"One week on Atlantic Avenue, it might be a CIA-trained Afghan rebel travelling on a CIA-issued visa; the next, it might be a clean-cut Arabic-speaking Green Beret, who would lecture about the importance of being part of the mujaheddin, or warriors of the Lord. The more popular lectures were held upstairs in the roomier Al-Farooq Mosque; such was the case in 1990 when Sheikh Abdel Rahman, travelling on a CIA-supported visa, came to town."
by Robert I Friedman - New Yorker Magazine - 03/17/95
In a tiny, cramped storefront at 552 Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, right next to the New York Beauty School and across the street from a Dominos Pizza, first-generation Arab immigrants sit for hours over cups of strong, dark coffee, fondling their worry beads and engaging in kalam, or idle talk.
They talked against Zionism, blaming American foreign policy, says M.T. Mehdi, president of the American-Arab relations Committee. The usual stuff of people who have nothing else to do.
The Alkifah Refugee Centre, in addition to providing a hangout for the disaffected, distributed pamphlets and videotapes on the rebel war in Afghanistan. On any given day, a visitor to the centre might take martial-arts classes, or sign up for an automatic-weapons training course taught by instructors from the National Rifle Association. The club even had its own T-shirts: A MUSLIM TO A MUSLIM IS A BRICK WALL. But the highlight for the centres regulars were the inspirational jihad lecture series, featuring CIA-sponsored speakers.
One week on Atlantic Avenue, it might be a CIA-trained Afghan rebel travelling on a CIA-issued visa; the next, it might be a clean-cut Arabic-speaking Green Beret, who would lecture about the importance of being part of the mujaheddin, or warriors of the Lord. The more popular lectures were held upstairs in the roomier Al-Farooq Mosque; such was the case in 1990 when Sheikh Abdel Rahman, travelling on a CIA-supported visa, came to town. The blind Egyptian cleric, with his ferocious rhetoric and impassioned preaching, filled angry, discontented Arab immigrants with a fervour for jihad holy war. This was exactly what the CIA wanted: to stir up support for the Muslim rebels and topple the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.
The sheikh, however, had a somewhat broader agenda.
A former investigative counsel for the Senate Foreign Relatiosn Committee, now a private attorney in Washington, Jack Blum speaks bitterly but fatalistically. After every covert war there is an unintended disposal problem, he says, as if he were talking about unexpected land mines and not potential Islamic terrorists living in Brooklyn. We steered and encouraged these people. Then we dropped them. Now weve got a disposal problem. When you motivate people to fight for a cause jihad the problem is, how do you shut them off?
The answer for the CIA was, you dont. And then when the fanatical fervour youve whipped up leads to unintended consequences the assassination of a Jewish militant leader in Manhattan, the bombing of the World Trade Centre, a terror conspiracy to blow up the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and other Manhattan landmarks you try to discourage local law enforcement agencies and the FBI from looking into the matter too deeply.
Negative fallout from CIA operations is nothing new; theres even spook jargon for it: blowback. But the CIAs secret support and training of Afghan rebels during the past decade has created a blowback of monumental proportions and lasting impact. The CIA has inadvertently managed to do something that Americas enemies have been unable to: give terrorism a foothold in the United States.
Somebody should have taken the time to think ahead about the consequences and in this case its clear that no one did, Blum says. All we cared about was victory at the moment.
We tried to create a right-wing Islamic version of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, says Ronald Kuby, an attorney who has represented the sheikh, amongst others involved in the alleged conspiracy. You cant simply pull the plug. These folks are motivated...They have the highest religious commitment you can have the certainty that death in battle will bring you to paradise. They have the finest training that money can buy, courtesy of the U.S. government; they have a sufficiently large quantity of disposable income that enables them to travel hither and yon. Thats a bad combination.
In April, 1985, more than five years after the Soviet tanks first rolled into Afghanistan, President Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166, a secret order that called for the CIA to expel the Russians by all means available. Over the next decade, the U.S. spent $10 billion to arm and train the mujaheddin. It was Americas largest covert operation since the Vietnam era.
