Tracing terror's roots
How the first World Trade Center plot sowed the seeds for 9/11
The inquiry into those men--and those grainy surveillance photos--took on new importance on Nov. 5, 1990. On that day, an Egyptian janitor named El Sayyid Nosair fatally shot Rabbi Meir Kahane, the militant founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), after he spoke at a Marriott hotel. Nosair shot and wounded two other men as he fled but was shot and captured. One of Nosair's accomplices escaped, but two other men found in Nosair's apartment were hauled in for questioning. Their names were Mohammed Salameh and Mahmoud Abouhalima.
Conspiracy angle. In his book The Cell, former ABC News reporter John Miller and his coauthors offer the first detailed look at the task force's efforts to break the al-Kifah cell. In an incident described by Miller, NYPD chief of detectives Joseph Borelli ordered the case officer, Lt. Eddie Norris, to abandon any broad conspiracy theory and to release Abouhalima and Salameh, allegedly arguing that Nosair acted alone. Borelli remembers it differently and told U.S. News that "I never once told anyone not to look at the conspiracy angle." What isn't disputed is this: Three years later, Abouhalima and Salameh, along with fellow al-Kifah member Ayyad, bombed the World Trade Center.
Following the Kahane murder, Anticev, fellow FBI agent John Liguori, and NYPD detective Louis Napoli, another task force member, pulled out those old surveillance photos; sure enough, there was Nosair's picture. Further research revealed that Nosair was the emir for paramilitary training at a Jersey City, N.J., mosque and that his spiritual mentor, an Egyptian cleric named Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, had recently arrived in New York. Abdel-Rahman was on a State Department terrorist watch list for his role as a suspected accomplice in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but he was allowed into the country for reasons that remain unclear. "We now have the main player from a major terrorist organization here," says Napoli, "and we start seeing the influence on the different mosques he attends."
Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20, and it must be remembered the American investigators knew far less about the twilight world of Islamic terrorism then than they do now. It is also true, however, that competitive pressures hobbled the antiterrorism task force in New York. While the NYPD's Lieutenant Norris was at lunch one day, task force members grabbed 24 boxes of evidence from his office, only to lose control of them two days later when Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau asserted jurisdiction over the Kahane case. Published reports say the boxes of evidence contained bomb manuals, U.S. Special Forces manuals, maps of New York landmarks, including the World Trade Center, and a notebook with a penciled entry in Arabic about the need for jihadists to topple tall buildings. In his investigation of the Kahane murder, however, Morgenthau decided to pursue a theory that the JDL leader was felled by a lone gunman. After 9/11, Norris blasted the FBI for not knowing what was in the boxes. Anticev rejects the criticism, saying the task force lost control of the boxes when Morgenthau took control of the Kahane case.