The Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman

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Blinded shortly after birth, Omar Abdel Rahman had memorized the Koran by the age of eleven. He earned a degree in Koranic studies in 1972 from the Al Azhar University in Cairo, where he was influenced by the writings Sayyid Qutb, an intellectual who was an early adherent of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, was founded in 1928. It spawned two of Egypt’s most virulent terror sects: The al Gamma’a Islamayah (Islamic Group), run by Rahman, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the scion of a prominent Cairo family. Begun as a student movement within the Brotherhood, the EIJ splintered off in the early 1970s to become a covert military arm, while the Ikhwan sought more mainstream political legitimacy. Since al-Islambouli, the lead Sadat shooter, was an outspoken EIJ member, al-Zawahiri was jailed as a co-conspirator.  One of three hundred arrested, the bespectacled surgeon stood trial as “Defendant No. 113.” He was convicted on weapons charges and sentenced to three years in an Egyptian prison, where he later claimed that he was severely tortured.

But incarceration only served to radicalize the young doctor. He emerged in 1984 as a leading spokesman for jailed Islamic militants. One of his fellow inmates was Mustafa Shalabi, a thirty-year-old red-headed electrical contractor who, years later,would establish an early beachhead for the jihad at a mosque in Brooklyn.

In the decade to come, Rahman, al-Zawahiri, and Shalabi would collaborate with Osama bin Laden, weaving the threads of the IG and the EIJ into the radical new terror network called al Qaeda. Each of the three Egyptian leaders would have a significant impact on the life of Ali Mohamed, offering him direct access to bin Laden, the terror prince, himself.

ENTER SHEIKH OMAR

In July 1990, following a similar path to Ali Mohamed, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman got a CIA-approved 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, the trusted Egyptian associate of the murdered Abdullah Azzam. Mahmoud Abouhalima, “the Red,” one of Ali’s star pupils, used his limo license to chauffeur the Sheikh around the tri-state area.

“Prior to that time—1988, ’89—terrorism for all intents and purposes didn’t exist in the United States,” says Corrigan, the retired JTTF 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 ball park. He was . . . looked up to worldwide. A mentor to bin Laden, he was involved with the MAK over in Pakistan.” In Corrigan’s view, the arrival of the blind Sheikh was “a real coup for the local crew members like Shalabi, Nosair, Abouhalima and Ayyad.”

Before long, Rahman was preaching at three separate mosques: the al Farooq at Atlantic Avenue; the Abu Bakr on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn — a mosque his radical followers soon took over — and the dingy Al-Salaam (Mosque of Peace), located on the third floor of a Jersey City building above a cell-phone store.

Shalabi, whose help Ali Mohamed sought before his Afghan war leave, welcomed the Sheikh with open arms, even installing him in a Brooklyn apartment. But the cleric coveted the thousands in cash still rolling into Shalabi’s Alkifah Center, and as the months went by, he began quarreling with him openly in the mosques.

Curiously, during this period, Ali Mohamed entered into another, previously unreported, dispute with the U.S. government. He was having trouble with an agency that had nothing to do with terrorism: the IRS. From 1988 Mohamed owed taxes of $2,632.94. The following year his unpaid balance with the IRS had escalated by an additional $7,825.61 to a combined debt of just under $10,500.00. Based on the standard salary for an army sergeant in those years, that tally seems well beyond what his tax burden should have been—raising questions as to what other income sources Mohamed may have enjoyed during those years. Whatever the source, it would take another five years before the debt was paid and the IRS wiped Mohamed’s slate clean.

Meanwhile, Ali Mohamed had other things to worry about. By the fall of 1990, one of his Egyptian students was growing more and more restless. El Sayyid Nosair, the janitor who worked in the courthouse basement, had joined the IG, the blind Sheikh’s ultra-violent anti-Western terrorist group, and he was itching to make his bones for the jihad.

A LEAD TO THE 9/11 PLOT—TEN YEARS EARLY

Nosair kept a mailbox at a check cashing store in Jersey City called Sphinx Trading. It was located at 2828 Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City, four doors down from Sheikh Rahman’s Jersey hangout, the al-Salaam Mosque. One of the most extraordinary discoveries of this investigation is that Sphinx Trading held a key that could have put the FBI right into the middle of the 9/11 plot, months before September 11.

That mailbox of Nosair’s is a symbol of how so many roads in the 9/11 story lead back to the blind Sheikh and his cell members. It underscores why the 9/11 Commission was bound to get only part of the truth when it focused on the years 1998 forward in trying to untangle the “planes as missiles” plot. As we’ll see, El Sayyid Nosair and Sphinx Trading were each enormous “dots” on the road to 9.11 that the FBI left disconnected.