Although the mujaheddin were given a virtual blank check, there never seemed to be enough money. The U. S. Asked Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to help subsidise the war effort. In conjunction with Saudi intelligence, the CIA worked with a loose-knit network of Arab support groups, primarily in the Persian Gulf, to raise funds and recruits for the jihad in Afghanistan. Soon, young Muslim men from across the Arab world, as well as from the U.S., flocked to mujaheddin base camps outside Peshawar, Pakistan, where they were instructed in everything from making car bombs to shooting down Russian MiGs with U.S.-made Stinger missiles. Most of these recruits were fantastical Islamic fundamentalists who despised America just as much as they hated the Communist occupiers, but the CIA was willing to overlook that.
Chief amongst the CIAs allies-of-the-moment was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a charismatic Palestinian preacher from a small village near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. Barnett R Rubin, a Columbia University associate professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says sources have told him that Sheikh Azzam was enlisted by the CIA to unite fractious rebel groups operating in Peshawar.
In an exhaustive study on the role of the Arabs in Afghanistan to be published this spring, [editors Note: Spring 1995] Rubin reports that Azzam was considered a prime asset because of his close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi intelligence, and the Muslim World League. Azzam also headed the Islamic Coordination Council in Peshawar, which generally supervised the military activities of the Arab mujaheddin.
Azzam was not an ideal vehicle for the CIAs message, however. Whilst he fought the Soviets in Afghanisatan, he dreamed of nothing less than global conquest. And unlike more conservative Islamic theologians who believed that jihad could be relegated to Muslim governments or armies, which could wait until historical conditions were favourable, Azzam declared that it was a Muslims absolute obligation to wage jihad now and at any cost.
When not in Pakistan, Azzam frequently travelled to lecture in the New York area notably to the Al-Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn and the Al-Salam Mosque in Jersey City. In 1988, he told a rapt crowd of several hundred in Jersey City, Blood and martyrdom are the only way to create a Muslim society...However, humanity wont allow us to achieve this objective, because all humanity is the enemy of every Muslim.
He then called for a revolution against earthly regimes, and said he wanted to ignite the spark that may one day burn Western interests all over the world. Azzam then asked his audience for donations, made out to his personal account at the Independent Savings Bank.
Azzam was often accompanied on these lecture tours by El-Sayyid Nosair, who sometimes videotaped the sheikhs speeches, and Clement Hampton-El, a Brooklyn-born African-American Muslim who fought and was wounded in Afghanistan.
Whatever the CIAs philosophical differences were with Azzam, the covert operation essentially worked. By the time the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan, in February, 1989, the U.S.-backed mujaheddin had inflicted a terrible toll, killing tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers and draining tens of billions of rubles, helping to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. But still the CIA was not satisfied; it was also determined to topple the puppet government the Soviets left behind in Kabul. And so when Azzam was assassinated by a car bomb in Peshawar in November, 1989, the agency turned for help to one of Azzams closest spiritual kin, Sheikh Abdel Rahman.
Shiekh Omar Abdel Rahman commands an almost deified adoration and respect in certain Islamic circles. It was his 1980 fatwa religious decree condemning Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel that is widely believed to be responsible for Sadats assassination a year later. (Rahman was subsequently tried but acquitted.)
Soon after Azzam was killed, the CIA paid to send Abdel Rahman to Peshawar to preach to the Afghans about the necessity of unity to overthrow the Kabul regime, according to Professor Rubin. By all accounts, Rahman was brilliant at inspiring the faithful.
As a reward for his services, the CIA gave the sheikh a one-year visa to the United States in May, 1990 even though he was on a State Department terrorism watch list that should have barred him from the country.
After a public outcry in the wake of the World Trade Centre bombing, a State Department representative discovered that Rahman had, in fact, received four United States visas dating back to December 15, 1986. All were given to him by CIA agents acting as consular officers at American embassies in Khartoum and Cairo. The CIA officers claimed they didnt know the sheikh was one of the most notorious political figures in the Middle East and a militant on the State Departments list of undesirables. The agent in Khartoum said that when the sheikh walked in the computers were down and the Sudanese clerk didnt bother to check the microfiche file.
Says one top New York investigator: Left with the choice between pleading stupidity or else admitting deceit, the CIA went with stupidity.
