Was Meir Kahane’s murder al-Qaida’s earliest attack on U.S. soil?
Undisclosed FBI Files Show al-Qaida’s Links to Both Murders
In a series of confessions given to Joint Terrorism Task Force investigators and Southern District of New York prosecutors, Ayyad, the Kuwaiti immigrant who worked at Allied Chemical in New Jersey, described how he was the wheel man of the three-man Shalabi hit team including Palestinian Mohammed Salameh and Jordanian Bilal Alkaisi. He tells of how the trio gained entry to Shalabi’s home in a gated community that February night in 1991. At the time, fearing for his life after being denounced by Abdel-Rahman, Shalabi was preparing to flee back to Egypt.
As Ayyad describes it to the FBI in gruesome detail, Salameh, using a silenced .22 provided by Alkaisi, followed Shalabi into his kitchen and shot him twice in the head but, after the gun jammed, the big Egyptian got up and chased the diminutive Palestinian. At that point, Alkaisi pulled out a knife and began stabbing Shalabi, whereupon Salameh put a new magazine in the gun and fired four more shots, finishing the job. The three fled the bloody crime scene leaving Shalabi with 30 puncture wounds from Alkaisi’s blade.
The murder took place precisely two years to the day before the World Trade Center blast executed by Ramzi Yousef, whose uncle is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the man the FBI calls the mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot. Despite multiple stories in The New York Times during the spring, summer, and fall of 1993—that the Shalabi case had been reopened and a grand jury was hearing evidence in the investigation—the New York Office of the FBI and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York seemed to lose interest in the case by 1994. The question is why.
Another important question is why the FBI began pursuing the case in 2004 with multiple interviews of Nosair and Ayyad over the next two years. And in the post-Sept. 11 era, when counterterrorism agencies were supposed to end the “stove-piping” and intelligence hoarding that failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, why did the Joint Terrorism Task Force keep the confessions a secret?
“It could be that they were embarrassed,” said one ex-FBI agent I interviewed after obtaining the Ayyad-Nosair 302s. “If you read those confessions, it’s clear that Alkaisi wasn’t just some minor player. He was a major operative—and, as Ayyad tells it with great credibility—the ring leader in the Shalabi murder. On top of that, the confessions from Nosair indicate that Alkaisi played a leadership role in the Kahane hit as well.”
The Bigger Embarrassment: Bilal Alkaisi’s Release
Alkaisi had turned himself in at the FBI’s Newark office on March 24, 1993, almost a month after the World Trade Center bombing. Evidence developed by the FBI in what was called the TRADBOM investigation revealed that Alkaisi shared not only an apartment in Jersey City with Salameh, but also a bank account, through which more than $100,000 was funneled to help finance the bombing conspiracy. When Ayyad was arrested, he was carrying a credit card with Alkaisi’s name on it.
Further, according to an interview I conducted with Robert L. Ellis, Alkaisi’s attorney at the time, the Jordanian cab driver had initially been identified by a security guard at the Space Station storage locker in Jersey City where the Yousef-Abouhalima-Salameh cell stored the chemicals furnished by Ayyad that they used to build the bomb.
On March 25, 1993, Southern District prosecutors charged Alkaisi with “aiding and abetting” the Trade Center blast and ordered him held without bail. Special Agent Jim Esposito of the FBI’s Newark office, where Alkaisi had turned himself in a day earlier, told reporters that Alkaisi was seen “on several occasions” at the storage locker rented by Salameh—a location, federal agents claimed, where the bomb chemicals were mixed. Federal officials later admitted that after walking into the Newark FBI office, Alkaisi waived his rights and was questioned for three hours by agents.
Alkaisi was finally charged in the bombing on April 7 and entered a not guilty plea a week later. Four days after that, he hired Ellis to represent him. Curiously, unlike some of the other defendants, Alkaisi’s legal fees were being paid for by a defense fund financed by several area mosques.
By late May, The New York Times was reporting that “fingerprints later found inside a Newark safe-deposit box showed that Mr. Salameh and Mr. Alkaisi had access to it, according to an F.B.I. report. And investigators have found that close to $100,000 had been wired to several bank accounts linked to the suspects, some of the money from Iran.”
