ClandesTime 105 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: The Blind Sheikh
The Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman was an Egyptian cleric who played a critical role in the early years of Al Qaeda. Rahman and his followers took over the New York branch of the MAK, an international fundraising and recruiting organisation that was central to the CIA’s Operation Cyclone. His followers carried out several major crimes – the murders of the mosque’s original imam Mustafa Shalabi and of Jewish Defence League founder Meir Kahane, as well at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. However, Rahman was only allowed into the US due to CIA official granting him visas, and the police and FBI investigations into these crimes were very limited. In this episode we examine the Blind Sheikh’s relationship with US intelligence, the murders committed by his followers, and why he managed to evade arrest for several years.
The nature of this story is that it is long and complex. All the pieces matter because they all link up to cause the events that are the focus of this series. So we’re going to break it down, sometimes picking up the story from different points and different people and running through the same events from the perspective of their role in what happened. Today we’re going to look at the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman. But to understand his significance we’re going to begin with what happened at the end of the Soviet-Afghan War.
The founding of Al Qaeda and the future of the Mujahideen
By 1988 it was clear that the war was effectively a stalemate. The Soviets were bleeding troops and money and vehicles into a war that they couldn’t win. The mujahideen had no unity and therefore no means of replacing the government in Kabul. So the Soviets withdrew, their client Communist government remained in place for the time being, and the disparate mujahideen factions all congratulated themselves on a job well done.
Meanwhile, there was an important schism among the Afghan Arabs, the international mujahideen. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian radical with a good-sized following was Osama Bin Laden’s mentor, but as the war wound down they disagreed about the next step. Azzam wanted to keep all the training camps in Afghanistan – these being the camps in part built with money from the Saudi and US governments. His vision was that Afghanistan could be the first true Islamic state and from there they could spread out and establish a caliphate. Bin Laden, along with his new friends from Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman Al Zawahiri, wanted to go international and take the struggle to a dozen other countries right away.
This was no small disagreement. They were effectively fighting over the future of the MAK, the Maktab Al Khidamat, an organisation founded in 1984 by Bin Laden, Azzam and Zawahiri. The MAK grew into a global organisation throughout the 80s and opened numerous offices in the United States. Muslim Americans donated millions of dollars to the mujahideen cause, often motivated by speeches by ideologues like Zawahiri and the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. In 1987 the New York branch of the MAK was formally incorporated as the Al Kifah Refugee Center. Its office was located upstairs at the Al Farooq mosque in Brooklyn, and later moved to the building next door. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s it would be the focus for the nascent Al Qaeda organisation and it became the most important MAK office in the US.
Al Kifah was not only a conduit for money to support the Afghan Arabs but also for recruits to fight in the jihad against the Soviets. It appears that this activity was not only monitored by the CIA, but actively encouraged. According to Newsweek, ‘the diaspora of young Arab men willing to die for Allah congregated at the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., a dreary inner-city building that doubled as a recruiting post for the CIA seeking to steer fresh troops to the mujahedin.’ Writing in 1995, the New Yorker commented that, ‘One week on Atlantic Avenue, it might be a CIA-trained Afghan rebel travelling on a CIA-issued visa; the next, it might be a clean-cut Arabic-speaking Green Beret, who would lecture about the importance of being part of the mujaheddin.’
According to a former State Department official at the US Visa Bureau in Jeddah this was all part of Operation Cyclone, and the operation also involved bringing international mujahideen into the US for training. Interviewed by the BBC only weeks after 9/11, Michael Springman explained, ‘In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high level State Dept officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants… I complained bitterly at the time there. I returned to the US, I complained to the State Dept here, to the General Accounting Office, to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the Inspector General’s office. I was met with silence.’
In another interview with CBC he elaborated on what he meant by ‘unqualified applicants, saying, ‘You need to demonstrate that you are going to the United States for a specific purpose… These were people that had no job; in one instance he was a Sudanese, who was unemployed in Saudi Arabia, and a refugee from the Sudan. But he got a visa for National Security purposes, after it was taken out of my hands by the chief of the consular section.’ Springman’s protests fell on deaf ears because, by his own account, ‘What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits, rounded up by Osama Bin Laden, to the US for terrorist training by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against the then-Soviets.’