During the penalty phase of the Moussaoui trial in March 2006, Minneapolis agent Harry Samit accused FBI officials of acting with “criminal negligence” in failing to approve FISA search warrants. I believe that the Bureau’s seeming inability to tie Nosair and Sphinx to the 9/11 plot can fairly be cited as another example.

In any case, within months of the Sheikh’s arrival, Nosair was ready to use the shooting skills Ali Mohamed had taught him, to fire the first shots in al Qaeda’s new war against America. His target was Rabbi Meier Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Kahane openly advocated the removal of all non-Jews from Israel. His views were considered so extreme that he’d been banned from the Israeli Knesset; and he’d recently returned to New York City.
At this point we don’t know for sure how much of a role Ali Mohamed may have played in designing the plot, but on his frequent New York visits he stayed with Nosair and used his house at 577 Olympia Avenue in Cliffside Park, New Jersey to store the intelligence that he’d stolen from Fort Bragg. In one manila folder Mohamed stashed Green Beret manuals marked “Top Secret for Training.” He even hid communiqués classified as Secret from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One of these was a JCS “Warning Order,” addressed to eight separate U.S. military   command centers and support groups, the White House, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, not to mention the U.S. embassies in Cairo, Egypt, Khartoum, Sudan, Mogadishu, Somalia, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“There were dozens and dozens of documents that were of various classified status found in Nosair’s possessions after the search warrant was executed,” says Steven Emerson. “From the actual ship docking locations of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf to training manuals for special operations warfare. That would’ve been of immense value to the holy warriors and to the World Trade Center conspirators back in 1993, as they were trained for carrying out terrorists operations.”

Another document, entitled “Location of Selected Units on 05 December 1988,” listed the precise positions of Special Operations Forces (SOF) worldwide—including the army’s Green Berets and Navy SEAL teams—along with details of their missions. That document, along with the JCS “Warning Order,” is included—complete with Mohamed’s handwritten notes in Arabic— as Appendix __ on page __. That single communiqué could have easily gotten Mohamed indicted on charges of espionage and treason, defying the legal judgement of the JAG officer at Fort Bragg who had spurned Lt. Col. Anderson’s request for a court martial.

The cache of intelligence from Nosair’s house also contained hints of al Qaeda’s most famous New York target. Along with a receipt for 1400 rounds of ammunition and an Arabic manual on improvised explosive devices, there were maps of the World Trade Center, along with audio tapes of Sheikh Rahman exhorting his faithful to “mount steeds of war” for the jihad.

One passage deep inside Nosair’s notebook called for the “destruction of the enemies of Allah . . . by . . . exploding . . . their civilized pillars . . . and their high world buildings.”

But Ali Mohamed had schooled Nosair in the tradecraft of secret cells. The “brothers” should always use code, he advised. If they had to write down something, their notebooks should begin in Arabic with passages from the Koran or Islamic poetry so as to throw off any investigators who might seize the material.

Nosair had reason to believe his notebook might be seized.

THE FIRST MURDER

On the night of November 5, 1990, as Kahane left the podium in the Morgan D Room of Marriott’s East Side Hotel, Nosair burst in and began firing the same .357 Magnum photographed by the FBI at Calverton sixteen months before. The rabbi was struck twice, once in the neck.

Nosair rushed from the conference room but was grabbed by Irving Franklin, a 73 year old Kahane supporter. After a brief scuffle Nosair shot the old man in the leg, raced toward the hotel’s front door, searching for a taxi.

This is where Ali Mohamed’s possible role in the assassination comes into play.

The original plot called for two of Mohamed’s trainees, Mahmoud Abouhalima and Mohamed Salameh, to assist in the getaway. Nosair was to leave his car with Salameh on nearby Park Avenue and then walk to the Marriott a block away. Salameh would then drive Nosair’s Olds back home after the killing. Abouhalima, who had a hack license, was supposed to be waiting outside of the hotel in a cab to speed Nosair away.

But the doorman at the hotel waved Abouhalima away from the entrance, according to Shannon Taylor a freelance photographer who took the famous shot of Kahane lying in extremis.  So when the wide-eyed Nosair rushed from the hotel, he mistakenly got into a taxi driven by Franklin Garcia, a New York 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 to Garcia’s head, whereupon the taxi driver burst from the cab. He later told jurors that he was so terrified that “I almost pee my pants.”

