Speaking with Israel Hayom, Steve Emerson describes how he tried to warn the US government about the threat of Islamic terrorism in the runup to 9/11, only to be rebuffed.
The Twin Towers are on fire Photo: AP
Steven Emerson is considered one of the most esteemed experts on Islamic Jihad. As early as 1992, he sounded the alarm that a major attack on US soil was just a matter of time, but no one seemed to care. Speaking with Israel Hayom, he has vivid memories of 9/11, as if it happened yesterday.
Unlike most Americans who were shocked by the horrific events, he was not surprised. In fact, about a month before the attack he predicted that something big was imminent, but again, to no avail.
Q: What lit up your interest in going after the subject of the jihad in America and how it happened, a decade or so before 9/11.
“In December 1992, I had been working as an investigative correspondent for CNN (my second year for CNN; my 12th year as a journalist). In late December I got a tip that in Oklahoma City, the Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor was going to unveil his final report on the Iran-Contra affair, but I didn’t know what day. So I flew to Oklahoma City on December 24, the day before Christmas and checked into a downtown hotel, waiting any day for the report to be released. Well on December 25, Christmas Day, everything was closed, even the restaurant in the hotel.
So I took my rented car and drove around downtown looking for a fast-food restaurant and I suddenly passed a most unusual sight as I drove near the Oklahoma City Convention Center: Streaming in and out of the Center were thousands of men and women dressed in traditional Middle East clothing – women wearing hijabs and men wearing the galabias (long robes).
My first instinctive reaction was that there must have been a film being made and that these folks were extras. So I parked my car nearby and went inside the convention center. I immediately realized that this was actually a convention of some kind – I really didn’t know what kind until I went down to the convention floor where there were scores of tables, each one cluttered with books, audio and video cassettes, and pamphlets or Middle East clothing for sale.
I felt a bit conspicuous, but I was warmly welcomed from the table as I began collecting the books, cassettes, and pamphlets. Some were in Arabic, but many were in English. And the ones that were in English had very radical anti-American, anti-Israeli, and antisemitic rhetoric with names of organizations based in Tampa, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts; Bridgeview, Illinois; Brooklyn, NY; Tucson, Arizona – from all over the country.
I soon discovered that the organization hosting this conference was called the Muslim Arab Youth Convention or MAYA for short. (Only later would I find out that it was founded and headed by Abdullah bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s half brother). In fact, I was warmly welcomed by one of the attendees – Abdullah, who identified himself as a ‘revert’ to Islam (since everyone in the world is born a Muslim including Jews and Christians, one doesn’t convert to Islam; rather one reverts to Islam). Abdullah told me he had been born a Jew but had reverted to Islam. He took me under his wing and actually allowed me to accompany him as his guest to ‘Palestine Night’ that very evening where we sat in the section of converts or reverts.
The speakers including Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, Muslim Brotherhood leader Kamal Helbawi and leaders of other radical Islamist groups including Al Gama al Islamiya. Although the fiery speeches were in Arabic with thunderous applause from the audience of about 3000, there was a simultaneous translation for all 25 of us in the revert section. At one point, everyone got up and starting chanting something about ‘Yahudi.’ So naturally, we all tried to join in as well. I asked Abdullah what were we chanting? He blithely responded, ‘ Oh, just ‘Kill the Jews.’
The conference went on for 3 days. I was shellshocked that something like this could be taking place in the United States. In fact, on that very night, I later went down on my own to the third-lowest level of the Convention Center to a bank of public telephones. I needed to find out if the FBI knew what was going on. So I called the FBI switchboard in DC and asked to speak to a high-ranking official in the counter-terrorism division.
The FBI operator refused and treated me as if I were crazy. Just before she was about to hang up on me, I screamed to hear that this was a national security emergency and that I needed to be patched thru to the home of that specific FBI official. Grudgingly, she complied. When I reached the official, I had obviously woken him up and he was not very happy. I asked him, ‘Do you realize what is going on here in Oklahoma City?’ And then I started to describe the leaders of the groups I just heard as well as the myriad terrorist groups represented on the convention floor.
Before I could finish two sentences, the official interrupted me and asked me, ‘What have you been smoking? Cuz we have no cables on any of this.’ (Meaning he had not seen any reporting from local FBI offices).
In the meantime, I continued to collect masses of materials from the convention vendors, many of whom tried to recruit me to their cause. (I stayed in Oklahoma City until I got the CNN exclusive and flew back to DC)
Upon my return, in the meantime, I later discovered that local FBI agents had in fact reported on the existence of the MAYA conferences – held annually in Oklahoma City from 1988 thru 1992 – but the information had never filtered up to the top tier at headquarters. I began getting briefings from NYC FBI agents about a blind Egyptian-born Sheik in Brooklyn who operated a radical Islamic cell that had engaged in weapons training in Long Island.
Weeks later, on February 26, 1993, the first World Trade Center bombing occurred – this one however killed ‘only’ 7 people. The FBI knew immediately who had perpetrated the bombing. When CNN asked me to do a documentary on the roots of the bombing, I immediately suggested a documentary about the jihadist organizations in the United States that had gone undetected for so long. CNN’s response? ‘That’s too politically sensitive.’ Well, my reaction was one of incredulity: Since when did ‘political sensitivity’ dictate news?
So, I quit. My annual salary dropped immediately from 6 digits to 4 digits. But I began immersing myself in the investigation of the WTC bombing as well as the larger cell that had not yet been apprehended and I also pursued the hitherto unperturbed operations of Hamas (in Texas) and Islamic Jihad (in Tampa) and other Islamist terrorist groups throughout the United States. I also had the good fortune of being welcomed to work on the WTC investigation by legendary Manhattan DA Bob Morgenthau who gave me access to anything I needed.
It soon became 100% clear to me that the United States had become occupied Islamist terrorist territory with virtually every single radical Islamic terrorist group in the world operating freely and without any restriction – they had even been given tax-deductible IRS status as nonprofits.”
Q: What was your conclusion for the future, your assessment regarding that trend before 9/11, what I mean is: in your eyes, was it something obvious that was about to happen? When you warned about it, what were the reactions in America?
“Well, months after I left CNN, I was able to get seed money to produce a documentary for public television. And in producing that documentary, I traveled across the United States interviewing jihadist groups and leaders from the leader of Islamic Jihad, Univerity of South Florida Professor Sami Al Arian (later convicted and expelled from the US) as well as Hamas, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Al Qaeda (but they used other names), and numerous others – located in at least 20 different cities. But I also realized the need to interview the mujahedeen, especially those that had been victorious over the Soviets in Afghanistan and then had turned their ire on the United States.
So after making the proper introductions, I flew off to Pakistan where I was welcomed by Hodeyfa Azzam, the surviving son of Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the jihad against the Soviets who had been assassinated in Peshawar in late 1989. In the first part of 1994, I spent several months in Pakistan shuttling between Islamabad and Peshawar where Hodeyfa lived along with scores of mujahedeen. Although language was a barrier, I was still able to get to know some of the holy warriors. And in November 1994, my documentary ‘Jihad in America’ was broadcast on public television.
“I began testifying before Congress on a regular basis about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. And I met more and more law enforcement officials from different cities who were only too happy to be able to compare their notes with someone else who had been investigating the same groups in their localities. But a defining moment occurred when I was briefing Congress on the morning that Osama bin Laden issued his infamous 1998 fatwa declaring his intention to launch a jihad against the Crusaders (Christians) and Jews. It was the second such fatwa in two years. And no one seemed to be taking him seriously.
That was, at least, until the twin bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But even though it was crystal clear to me that bin Laden was planning a major attack in the United States – I gave various interviews warning about an upcoming WTC bombing – it was hard to galvanize the public because the casualty count on American soil had been virtually nil. And even though the jihadist evidently took me seriously – a jihadi assassination team from South African had been dispatched to kill me in 1995 forcing me abruptly move into an undisclosed location – most of the media dismissed my warnings as well as the hard evidence I had uncovered about the operations of the entire spectrum of jihadist groups operating freely on American soil.
If I couldn’t get the government to even shut down the US front organizations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad despite the hardcore evidence I had unearthed of their financial support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad (even though relevant officials in the FBI and the US Treasury kept telling me that they were ready to shutter these groups with hammer and nails but could not get a political green light), I started to have my own doubts about my own analysis. But each time, I came back and looked at the mountain of evidence I had collected, and it was clear to me that something was about to happen.
By the summer of 2001, the evidence was overwhelming. And I said so. In a Wall Street Journal piece, I co-authored in May 2001 with Middle Eastern scholar Daniel Pipes, we both predicted that bin Laden was going to launch an attack on American soil within a very short time. We had no idea it would be less than three months later.
Q: When did you hear Osama bin Laden’s name for the first time and what were your thoughts about him back then?
“I had actually started to track bin Laden following the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Even though he took credit for it, later on, it turned out he took credit for various attacks that he had nothing to do with. Yet, still, his name and that of Al Qaida – which means ‘the Base’ – surfaced in a non-public Arabic document found in the possession of one of the conspirators of the February 1993 WTC bombing. That document – in Arabic – was made available to me in my capacity as an investigator for DA Bob Morgenthau. I don’t know to this day whether that document was ever made public. And I don’t recall the provenance of that document. But it put OBL’s name on the radar screen to investigators even though it was a slender connection.
As I began to dig further, it was clear that the FBI knew very little about OBL. But the CIA, well that was another story. Members of the CIA do not talk to the media. Period. At least then. And they didn’t talk to Congress or the FBI either especially if the information implicated them. Well, I can confess that I did not have at that time any sources in the intelligence community. With one exception. It was a retired CIA official who had been deeply involved in the supply of stingers to the mujahedeen – well indirectly thru the Saudis. And it was this official who reached out to me after he met me in NYC in the summer of 1993 at a watering hole for FBI agents.
I didn’t know what his background was at the time, but he provided me with a primer on bin Laden, at least as much information that he said he could provide. And it was then that I learned of the love-hate relationship that bin Laden had with Abdullah Azzam. And how bin Laden had become a reluctant leader of the nascent Al Qaid after Azzam was assassinated in 1989.
So reluctant that bin Laden refused to give interviews or rabble-rousing speeches as his predecessor had – which held true till at least 1995-96. But someone who, I was told, I should watch, as he had become a ‘leader of an existing terrorist group ‘ who had ‘enormous personal wealth at his disposal,’ and who ‘wanted the jihad to be continued against the Jews and the Americans.’
When I went to Peshawar in 1994, I met a Syrian ‘journalist’ – I later discovered he actually had been on the payroll of Al Qaida – who after I mentioned OBL’s name, he offered to set up an interview for me with OBL in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Well, after a harrying trip to Jalalabad, I checked into a ‘hotel’ where the ambient temperature in the hotel was the same as it was outside – around 17 degrees. The tap water – when it ran– was choleric. And I waited and waited and waited. OBL never showed up. And so I left to return to Peshawar.
“OBL became an egomaniac taking credit retroactively for terrorist attacks he had nothing to do with. Yes, he was definitely a co-conspirator in the 9-11 plot. But in hindsight, he did not play the critical role that the media or that members of the government attributed to him. The 9/11 plot had already been hatched without OBL’s knowledge. We made OBL into a myth.
And who is the we? It is the media first and foremost. It includes terrorist analysts like myself. And it includes some government agencies that needed to justify their multi-billion dollar year budgets. But except for the media, I don’t believe narrow self interest was ever a motivation. The men and women of the FBI and the CIA, especially at the street level, are the true heroes in this saga that has still not ended.”
Q: Where were you during 9/11 and what did you do that day following the tragic events.
“I was in my office when suddenly the phones began ringing off the hook. I turned on the tv and watched, hypnotized and horrified at what we saw. No one knew at the point the extent of the attacks. We got a call from someone at the Pentagon telling us they had just been attacked and that we just should abandon our offices. No one knew the extent of the plot that day nor the extent of casualties.
Later that evening, I was asked to meet a senior counter-terrorism official with whom I had worked during the previous five years on investigating Al Qaida at his office in the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. At that point, we knew that al-Qaida was responsible. But that entire day I can almost remember minute by minute as if it were in slow motion. When I tried to drive downtown to meet this official near 17th Street, Washington DC looked like World War II. There were tanks and armored personnel carriers at nearly every corner. And thousands of troops from the National Guard as well as the military.
Literally, at every corner, we were stopped with rifles pointed directly at us as we were asked for identification and our purpose for being downtown. It had taken nearly four hours to travel four blocks. We turned around to go back to the office. I felt a combination of feelings – of almost disbelief that our country had been so savagely attacked; of absolute horror and sorrow for the families of the untold thousands of dead – we had no idea how many – from the fallen towers, the downed plane in Pennsylvania, and those hit at the Pentagon. And yet no one knew if this was just the beginning.”
Q: What’s your message 20 years after the attacks? Have we learned the lessons from history? Are you optimistic?
“I am a pessimist. I remember that only a few years after the attacks, the same pre-9/11 mentality had started to creep back into our mindsets. No longer could we call the perpetrators of this horrific act of terrorism for what they were: Islamic terrorists. Radical Islamist front groups for Hamas that were born out of the Muslim Brotherhood, just like Al Qaeda, and who have consistently rationalized and even denied the culpability of Islamic terrorist acts, became transformed by the mainstream media into legitimate ‘civil rights’ organizations.
The Washington Post’s obituary of the leader of ISIS, who was killed by American forces, was described as an ‘austere’ Islamic ‘scholar.’ The words ‘Islamic terrorists’ have become stricken from our lexicon replaced by the neutered non-meaningless term ‘violent extremists.’ If we cannot name our enemy, how in the world can we ever expect to defeat him/her/it?
Yet, the FBI, the CIA, CNN, NBC, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the ACLU, and the SPLC have all legitimized blatant radical anti-American and anti-Semitic Islamist front groups. No, I am especially pessimistic made by elites in academia, the media, the publishing industry, Big Tech and the teacher’s unions where the Cancel Culture and Critical Race Theory have become ideological paradigms to erase our history, our enemies and our freedoms.
May God help us.”
Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the author of eight books on national security and terrorism, the producer of two documentaries, and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.
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