Was Meir Kahane’s murder al-Qaida’s earliest attack on U.S. soil?
Last fall I received a cryptic email from Emad Salem, the ex-Egyptian Army major who was the FBI’s first undercover asset in what would become known as the war on terror. I’d told Salem’s remarkable story in my last three books, which were critical of the bureau’s counterterrorism record. Because I had treated him fairly, Salem reached out to me after years in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
We made plans to meet in early November, after a lecture I was giving at New York University. But Salem didn’t show. I went back to my hotel that night and had chalked it up as a lost opportunity. The phone rang at 2 in the morning. It was Salem, summoning me to a meeting outside 26 Federal Plaza, the building that houses the FBI’s New York office. Very cloak and dagger, but that’s how this man rolls. You don’t infiltrate the cell responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing without practicing a little tradecraft. Anyway, when my cab pulled in to Foley Square a few minutes later, Salem was standing in the shadows.
That was the start of a series of interviews that led to some astonishing revelations about two of the most infamous al-Qaida murders since Osama Bin Laden formed his terror network. The first one—in fact, arguably the first blood spilled by al-Qaida on U.S. soil—occurred on the night of November 5, 1990, just after Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Defense League, finished a speech at the Marriott East Side in New York.
Kahane, a volatile figure who had been expelled from the Israeli Knesset in the mid-1980s and returned to the United States to warn American Jews about what he believed to be a “second holocaust” at the hands of radical Islam, was gunned down by El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian émigré. The New York Police Department initially labeled him a lone gunman. I have argued that it was much more than that: an unsolved murder with dire implications for the war on terror.
Now, as a result of new intelligence I’ve learned from Salem, it’s clear for the first time that the rabbi’s death was directly linked to Osama Bin Laden. More surprising, there was a second gunman on the night of Kahane’s murder: a young Jordanian cab driver named Bilal Alkaisi. Alkaisi was also identified in FBI files I’ve obtained as the “emir” of a hit team in a second grisly al-Qaida-related homicide months after the assassination—the 1991 murder of Egyptian immigrant Mustafa Shalabi. The identities of the alleged killers in that second slaying have now become known as a result of information from Salem that prompted the New York Police Department to reopen the Shalabi case.
But the real news is that Alkaisi, originally indicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was cut loose by the feds in 1994 and presumably remains at large. This new intelligence, about a pair of historic terror-related homicides in New York City, lay buried for years in the files of the Joint Terrorism Task Force—until I obtained them from a government source.
As I tell it in “The Spy Who Came in for the Heat,” an investigative piece I wrote for Playboy’s September issue, Emad Salem was arguably the most important asset in the U.S. war with al-Qaida. But my interviews with him and the intel they have kicked loose provide shocking new insights into the ongoing failure of the FBI to reform its counterterrorism capabilities almost a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of these two murders in the history of the war on terror, we need to go back to the summer of 1989, when George Bush was in the White House and terrorism was considered a backwater assignment at the FBI.
The First Shots Fired in Bin Laden’s War Against America
The story begins a year and half before El Sayyid Nosair, wearing a yarmulke, walked into the Morgan D Room at the New York Marriott and killed Kahane.
On four successive weekends in July 1989 (according to trial testimony), agents from the FBI’s Special Operations Group followed a group of “ME’s”—FBI-speak for “Middle Eastern Men”—from the al Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to the Calverton shooting range, a large outdoor sand pit located at the end of Long Island.
Firing a series of weapons, including AK-47s and hand guns, the “ME’s” at the Calverton range included Nosair, then a 34-year-old janitor from Port Said, Egypt, who reportedly popped Prozac and worked in the basement of the Civil Courthouse on Centre Street in Manhattan; Mahmoud Abouhalima, aka “The Red,” a 6-foot-2-inch Egyptian cab and limo driver; Mohammed Salameh, a diminutive Palestinian; and Nidal Ayyad, a Kuwaiti who had graduated from Rutgers University. According to interviews with former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, each of them had been instructed by Ali Aboelseoud Mohamed, an ex-Egyptian Army commando from the unit that assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Mohamed was the focus of my last book, Triple Cross. In the early 1980s, shortly after being purged by the Egyptian Army for his radical views, Mohamed came under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Cairo surgeon who had been jailed for a time for the Sadat murder and went on to form the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. By the end of the decade, after al-Zawahiri met Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad group into what would become al-Qaida, Ali Mohamed became the terror network’s principal espionage agent.
