I unwrapped my copy of Andy McCarthy's new book "Willful Blindness; Memoir of the Jihad" Monday afternoon, went straight to the index, and took in the 25-30 pages McCarthy devotes to the story of Ali Mohamed, perhaps the most enigmatic and elusive of the Islamic jihadist conspirators over the course of the two decades preceding the 9/11 attacks.
Having done that, I can go back now and take the book from the top, but I had been waiting for months to hear McCarthy's side of the Ali Mohamed story. It turns out that McCarthy was just as eager to tell it.
But first a little background...(OK, a lot of background)
The author was serving as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York during the 90's, and successfully prosecuted the "blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman, the man who inspired the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990, and who led the New York cell of jihadists that eventually bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Working with U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, McCarthy also secured a life sentence for Sayyid Nosair, Kahane's assassin, and put other conspirators in the Kahane murder and the "Day of Terror" plot behind bars.
Ali Mohamed isn't one of the better known names among al Qaeda operatives, but that may be partly because he has been in U.S. government custody since before the 9/11 attacks. In any event, it's important to know something about him if you're going along with me for this ride. (Ali Mohamed resources can be found here, here, and here.)
By the time the Egyptian-born Mohamed came to the U.S in the early 80's with an elite Egyptian army unit for a cross-training program with the U.S. Army, he was an accomplished soldier who spoke four languages, and was already a committed jihadist, recruited into the ranks of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).
After leaving the Egyptian military, Mohamed offered his services to the CIA in Hamburg in 1984, and even after having been outed as untrustworthy in his brief stint, he somehow managed to gain entry to the U.S., acquire U.S. citizenship, and join the U.S. Army. He rose to the modest rank of Supply Sargent in a Green Beret unit, and yet still managed to schmooze his way into a job as an instructor in Middle East language and cultural studies at the John F. Kennedy special warfare school at Ft. Bragg. His subsequent service as a trusted aide and advisor to Osama bin Laden, and to the cause of jihad had become a major source of embarrassment to the United States military and intelligence services.
Among his many escapades was his brazen, unauthorized leave from the Army to go to Afghanistan to fight the Russians, and then to just as audaciously return to his post...all the while daring to flaunt his Muslim piety, and all the while taking advantage of the U.S. military's unfailing deference to his religious practices and ideas, and of their seeming obliviousness to the dangers he posed.
Mohamed was called into service by Osama bin Laden in the early 90's, when his U.S. Army service was finished, and he was asked to personally oversee the logistics and security for bin Laden's move from Afghanistan to Sudan. Mohamed also escorted current al Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri on two trips to the United States to raise funds for the still young al Qaeda organization, and trained al Qaeda operatives and security personnel in Africa and Afghanistan.
Add to that Mohamed's theft of documents from Ft. Bragg which later turned up in the belongings of Kahane's assassin, Nosair, and the photographic intelligence he acquired in the early 90's which was later used by bin Laden in the U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya, and it's easy to see how compromised and shamed the U.S. military and intelligence services were by Mohamed's terror-related activities. An agent of Osama bin Laden's inner circle had functioned from inside the United States Army, and had carried out his tasks as an open and unapologetic radical Muslim. Compelling stuff.
Enter Peter Lance. Lance is the author of "Triple Cross", a book which purports to expose Ali Mohamed as "The Rosetta Stone" of the 9/11 story. Lance has pieced together the story of Ali Mohamed's remarkable career (pdf) as a double... even a "triple agent", and documents what he says are the manifest failings of the FBI and their Justice Department colleagues to keep a handle on this loose cannon of a terror suspect. Among other things, Lance contends that Mohamed was assisting, even leading the training of the New York-based cell that the FBI had under surveillance as early as 1989 conducting weapons training outings at Calverton, Long Island, years before the first WTC bombing.
By compiling and analyzing evidence, and largely with the benefit of hindsight, Lance comes to criticize the FBI and the SDNY for their failure to connect Kahane's murderer Nosair to a larger conspiracy of the New York cell, or to stay on top of the Jersey City check-cashing store four doors from the blind sheikh Rahman's mosque, a storefront where Nosair had an account, whose owner was a terror suspect, and which was later used to provide false ID's for some of the 9/11 hijackers. Lance tries to make the case that the African embassy bombings, the 1993 WTC bombing, and perhaps even the entire 9/11 plot might have been interdicted if the FBI had been more diligent in their scrutiny of the store's activities and patrons. This is one of many instances cited by Lance in which the incompetence, bureaucratic infighting, careerism, misplaced priorities or lack of inter-agency communication in the Justice Department contributed to lapses that may have enabled otherwise preventable terrorist attacks.