Sheikh Rahmans lawyer, Lynne Stewart, says her client denies ever working for the CIA. Just because the CIA and I were on the same side in Afghanistan doesnt mean we were allies, Stewart says he told her.
But according to Professor Rubin, not long after the sheikh was arrested, a source asked Robert Oakley, former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, how the U.S. would respond if the sheikh disclosed he had worked for the CIA. Oakley laughed, saying it would never happen, because the admission would ruin the sheikhs credibility with his militant followers.
The sheikh arrived in Brooklyn at a fortuitous time for the CIA. In the wake of the Soviet Unions retreat from Afghanistan, Congress had slashed the amount of covert aid going to the mujaheddin. The international network of Arab-financed support groups became even more vital to the CIA, including the string of jihad offices that had been set up across America with the help of Saudi and American intelligence. To drum up support, the agency paved the way for veterans of the Afghan conflict to visit the centres and tell their inspirational war stories; in return, the centres collected millions of dollars for the rebels at a time when they needed it most.
There were jihad offices in Jersey City, Atlanta and Dallas, but the most important was the one in Brooklyn, called Alkifah Arabic for the struggle. That storefront became the de facto headquarters of the sheikh.
One of the reputed visitors to the Alkifah Centre was Ali Muhammed, a sergeant in the U. S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg, and a former officer in the Egyptian Army. Mohammed had entered the United States in the mid-Eighties under a clandestine CIA visa-waiver programme that allows the agency to bring in the assets, the Boston Globe reported. An Islamic fundamentalist who claims to have been persecuted for his religious beliefs, Mohammed apparently was purged from the Egyptian Army after Sadat was assassinated. He joined the Green Berets and reportedly travelled to Afghanistan in 1992 to aid the mujaheddin.
On November 5, 1990, Rabbi Meir Kahane, an ultra-right-wing Zionist militant, was shot in the throat with a .357 magnum in a Manhattan hotel; El-Sayyid Nosair was gunned down by an off-duty postal inspector outside the hotel, and the murder weapon was found a few feet from his hand.
A subsequent search of Nosairs Cliffside Park, New Jersey home turned up forty boxes of evidence evidence that, had the D.A.s office and the FBI looked at it more carefully, would have revealed an active terrorist conspiracy about to boil over in New York.
We just didnt know what we were looking at thats my explanation, says Michael Cherkasky, former chief of investigations for the Manhattan D.A. and now managing director of Kroll Associates, the largest private-investigative firm in the world. I dont think it was that we werent smart enough or didnt work hard enough. Its one of those things that if the intelligence agencies of France or Israel had got it, they would have looked and understood.
In addition to discovering thousands of rounds of ammunition and hit lists with the names of New York judges and prosecutors, investigators found amongst the Nosair evidence classified U.S. military-training manuals. They also found a video made at Fort Bragg featuring the Green Beret Ali Mohammed lecturing U.S. officers and officials on the politics of jihad. On the video, Ali Mohammed sounds oddly like a radical fundamentalist himself, declaring that the Muslim world will never accept the existence of Israel.
Whoever recognises Israel is an apostate, says the U.S. Special Forces soldier. We do not accept them. There will be no peace, no international compromise. Nobody can recognise Israels right to continue to live on stolen land... This is from the Islamic perspective.
Also found amongst Nosairs effects were several documents, letters and notebooks in Arabic, which when eventually translated would point to e terror conspiracy against the United States. The D.A.s office shipped these, along with the other evidence, to the FBIs office at 26 Federal Plaza. We gave all this stuff to the bureau, thinking that they were well equipped, says one source close to the D.A.s office. After the World Trade Centre, we discovered they never translated the material.
According to other sources familiar with the case, the FBI told District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau that Nosair was a lone gunman, not part of a broader conspiracy; the prosecution took this position at trial and lost, only convicting Nosair of gun charges. Morgenthau speculated the CIA may have encouraged the FBI not to pursue any other leads, these sources say. The FBI lied to me, Morgenthau has told colleagues. Theyre supposed to untangle terrorist connections, but they cant be trusted to do the job.
