Like so many major terrorist attacks, the World Trade Center (WTC) bombing of February 1993 occured shortly after the US presidential election. The incoming Bill Clinton was confronted with a new menace: Islamic terror had for the first time carried out a major strike on US soil. The first new president after the end of the Cold War and the previous president’s announcement of a ’new world order’ was within weeks given a stark reminder that with the Soviet Union out of the way the US still faced a clear and present danger.
Of course, I speak rhetorically. Only six people died in the blast, and while it was tragic for their bereaved families and painful for the over 1000 people injured, the bark was worse than the bite in this attack. The bomb built by Ramzi Yousef shocked many, and managed to destroy a surprisingly large amount of the underground parking garage at the WTC, but given that the idea was to topple one tower into the other potentially killing 250,000 people, it was a miserable failure. Nonetheless, the bombing remains the subject of much conjecture, some well evidenced and some not, and served to implant the idea in the American and Western consciousness of Islamic terrorists attacking the WTC.
The Blind Sheikh
The first major port of call in any investigation of the bombing, or telling of the story, is the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. He was the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group (IG or al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya), at the time perhaps the largest overtly militant Islamic group in the country. The crackdown following the assassination of Anwar Sadat had produced in typically polarising fashion a backlash in favour of Islamic radicalism. That this happened at the same time as the extremely well funded NATO effort to use radical Islam as a weapon against the Soviet Union is no coincidence.
Towards the end of the 1980s, as the Soviet-Afghan war was coming to its inevitable conclusion, the Blind Sheikh escaped from house arrest in Egypt and paid several visits to the US. Specifically, he fostered a following at the Al-Kifah Refugee Centre at the Al Farooq moseque in New York. Al-Kifah was the local branch of the Maktab Al-Khidamat or Services Office for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and was central to the process by which young men were recruited, moved around the world for training and ultimately deployed against the Soviets.
The CIA has remained tight-lipped about their involvement in Al-Kifah but given the timing of its development, its location and the fact their agents posing as consular officials arranged the visas that allowed the Blind Sheikh to enter the US it is obvious that they were at the least happy about Rahman’s growing influence there. In April and May 1989 US officials secretly met with followers of the Blind Sheikh in Egypt, including a lawyer representing the group. The cables recording these meetings were signed by Frank Wisner - the US ambassador to Egypt and the son of the veteran of CIA black ops. A year later the Blind Sheikh moved to New York permanently.
Six months after that El Sayyid Nosair, a follower of Rahman, assassinated prominent rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defence League and a former FBI informant. A few weeks later the State Department revoked all of the Blind Sheikh’s visas, but nothing else happened to him. Nosair was arrested but the investigation didn’t reach into the question of what was going on at the Al-Kifah. Rahman was never arrested or deported.
A couple of months later the Emir of the Farooq mosque Mustafa Shalabi was murdered, almost 2 years to the day prior to the WTC bombing. Rahman effectively took over the mosque and the Al-Kifah center at that point. Meanwhile, notorious triple agent Ali Mohamed had been providing training sessions in intelligence and paramilitary operations to those who frequented the mosque, including Nosair. He also trained virtually the entire group involved in and ultimately convicted for the WTC bombing.
It is at this point in the story that the alternative explanations of the bombing focus on one Emad Salem - a former Egyptian army officer recruited as an informant by the FBI. He had infiltrated the Al-Kifah and the circle around the Blind Sheikh and was provided regular intelligence on what they were doing. However, what almost every alternative theory about WTC93 gets wrong is that they claim Salem built the bomb that was used, usually based on a few seconds of audio of Salem talking to one of his FBI handlers, John Anticev.
In reality, Salem was fired by the FBI in bizarre circumstances in the summer of 1992. He didn’t build the bomb - terrorists do not build a bomb and then wait around for six months before using it. Exactly why Salem was fired is not clear, but when his original handler Nancy Floyd started asking questions the FBI leaked stories to the press that she was sleeping with Salem and ultimately subjected her to a career-damaging internal affairs investigation. As a result, six months before the bombing the FBI lost their eyes and ears inside the Blind Sheikh’s group.
After the bombing, Salem was re-recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Al-Kifah once more, which he did. At that point he was paid a large sum of money to act as a sting operator, encouraging the Blind Sheikh to make incriminating statements that Salem secretly recorded, and encouraging Rahman’s followers to develop plans for terrorists attacks that they were then arrested for, and prosecuted and convicted. The recordings of Salem talking with Anticev come from this period, spring-summer 1993. When the FBI swooped in the summer of ’93, they arrested the Blind Sheikh and most of the group around him, and Salem’s evidence became the basis of the prosecution case.
At this point the State Department, having revoked the Blind Sheikh’s visas 2 1/2 years earlier in late 1990 but done nothing to him in the meantime, carried out a Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation of the decision to grant him the visas in the first place. This involved trying to see the files in Cairo from the period when CIA agents were granting the visas, but the papertrail from the State Department is heavily redacted and it appears the 1993 OIG investigation never actually got to see the Cairo files. Ultimately the OIG concluded that they didn’t know whether the decisions to grant the visas was correct because they couldn’t definitely say what was known at the time. No one got blamed, everyone kept their jobs, it was business as usual.
With Salem functioning as something of a decoy in this story, the question remains: who did build the bomb used in the WTC?
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