Fitzgerald and McCarthy both come in for criticism in the Lance book, although it is Fitzgerald who is really hung out to dry. He is featured in the book's subtitle, "How Bin Laden's Master Spy Penetrated the CIA, the Green Berets and the FBI, and Why Patrick Fitzgerald Failed to Stop Him". He is also pictured on the book's cover.
I had stumbled upon Lance about a year ago, watching some video of his book tour talks for "Triple Cross", and had found the Ali Mohamed story fascinating. I bought and read the book immediately, and set about to learn more about him, including why the 9/11 Commission had seemed so incurious about this Islamist terrorist who had assisted the 9/11 mastermind bin Laden throughout the 90's, while duping his credulous FBI handlers and living as a free man in Santa Clara, California, seeming to enter and leave the United States at will under his cover as an import/export businessman.
Lance had amassed an incredible amount of information on the blind Sheikh case, the first WTC bombing with Ramzi Yousef, and the mysterious tale of Ali Mohamed. He suggested that the role of Ali Mohamed in the 9/11 conspiracy might have been much greater than the U.S. government had let on. The Justice Department, he implied, had covered up their blunders and miscalculations rather than admit that they had been repeatedly duped and embarrassed by Ali Mohamed. In an article at the Huffington Post in November of 2006, Lance says...
Ali, aka "Amiriki" or "Ali the American," was a one-man 9/11 Commission capable of ratting out the Feds on how he had eaten their lunch for years - how the two bin Laden "offices of origin" in the NYO and the SDNY where Fitzgerald was head of Organized Crime and terrorism - had been outgunned by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri dating back to that Calverton, L.I. surveillance in 1989. Fearful of what he would say if put on the stand and subjected to cross examination by defense lawyers in the upcoming Embassy bombing, Fitzgerald made sure that Ali was hidden away under a John Doe warrant. Finally, by October, 2000 Fitzie had cut a deal allowing the master spy to cop a plea and escape the death penalty.
In the end, Fitzgerald made his bones as the Justice Department's top al Qaeda buster by convicting El Hage and several other relatively minor bomb cell members. in U.S. vs. bin Laden in 2001. But the real "mastermind" of the Embassy bombings skated. Mohamed was allowed to slip into the security of custodial witness protection where he remains today - the greatest enigma of the war on terror.
In late 1994, McCarthy, Fitzgerald and the SDNY were preparing for the Day of Terror trial, which would eventually convict the blind Sheikh and Sayyid Nosair for Rabbi Kahane's murder (the government had accepted a guilty plea on a lesser gun charge in Nosair's first trial) along with numerous other defendants who had plotted to blow up New York landmarks and monuments in a series of attacks that had been successfully thwarted.
Nosair's defense attorney, Roger Stavis had discovered the existence of Ali Mohamed, about whom little was known at the time outside the Justice Department and the intelligence community, and sought to locate and interview him. His defense strategy for Nosair was said to revolve around the contention that, since Nosair had been trained by Mohamed, a known CIA asset and U.S. Army veteran who had also assisted in training Afghan rebels in fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, that Nosair was in effect a functionary of a U.S. government-sponsored militia and that the U.S. government therefore shared responsibility for Kahane's assassination. Far-fetched surely, but a good attorney takes what he can get. (McCarthy would later say "this defense never had a prayer")
Lance takes note of a meeting McCarthy had with Mohamed in California during the time Nosair's attorney Stavis sought Mohamed's testimony. Stavis couldn't locate Mohamed, who was on other al Qaeda terrorist business in Africa at the time, but Lance suggests that McCarthy's motive for meeting with Mohamed was "damage control". Lance writes:
...prosecutor Andrew McCarthy was worried. At that point, no one outside the Bureau or the SDNY knew that Ali had been an FBI informant. McCarthy could only guess what the former army sergeant might say if he got on the stand in open court.
Lance's implies that McCarthy went to meet with Mohamed to tell him to ignore the subpoena from Nosair's attorney, out of fear that Mohamed's testimony would embarrass the Justice Dept. in untold ways.
