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July 4, 2003

In The Cell, John Miller and his co-authors give a blow-by-blow account of terrorist events leading up to Sept. 11. (
A Decade of Warnings
Did Rabbi’s 1990 Assassination Mark Birth of Islamic Terror in America?

Aug. 16 — The headlines that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon screamed tragically of a "changed world." But did that change actually begin a decade earlier, with the assassination of a radical rabbi in New York City?

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In his newly released book, The Cell, 20/20's John Miller teams up with investigative reporters Michael Stone and Chris Mitchell and gives a blow-by-blow account of terrorist events leading up to Sept. 11. They trace a trail of terror back to 1990, and ask whether U.S. intelligence agencies could have done something to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Nov. 5, 1990, a small crowd had gathered in a New York City hotel to hear a speech by Rabbi Meier Kahane, the founder of the radical Jewish Defense League. But one person in the crowd had not come to listen. He had come to kill.

As Kahane spoke to supporters after his speech, shots rang out. By the end of the night, the rabbi was dead from a gunshot wound to the neck.

The gunman was El Sayyid Nosair, who was wounded in a gunbattle with police as he tried to flee the scene and was arrested.

A police search of Nosair's home yielded a "treasure trove of information," according to Ed Norris, then the chief of New York Police Department detectives.

What they found were clues to an Islamic terrorist cell operating on U.S. soil — Arabic-language terrorist manuals, bomb-making instructions, videotapes and photographs of New York City landmarks.

"We knew we had something — something substantial, something unusual," said Norris. "This was not just a lone gunman who was nuts and decided to kill someone in a ballroom."

Islamic terrorism had come to the United States.

The files found at Nosair's home were taken from police by the FBI but, incredibly, were not translated until years later. The investigation was then entrusted to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, an elite group of FBI agents and New York police officers.

House of Worship Used for Terror?

The JTTF had surveillance photographs of Nosair at the El Farooq Mosque in New York's Brooklyn borough. Investigators believe the mosque a center for the preaching of jihad, or holy war, in the United States.

"Anytime anything happened in the early 1990s," said Tommy Corrigan, a JTTF detective, "you were coming back to the Farooq Mosque."

The mosque had become a gathering place for Islamic radicals led by a fiery blind cleric named Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. Abdel-Rahman had just been released from an Egyptian prison after being tried and acquitted on charges in connection with the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Now he was in the United States preaching jihad against America.

Corrigan described Abdel-Rahman as the "catalyst for all the radical fundamentalism that went on in the United States."

At the time, however, no one knew that Abdel-Rahman's living expenses and a portion of Nosair's defense fund were being paid for by a man halfway around the world named Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was creating a network of Islamic extremists in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet conflict.

Neil Herman, the senior FBI agent who ran the JTTF, said his agents noticed that a growing number of people were coming and going from Afghanistan, and they were familiarizing themselves with El Farooq Mosque. He asked the Justice Department for permission to wiretap the mosque, but because it was a house of worship, they wouldn't allow it.

Informants Penetrate Inner Circle

Without a bug, Herman's task force had to rely on informants. One, named Emad Salem, penetrated Abdel-Rahman's inner circle and began to relay information about plans to break Nosair out of prison and plots to place a series of bombs around New York City.

As the threat of violence grew, Corrigan recruited another informant to infiltrate extremists at the mosque who were looking for weapons and commando training. Incredibly, before the task force could learn the targets of the bombing plot, or the purpose of the commando training, their own bosses effectively shut down their case.

According to Corrigan, the FBI brass was unhappy that Salem was afraid to wear a wire or testify in open court. So they fired him. The FBI also sidelined their second informant. So the JTTF had now lost its eyes and ears — and would soon get a rude awakening.

On Feb. 26, 1993, a truck bomb exploded in a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center. The blast killed six people, injured more than 1,000 others and caused more than $700 million in damage.

Both police and the FBI were frustrated. It turned out the men behind the bombing were part of the same group they had been working on since the Kahane murder before brass shut the case down.

"The fact is that in 1990, myself and my detectives, we had in our office in handcuffs, the people who blew up the World Trade Center in '93 … We were told to release them," Norris said.

And there were other missed signals. The notes found in Nosair's house two years earlier weren't translated from Arabic until after the 1993 bombing. The notes contained references to al Qaeda and toppling America's tall buildings.

Herman said police had obtained documents, phone records and other items from Nosair's home "that should have been and could have been reviewed more thoroughly at the time."