It was widely reported that Alkaisi worshipped at the al Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and the Al-Salam Mosque in Jersey City, two places where Abdel-Rahman preached his fiery sermons. At a trial, federal agents would describe Abdel-Rahman as the leader of the “jihad army” responsible for the World Trade Center blast and the “Day of Terror” plot.
But by early August of 1993, the feds had begun to shift their focus away from Alkaisi as a key player in the Trade Center bombing conspiracy. Prosecutors acquiesced to a request by Ellis that Alkaisi be tried separately, and the young Jordanian’s name was missing from the latest bombing conspiracy indictment. Then, just days before jury selection, Ellis told me, federal agents dropped their own bomb.
“I received a call from Gil Childers, the lead federal prosecutor, who informed me that he was not proceeding against Alkaisi,” Ellis said, making this disclosure in a July interview after I’d uncovered Ayyad’s confession.
By early March of 1994, after a five-month trial, federal prosecutors had their victory, convicting all four suspects in the Twin Towers bombing. Curiously missing from the courtroom at the time of the verdicts was the man who had roomed with Salameh, shared a bank account with him, and had reportedly been spotted at the storage locker where the bomb’s lethal cocktail of chemicals was mixed. At that point, attorney Ellis was telling reporters that he was hoping to “settle” Alkaisi’s case without trial. And two months later, that’s exactly what happened. On May 9, prosecutors allowed Alkaisi to plead guilty to a minor immigration charge.
Despite the fact that in earlier indictments Alkaisi had been tightly tied into the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy with Abouhalima, Salameh, and Ayyad, Mary Jo White, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, now claimed that the government didn’t have the evidence “to obtain a sustainable conviction” against him “beyond a reasonable doubt.” She insisted that federal prosecutors had “made no promises or agreements not to bring new charges against the defendant.” After serving 18 months of his 20-month sentence, Alkaisi was released and deported.
The Southern District gave Alkaisi what amounted to a wrist slap and cut him loose, but additional evidence I’ve uncovered suggests that the feds viewed him as an important al-Qaida-related operative.
In February 1994 Alkaisi was named No. 20 on a list of 172 “un-indicted co-conspirators” in the “Day of Terror” case—a list compiled by Southern District of New York prosecutors Andrew C. McCarthy and Patrick Fitzgerald. A Who’s Who of terrorists and radical Islamic sympathizers with links to the Trade Center bombing and the “Day of Terror” plot, the list included Osama Bin Laden (No. 95), Mustafa Shalabi (No. 149), Ali Mohamed (No. 109), and Bin Laden’s brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa (No. 86), the man who would later bankroll the Yousef-Khalid Sheik Mohammed Manila cell that spawned the Sept. 11 plot. Why would McCarthy and Fitzgerald have included Alkaisi on the list if he was a minor player whom the government didn’t think significant enough to try?
Fitzgerald, now U.S. Attorney in Chicago, is the former special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case who moved a court to jail New York Times reporter Judith Miller for 85 days in 2005 and most recently secured a single conviction against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges. But in the fall of 1996 when he was co-head of the Organized Crime and Terrorism Unit in the Southern District of New York, Fitzgerald was directing Squad I-49, in the FBI’s New York Office, which was building a case against the Saudi billionaire.
The al-Qaida Link to the Meir Kahane Assassination
Earlier that year, Jamal al-Fadl (aka Gamal Ahmed Mohamed Al-Fedel), a 33-year-old Sudanese émigré, walked into the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea. Later dubbed “Junior” by prosecutors, al-Fadl had worked directly under Mustafa Shalabi at the Alkifah Center, and then, at Shalabi’s behest, fought in Afghanistan and later swore an oath to the new terror network called al-Qaida before moving to Khartoum, in Sudan, where he worked side by side with Bin Laden as his assistant.
Having embezzled funds from al-Qaida, al-Fadl was looking to cut a deal with U.S. authorities, so Fitzgerald traveled to Germany with FBI agents to debrief him. Fitzgerald would later use the young Sudanese man as his key witness against Bin Laden in the 2001 African Embassy bombing case. The extraordinary details of Fitzgerald’s al-Fadl debriefing are contained in an 18-page FBI 302 memo that I obtained. It’s labeled “Particularly Sensitive.”