So this disagreement between Azzam and Bin Laden/Zawahiri was important – the CIA had helped to develop this into an important organisation and while their money would soon stop flowing this was still a wealthy, international organisation. So Bin Laden founded Al Qaeda in the summer of 1988, according to documents later found in an MAK office in Bosnia. A year later, Azzam was dead and with it his dream of a caliphate spreading out from Afghanistan.
The Blind Sheikh
From an operational point of view the most important people in this story are not Afghans, or Saudis, or Palestinians. They are Egyptians. The reasons for this will become clearer as this series progresses. Today we will focus on one of the most important figures who graced the Al Kifah with his presence in order to inspire the recruits – Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, commonly known as the Blind Sheikh. Rahman was born in Egypt in 1938 and though he lost his sight to diabetes at a young age he learned the Koran off by heart from a Braille version. In the 1970s he became involved with the two major militant Islamic groups in Egypt, Gamaat Islamiya and Islamic Jihad. Both were offshoots of the somewhat more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and were deeply opposed to the presidency of Anwar Sadat, who had negotiated a historic peace deal with Israel. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by members of Islamic Jihad during an annual victory parade in Cairo. Members of an army unit taking part in the parade sprayed the grandstand with rifle fire, killing Sadat and eleven others, and wounding 28 more including vice-President Hosni Mubarak.
Rahman had issued a fatwa against Sadat and shortly after the assassination Mubarak began a vicious crackdown on Islamism in Egypt. Around 1500 Egyptian Muslims considered to be militants or fundamentalists were arrested. Rahman and Zawahiri, by then the effective leaders of Gamaat Islamiya and Islamic Jihad, were both imprisoned and tortured, presumably contributing to their radicalism. In 1984 Zawahiri was convicted of dealing in weapons and shortly afterwards completed his three-year sentence and was freed. Despite the fatwa, Rahman was found not guilty of involvement in the Sadat conspiracy in 1984, having been held for three years awaiting trial. Both men found their way to Afghanistan, Rahman being a former pupil of Abdullah Azzam, and they founded the MAK. Zawahiri in particular became close friends with Bin Laden, and helped form the original Al Qaeda organisation in 1988.
Rahman was no fan of America or its citizens, referring to them as, ‘descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communism, and colonialism.’ Despite this, throughout the period 1986-89 the Blind Sheikh and Zawahiri paid numerous visits to the United States, to spread the word and raise money for the jihad. In an echo of Springman’s comments, Rahman obtained in total six visas for entry to the US. CIA agents posing as consular officials in Sudan and Egypt ensured that, despite his history of involvement with the Egyptian Islamic militant groups (or perhaps because of it), he was repeatedly allowed into the US.
In 1989 Rahman was arrested in Egypt and placed under closely guarded house arrest. Meanwhile, followers of his met with CIA officials at the US embassy in Cairo. The cables recording these meetings were signed by then US ambassador Frank Wisner jr., the son of the veteran of CIA black operations. The Blind Sheikh then escaped from house arrest, possibly by being smuggled out inside a washing machine, and was subsequently sentenced in absentia for his role in the murder of a police officer and an attempt to overthrow the Egyptian government. In May 1990 he sneaked away from Cairo to Khartoum, where another helpful CIA officer granted him a visa for entry to the US.
Why did the CIA support the Blind Sheikh?
According to author Simon Reeve in his outstanding book The New Jackals, the CIA were cosying up to Rahman because they were concerned about a possible Islamic insurrection in Egypt. They believed that an uprising would, like the Iranian revolution a decade earlier, overthrow the US-favoured government under Hosni Mubarak. Reeve wrote, ‘The CIA, it is now clear, arranged the visa to try and befriend the Sheikh in advance of a possible armed fundamentalist revolution in Egypt. CIA agents, still regretting mistakes they made before the Iranian revolution in 1979, were trying to win Abdul-Rahman’s trust.’v
Contemporaneous documents strongly suggest that this interpretation of the ‘visas for the Sheikh’ issue is true. In several of their intelligence reviews on Egypt in this period the CIA showed concern for the stability of the Egyptian government. Mubarak’s predecessor Sadat had struck a historic peace deal with Israel in 1979, which had provoked Sadat’s assassination and Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League. In a 1986 report titled Egypt and the Arab States: Reintegration Prospects, the CIA commented on the problems of Mubarak attempting to ‘woo Arab support’ and ‘undertaking diplomatic initiatives aimed at gaining readmittance’. In the CIA’s assessment, ‘Mubarak is unlikely to initiate such policies for fear of visible failure and embarrassment that could further erode his political support.’ The assessment went on to state that, ‘we expect him to become increasingly preoccupied with shoring up Egypt’s faltering economy, and coping with political challenge from Islamic fundamentalist groups seeking to exploit popular discontent.’ The following year a Near East and South Asia Review called the domestic Islamic resistance, ‘the regime’s most vociferous mass-based opposition.’