After the bombing, the terrorism task force began tracking down the members of the cell — from New Jersey to Egypt — and learned the identity of the master bomb-maker who tried to demolish the towers: Ramzi Yousef.

Herman said investigators knew Yousef was trained in Afghanistan and was an explosives expert. According to Herman, Yousef had come to the United States six months before the World Trade Center bombing.

Informant Uncovers Plot

By the time the task force had learned his name, Yousef had vanished. In the wake of the Trade Center bombing, the task force immediately reinstated Salem. The informant quickly uncovered the next plot — a plan to blow up several major New York landmarks, including U.N. headquarters and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.

Salem had passed himself off to the terrorists as an explosives expert — and they approached him to build bombs for them. The task force had put up money for Salem to rent a garage in the New York borough of Queens as a safe house for the terrorists to build bombs.

Corrigan said the FBI monitored the group's actions in the garage on audio and video around the clock. In the FBI's surveillance video, one terrorist is seen praying while other members of the cell are mixing what they believe are explosive chemicals. Moments later, they were arrested by task force agents.

Abdel-Rahman and 13 of his followers were sentenced to life in prison for the plot. Yousef remained at large, however, until 1995, when authorities captured him in Pakistan, where he was living in a guest house paid for by bin Laden. A month earlier authorities in the Philippines had prevented a plot, masterminded by Yousef, to blow up airliners in the Far East.

A search of Yousef's computer revealed plans for another chilling plot: to fly a plane loaded with explosives, kamikaze-style, into the CIA's headquarters. This was perhaps the first time terrorists were planning to blow up key U.S. building using planes as weapons.

As authorities managed to thwart these deadly plots, a major new suspect had emerged — Osama bin Laden. According to Herman, "It was apparent at that time … that Mr. Bin Laden was a major player connected with this group known as al Qaeda."

Bin Laden Builds Up Strength

Investigators' attention was diverted in July 1996 when TWA Flight 800 exploded shortly after takeoff in New York, killing all 230 on board.

Eventually, the FBI determined the disaster was not an act of terrorism, but the result of a mechanical failure. The nearly 18-month-long investigation consumed tremendous resources in manpower, equipment, and money, giving bin Laden time to gather strength and expand his operations.

As investigators worked on the crash probe, bin Laden was running training camps in Afghanistan, planting cells around the world, and plotting future acts of terrorism. In Afghanistan, bin Laden not only had money, but he had territory and a friendly government in the radically fundamentalist Taliban regime.

In 1998, ABCNEWS' Miller met bin Laden at one of his camps. In a revealing and chilling interview, bin Laden made it clear that he had a message. He cited a fatwah, a religious decree, declaring war on America. He said the decree "does not apply just to those in military uniforms; civilians are targets of this fatwah."

Bin Laden said that the results of his fatwah would be seen within the next several weeks. Of course, that night bin Laden already knew that a cell of his trained terrorists were putting the final touches on a deadly plot. On Aug. 8, 1998, terrorist bombs destroyed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The simultaneous bombings of two U.S. embassies left more than 200 people dead. Soon the task force had two of the bombers in custody. Both admitted to being members of al Qaeda.

After the embassy attacks, Paul Bremer headed up a presidential commission to look at the how the terrorist attacks had happened, and what could be done to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Bremer said his commission's analysis was "widely reported and well-received by the public and by Congress, and basically nothing was done about it."

Bin Laden's war on the United States would continue. Some plots, such as a plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, were foiled. Others, like the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, were not.

Police raids broke up al Qaeda cells in Frankfurt, Germany, Milan, Italy, and London, but a cell in Hamburg, Germany, led by a young Egyptian named Mohamed Atta, went undetected.

Only two of the cell's members had turned up on the CIA's radar screen. In 1999, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi had been videotaped by the CIA at a meeting of suspected al Qaeda terrorists linked to the USS Cole bombing. Then, on June 11, 2001, CIA officers came to the FBI's Terrorism Task Force in New York with the photos. Michael Stone, who co-authored The Cell with Miller, was briefed on the meeting.

Stone said, "The FBI agents recognized the men from the Cole investigation, but when they asked the CIA what they knew about the men, they were told that they didn't have clearance to share that information. It ended up in a shouting match."

The CIA waited six weeks before passing on the names to the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, urging the agencies to stop the men from entering the country. By then, both men were already here and taking flight lessons for the Sept. 11 mission.

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The Cell

by John Miller and Michael Stone, with Chris Mitchell

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