Lance cites a written statement by Nosair's cousin, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny, also convicted in the Day of Terror trial, in which he claims to have spoken to Ali Mohamed when they shared a jail cell in Manhattan four years later, and that Mohamed had claimed McCarthy told him to ignore the subpoena to testify in the Nosair trial.
I'll get to McCarthy's responses to many of Lance's contentions in a minute, but first one more bit of set-up. I had found the material in Lance's book tour videos and in "Triple Cross" to be fairly compelling, even given the fact that he had engaged in a lot of what I considered speculation assisted by hindsight. When I finished "Triple Cross", I put together a draft of a blog post with tons of quotes from Lance, links to other source material, and my own minimally informed comment on what I saw to be the mystery surrounding Ali Mohamed. But two things kept me from hitting the "Publish" button.
First, I realized that Ali Mohamed had been accurately portrayed as a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and also accurately associated, however tangentially or briefly, with U.S. government agencies including the CIA, FBI and US Army. Any suggestion that there was a connection between a U.S government operative of any stripe and the man who attacked the WTC on 9/11 was going to place me in the unsavory company of some of the more unhinged "9/11 Truther" elements, and that was an association of which I wanted no part.
And second, I also came to find out soon after finishing "Triple Cross", that Andy McCarthy had written an email to Lance, which Lance had chosen to make public along with his response, and in which McCarthy had called Lance's work "an atrocious book", and Lance "an irresponsible journalist", among other things, all of which gave me pause, considering the respect I had come to hold for McCarthy over the years, both for his dedicated public service and also for his skills as a writer and thinker. As it happens, McCarthy's email was just a warm up for his lancing of Lance in Willful Blindness.
Not only had Lance called into question McCarthy's professional integrity as a federal prosecutor with his intimations, he had repeatedly criticized and ridiculed McCarthy's friend and colleague Fitzgerald in the book. I found one example of McCarthy's high regard for his erstwhile Justice Department associate in a June, 2004 post at The Corner blog, during the 9/11 Commission hearings:
Chicago U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald, one of my two partners on the blind Sheik case and later the lead prosecutor on the embassy bombing case, is, bar none, the best prosecutor in the U.S., and probably the best lawyer (and certainly one of the best people) I have ever met. He testified this morning before the 9/11 Commission, which makes sense because he knows more about al Qaeda than anyone who is not actually in al Qaeda.
So there were at least two big reasons why McCarthy says on p.95 of Willful Blindness, "Actually, I have been dying for years to tell the story."
Despite McCarthy's differences with Lance, they would probably agree that the justice system was 'broken' in terms of our performance in dealing with terrorism. Lance's focus is on bureaucratic incompetence however, while McCarthy's theme in Willful Blindness is the many problems inherent in treating national security and terrorism matters like we treat garden variety domestic criminality.
Not that McCarthy minimizes or apologizes for Justice Department incompetence in the pursuit of terrorists in the 80's and 90's. Far from it. Of the Ali Mohamed case, he writes in Willful Blindness;
There is no way to sugarcoat it. Mohamed is a window on breathtaking government incompetence.
In an article he did for Commentary, "When Jihad Came to America", in which he recounts the story of the Rabbi Kahane murder and subsequent pursuit of the nascent New York terror cell, McCarthy documents more bureaucratic bungling and finger-pointing...
A dozen years later, after radical Islamists had finally destroyed the World Trade Center and murdered 3,000 Americans, an embarrassed FBI would blame others for the failure to deal with jihadism in America when it was still relatively young. In testimony to Congress in 2002, FBI officials would claim that the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau had...
...resisted attempts to label the Kahane assassination a â€œconspiracyâ€ despite the apparent links to a broader network of radicals. Instead, these organizations reportedly wanted the appearance of speedy justice and a quick resolution to a volatile situation. By arresting Nosair, they felt they had accomplished both.
This was nonsense. Federal authorities do not, ever, allow themselves to be hemmed in by New York State law-enforcement officials, and nothing had prevented the FBI from pursuing a broader conspiracy angle against Nosair and his fellow jihadists. The Bureau simply decided it was not worth the effort. In December 1990, after a mere six weeks of investigation, the FBI let the Times know that it believed â€œmore strongly than ever that Mr. Nosair had acted alone in shooting Rabbi Kahane.â€
And what about Abdel Rahman? The federal investigators said they regarded his presence in New York â€œas a tantalizing but possibly meaningless footnote.â€ There was, they claimed, â€œno evidence that the sheikh had known Mr. Nosair or had ever spoken with him in private.â€ No evidence, that is, other than the cassette tapes seized from Nosairâ€™s home that no one had troubled to analyze and that contained recordings of Nosair and Abouhalima bantering with the blind sheikh about paramilitary training for jihad.