Another year down the line, just as Al Qaeda was being founded in Pakistan, another review spoke of Egypt’s ‘Islamic Revival’, calling it a ‘two-headed coin’. Whereas previous discussion had focussed solely on the Muslim Brotherhood and the like in terms of the problems they posed for Mubarak, by 1988 the CIA were seeing them as potentially useful. The report says that, ‘the resurgence of Islam in Egypt is a force both for instability and stability.’ It elaborated that, ‘Egypt’s dominant national instinct continues to comprehend that the question for perfect purity is unattainable. An increased Islamic imprint on Egyptian society does not inherently make it less stable. Rather than a sword spelling doom, the Islamic revival may be a key Egyptian span over present troubled waters.’
Not long after this assessment they met with members of the Blind Sheikh’s Islamic Group and then with a lawyer representing the group. Another few months down the line and the Blind Sheikh is granted yet another visa to get into the US. The editor of Intelwire John Berger, who provided a lot of the documents I used while researching this, noted, ‘Rahman’s name had been placed on a terrorist watchlist that should have kept him out of the United States. Embassy officials said the visa was issued in error and began an investigation of the embassy official who approved the passport. That official turned out to be an officer of the CIA [who] was working as a consular official as part of his official cover and did not act on behalf of the CIA. Officials described the event as a “coincidence”.’ This explanation, or excuse, is highly unlikely given (a) the prior visas issued to Rahman, and (b) the evidence of the CIA’s appreciation of the strategic usefulness of the Blind Sheikh. As one New York investigator put it, ‘Left with the choice between pleading stupidity or else admitting deceit, the CIA went with stupidity.’
The ‘stupidity’ continued long after Rahman arrived in the US in July 1990. In late October of that year he took a trip to London, and so was out of the US when one of his followers, El Sayyid Nosair, assassinated a militant rabbi in New York. Not long afterwards, on November 26th the State Department revoked his visa, but in December he left the US for a few days to attend a conference in Denmark before returning to New York. He had no problems getting back into the country despite having no visa, and shortly afterwards the New York Times drew public attention to the issue by publishing a story titled ‘Islamic Leader on U.S. Terrorist List Is in Brooklyn.’ Still, Rahman was not deported. Instead, in April 1991 the INS approved his application for permanent residency status. This was then revoked in 1992, but Rahman appealed, and the hearings still hadn’t taken place by the time the World Trade Center was bombed in February 1993. Only months after the bombing, the Blind Sheikh was arrested following an FBI sting operation. Rahman was initially charged with immigration violations but was ultimately prosecuted and convicted for his roles in a ‘seditious conspiracy’ to overthrow the Egyptian government and in a plot to blow up various New York landmarks.
After his arrest in the summer of 1993 the State Department investigated the decision to grant him the visas in the first place. Only after one of his followers killed a prominent rabbi, a bunch of his other followers blew up the WTC and some more of his followers got caught up in an FBI sting operation where they planned to blow up a dozen New York landmarks. Only then did the State Department decide to ask questions about why this radical Sheikh was granted several visas, and even moved in and out of the country after his visa was revoked.
A memorandum from this investigation shows signs of a continuing cover-up. The memo says, ‘It is not possible to answer definitively whether or not visas (particularly the one issued in 1990) should have been issued or denied based on the evidence and information available at the time of application, because we do not know with certainty today the extent of the evidence or information available at those times.’ Even though three years had passed since the CIA agent/consular official in Khartoum had issued the 1990 visa the State Department apparently still didn’t know the reasons why that had happened. It appears they never got access to the files from Cairo and Khartoum and as such came to no conclusion. Nowhere in this memo, nor in the attached paper drawn up by the Visa Office that examined the issue, is there any mention of the influence of the CIA, though large sections are redacted. Dozens of other documents about the Blind Sheikh that were gathered as part of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation are still being withheld for national security reasons.