In 1984, Mohamed succeeded in infiltrating the CIA briefly in Hamburg, Germany, got past a watch list to enter the United States a year later, enlisted in the U.S. Army and, astonishingly, managed to get posted to the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, where elite Green Beret officers study. From there, he traveled to New York City on weekends to train the Calverton shooters.
Mohamed was so trusted by Bin Laden that he moved the Saudi billionaire’s entire entourage from Afghanistan to Sudan in 1991, set up al-Qaida’s training camps there, and trained Bin Laden’s personal body guards. He was also one of the principal planners in the simultaneous truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed at least 223 and injured thousands.
Three of Mohamed’s Calverton trainees were convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing plot. Nosair was convicted in the Kahane killing. A U.S.-born Muslim named Clement Hampton-El was convicted with Nosair in the 1993 “Day of Terror” plot to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, the United Nations, and 26 Federal Plaza, the building that houses the FBI’s New York office.
At the time of the Calverton surveillance, the FBI’s Special Operations Group clearly knew that these men were terrorists in training. New York Police Det. Tommy Corrigan, a former senior member of the NYPD-FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, told me in an interview for Triple Cross that the surveillance stemmed from a tip that PLO terrorists were threatening to blow up casinos in Atlantic City. But for unknown reasons the FBI shut down the surveillance. By the end of that summer of 1989, the “ME’s” and their Green Beret-linked leader faded back into the shadows.
In July 1990, following a path similar to Ali Mohamed’s, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual “emir” of al-Qaida who became known as “the blind sheikh,” got a visa, slipped past the same State Department watch list, and landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. He was met at the airport by Mustafa Shalabi, a big, burly 30-year-old electrical contractor from Egypt who ran the Alkifah Center at the al Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn.
The Alkifah was the principal U.S. office for the Makhtab al-Kidimat, often referred to as the MAK, a worldwide center of storefronts through which millions of dollars in cash was collected to support the Afghan Mujahadeen war against the Soviets, as Steven Emerson documents in American Jihad. By 1989, a year before Abdel-Rahman arrived in New York, Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri had merged their new terror network with the MAK. Its leader, Abdullah Azzam, had been killed in a car bomb in Pakistan in November of that year. Once al-Qaida’s takeover of the financing network was complete, Bin Laden’s group had what amounted to a New York clubhouse at the Alkifah Center.
“Prior to that time—1988, ’89—terrorism for all intents and purposes didn’t exist in the United States,” says Corrigan, the retired Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator. “But Abdel-Rahman’s arrival in 1990 really stoked the flames of terrorism in this country. This was a major-league ball player in what, at the time, was a minor-league ballpark.”
In Corrigan’s view, the arrival of Abdel-Rahman was “a real coup for the local cell members like Shalabi, Nosair, Abouhalima, and Ayyad.” Before long, as court documents show, Abdel-Rahman was preaching at three separate mosques: the Abu Bakr on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn; the Al-Salam, located on the third floor of a dingy Jersey City building; and the Shalabi-connected al Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue. At first, Shalabi welcomed the sheikh with open arms—even installing him in a Brooklyn apartment. But their warm relationship wouldn’t last very long. Abdel-Rahman coveted the cash rolling into the Alkifah—as much as $2 million, a year according to The New Yorker’s Mary Ann Weaver, but no one knows for sure. In any case, as the months went by, Abdel-Rahman began quarreling with Shalabi openly in the mosques.
By the fall of 1990, one of the Calverton trainees was growing more and more restless. El Sayyid Nosair, the janitor who worked in the courthouse basement, had joined Abdel-Rahman’s ultra-violent Islamic Group, or Al Gamma Islamyah, and he was itching to make his bones for the jihad. The newly uncovered FBI documents reveal a confession by Nosair that on the night of the Kahane murder he was aided by Alkaisi, then a 25-year-old Jordanian immigrant who worked as a cab driver in New Jersey and instructor at the al Farooq Mosque.
Describing Alkaisi as “a veteran of jihadist activity overseas,” including Afghanistan, Nosair told the feds that the two of them entered the Marriott East Side and that, just after Kahane had finished speaking, Nosair exclaimed, “This is the moment.” He then lunged forward with the same chrome-plated .357 Magnum photographed by the FBI at Calverton and fired the single shot that hit Kahane in the neck, blowing him to the floor.