This epic 302 not only documents a near-straight line from the al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn to the Trade Center bombing and “Day of Terror” cells, but it also links to the Ramzi Yousef-Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Manila cell that designed the Sept.11 “planes operation” via Wali Khan Amin Shah; aka Osama Asmurai. An Uzbeki whom Bin Laden called “the Lion,” Shah was later convicted with Yousef in the so-called “Bojinka” plot to plant bombs on a dozen U.S.-bound jumbo jets exiting Asia.
Al-Fadl told Fitzgerald that he worked with Khan-Asmurai in Afghanistan for several months, after he had been sent there by his mentor and emir Mustafa Shalabi.
Shalabi is mentioned on multiple pages of that 302 memo, offering some indication of Patrick Fitzgerald’s interest in his death. But what is particularly telling is that two years after being cut loose by federal authorities, Bilal Alkaisi was considered important enough by Fitzgerald to include on a list with the most dangerous al-Qaida players known to the FBI at that time. According to the 302, at the end of the debriefing, Fitzgerald showed al-Fadl 77 photos with the pictures of key al-Qaida operatives, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yousef, Shah, Ali Mohamed, Ayyad, Abouhalima, Salameh, Nosair, and Hampton El.
No. 19 on that list was a picture of Bilal Alkaisi.
In his confession to the federal agents on December 20, 2005, documented in one of the recently discovered FBI 302s, El Sayyid Nosair admits that he did a surveillance of a New York airport in anticipation of the Kahane hit with a man named Ephron Gilmore, an American Muslim U.S. Army vet whose nom de guerre was “Tahir.” That very same operative was identified by Jamal al-Fadl in his 1996 confession to Fitzgerald as “Tehar.” In fact, al-Fadl told Fitzgerald that “Tehar” was working for Bin Laden and that he saw him at a meeting with the Saudi billionaire and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, a top-level al-Qaida leader reported killed in 1996.
Taken together, these two 302 memos referencing the involvement of Gilmore (aka Tehir/Tehar) show a link between Osama Bin Laden and the rabbi’s death. For a case tried by the Manhattan D.A. as a “lone-gunman” killing, that is big news.
“If we’d known that three of the guys who went on to bomb the World Trade Center had killed Shalabi, that would have enhanced our sense of their bench strength much earlier,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a principal in Operation Able Danger, the 1999-2000 al-Qaida data-mining operation conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Able Danger, based at the Army’s Land Warfare Information Activity at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, would later find links between four Sept. 11 hijackers and what was described as a “Brooklyn-based cell” associated with the al Farooq mosque.
Some of the questions raised by all of this are as old as Watergate: What did the feds know about these acts of terror and when did they know it? It’s clear that Southern District prosecutors thought the Shalabi homicide investigation important enough to reopen it and subpoena witnesses before a grand jury in 1993. The Joint Terrorism Task Force thought it important enough to remove key forensic evidence from the NYPD’s property clerk’s office that October. Federal agents leaked stories to The New York Times that cited Mohammed Salameh as a possible suspect. Yet for unknown reasons, they shut the investigation down in 1994 and didn’t effectively reopen it again for another decade.
Why did it take a revelation by Emad Salem to an investigative reporter almost 20 years after the Shalabi death to connect the dots? Even more disturbingly, given what these newly uncovered FBI 302s tell us about the Kahane and Shalabi murders, why would the Joint Terrorism Task Force keep those confessions hidden from New York police almost a decade after Sept. 11, when intelligence sharing between counterterrorism agencies has become a mandate?
It’s now clear that Bilal Alkaisi was a linchpin connecting the Kahane assassination with the World Trade Center bombing, effectively recasting Kahane’s significance, if not in life, then in the manner of his death. In my books, I prove a direct connection between Ramzi Yousef’s first Trade Center attack in 1993 and the “planes as missiles” plot executed on Sept. 11, which was designed by Yousef in Manila in 1994 and executed by his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2001. What more could other U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency have learned, in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 plot, if the full truth behind the rabbi’s murder and its place in Bin Laden’s decades-long plot to attack the United States had been known?
And there’s a more immediate question: What, if anything, does the New York Police Department intend to do about Bilal Alkaisi? With these confessions, now public, will the Brooklyn D.A. issue a murder warrant for the Jordanian national, who is still presumably at large? We don’t know if he’s alive or dead. The NYPD’s public information office has refused my multiple requests for a response. The district attorney’s office says it’s still studying the matter. And the FBI, as it has with all of my findings, remains mute.
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