And after waiting so long to tell the inside story of the Ali Mohamed affair, McCarthy understandably relishes his opportunities to set the record straight....and to take Peter Lance down a few pegs...
Of all the Islamic radicals we have come to know over the last three decades Mohamed is easily the most intriguing. He has nonetheless been difficult for me to discuss, a happenstance that has led the writer Peter Lance to speculate that I am stonewalling to cover up egregious behavior by myself and some of my colleagues. In point of fact, I have stonewalled only Lance, with whom I declined to cooperate upon concluding, after reading some of his oeuvre, that he's an irresponsible journalist-an impression more than vindicated by the publication of his loopy book about the government's investigations of radical Islam.
There is considerable misinformation about his [Mohamed's] military career, largely thanks to Sayyid Nosair and Peter Lance, who for different purposes - Nosair trying unsuccessfully to get acquitted, Lance trying unsuccessfully to sell books - have portrayed Mohamed as a top-secret, special operations commando. In truth, he enlisted in America as a lowly private, climbed no higher than E-5 sergeant, should have been discharged for serious misconduct, and never held a security clearance of any kind.
His [Lance's] tome, to the extent one can slog through it, reads like a series of bad acid trips.
one more time...
...One might have thought that Lance, who likes to brag about how heavily footnoted his books are (as if footnoted nonsense were any less nonsense), would have realized that...
McCarthy takes care in Willful Blindness to correct the record regarding many of the inaccuracies and unfounded flights of speculation in Lance's Triple Cross. Among them:
-- As noted above, Lance overstates Mohamed's access to top-secret documents at Ft. Bragg. While he did steal documents there, he had no access to anything classified, let alone anything Top-Secret.
-- Lance claims that McCarthy and the SDNY covered up the intelligence they had about the New York terror cell's training exercises in 1989 at Calverton, Long Island in order to hide the fact that they had been aware of this cell months or years before some of its members took part in the Kahane murder and the first WTC bombing. McCarthy counters that the Calverton training information was in the public domain in 1993 and 1995 indictments and trial testimony. Here Lance appears to have been guilty only of having had lousy sources.
-- Lance contends in Triple Cross that Ali Mohamed had a lead role in the paramilitary training of the New York cell's terror operatives at Calverton. McCarthy says there is no evidence that Mohamed ever attended those training exercises, and that Lance has exaggerated Mohamed's role beyond what were a few classroom sessions he conducted with the cell's operatives in 1989, to make it appear that Mohamed was a major player in the blind Sheikh's New York operation. McCarthy calls him "a fleeting participant on the New York scene, but not a leader."
-- Lance repeatedly criticizes Fitzgerald and McCarthy for not indicting or arresting Mohamed sooner (such as when they met with him in person in 1994) suggesting that his al Qaeda activities, especially those connected to the U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya in 1998, might have been prevented. (Mohamed was eventually arrested in 1998.) But Lance apparently didn't understand the timeline.
The intelligence that Mohamed had provided to bin Laden, which was used to plan the 1998 embassy attack, was gathered in 1993, before McCarthy met Mohamed, and years before his role was discovered. In fact, McCarthy says in Willful Blindness that nearly all of Mohamed's useful al Qaeda activities took place before their 1994 meeting, because after that meeting, he was no longer fully trusted by the al Qaeda leadership. But the government still had no solid case to press against him at the time. And rather than cover up Mohamed's shady past, McCarthy returned to New York convinced Mohamed was a dangerous jihadist, "raised holy hell", and warned his colleagues to keep the guy on a short leash if they were to utilize him at all as an informant.
-- But the most incendiary of Lance's claims was that McCarthy's face-to-face meeting with Ali Mohamed in 1994 was part of a cover-up and a ploy to keep Mohamed from testifying in Nosair's trial. It fact, as McCarthy says in Willful Blindness, he was simply doing his job. Nosair's defense attorney Roger Stavis had subpoenaed Mohamed as a trial witness, and McCarthy...
...had to interview Mohamed because I needed to get to the bottom of what classified information issues his testimony might entail (the law requires questions about the admissibility of classified information to be resolved prior to trial).