Looking back, in the period that Rahman was establishing himself at the Al Kifah center in Brooklyn there were two murders that should have put the authorities onto what was going on there. Only a few months after Rahman arrived on the 1990 visa one of his followers shot and killed a major figure in the Jewish militant movement, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Four months later the founder of the Al Kifah, Mustafa Shalabi, was brutally murdered in a case that remains unsolved, but which allowed Rahman to seize control of the New York branch of the MAK, an important hub for the nascent Al Qaeda organisation.
Kahane was an obvious target. He was the founder and leader of the Jewish Defence League (JDL), in some respects a counterpoint to the MAK. Kahane is widely considered to have been an extremist. He was certainly a racist, routinely referring to Arabs as ‘dogs’ and Africans as ‘savages’ and demanding the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel. He was also some kind of fundamentalist, believing that, ‘democracy and Judaism are not the same thing.’ Thus, Kahane was in some ways the Jewish counterpoint to the Islamic Blind Sheikh. That said, some of his statements have a more familiar flavour.
Regarding terrorism he wrote in USA Today in 1987 that, ‘If we ever hope to rid the world of the political AIDS of our time, terrorism, the rule must be clear: One does not deal with terrorists; one does not bargain with terrorists; one kills terrorists.’ While perhaps a little more bluntly expressed, this is much the same view advocated by senior British, American and Israeli officials at the Jerusalem Conference in 1979, where the modern war on terror was conceived. The characterisation of terrorism as a disease and subsequent rejection of negotiation as a strategy is entirely in keeping with many of the speeches at the conference. In the same article Kahane made the sort of statement that became commonplace immediately after 9/11, writing, ‘Never, ever deal with terrorists. Hunt them down and, more important, mercilessly punish those states and groups that fund, arm, support, or simply allow their territories to be used by the terrorists with impunity.’
Displaying the same hypocrisy that was evident at the Jerusalem conference, Kahane’s creation, the JDL, was to all intents and purposes a terrorist organisation. Founded in 1968, they were an anti-Soviet, anti-Arab, pro-Israel militant and activist group. They carried out bombings on Soviet and Arab property in the US and assassinations of those that they considered to be enemies of the Jewish people. FBI documents obtained by Intelwire show that the Feds had informants within the group as early on as 1970. A teletype from 1971 detailed the account of an informant who claimed that Kahane even had aspirations of unleashing biological warfare on the Soviet Union. The document says, ‘Kahane has seriously discussed capturing a Soviet city. His intent is to secure germs of a virulent disease from a hospital or bacteriologist, grow a sufficient amount of these germs, and then smuggle them to a Soviet city. He will then threaten to contaminate the city unless the Soviets allow Jews to emigrate to Israel.’
Kahane was arrested several times in 1969-70 but he was never charged with any offences. Numerous members of the JDL have been responsible for terrorist attacks yet the group still exists, and is now deemed a ‘former terrorist organisation’. Just like the MAK, the JDL happily existed, carrying out acts of violence, year after year, without facing serious prosecution from the authorities. Part of the reason may be that at least for a time Kahane was an FBI asset. In the mid 1960s his strong anticommunist views saw him hired by the US government to infiltrate the John Birch Society and report back what the group were doing. The documents show that in an interview in September 1970 Kahane agreed to provide the FBI with information on people involved with the JDL. Not long afterwards, in 1971, he fulfilled a lifelong dream and emigrated to Israel.
There he founded an offshoot of the JDL called Kach, a political party and saw Kahane elected to the Knesset in 1984. It was subsequently banned by the Israeli government in 1988, and eventually listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organisation in 1994. This followed the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre when Baruch Goldstein, a member of Kach and a follower of Kahane, killed 29 Palestinians and wounded over a hundred. He attacked as they prayed inside the Mosque of Abraham in Hebron in the West Bank, and only when he ran out of ammunition was he subdued and beaten to death by survivors. In the FAQs section of the JDL’s website they state their view that, ‘Goldstein took a preventative measure against yet another Arab attack on Jews. We understand his motivation, his grief and his actions. We do not consider his assault to qualify under the label of terrorism because Dr. Goldstein was a soldier in a war zone who was faced by an imminent terrorist threat…we therefore view Dr. Goldstein as a martyr in Judaism’s protracted struggle against Arab terrorism. And we are not ashamed to say that Goldstein was a charter member of the Jewish Defense League.’