As I later learned from Alkaisi’s former attorney, Robert L. Ellis, Alkaisi “left the Marriott and escaped by way of the subway station at 51st Street and Lexington Avenue.” Meanwhile, as Nosair rushed from the conference room, he was grabbed by Irving Franklin, a 73-year-old Kahane supporter. After a brief scuffle, Nosair shot the old man in the leg and raced toward the hotel’s front door, searching for a taxi.
His intended getaway driver was Mahmoud Abouhalima, who had been waiting outside, but moments earlier, the doorman had waved him away from the entrance, according to reports. So when Nosair ran from the hotel, he mistakenly got into a taxi driven by Franklin Garcia, a New York City cabbie. Suddenly, a young follower of Kahane jumped in front of the cab and prevented it from moving.
In the back seat, Nosair realized the error and pointed the barrel of the .357 at Garcia’s head, whereupon the taxi driver burst from the cab. Nosair then exited the taxi and ran down Lexington Avenue with the gun, where he was spotted by Carlos Acosta, a uniformed U.S. postal inspector, who drew his service weapon. Nosair fired first, wounding Acosta in the shoulder, just outside the edge of his flak vest, but the heroic officer dropped to his knee and returned fire as Nosair started to run, striking the Egyptian with a single shot. A pair of ambulances rushed both Nosair and Kahane to Bellevue Hospital’s trauma unit, where they were operated on in parallel stalls. The shooter survived; Kahane did not.
Later that night, Abouhalima and Mohammed Salameh (another Calverton shooter) regrouped at Nosair’s home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. But they were soon taken into custody as material witnesses by New York police after the house was raided. According to a series of FBI documents, detectives and FBI agents also seized 47 boxes in the raid—material that included prima facie evidence of an international bombing conspiracy with the World Trade Center as a target. Among the files seized was a potential hit list of prominent Jewish figures, including federal judge Jack B. Weinstein, a legendary jurist known as “the lion of the Eastern District.”
The seized material also contained documents presumably left by Ali Mohamed, including Green Beret training manuals and communiqués from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that investigators believe he’d pilfered from Fort Bragg, a sign of al-Qaida’s intent to attack strategic U.S. targets. There was a Joint Chiefs of Staff “Warning Order,” addressed to eight separate U.S. military command centers, the White House, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, plus the U.S. embassies in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia.
The presence of these documents, many labeled “top secret for training,” not to mention Abouhalima and Salameh, suggested a conspiracy in the Kahane murder. Yet the very next day, NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Borelli concluded that the killing was a “lone-gunman” shooting. “There hadn’t been any political assassinations in New York in more than a decade and Borelli didn’t want one on his watch,” Newsday reporters Jim Dwyer, David Kocieniewski, Diedre Murphy, and Peg Tyre wrote in their book on the World Trade Center bombing, Two Seconds Under the World.
Although the raid on Nosair’s house was conducted by New York police and the FBI—which had the Calverton photos not just of Nosair but also of Abouhalima and Salameh—the latter two were released within hours and never charged in the crime.
By the summer of 1990, just about when Shalabi picked up Abdel-Rahman at JFK, the Brooklyn Alkifah Center was grossing more than $100,000 per month in cash for the “struggle.” So when Nosair was arrested, Shalabi took it upon himself to raise the money for his legal fund, particularly after star attorney William Kunstler signed on for the defense. By the time Nosair’s trial began in late 1991, $163,000 had poured in—$20,000 of which, court documents would later show, came from Osama Bin Laden, who had been contacted by Nosair’s cousin.
But Shalabi was intent on making his own decisions. While respectful of al-Qaida, the terror network that had consumed the financing system known as MAK, Shalabi remained loyal to Abdullah Azzam, his old mentor, who had wanted to use the money to set up a Taliban-like government in Afghanistan. That put him in direct conflict with Bin Laden and the Egyptians around him, who wanted the funds to be used for the worldwide jihad. And even though Shalabi himself sponsored Abdel-Rahman’s visa entry into the United States, he balked when Abdel-Rahman demanded that some of the Alkifah’s monthly income be used for a fund to help overthrow Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
And so by the late summer of 1990, tensions were mounting between Shalabi and Abdel-Rahman. In the Brooklyn-based Abu Bakr Mosque, Abdel-Rahman began denouncing Shalabi openly as a “bad Muslim.” Abdel-Rahman even suggested that his fellow Egyptian was embezzling the Alkifah’s funds. Handouts were circulated under the Sheikh’s name. “We should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by his deviousness,” the leaflets said. Other handouts included mini fatwas declaring that Shalabi was “no longer a Muslim.”
Soon Shalabi began to fear for his life.
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