Now, bursting out of the cab and running down Lexington Avenue with the nickel-plated gun, Nosair 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 in the neck with a single shot.

A pair of ambulances rushed both the shooter and the victim to Bellevue Hospital’s trauma unit. Operated on in parallel stalls, Nosair survived but Kahane expired.

After the killing, Abouhalima and Salameh regrouped at Nosair’s home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey.  But they were taken into custody by the NYPD later as material witnesses.The house was raided early the next day. Detectives and FBI agents seized forty-seven boxes in the raid—boxes 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, among them federal judge Jack B. Weinstein, who would go on to play a prominent role in the suppression of key al Qaeda-related evidence by the FBI and Southern District prosecutors six years later.

Nosair’s Oldsmobile was later found on Second Avenue, three blocks away from where it was originally parked, suggesting that it had been moved by somebody after the shooting. But later that day, November 6th, the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Joseph Borelli, concluded that the Kahane murder was a “lone gunman” shooting. The evidence was immediately impounded by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which ultimately tried the case as a local murder.

The conventional wisdom, as expressed in several books dealing with the Kahane murder, is that Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau simply acquiesced to Borelli’s hasty assessment.. The Congressional Joint Inquiry tasked with examining intelligence failures leading up to 9/11 concluded that “The NYPD and the District Attorney’s office . . . reportedly wanted the appearance of speedy justice and a quick resolution to a volatile situation. By arresting Nosair, they felt they had accomplished both.” As I noted myself in 1000 Years for Revenge, the prosecutors were eager to avoid a “show trial.” especially after Nosair “lawyered up” with the celebrated attorney William Kuntsler

NEW REVELATIONS FROM THE TRIAL TRANSCRIPT

At the time I wrote that passage I didn’t have access to the full transcript of the subsequent Nosair trial; so I cited the Joint Inquiry conclusion based on the best evidence I had. While researching that first book in the summer of 2003, no complete copy of the Nosair trial transcript was available. But in this new phase of the investigation, which focused on Nosair’s trainer Ali Mohamed, I wanted to examine every aspect of the murder. So in the fall of 2005, I reached out to Sara Stanley and Joyce Fisher, the court reporters who had transcribed most of the 3,000 pages of trial transcript in People v. El Sayyid Nosair, Indictment No. 14030-90.

With their help, and assistance from Barbara Thompson, director of public information in D.A. Robert Morgenthau’s office, I was able to piece together a complete transcript. It proved to be an eye opener and led me to conduct an extensive follow-up interview with William Greenbaum, the chief prosecutor on the case, who has never before spoken publicly about the trial—What I discovered now alters the historical record of those events. The evidence now shows that, from early on, the Manhattan district attorney’s office was pushing the FBI and federal prosecutors toward a broader investigation of the Kahane killing.

“We sensed a much bigger conspiracy,” said Greenbaum, “and we were sure that more than one person was involved . . . When we looked at Nosair’s keys, we asked ourselves, Where is his car? It was a green Olds. We looked for it in Manhattan. The first piece of the puzzle fell into place when a really great detective named Jose Rosario informed us that he had gone down Second Avenue at a certain point looking for the car and it had not appeared and then later it got ticketed and towed from a location he’d already checked. Which means somebody moved it for him.

“It’s incredible now, thinking back, how many commands were working that murder: You had the FBI’s Newark and New York offices, the Jersey and New York Joint Terrorist Task Forces, the Cliffside Park P.D., the Bergen County [New Jersey] prosecutor’s office, the 17th and Midtown North precincts of the NYPD, the U.S. Postal Inspectors, and our office, not to mention NYPD Crime Scene.” Greenbaum says that the initial investigation by his office turned up evidence that they were “dealing with something much bigger.” But shortly after the killing, “a decision was made to turn the boxes of evidence over to the Feds. They held onto them for several months before we got them back.”

At that point the chain of custody had been broken, and much of the evidence—including the material Ali Mohamed had stolen at Fort Bragg—became tainted and inadmissible.

Soon, says Greenbaum, the D.A.’s office lost the support of other federal agencies for trying the Kahane killing in the context of a much bigger conspiracy.

“At first,” he says, “we had tons of low-level Federal people coming in to us and supporting the idea of a broader inquiry. When we said ‘These Islamic guys want to eat us up,’ they agreed and I felt that there was a real chance to get to the bottom of the plot. To see who, if anyone, had supported Nosair.”

That process would have led the D.A.’s investigators directly to Ali Mohamed via the evidence from Fort Bragg—a full eight years before the FBI finally arrested him.