The First Murder
El Sayyid Nosair was born in Egypt in 1955 and emigrated to the US in 1981, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1989. Inspired by the success of the mujahideen he believed that as a Muslim he had to bring the fight to the West. On the night of November 5th 1990, Nosair attended a meeting at the East Side Marriot hotel in Manhattan and heard a speech by Meir Kahane. Nosair went to the Marriot hotel wearing a yarmulke to disguise himself as a darker-skinned Sephardic Jew. At the end of the speech Nosair shot Kahane through the neck, killing him, and after a brief scuffle he broke free and began running. He was then confronted by a 73 year old Kahane follower named Irving Franklin, who Nosair shot in the leg before he exited to the pavement outside the hotel.
There, he leapt into a nearby taxi that investigators believe was meant to be driven by Nosair’s friend Mahmud Abouhalima. Abouhalima was a veteran of the Afghan war and a close associate of the Blind Sheikh. He had been moved on only minutes earlier and so the taxi Nosair landed in was just an ordinary taxi, not a getaway car. Nosair leapt back out and took off down the street on foot. An armed postal worker named Carlos Acosta saw Nosair and drew his gun and told Nosair to stop. El Sayyid raised his own gun and shot Acosta in the shoulder, who returned fire, hitting Nosair under the chin. The four were rushed to hospital where Acosta, Franklin and Nosair survived but Kahane died.
According to FBI 302s detailing interviews with witnesses to the shooting, none of the witnesses actually saw Nosair shoot Kahane. Some identified him as being at the Marriot hotel meeting but others did not. Due to religious sensibilities no autopsy was carried out on Kahane’s body, and so just as with JFK there was no dissection of the track of the bullet that killed him. At Nosair’s trial his lawyer William Kunstler seized on these problems with the prosecution case and argued that Nosair was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. The jury found Nosair innocent of the murder of Kahane, but guilty of assault and illegal gun ownership. The judge in the case found the verdict so unreasonable that he imposed the maximum sentence of 17-25 years for the firearms offences, and Nosair went to prison.
On November 6th 1990, the day after the shooting, federal agents raided Nosair’s home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Among the items found were recordings of the Blind Sheikh exhorting his followers to ‘destroy the edifices of capitalism’. A notebook of Nosair’s, apparently a copy of a sermon given by the Blind Sheikh, talked of, ‘breaking and destruction of the enemies of Allah… by means of destroying exploding the structure of their civilised pillars such as the touristic infrastructure which they are proud of and their high world buildings that they are proud of.’ They also found training manuals on weaponry and explosives; military documents; maps of Manhattan showing the World Trade Center and other targets; newspaper articles on the assassination of Anwar Sadat; letters and other files from the Al Kifah refugee center; sketches of how to make a homemade hand gun; numerous pages and pamphlets in Arabic; a copy of Viktor Ostrovsky’s book about the Mossad By Way of Deception; a lot of ammunition; and a photocopy of the CIA’s World Fact Book (1988 edition).
To some observers and analysts this shows that the plot to attack the World Trade Center was underway as early as November 1990, and that the Blind Sheikh was the mastermind behind the plot. Two former directors of counterterrorism for the National Security Council, Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, commented in their book The Age of Sacred Terror that, ‘The notion of destroying the twin towers was almost certainly not Nosair’s; the whole speech in which the passage is found is likely something he copied. The language and the horrific grandeur of the imagery mark it as the idea of… Sheikh Omar Ahmed Abdel Rahman.’ However, when he was finally detained by the FBI Ramzi Yousef claimed that he was in fact the mastermind of the bombing, and that the Blind Sheikh was not involved.
Regardless, the authorities investigated and prosecuted the Kahane hit as the work of Nosair alone, failing to look at implications of a wider conspiracy. Within twelve hours of the shooting the New York chief of detectives had declared it an ordinary homicide carried out by Nosair and Nosair alone. According to the 2002 Joint Inquiry into 9/11, both 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.’ Again drawing a parallel with the JFK assassination, they were pursuing a lone gunman hypothesis and nothing else. As a result, the evidence found in Nosair’s flat was passed from the police to the FBI and then back to the police. Much of it remained untranslated and essentially unexamined until after the World Trade Center bombing over two years later.
