort. This was a full-fledged bayonet-driven takeover, and the Emir of Kuwait, and the billions his country possessed and produced, appeared to be just a staging area for a grander scheme to dominate the world's oil supply.
In the Middle East, especially inside the fundamentalist corner of the Arab world, the Iraqi invasion was seen as a mixed blessing. The emirs, shahs, kings, and sultans of the Persian Gulf were rich theocratic rulers who had lost their way in pursuit of American military protection and the almighty dollar. Saddam Hussein wasn't a righteous Muslim by any stretch of the imagination, but he did, some argued, expose the leaders of the oil-rich Gulf States and of the Saudi royal family as nothing more than munafaqeen--the Arabic term for hated hypocrites. Arab might and Islamic justice were, in a moment of crisis, abandoned to allow 300,000 American soldiers--infidels the lot of them--to tread on holy Saudi soil. To many fundamentalist Muslims, the Saudi royal family had perpetrated treason and blasphemy by permitting American soldiers, Christians and Jews, to enter the kingdom in defense of oil and cash. The United States of America, in the eyes of many fundamentalist Islamic leaders, was not defending an Arab state, but rather occupying the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The continuous presence of U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia in the autumn of 1990 was an escalating source of hatred and anger inside the mind of Osama bin Laden. It was a call to arms inside the alSalaam and the Abu Bakr mosques in Jersey City and Brooklyn. The assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane was a convenient crime of opportunity sparked by hatred and blind faith. Behind it were the teachings and fatwas, or religious-sanctioned homicide contracts, called for by Sheikh Rahman.
Sheikh Rahman availed himself to members of his flock, who often contacted him about religious questions--they even phoned the blind cleric, a man with two wives, about marital advice. Nosair was one of the Sheikh's most persistent callers. According to federal authorities, Nosair recorded some of his telephone conversations with Rahman, including a discussion in which the two discussed their impotent anger over the growing influx of Jews emigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union and the difficulties that portended for destroying the Jewish state.
El Sayyid Nosair's involvement in the Kahane assassination was an opening salvo in the fundamentalist religious attack that was slowly building inside the United States of America. The Kahane killing should have been seen as a harbinger of much worse to come. Instead, it sparked nothing more than a series of ignored reports by an FBI informant and the belief, strongly held by many in law enforcement, that whatever happened in Jerusalem and Beirut and Bogotá could never happen inside the United States.
The case of El Sayyid Nosair became a rallying point for the followers of Sheikh Rahman. The sheikh's followers and Nosair's fellow guerrillas were seen protesting Nosair's trial each day of the proceedings outside the Manhattan criminal courts building. Often arguing--and sometimes fighting--with Kahane supporters, the Arabs constantly demanded that Nosair be found innocent and returned to his community. News cameras captured the faces of Mohammed Salameh, Mahmoud Abouhalima, and Ibrahim Elgabrowny outside the court. Often they were dressed in combat fatigues that they had worn in Afghanistan. They brandished the Koran in anger and defiance.
Remarkably, El Sayyid Nosair was not convicted of murdering Rabbi Kahane--defended by legendary left-wing attorney William Kunstler, Nosair was instead convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to the maximum sentence of seven to twenty-two years behind bars. Inside the al-Salaam mosque, and at the al-Kifah refugee center in Brooklyn, the followers of Sheikh Rahman organized inexpensive bus trips--lunch not included--for followers to visit "Brother" El Sayyid Nosair in Attica State Penitentiary. Even from behind the cold brick walls of prison, Nosair continued to plot future "operations." Nosair openly talked about killing judges and politicians, as well as other bombings throughout the New York metropolitan area.
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From the second-story window of the al-Salaam mosque, where Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman preached a great carnage that he envisioned in the United States on most evenings during the week, downtown Jersey City was basked by the bright lights from a picture-postcard view of the World Trade Center. The two buildings were also inescapable from the Abu Bakr mosque and the al-Kifah refugee center. They were symbols of American power and might, and had become, just like Anwar es-Sadat, a symbol of betrayal.
Whether there was any direct involvement between Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman's New York-area network and Osama bin Laden's Afghan Arab network in Afghanistan remains a mystery to this day. The assassination of a militant rabbi might have been a small victory, but it would hardly satisfy the call to arms from the mosques of Jersey City, Cairo, and Peshawar. But the material confiscated in Nosair's apartment, including sketches and drawings of skyscrapers, could have provided a tantalizing clue that Rahman's followers had destructive plans for New York City. Notes kept by Nosair, and seized by the FBI, called for attacks on the enemies of Islam by destroying their high buildings, their statues, their entire tourist infrastructure. However, a sketch of a skyscraper erupting in a ball of fire and some rambling notations in Arabic of killings in New York were far from hard evidence of a genuine plot. If Sheikh Rahman's calls for a holy war against the United States were to be realized, the men in Brooklyn and Jersey City needed expert help. The faithful at the al-Salaam mosque were zealous but they were not professional. For the war to truly begin, they would need outside assistance.
In the world of the global jihad, help was always a phone call away.
*Investigators believe that the PETN device was smuggled into Manila through the diplomatic pouch of the Iraqi embassy in Manila, located down the street from the targeted U.S. library.
Copyright © 2002 by Samuel M. Katz