Was Meir Kahane’s murder al-Qaida’s earliest attack on U.S. soil?
According to former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, who debriefed Ali Mohamed—the former Egyptian-commando-turned espionage agent—after his arrest, Shalabi made the mistake of confiding in Mohamed and asking his help so that he could escape home to Egypt with his family. As Cloonan tells it, Mohamed actually drove Shalabi’s wife, Zanib, to the airport and made plans to move her husband back home. At least that’s how he presented himself to the increasingly terrified Alkifah director. On February 26, 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, Shalabi hurriedly packed for a flight to Cairo, where his family was waiting. That was the last time his loved ones saw him alive.
A few days later, a neighbor of Shalabi’s noticed that the door to his Seagate, Brooklyn, apartment was open. Ali Mohamed’s former confidant was sprawled on the floor. “He was knifed, shot, and beaten with a baseball bat,” says former Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator Tommy Corrigan. “This wasn’t some genteel thing. He was made an example of.”
Detectives from the NYPD’s 60th Precinct, which covers that section of Brooklyn, took control of the crime scene. In the course of their investigation, they discovered that more than $100,000 in Alkifah cash was missing from the apartment. Mahmoud Abouhalima, Mohamed’s redheaded former student at Calverton, came in and identified the body—falsely claiming that he was the victim’s brother.
Forensic investigators found two red curly hairs clutched in the corpse’s hand, but Shalabi himself was a redhead so that lead proved inconclusive. Neither Abouhalima nor the Abdel-Rahman was ever charged in the murder. In any case, the brutal Shalabi slaying, coming after the 1989 killing of MAK founder Abdullah Azzam, represented the final takeover of the MAK financing network by Osama Bin Laden and his Egyptian entourage. “At the time,” says Corrigan, “Nobody realized how important the Alkifah Center was. It was basically a direct link from al-Qaida right into New York.”
Shalabi’s murder remained an open “cold case” in the files of the 60th Precinct until the end of June of this year, when I uncovered a series of standard FBI interview reports, known as “302 memos.” These 302s from the Joint Terrorism Task Force not only identified the second gunman in the Meir Kahane assassination as Bilal Alkaisi but also named him as the lead killer in the three-man team that killed Mustafa Shalabi.
The NYPD Reopens the Murder Case
In order to appreciate the significance of those 302s, we need to go back to the story of Emad Salem and how he first infiltrated the cell around the blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, responsible for both murders as well as the 1993 Twin Towers bombing and the “Day of Terror” plot.
In the fall of 1991, Salem was recruited by an alert FBI agent named Nancy Floyd. He’d begun hanging out amid the throng of protesters supporting El Sayyid Nosair during his trial for the Kahane killing. Within weeks, Salem had done such a convincing job of proving his loyalty to the jihad that he’d become Abdel-Rahman’s bodyguard. According to trial testimony, he even drove the spiritual head of al-Qaida in the United States on a fund raising tour of mosques in Detroit in a van furnished by the FBI.
With William Kunstler as his attorney, Nosair beat the Kahane murder rap. He was convicted only on minor weapons charges after witnesses at the Marriott failed to identify him. Still, Judge Alvin Schlesinger, who presided at the trial, handed down the maximum sentence, and Nosair was sent to Attica State Prison.
By May 1992, working with Nancy Floyd and his two other control agents, Det. Lou Napoli of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and Special Agent John Anticev, Emad Salem began sensing that the followers around Abdel-Rahman were conspiring to wreak further “havoc” in New York City. Napoli and Anticev had learned that Nosair had become a member of the Islamic Group, Abdel-Rahman’s Egyptian-based terror organization, which had merged with al-Qaida. So Salem began visiting Kahane’s killer in Attica. There Nosair hatched what the FBI later called the “12 Jewish locations plot”: a wide-ranging conspiracy to bomb the Diamond District and a series of New York synagogues.
“Target the Jews,” Nosair told Salem, during one of his prison visits, mentioning specifically Judge Schlesinger, who had sentenced him, along with Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind. “He was not merciful with me,” said Nosair, according to trial testimony, “and we should have no mercy with him.” Nosair went so far as to suggest that Salem kidnap the judge or “maybe even shoot him,” details Salem dutifully reported back to his handlers at the FBI.
But after months undercover, Salem was, according to Napoli, effectively forced out of the cell by Carson Dunbar, an ex-New Jersey State Trooper who had just become the head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Despite risking his life for the FBI for months and furnishing invaluable intel, Salem was mistrusted by Dunbar, who insisted that he wear a wire. Given that he was sleeping on the floors of mosques and could easily have had his cover blown if taping equipment was discovered, Salem was forced to remove himself from Abdel-Rahman’s cell.