The Second Murder
Briefly, the other murder that should have alerted the authorities took place shortly after Nosair gunned down Kahane. In December 1987 Mustafa Shalabi, an associate and friend of Abdullah Azzam, formally incorporated the Al Kifah center. For the following three years he was the imam of the Al Farooq mosque and ran the Brooklyn office of the MAK, assisted by Mahmud Abouhalima and El Sayyid Nosair. In early 1991 he was murdered, in a case that remains essentially unsolved. The overriding suspicion is that as Bin Laden teamed up with the Egyptians to form Al Qaeda that they began eradicating their competitors. The falling out between Azzam and Bin Laden over the future of the Afghan Arabs extended to the Egyptians under Zawahiri and the Blind Sheikh as, ‘Azzam quarreled bitterly with the Egyptians.’xxix Azzam died in a bombing in November 1989, and his loyal associate Shalabi was murdered a little more than a year later, in February 1991, shot and stabbed to death in his apartment.
Shalabi was clearly aware of the danger, having sent his wife and child back to Egypt. He probably intended to follow them, but never made it. His body was found by a neighbour in a pool of blood. He had been slashed and stabbed 60 times and shot six times. Shalabi’s body was found with two curly red hairs in his hand, suggesting that he may have been killed by Mahmud Abouhalima who had distinctive red hair. Indeed, it was Abouhalima who formally identified Shalabi’s body, posing as his brother. Despite the Blind Sheikh having denounced Shalabi in pamphlets and spread rumours that Shalabi was stealing money from donations to the Al Kifah, Abouhalima was let go and neither he nor the Blind Sheikh were ever investigated for the Shalabi murder. This enabled Rahman to take over the Al Kifah, its connections and its millions of dollars.
Two sets of intelligence failures
So already, without even getting into the WTC bombing element of this, we have multiple sets of intelligence failures. When the Blind Sheikh was granted a visa in mid-1990 that shouldn’t have happened because he was on the terrorist watchlist. The CIA say this was a mistake, but it is only the CIA who have the legal authority to override the State Department on immigration issues. The fact that this was the last of several visas, and that by this time the Soviet Afghan war was over, suggests they saw the Blind Sheikh as still being useful to them. One reason, as we discussed above, was the political situation in Egypt. Another is the Blind Sheikh’s talent at recruitment and indoctrination. After he took over the Al Kifah became a major recruiting hub for the emerging war in Bosnia. We will get into the relevance of the wars in Yugoslavia in a later episode.
So the Blind Sheikh shouldn’t have been in the US. But only months after he arrived one of his followers killed a prominent rabbi. Though Rahman’s visa was then revoked he still managed to get in and out of the country and lived in the US for another 2 ½ years. How does that happen? A few months after one of his followers killed the rabbi the guy running the mosque where he hangs out is also killed. The Blind Sheikh takes over the mosque, and the investigation yields no suspects at all.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was told by the FBI that Nosair was a lone gunman, and leads in the Shalabi murder were never followed up. Given the proximity of the CIA to the Blind Sheikh and the Al Kifah center in general, was this investigative failure the result of CIA pressure on the FBI? The investigative work of journalist Robert Friedman suggests it could well have been. He wrote that, ‘Morgenthau speculated the CIA may have encouraged the FBI not to pursue any other leads.’ Friedman also details a meeting following the Kahane murder where a terrorist-turned-informant asked his handler, ‘Why aren’t we going after the sheikh?’ His handler responded, ‘It’s hands-off,’ before elaborating, ‘It was no accident that the sheikh got a visa and that he’s still in the country… He’s here under the banner of national security, the State Department, the NSA, and the CIA… He’s an untouchable.’
So, while only two people were killed in this particular string of events, already we’re seeing that Al Qaeda in its earliest post-Afghan version had a CIA asset at the heart of it. Numerous authorities failed – immigration, the police, the FBI, and this seems to be because the Blind Sheikh was considered to be too valuable at that moment in time. By mid-1993 his usefulness had waned or perhaps he was always considered disposable and it was becoming impossible to keep the FBI away from him. Because that’s the other part of this story – the FBI informant Emad Salem, and the WTC bombing, which we will look at next time.
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