ClandesTime 106 — An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: The FBI and the WTC bombing
The WTC bombing in 1993 was a massive embarrassment for the Bureau. It emerged at the resulting trials that the Bureau had an informant deep within the Al Kifah group, but fired him months before the bombing took place. This week we take a closer look at Emad Salem, the former Egyptian intelligence officer hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Blind Sheikh’s circle. We examine why the Bureau fired him and then re-hired him after the bombing to act as an agent provocateur, the conspiracy theories resulting from this, and what the tapes between Salem and his handlers actually say.
The bombing of the WTC in February 1993 was a critical event. With the Cold War over, it marked the dawn of the new era and the birth of the new War on Terror paradigm. It also meant that incoming president Bill Clinton — ostensibly quite a different politician to Reagan and Bush — had to make counter-terrorism a policy priority. While both Reagan and Bush made a lot of noise about terrorists and about them being the new enemy, Clinton never employed that as part of his election platform. Following WTC93, he had no choice.
The bombing has been the subject of a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation. The CBC clip above has been recycled by every major and most of the minor talking heads of the online conspiracy media, never with any context or knowledge or awareness of what happened. They simply claim that the FBI had an informant (Emad Salem) within the group, the informant suggested giving them fake explosives, but the FBI gave them real explosives instead and that’s why the bombing happened.
This isn’t true.
I don’t care how many times people say this, or who says it, it simply isn’t true. The FBI did not bomb the WTC.
However, the story of FBI informant Emad Salem is critical to understanding what happened, so that is the story we will focus on today. I am again drawing on Simon Reeve’s book The New Jackals, but also Peter Lance’s trilogy 1000 Years for Revenge, Cover-Up and Triple Cross — particularly the first book. Lance also wrote a piece for Playboy based on an interview with Emad Salem, so while I have big problems with a lot of Lance’s conclusions I think his account of the Salem story is very solid.
What a lot of more conspiracy-minded people fail to realise is that there were three different trials resulting from the investigation into the WTC bombing. The first in 1993–94 was the US vs Mohammed Salameh et al, the group actually responsible for driving the truck bomb to the WTC and blowing it up. They were arrested only weeks after the bombing. The second trial in 1995 was the US vs Rahman et al, the trial of the Blind Sheikh and another group of his followers who were plotting to blow up several New York Landmarks. They were arrested in the summer of 1993, months after the bombing. The third trial was the US vs Yousef et al, the trial of Ramzi Yousef who had escaped after the bombing and remained at large for two years. So when people refer to the ‘WTC bombing trial’ they’re actually referring to three trials, and the clip above refers to the first trial in late 1993-early 1994. Emad Salem testified at the first two trials, as the major prosecution witness. But who was he?
Emad Ali Salem was a former Egyptian army major who arrived in America in February 1988. He soon became a spy for the FBI, informing on Russian gangsters in New York. He was let go because the Bureau didn’t trust him, believing he could be a double agent working for Egyptian intelligence. He then got several menial jobs, working as a stock boy and a cabdriver, before getting a private security job and eventually becoming night manager for the Woodward Hotel. It was through this job that the FBI recruited him again as he provided evidence in cases against the Russian mob.
His contact in the FBI was a committed young Texan named Nancy Floyd who was working Foreign Counterintelligence for the Bureau. After about six months of providing information against the Russians, Salem told Floyd that there was someone much more dangerous in the city, namely, the Blind Sheikh. Floyd wasn’t in a position to run a counterterrorism informant so she introduced Salem to the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), an interagency body run in Manhattan. Salem impressed the JTTF, and became an undercover spy, handled by NYPD Detective Lou Napoli and FBI Special Agent John Anticev. However, they were busy and often it was Floyd who actually debriefed Salem, meeting him late at night and listening to him detail what he had found out.
Salem had refused to wear a wire or be called on to testify in open court and so the Bureau couldn’t be sure whether what he said was true. As such, there was an inherent weakness in Salem’s relationship with the FBI. This only got worse when Carson Dunbar, a man with no counterterrorism experience, took over as head of the JTTF. He demanded that Salem take polygraphs, ‘in effect, demanding that the ex-Egyptian major reaudition for the undercover job months after he’d penetrated the sheik’s cell.’ The tests were inconclusive, and at that point Dunbar insisted Salem start wearing a wire. Worried for the risk to his family if his identity as an informant was exposed, Salem refused, and so he was sacked from his job with the Bureau in the summer of 1992.