But Greenbaum says, “the Feds would go back to 26 Federal [the FBI’s New York Office] and nothing would come of it.”

“We even had Army people from Fort Bragg who came up interested in the maps that were found in Nosair’s place,” he says. “But then they went home and we never heard a word.”

Still, that didn’t stop Greenbaum from pushing. At a bail hearing for Nosair on December 18, 1990, he declared, that “This is no ordinary crime and an ordinary murder case. It is anything but. It is a planned assassination of a controversial and public figure.”

Greenbaum didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the discoveries made by investigators for Morgenthau’s office would have chilling relevance in years to come.

A “METHOD FOR FORCING ENTRY INTO AN AIRPLANE

As the bail hearing continued, Greenbaum went on to cite a surprising list of evidence seized both from Nosair’s home and his locker in the basement of the court building across the street. It included: “material relating to bomb making,” “material . . .  to train an individual on the uses and makeup of a hand grenade,” and guidelines “for breaking and entering into a building.”
Then Greenbaum made a disclosure that went unnoticed in the press coverage of the trial at the time. Also seized in the Nosair house search, he said, was a training manual “in Arabic language” on the “method for forcing entry into an airplane.”

Since much of the training material seized from Nosair’s Cliffside Park house was furnished by Ali Mohamed, this was early, if circumstantial, proof of Ali’s possible connection to the 9/11 plot that would be executed eleven years later. This reference to forced airplane entry tactics was not mentioned in the nineteen-page FBI 302 cataloguing the items seized from Nosair’s Olympia Avenue house at the time. Morgenthau’s office was conscientious enough to get a translation, demonstrating their willingness to take the case further and underscoring Greenbaum’s point that the Kahane murder was no “ordinary” crime.

And there was more evidence to support that opinion. At the bail hearing, Greenbaum cited a security-products price list found in Nosair’s house. It advertised “audio jammers, recorder controls, cameras and sentry detectors.” Also found were ads clipped from gun magazines hawking “barrel extensions and dummy suppressors,” also known as silencers. Later, Greenbaum asserted that Nosair had “altered” the .357 Magnum murder weapon, “we believe, to accommodate a silencer.”

In perhaps his most shocking revelation, Greenbaum reported that Nosair’s locker in the court building contained “a long thin vial” of “sodium cyanide.” This didn’t seem to ring any bells at the time, but later, after his arrest, Ramzi Yousef told FBI agents that he had considered lacing the 1,500 pound bomb with cyanide so that the deadly vapors would  rise up through the elevator shafts of the Twin Towers and kill thousands.

It’s impossible to say whether the vial in Nosair’s locker might have been tied to that fiendish scheme, but again, the common link between Nosair and the cell that helped Yousef construct the bomb, was Ali Mohamed.

Greenbaum gave other hints that Nosair was more than a “lone gunman.” Recovered in those forty-seven boxes of evidence from Cliffside Park were articles on the assassination of Anwar Sadat and the attempted murder of Egyptian foreign minister Zaki Badr, for which Ali Mohamed’s leader, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, was later indicted, convicted in absentia, and sentenced to death.

OUTSIDE SUPPORT FOR NOSAIR

Now at the bail hearing Greenbaum warned that “individuals . . . outside our country” were concerned about Nosair’s welfare. The D.A.’s office had confirmed press reports that Al-Fatah, the terrorist organization, “would be willing to put up any amount of bail.”

“It wasn’t the kind of offer one would expect in a lone gunman shooting,” Greenbaum told me later.

There were plenty of signs that foreign “individuals” were looking out for Nosair.

One of them was Abdel Halim Mandour, a prominent Egyptian lawyer with close ties to Sheikh Rahman’s terror group the al Gamma’a Islamiyah (IG).  Mandour had shown up at a preliminary hearing for Nosair as an observer. In 1997 Mandour was denied a visa to enter the U.K. in what the Guardian described as “the Egyptian government’s campaign to persuade Britain to crack down on fundamentalists accused of involvement in terrorism.” In October 1997 the Arabic News reported that Mandour was the “head of the defending body of the leader of the I.G.”—that is, Sheikh Rahman. A month later, Mandour spoke in defense of sixty-six defendants accused in the I.G.’s bloody Luxor massacre, in which fifty-eight people were slaughtered by a group calling itself “Omar Abdel-Rahman’s Squadron of Havoc and Destruction.”