Three years later, on the day the FBI arrested four Arabs for the World Trade Centre bombing, saying it had all of the suspects, Morgenthaus ears pricked up. He didnt believe the four were self-starters, and speculated that there was probably a larger network as well as a foreign sponsor. He also had a hunch that the suspects would lead back to Sheikh Abdel Rahman. But he worried that the dots might not be connected because the U.S. government was protecting the sheikh for his help in Afghanistan.
Though Morgenthau had personally helped set up the FBI-NYPD joint Terrorist Task Force in the early Eighties, his office was totally frozen out of the Trade centre-bombing investigation. Suspicious that another cover-up might be under way, Morgenthau quietly created his own elite unit to run a parallel investigation to make sure the FBI was doing a thorough job. He ordered his investigation to go through the boxes taken from Nosairs home. Translators began a line-by-line analysis of the Arabic material.
On the twelfth page of a small spiral notebook, Nosair described a plan to create the State of Ibrahim on the ruins of Israel. First the terrorists would execute a diversionary strike on the United States that would break and destroy the morale of the enemies of Allah, wrote Nosair. And this is to be done by means of destroying exploding the structures of their civilised pillars such as the tourist infrastructure which they are proud of and their high world buildings which they are proud of and their statues which they endear and the buildings in which gather their leaders. In the wake of the attack, while Americans were preoccupied with rebuilding their infrastructure and rebuilding their morale, the Arab world could launch a war of liquidation against Israel, Nosair wrote. And therefore, the chance will be available for the Muslims to repossess their sacred lands [Palestine] from the hands of the enemies of the Lord, the traitors and hypocrites who will be at this moment in a very psychological weakness from what they see around them. And this is because the forces on which they were depending [America] were crushed into pieces and are in a tragic collapse.
On the next page, Nosair cautions that the co-conspirators should communicate only in writing, so that we dont give the chance to the enemies of the Lord to know our plans or intentions... And after the end of the meeting all these papers are burnt immediately.
Even more incredibly, Morgenthaus investigators found among Nosairs possessions a formula for a bomb almost identical to one used at the World Trade Centre. Excitedly, they took their findings to the FBI.
At a meeting in Washington that brought together counter-terrorism experts to discuss findings in the Trade Centre case some three weeks after the bombing, Morgenthaus people asked the FBIs demolition expert if he was aware of Nosairs bomb-making formula. The bomb expert looked at the FBI counter-terrorism chief and said, What are they talking about? recalls one source. As for Nosairs notebook, it turned out that the bureaus Arabists had actually looked at it when it first came in. But because Nosair had begun the notebook with literary passages from the Koran, which were interspersed throughout, the FBI mislabelled the document Islamic poetry.
Rather than welcoming the new evidence, testy FBI officials told the Morgenthau team to get off our backs. The Feds were interested in retrying Nosair under civil-rights statutes, not with linking him and his friends from the Brooklyn refugee centre to a broader conspiracy. Nonetheless, in the following weeks, the D.A. continued to put enormous pressure on the bureau to widen the scope of its investigation, say sources close to the office.
One of the most remarkable revelations to come to light recently is that Nosair and Abouhalima, among others, were under FBI surveillance as early as the fall of 1989 one year before the Kahane killing. They were photographed on four successive weekends firing AK-47s at the Calverton shooting range near Riverhead, Long Island. The paramilitary camp in Pennsylvania was also being kept under surveillance, say defence lawyers.
They obviously had some understanding that this was a group of potential danger, no question, says former D.A. investigator Cherkasky. However, a prominent state investigator says, it was never an intense surveillance. It was just a few good agents doing their job. But they were not supported by higher-ups.
It may not have been perceived as a problem, adds another source. The FBI was looking at other terrorist groups. Islamic militants werent on the hit parade of things for them to do. The joint Terrorist Task Force wasnt a particularly elite unit. It didnt distinguish itself in terms of prosecutions. They were nine-to-fivers.
The FBIs reluctance to pursue such leads and later to dismiss a terrorist conspiracy when presented with the evidence seems rather amazing. But Cherkasky says that, at the time, it was understandable: To some extent we had moved away from these grand conspiracies, and conspiracy theories have always been in ill repute with prosecutors.