After the bombing on the 26th of February 1993, the FBI went back to Salem and once again offered him a job. Whereas previously he had been on a relatively meagre $500 per week salary, this time they offered him $1.5 million to infiltrate the Sheikh’s group and help bring it down. The new deal also required Salem to wear a wire, using bugs hidden in his clothes and in a briefcase to record conversations with the Sheikh and his followers. Though several of the World Trade Center bombing plotters had been picked up just after the attack, others among the Sheikh’s followers were still free and willing to wreak havoc.
Led by a Sudanese militant named Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali the group put together a plan to bomb various locations around New York. Their targets included the Statue of Liberty, the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the headquarters of the UN and the FBI. Within months the FBI had what they needed, and swooped to arrest the conspirators in June 1993. Siddig Siddig Ali, Ibrahim El Gabrowny, Clement Rodney Hampton-El, Mohammed Saleh, Mohammed Abouhalima (Mahmud’s brother) and several others were seized. Some of the men were actually mixing chemicals for the explosives, in a lock up arranged by Emad Salem, when the Feds arrested them.
In 1995 the Blind Sheikh and fourteen other men went on trial for a variety of charges ranging from the ‘New York Landmarks’ bombing conspiracy through to a plot to assassinate Hosni Mubarak. Salem was the key prosecution witness in the case, and despite defence accusations that he had acted as an agent provocateur, twelve men were convicted. Rahman was found guilty of all the charges and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 65 years. The others who had contested the prosecutions got 30 to 35 years and the DOJ even managed to successfully re-prosecute Nosair for the Kahane murder as part of the ‘seditious conspiracy’ supposedly headed by Rahman. Siddig Siddig Ali was flipped, becoming a government witness against Rahman, and was ultimately sentenced to only eleven years despite admitting to a ‘major role’ in the plot. Likewise, the Blind Sheikh’s speechwriter also became a government informant and revealed that Rahman’s living expenses during his time in the US had been paid by none other than Osama Bin Laden.
The Emad Salem Tapes
Where this gets interesting is that when Salem was re-hired after the WTC bombing he not only recorded conversations with the Blind Sheikh, Siddig Ali and other conspirators, but also recorded conversations with his JTTF handlers. When this emerged it had a variety of consequences including allegations of infidelity and government conspiracy. The principal victim was not Salem or his main handlers, but Nancy Floyd, the committed FBI agent who had recruited Salem in the first place.
Only days after the arrests of the ‘Landmarks’ plot group, Salem told an assistant US attorney about the recordings he had been making of his meetings with his handlers. According to journalist Peter Lance, this sent shockwaves through the Bureau, ‘Senior supervisors had visions of Nixon and Watergate: what did the FBI know about the bomb, and when did they know it? Fear shot through the upper floors at 26 Federal Plaza.’viii The FBI were concerned that some of the blame for the WTC bombing would fall on them, due to having sacked their one good informant in the Sheikh’s group. They fought back, and in the process used and abused Nancy Floyd.
Floyd was angry with the FBI for their distrust of Salem, who had ultimately proved himself an extremely reliable and capable asset. In conversations with Salem, recorded on the tapes, she had referred to superiors as ‘gutless’ and ‘chickenshits’ who ‘got caught with their pants down’. She had always defended Salem, to the extent that rumours had been spread around the New York office that Floyd and Salem were romantically involved. Once news of the tapes became public, the gossip turned into a scandal. In March 1994 someone at the FBI told a newspaper about the rumours, leading to the New York Post publishing a story titled ‘Temptress and the Spy’. It alleged that Floyd had been having an affair with Salem and that the tapes proved they regularly met alone. Special Agent Len Predtechenskis commented, ‘This story was the ultimate cheap shot. An attempt by the New York office to smear a great young agent.’
Floyd was also subject to an Office of Professional Responsibility (internal affairs) investigation into suggestions that she had leaked information to Salem. There were also allegations that she had been fiddling Salem’s expenses account, and that not all the receipts for his expenses were in the records. There was nothing to either charge, but the investigation dragged on for five years, seriously damaging Floyd’s career and preventing her from being promoted. In 1998 she was eventually reprimanded for insubordination, for having stuck up for Salem against Carson Dunbar’s ill-judged mistrust. She was given a month’s suspension, and was made the scapegoat for a situation in which she had done everything right.
A much worse allegation has come out of the Salem recordings, namely, that Salem himself built the bomb that was used on the World Trade Center, and therefore that the bombing was an inside job. Journalist Paul DeRienzo wrote that tape recordings of a conversation between Salem and FBI agent John Anticev, ‘reveal secret U.S. Government complicity in the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center… the entire conspiracy was the product of Salem, the government informant.’ This conspiracy theory has been widely repeated in the conspiracy media when discussing state-sponsored terrorism, but the reality is that it is based on a misinterpretation. The particular dialogue between Salem and Anticev that has drawn so much attention we can actually listen to courtesy of DeRienzo:
Emad Salem: Yeah, I mean because the lady was being honest and I was being honest and everything was submitted with a receipt and now it’s questionable.