I learned a few very important things. First, I had no need to be concerned that his testimony would help Nosair. What he said about Nosair has never been made public. Suffice it to say, however, that I had an obligation as the government's lawyer to disclose to the defense any information in our possession that was exculpatory. No disclosures were required after my interview of Ali Mohamed.
...Peter Lance alleges that I instructed Mohamed to disappear rather than honor Nosair's trial subpoena; argues that I am one of a cabal of corrupt and incompetent government operatives, led by Pat Fitzgerald, who allowed Mohamed to run rampant until, finally, he helped bomb the U.S. embassy in Kenya; and speculates that I may have given Ali Mohamed crucial intelligence information that he shared with al Qaeda. It's a toss-up which of these slanders is the most lunatic.
The "crucial intelligence information" that Lance suggests was provided to Mohamed by McCarthy was a list of the 200 or so names of the unindicted co-conspirators that the government was required by law to provide to the defense in the blind Sheikh trial. Mohamed did in fact acquire that list, presumably from defense counsel sources, and provided it to the al Qaeda leadership via fax, where it eventually reached bin Laden himself. McCarthy doesn't know why Lance would suggest that he was the source of the list, especially in the absence of any imaginable motive McCarthy might have had to do so, let alone any evidence. Hence the "irresponsible journalist" tag.
-- McCarthy also rips Lance for using the word of a convicted terrorist (El-Gabrowny) as the sole basis for his book's speculation that McCarthy told Mohamed to ignore the subpoena in the Nosair trial. McCarthy then sets about dismantling the theory that the government had anything to gain from keeping Mohamed off the witness stand.
This was not the only time that Lance had trumpeted documentation he uncovered in the course of his investigative journalism and touted as evidence of "cover up", that wouldn't have even been discoverable at all were it not for the requirements of the traditional American justice system that McCarthy argues ill serve our efforts to combat the new brand of terrorism. McCarthy repeatedly makes the point (as if to try to drill it into Lance's skull) that the discovery requirements that allowed Mohamed to make off with the list of co-conspirators, and which hamstring the government in so many terror prosecutions, represent the polar opposite of "cover up", and as McCarthy says later....
...arm international terrorist organizations with a trove of intelligence, including information that identifies intelligence methods and sources, thus further improving their capacity to harm Americans.
Far from critiquing that traditional American system of justice, McCarthy reveres it, and seeks only to protect it:
...there is a profound but often undetected corrosion of our justice system when we force the square peg of terrorism into its round hole. My belief that we oughtn't treat terrorists as criminals, far from being caused by disdain for the rigorous demands of civilian due process, reflects instead an abiding reverence for our system's majesty. Treating jihadists as if they were U.S. citizens accused of crimes and presumed innocent reduces the quality of justice Americans receive from their courts.
And finally, having already quoted way more text from Willful Blindness than I ever intended to, there's a passage that I thought represented McCarthy's ultimate response to Peter Lance, who had accused him and his colleagues of negligence, delay, cover up, and incompetence in the case of Ali Mohamed. McCarthy reminds Lance and others that in the end, they convicted Ali Mohamed and put him away. And as he has consistently done, McCarthy credits his associates in the process.
I have an instinctual loathing for shameless self-promotion, of which there is more than a little in government service. I learned long ago that the stars, unlike the empty suits, don't need to tell you they're stars-you'll know it when you see it. I am very proud, however, of my role in Ali Mohamed's downfall, both because my apoplexy helped put a stop to the government's insane dalliance with one of the most dangerous people ever to come on our radar screen, and because that ultimately led to Mohamed's finally being brought to justice by two of the best prosecutors in the history of the United States - my friends Patrick Fitzgerald and Mary Jo White, who have collectively done more and sacrificed more to fight the jihadist menace plaguing our country than any combination of Americans outside our heroic armed forces.
(Note: The excerpts in this post from Willfull Blindness; Memoir of the Jihad, by Andrew C. McCarthy, are used here without permission from the author and publisher, for the narrow purpose of illustrating McCarthy's responses to claims made by author Peter Lance in his book Triple Cross. I will gladly accede to the wishes of Mr. McCarthy or the publisher if it is their feeling that I have exceeded a fair-use guideline in my excerpts of their copyrighted material, or if I have in any way mischaracterized or misquoted him. Oh yes...need I say...buy the book. - DW)
New York Times articles about Ali Mohamed
NYT BIn Laden Links
Cooperative Research - Ali Mohamed page