Years later when I interviewed him, Dunbar insisted that Salem was “a prolific liar,” and an informant who was “out of control.” But Corrigan underscored the significance of Salem’s removal from the cell. “The withdrawal of Emad really hurt us a lot,” Corrigan told me in an interview with him for Triple Cross. It was also a move that left the “nest of vipers” around Abdel-Rahman without a bomb maker.
So once Salem was out, they called in Ramzi Yousef, a Baluchistani raised in Kuwait who had earned an engineering degree in Wales. On February 26, 1993, six months after Salem left the cell, Yousef set off a 1,500-pound bomb on the B-2 parking level below the Twin Towers. He’d built it with the help of Abouhalima, Salameh, and Ayyad, three of the Calverton shooters the FBI had under surveillance in July of 1989.
For the Playboy piece, Salem provided me with a tape that he’d made with his FBI control agent John Anticev after the bombing. “If we was continuing what we were doing, the bomb would never go off,” Salem tells Anticev in broken English. At that point, the FBI agent replies: “Absolutely. But don’t repeat that.” As I see it, this is the first concrete admission by an FBI agent that the bureau could have stopped the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Days later, even though he’d been vastly unappreciated by the management in the bureau’s New York office, Salem volunteered to go back undercover, this time with a wire. As the feds’ linchpin witness in the “bridge and tunnel” case, Salem provided testimony that led to the conviction of Abdel-Rahman and nine others in 1995. In that same trial the feds succeeded in convicting El Sayyid Nosair for Kahane’s murder after the Manhattan D.A. had only convicted him on gun charges.
In one of our interviews, Salem told me that during an undercover conversation in 1993, Clement Hampton-El, a member of the Calverton shooting cell, had told him that a .22 pistol was used to kill Mustafa Shalabi, the Egyptian who had run the Alkifah Center at the al Farooq Mosque. Hampton-El, who was later convicted in the “Day of Terror” plot, also told Salem that, after the bloody killing, Shalabi’s body was moved in such a way as to “make it look like the Jews did it.”
These two details, which have never before been made public, reminded me of something I had previously learned from an FBI source: During the Kahane trial, William Kunstler had received a single bullet in the mail—a threat intended to get him off the case. The bullet, purportedly sent by Kahane’s supporters in the Jewish Defense League, was a .22. Could it be that this threat to Kuntsler had actually come from the killers who, once again, sought to blame the homicide on “the Jews”?
In 1993, the FBI reopened the Shalabi case and leaked information that led to a series of stories in The New York Times identifying Hampton-El, Mahmoud Abouhalima, and Mohammed Salameh as possible suspects, I learned in my research. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York even subpoenaed witnesses to a Shalabi grand jury. But for reasons unknown until now, the FBI dropped the case, and it stayed “cold” until this past winter.
In mid-February, with the new details furnished by Salem, Det. James Moss, of the NYPD Brooklyn South Homicide Squad, began kicking over rocks and searching for the forensic evidence from the 1991 Shalabi crime scene. By late May, Moss discovered that this key evidence, once stored in the police department’s property clerk’s office, had been signed out by an investigator for the Joint Terrorism Task Force in October 1993.
That was around the time the FBI had shown renewed interest in the case. I soon learned through a source that the investigator who removed the evidence was none other than Tommy Corrigan—the same Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator who had been present during the 1989 Calverton surveillance of Abouhalima, Salameh, Hampton-El, and Nidal Ayyad, the Kuwaiti émigré and Rutgers grad convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for having supplied chemicals to the cell.
Corrigan went on to work closely with I-49, the so-called “Bin Laden Squad” in the FBI’s New York Office, which was the principal FBI squad supporting al-Qaida prosecutions in the Southern District of New York—from the World Trade Center bombing case, tried in 1994, through the East African U.S. embassy bombings case, tried in 2001. What were the odds that of the nearly 100 law enforcement officers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Corrigan, the one cop who had been present at the original surveillance of these cell members, would confiscate the evidence from the New York police? When I tried to reach Corrigan, who has since retired, I couldn’t get through to him.
But by June, Moss, the Brooklyn detective, had hit a brick wall: The forensic evidence could not be located, and his investigation would be severely hampered without it. So I sent the first in a series of detailed emails to the Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department, asking them to contact the FBI for the return of the evidence seized by Corrigan. On June 30, according to a confidential source, the FBI coughed up a series of interview memos, called 302s, dating from 2004 to 2006, which shed extraordinary new light on both the Shalabi and Kahane murders. Among the revelations was the fact that Bilal Alkaisi, the Jordanian cab driver who assisted Nosair during the Kahane hit, was also the lead killer in the Shalabi murder.
But perhaps most important, these memos, taken together with a 1996 FBI memo I obtained, prove a link between Osama Bin Laden and the Meir Kahane assassination.
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