John Anticev: It’s not questionable, it’s like a little out of the ordinary.
Salem: Okay. Alright. I don’t think it was. If that’s what you think guys, fine, but I don’t think that because we was start already building the bomb which is went off in the World Trade Center. It was built by supervising supervision from the Bureau and the DA 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!
Salem: And then he put his head in the sand and said “Oh, no, no, that’s not true, he is son of a bitch.” Okay. It’s built with a different way in another place and that’s it.
Anticev: No, don’t make any rash decisions. I’m just trying to be as honest with you as I can.
Salem: Of course, I appreciate that.
Anticev: And as far as the payments go, and everything like that, they’re there. I guarantee you that they are there.
The section where Salem says ‘we was start already building the bomb which is went off in the World Trade Center’ does suggest that the FBI, through Salem, were involved in the bombing. Likewise, the part where he says, ‘we know that the bomb start to be built. By who? By your confidential informant’ could be read as a confession, not subject to any contradiction by Anticev. However, Salem does go on to say that once the Bureau had decided ‘he is son of a bitch,’ and fired him that, ‘It’s built with a different way in another place and that’s it.’ Given that Salem was fired by the Bureau in the summer of 1992, more than six months before the WTC bombing, the idea that he built the bomb that was used is ridiculous. Terrorists do not build a two-ton bomb then sit around for half a year waiting for the right opportunity to use it.
A much more plausible interpretation of the dialogue above is that Salem is referring to an early FBI plan to supply the WTC bombers with fake explosives, to have Salem build a fake bomb, and then arrest them. A story by Ralph Blumenthal from October 1993 details transcripts of the tapes where this idea was discussed, with Salem complaining that a supervisor shut down the plan. The story quotes Salem saying, ‘we’ll be going building the bomb with a phony powder and grabbing the people who was involved in it. But since you, we didn’t do that.’xiv Rather than a confession of government complicity in the bombing, Salem was chastising the Bureau for their intelligence failure, saying that the FBI had everything in place to stop the attack but blew the opportunity. Another Blumenthal story on the Salem tapes quotes the Egyptian as saying, ‘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.’
By contrast, Anticev explicitly told Salem, albeit during the post-WTC ‘Landmarks’ plot, that ‘We couldn’t let you make a bomb and then give that bomb to whoever, because later on if that bomb, let’s say goes off at a synagogue and kills two, three people, and that it comes out that, that, an agent of the FBI participated in making the bomb, forget it, they would go berserk. The press would say we knew, we’d be sued, people would be fired.’ If Salem had indeed made the bomb used on the WTC then this argument by Anticev makes no sense at all. While it does suggest that Salem was perfectly willing to provoke and entrap Siddig Ali, the Blind Sheikh and the rest, it provides conclusive evidence that Salem did not build the WTC bomb.
FBI intelligence failures around Emad Salem
So, the FBI did not bomb the WTC. But why did they sack Salem? There has never been an adequate answer to that question. Without getting into all the details I will point out that the FBI had another informant within the group — Garrett Wilson, a former US Army Ranger and military police officer. He was still informing on the group at the Al Kifah only weeks before the WTC was bombed. He even provided some of the Blind Sheikh’s followers with training in weapons handling, in sessions that were surveilled by the FBI. One group — including most of those who would be arrested months later and put on trial alongside the Blind Sheikh — were planning to go and fight in the jihad in Bosnia. However, surveillance was repeatedly cut off, Wilson was told by his handlers to cancel meetings with the plotters and the whole thing fell apart a few weeks before the bombing. All of this appears to be the result of decisions by Carson Dunbar, the head of the JTTF.
So what was Dunbar playing at? The FBI had multiple informants, multiple opportunities to inderdict the plot and prevent the bombing from happening. They had evidence of violent intent, they had surveillance on most of the people responsible, they had everything they needed to either arrest these people or push in closer and get more information before arresting them. They did neither. Instead, they repeatedly retreated and shut down their avneues of investigation, almost as though they were under orders.
At the end of the last episode I raised the possibility of the CIA pressuring the FBI to back off from investigations into the murders of Mustafa Shalabi and Meir Kahane because of the importance of the Blind Sheikh. So did they also fire Salem and fail to follow up on Wilson’s information due to pressure from the Agency? In all honestly I don’t know, but there is definitely a pattern here in the intelligence failures where the FBI end up looking like chumps while serious questions about the CIA’s role remain unanswered.