Years later, Mandour was cited in a Reuters story on the I.G. as speaking at a press conference with the blind Sheikh’s son. Nosair himself was an I.G. member and had sworn allegiance to Rahman. So Mandour’s presence at the hearing in 1990 was further evidence of the killer’s ties to an international terrorist organization. But defense counsel Michael Warren tried to explain away Mandour’s visit by claiming that he was merely “sent here under sponsorship by the Egyptian bar.”

Judge Alvin Schlesinger accepted that explanation without challenge.

“ODIOUS” DEATH THREATS

Throughout the trial, Schlesinger played a key role in limiting the evidence to the simple shooting itself. At the bail hearings he admitted that he had received death threats that were “odious in nature.”

“I have no idea who these people are or what groups they come from or represent,” Schlesinger declared, but he indicated that the calls—which were “marked by hate [the likes of] which I have never experienced”—came from the Nosair camp. Schlesinger, who is Jewish, also chastised defense counsel, Michael Warren, for a statement he’d made to the press suggesting that the judge had been “bought off by Zionist influences.”

But crusading firebrand William Kuntsler, shot back, repeatedly accusing Schlesinger of bias. He went so far as to demand that the judge recuse himself. The motion was denied, but Schlesinger felt compelled to declare his impartiality:

“I have . . . had throughout my lifetime very extended . . . friendships with people of the Moslem faith,” he said. “They have been my friends. I have entertained and been entertained by delegates from Egypt. I’ve been entertained years past by the chairman of the Arab League who then happened to be an Egyptian . . . Never in my personal experience has there been any bias for or against any particular people in any religion . . . There’s nothing in my life or anything I have done or said that would manifest any such prejudice.”

Greenbaum, for one, felt that the bias accusations led Schlesinger to “bend over backwards” at trial to “favor the other side.” “Kuntsler did a fantastic job for his client,” he says. “He had the judge wrapped around his finger.He was playing him like a violin.” ”

Did Schlesinger cut the defense extra slack? The very fact that he even considered granting bail for Nosair suggests as much. With his international ties, and only sketchy ties to the community, Nosair was clearly a flight risk. At the December 18 hearing, Greenbaum introduced evidence that Nosair had either lived at or received mail at six separate addresses in New York and New Jersey over the previous two years, including two in Brooklyn and three in Jersey City, and that he’d stolen a New York state license plate for his Oldsmobile prior to the murder.

“After murdering his victim,” Greenbaum told the judge, “he shot two people, one of whom was a uniformed police officer, and put a gun to the head of an innocent cab driver on the street in order to effect his escape, indicating a desire to escape justice.”

Moreover, Greenbaum pointed out, Nosair would have no strong reason to stay behind in the U.S. “The defendant began life as an Egyptian national,” he told the judge. “He has family in Egypt. He has places to go, he has people who are willing to post whatever amount of bail is set for this defendant, and if he makes any kind of bail, whether it is in the millions or hundreds of thousands, he is gone.”

As 1990 came to a close, any hope of connecting Mohamed back to the Kahane murder was lost. But Greenbaum’s arguments proved successful. Nosair was never granted bail; he remained in the city jail at Rikers Island until trial began the following year. But this previously unexamined bail hearing reveals how hard—if unsuccessfully—the Manhattan D.A.’s office worked to signal the Egyptian’s ties to a much bigger conspiracy.

Meanwhile the FBI-NYPD search of Nosair’s house the night after the murder signaled another enormous misstep by the Bureau’s New York office. Shortly after their arrest as material witnesses, Mahmoud Abouhalima and Mohammed Salameh were released.  Though they had been photographed at the Calverton shooting range in 1989 with the full knowledge of JTTF investigator Tommy Corrigan, he admitted in the summer of 2006 that he had been unware that the two Ali Mohamed trainees were even in custody in connection with the Kahane slaying.

“I don’t remember ever seeing Salameh and Abouhalima being brought in,” says Corrigan. “I’m not saying that it didn’t happen, but I wasn’t aware of that until many years later, actually [learning about it] on a news program.”

If the FBI had tied Abouhalima and Salemeh to the Calverton surveillance photos, as some authors have suggested, they didn’t make the connection soon enough to keep them in custody. Ali Mohamed, who had played a key role in al Qaeda’s first murder on U.S. soil, slipped back into the quiet obscurity of Santa Clara, not even close to anybody’s suspect list. But months later another violent homicide in New York would take place, and this time the victim would be a man Mohamed had once called a close friend. The question was, Would the Feds pick up on al Qaeda’s chief spy this time?

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One Response to The Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman

  1. Pingback: Peter Lance & Emad Salem on Coast to Coast AM Tuesday, January 22nd. | Peter Lance

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