Thirty years ago this past Sunday, the largest terrorist attack in American history up to that point occurred when a 1200-pound bomb exploded beneath the World Trade Center in New York City. It was sheer luck that the explosion did not topple the entire skyscraper and kill thousands of people. Politicians solemnly marked the anniversary but dignitaries made no mention of the FBI’s role in that disaster.
On November 5, 1990, Rabbi Meir Kahane was assassinated at a New York hotel. Kahane advocated banishing all Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories, and his political party was banned from the Knesset for “inciting racism” and “endangering security.” Kahane was shot by El Sayyid Nosair, a 36-year-old Egyptian immigrant, who was part of an anti-Israeli cabal of Muslims in the New York area. When police searched Nosair’s residence, they carried off 47 boxes of documents, paramilitary manuals, maps, and diagrams of buildings (including the World Trade Center).
No one in the New York FBI office could read Arabic, so those documents—labeled “a road map” to the 1993 bombing—were left in storage for more than two years. A 2002 congressional report noted that the New York Police Department “resisted attempts to label the Kahane assassination a ‘conspiracy’ despite the apparent links to a broader network of radicals” because they “wanted the appearance of speedy justice and a quick resolution to a volatile situation.” Nosair’s legal defense was reportedly financed by Osama Bin Laden.
The trial, which began in late 1991, was “marked by rioting outside the courthouse, death threats against the judge and lawyers, calls for ‘blood’ revenge against the defendant and cries of ‘Death to Jews!’ from his Moslem supporters,” the National Law Journal reported. The FBI placed an informant named Emad Salem, a 43-year-old former Egyptian military officer, in the midst of the Muslim protesters. Salem insinuated himself and became the bodyguard for Sheik Abdul Rahman, a radical Muslim cleric. Despite stark evidence, a New York jury bizarrely found Nosair not guilty of murder.
In mid-1992, Salem repeatedly warned the FBI that radical Muslims were planning to carry off a catastrophic bombing in New York City. FBI supervisors were convinced he was concocting tall tales and ceased paying him his $500 a week. On February 26, 1993, a massive bomb in a van exploded in the parking garage beneath the World Trade Center, killing six people, injuring more than a thousand, and causing half a billion dollars in damage. If the van had been parked a few feet closer to one of the pillars, an entire tower of the Trade Center could have collapsed.
An Immigration and Naturalization Service snafu contributed to the success of the bombing. One of the key plotters, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was stopped at JFK International Airport in September 1992 after an INS inspector recognized that his Iraqi passport was a fraud. Yousef applied for asylum. Because the nearby “holding facility” the INS used for illegal immigrants was full, the INS permitted Yousef to enter the United States. A 1998 ABC News analysis noted, “Yousef was living in a guest house in Pakistan paid for by bin Laden at the time of his capture—a connection that lead the FBI to investigate whether bin Laden was also the mysterious source of money behind the bombing.” Yousef slipped out of the United States immediately after the bombing.
The FBI “cracked the case” when a knucklehead plotter demanded a refund for his $400 deposit for the Ryder rental truck used for the bombing. Time noted that the FBI “looked supremely capable in speedily rounding up suspects in the World Trade Center bombing.” Federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy later bragged to a New York jury that the first World Trade Center attack was one of the FBI’s finest hours: “To the rest of the world out there, the explosion in all its tragedy was actually a high-water mark for the FBI.” FBI director William Sessions declared, “Based on what was known to us at the time, we have no reason to believe we could have prevented the bombing of the World Trade Center.”
After the bombing, the FBI quickly rehired Salem and promised him a million dollars to develop evidence of additional terrorist plots. Salem didn’t trust the feds to pay so he secretly recorded his conversations with FBI agents. In August 1993, as the case was heading for trial, news leaked that Salem had made more than a hundred hours of tapes of his conversations with FBI agents and handlers. Those tapes portrayed the FBI as co-conspirator with the terrorist plotters.
In a call to an FBI agent shortly after the bombing, Salem complained,
“We was start already building the bomb…supervising, supervision from the Bureau [FBI] and the DA [district attorney] and we was all informed about it. And we know that the bomb start to be built. By who? By your confidential informant. What a wonderful great case. And then he [the FBI supervisor] put his head in the sand and said, oh no, no, no that’s not true, he is a son of a bitch, okay.”