Nevertheless, some in the D.A.s office believe that until the Ryder van exploded underneath New Yorks tallest building, the sheikh and his men were being protected by the CIA. Morgenthau reportedly believes the CIA brought the sheikh to Brooklyn in the first place; but then Morgenthau and the agency have never been on the best of terms. When the D.A. went after BCCI in 1989, he was stonewalled by the CIA, which had used the investment bank to fund its covert projects from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. Morgenthau told colleagues, I was becoming increasingly jaded.
Not wanting to have to rely on what he believed to be an untrustworthy FBI, Morgenthau created an ad hoc anti-terrorist unit shortly before the Trade Centre bombing, staffed by trained Arabists and replete with a computer programme that translates Arabic into English. When yeshivah student Ari Halberstam was shot in the head and killed by a Lebanese immigrant on the Brooklyn Bridge in March 1994, Morgenthau turned his unit loose after the FBI once again told him that there was no evidence of a wider terrorist conspiracy. As it turned out, this time the FBI was apparently right.
Morgenthau has also established an intelligence network of District Attorneys in major U.S. cities to share information about Islamic terrorism. These D.A.s have encountered similar problems with the FBI, which, one source says, has unwisely developed exclusive control of terrorism in the country.
When the World Trade Centre was bombed, it was clear the FBI was not prepared, says another senior law-enforcement official. Its also clear since then that they have not improved.
As far as can be determined, no American agency is investigating leads suggesting foreign-government involvement in the New York terror conspiracy. For example, Saudi intelligence has contributed to Sheikh Rahmans legal-defence fund, according to Mohammed al-Khilewi, the former first secretary to the Saudi mission at the U.N. Also, eight months before the World Trade Centre bombing, Mohammed Salameh, who rented the infamous Ryder van, spoke by telephone with an uncle in Baghdad who also happens to be a major in the PLO, according to Laurie Mylroie, the co-author of an acclaimed biography of Saddam Hussein. Phone records obtained by Mylroie show that in June and July of 1992, Salameh racked up $4,500 in phone calls he couldnt pay[for]. He lost his phone service.
For Salameh, being recruited into the bombing plot is the best thing thats ever happened to him in his miserable little life., Mylroie says. You can just imagine what hes saying Youre going to be real proud of me, uncle.
Mylroie, who is working on a book about the Trade centre case, theorises that Hussein learned about the plot and ordered Iraqi national Ramzi Yousef, a highly skilled terrorist, to assist in the bombing, which took place exactly two years after American forces routed the Iraqi invaders in Kuwait.
The CIA, meanwhile, continues to act like the CIA. The agency recently fought with the FBI over arresting Yousef in Pakistan the CIA reportedly wanted to continue tracking him and President Clinton was forced to intervene.
The situation has left many who make it their mission to fight terrorism feeling frustration and despair.
If we all joined together, we could do more stuff, says one senior law-enforcement official. These groups can be penetrated. There is considerable infighting. They will rat their competitors out.
New York is the hotbed, according to a terrorism expert for the NYPD. The FBI and the D.A.s office both agree that there are still budding terrorists living in New York. The FBI says that the focus is still the mosques that served as a base for Sheikh Rahman the mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City. The D.A.s office has found well-established Islamic fundamentalist cells organised throughout the New York metropolitan area.
According to the D.A.s estimate, there are anywhere from 100 to 125 potential Islamic terrorists operating in the metropolitan area right now. They organise meetings and conferences around the U.S., says the source. Recruitment officers from various terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah mingle, looking for true believers who want to participate in military activity..They are also doing a fair amount of fund-raising.
In addition, there are several sleeper agents who have been sent over by foreign governments and are awaiting activation, says an investigator. And experts have found evidence that terrorists are planning to use biological and chemical weapons in the United States. Iraq, in particular, is known to have a significant biological and chemical weapons program.
The mujaheddin- disposal problem, meanwhile, is getting dirtier. American-financed and American-armed mujaheddin groups are driving Pakistan into anarchy.
Veteran mujaheddin have also figured prominently in everything from the ghastly civil war in Algeria to violence on the Gaza Strip.
And some have returned to New York.
by Robert I Friedman - New Yorker Magazine - March 17, 1995
[Note: Able Danger found the Mohammed Atta connection through Al-Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn]