Tracing terror's roots
How the first World Trade Center plot sowed the seeds for 9/11
The task force never lost interest in Abouhalima, though, because he, too, appeared in those old surveillance photos. A janitor in Abouhalima's apartment building gave Napoli and Anticev a detonating cap he found under Abouhalima's bed, and the investigators set up a round-the-clock surveillance of Abouhalima and interviewed him several times. "We tried to develop him as a source but to no avail," says Anticev. "He was cool as a cucumber."
Nosair, meanwhile, had become something of a cause celebre. Unknown to the FBI, Nosair's cousin Ibrahim el-Gabrowny traveled to Saudi Arabia and obtained a $20,000 contribution from Osama bin Laden for Nosair's defense fund. Tentacles of the FBI's investigation of Nosair and Abouhalima were extending overseas, but nothing yet pointed to bin Laden as a major player, says Liguori, a task force member. A jury acquitted Nosair of the Kahane murder but convicted him of the other two shootings in 1991.
That same year, evidence of a wider network of young Islamic men began turning up. An FBI agent hooked investigators Napoli and Anticev up with Emad Salem, an Egyptian informant. Posing as a bomb maker, Salem ingratiated himself with el-Gabrowny during Nosair's trial, visited Nosair in jail, and penetrated Sheikh Abdel-Rahman's inner circle. In June 1992, an associate of el-Gabrowny sought Salem's help in a plot to bomb 12 New York targets and kill the judge in the Nosair trial. His new associates wanted Salem to make pipe bombs for them, placing the FBI in a legally precarious position. Salem also refused to wear a secret recording device because he did not want to testify in court. Tensions flared. In July 1991, after several polygraph exams of Salem proved inconclusive, the task force and Salem parted company. Asked if he regrets that decision, Anticev says, "Absolutely. No question about it, I would be fooling myself if I said no."
Without Salem, it was back to the drawing board. Anticev and Napoli subpoenaed Abouhalima, Salameh, Ayyad, and others. Before the men arrived for questioning, Anticev and Napoli plastered the walls with the old surveillance photos. "We tried to neutralize that cell," says Anticev, "by showing them we had been on to them for four years." The group was not intimidated. They had raised more than $8,000 in terrorist funds, including $600 from Yousef's uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad.
No-show. It was Yousef's arrival in New York, in 1992, that appears to have galvanized the group. Yousef carried an Iraqi passport and claimed he was seeking asylum from Saddam Hussein. Immigration agents fingerprinted Yousef, then released him after ordering him to show up for a hearing. He never appeared. Instead, Yousef met with Abouhalima, then moved in with Salameh in a dingy Jersey City apartment. "Yousef was the catalyst," says Charles Stern, one of the two lead FBI agents in the World Trade Center bombing investigation. "Either somebody sent him over and said hook up with these guys or someone here reached out overseas and said we need a guy." Today, some investigators believe that the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center should be counted as bin Laden's first strike. He didn't know Yousef then, but he was paying for Abdel-Rahman's living expenses in America.