In another taped call, Salem anguished to one FBI agent, “You were informed. Everything is ready. The day and the time. Boom. Lock them up and that’s that. That’s why I feel so bad.” On another tape, Salem asked an FBI agent, “Do you deny your supervisor is the main reason of bombing the World Trade Center?” The agent did not deny Salem’s charge. FBI agent Nancy Floyd confided to Salem that her supervisors had botched the case: “I felt that the people on the squad, that they didn’t have a clue…That the supervisors didn’t know what was going on. That they hadn’t taken the time to learn the history.”
So how did the FBI exonerate itself? The New York Times published a “correction” noting that the FBI claimed to be unsure which building the terrorists were going to blow up: “Transcripts of tapes made secretly by an informant, Emad A. Salem, quote him as saying he warned the Government that a bomb was being built. But the transcripts do not make clear the extent to which the Federal authorities knew that the target was the World Trade Center.”
Before the bombing, Salem offered to substitute harmless powder for the deadly explosives and thereby preventing any catastrophe. The FBI spurned his offer. Salem complained to one FBI agent that an FBI supervisor “requested to make me to testify [in public] and if he didn’t push for that, we’ll be going building the bomb with a phony powder and grabbing the people who was involved in it. But…we didn’t do that.” “Tapes Depict Proposal to Thwart Bomb Used in Trade Center Blast,” headlined The New York Times report on this stunning revelation.
What is more shocking than an FBI informant planted amidst the most deadly terror plot in American history? Two FBI informants in the same plot. As Newsday reported on October 29, 1993:
“The FBI had a second confidential informant who infiltrated the Jersey City mosque where the sheik preached. According to law-enforcement sources, two months before the Feb. 26 Trade Center bombing, the informant was on a military-style training exercise in a New Jersey park with other suspects when he was asked to obtain dynamite for an attack. After the informant told FBI officials, they met for nearly an entire day to consider providing the suspects with inoperative, counterfeit dynamite. But, to avoid the possibility of an entrapment charge, FBI officials instead pulled the informant off the assignment the next day, sources said.”
“Instead of trying to stop it they just waited for it to happen, then swooped in and arrested everyone,” said an investigator. “It was incredible.”
The feds considered Salem credible enough to pay him that million dollars for his 1995 testimony to convict Muslim conspirators before they carried out further attacks on New York City landmarks. Those court victories permitted the FBI to continue pirouetting as national saviors.
But the trial revealed that Salem was far more than a passive collector of dirt. As Time magazine reported just after the trial: “It was Salem who consulted [blind sheik] on possible bombing targets; rented the ‘safe house’ in Queens, New York, where the conspirators gathered (and in which the FBI installed the video cameras); and had the only key to the garage where the explosives were prepared. Moreover, he even bragged to Barbara Rogers, his wife at the time, that he was the leader of the group. ‘I am the shepherd,’ Rogers recalls him saying. ‘They are the sheep.’” The defendants in the trial got fleeced when they tried to claim entrapment.
There were no congressional investigations of the self-confessed role of the FBI informant in the most destructive bombing in American history. Instead, Congress continued boosting the FBI budget, which presumably would solve all the problems exposed in the 1993 bombing case.
In 1997, FBI Director Louis Freeh promised Congress that he would “double the ‘shoe leather” for counterterrorism investigations. But walking was no substitute for thinking.
FBI debacles in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing foreshadowed far worse antiterrorism failures in the following decades. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the FBI again failed dismally to connect the dots of terrorist plotters inside the United States. An FBI agent groused in 2002 that the bureau’s ethos was that “real men don’t type. The only thing a real agent needs is a notebook, a pen and gun, and with those three things you can conquer the world…The computer revolution just passed us by.” The FBI’s gross negligence “contributed to the United States becoming, in effect, a sanctuary for radical terrorists,” according to a 2002 congressional investigation. The Bush administration suppressed the full details of FBI failures to detect the terrorist plots that left thousands of Americans dead.
Since the 1993 bombing, neither Congress nor federal courts have put the FBI on a leash, and the media continues kowtowing to G-men who serve up juicy leaks. When judging the FBI, never forget comedian Lily Tomlin’s maxim: “No matter how cynical you get, it’s never enough to keep up.”