When did radical Islamist terrorists first strike in the United States? Some may guess 9/11; others paying more attention would say 1993, in the first attack on the World Trade Center. The second guess comes closer, but in fact it began in Manhattan in 1990, with an assassination that has largely been forgotten. Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the terrorists that conducted the 1993 attack, reminds us of the first Islamist terrorist attack in the US:
At the time, the most radical proponent of Jewish migration to Israel was Rabbi Meir Kahane, who in the late 1960’s had founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in New York. The JDL had been responsible for several terrorist attacks against Soviet targets in the United States, attacks ostensibly aimed at coercing the Soviets to free Russian Jews to move to Israel. After emigrating to Israel himself, Kahane was elected to the Knesset, occupying a seat until the late 1980’s when his party, Kach, was disbarred for anti-Arab racism. (Among other things, Kahane had called for the expulsion of non-Jews from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.)
During October and November 1990, Kahane embarked on a speaking tour of the United States. On the evening of November 5, he appeared in a ballroom at the Marriott Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Fifty or sixty people were in attendance for the two-hour lecture, including [Sayyid] Nosair and two associates: Mohammed Salameh and Bilal Alkasi.
At the conclusion of his speech, Kahane mingled with audience members near the podium. Nosair approached, concealing a .357 magnum Sturm Ruger revolver, fully loaded with hollow-point rounds, its barrel shortened, the sight filed down (to avoid inadvertent hooking on clothing at the moment of truth), and the serial number obliterated—the trademarks of an assassin. Worming his way into a small knot of people, Nosair suddenly drew from a distance of about seven feet, pumping two shots into Kahane and killing him instantly.
Who was Sayyid Nosair? He was no random nutcase or fanatic, as portrayed at the time, incensed by Kahane’s rhetoric. He helped build the radical Islamist terrorist cell run by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheikh” now serving a life sentence in Stillwater, thanks to McCarthy’s prosecution. At the time, Nosair worked in a Manhattan court as a maintenance technician, but joined an existing terror cell after hearing Abdel Rahman speak at his mosque in 1990.
The cell had already been identified as a problem by the FBI prior to Abdel Rahman’s arrival in the US in early 1990. Thanks to some inept work at the INS, the blind sheikh got a green card before they realized that his name appeared on their lists of exclusions. Afterwards, they couldn’t find cause to revoke his permanent-resident status. Abdel Rahman used this to his advantage, taking over control of the cell and telling its members that the time had arrived to wage war against the US.
If the FBI discovered this, it wouldn’t have surprised them. They already knew that the cell had something planned; they had been watching them for at least a year, and had already discovered in 1989 that the cell had turned the mosque into a weapons depot. They continued to watch the men, including Nosair, until July 23rd, 1990, when they openly challenged the surveillance agents and accused them of religious bigotry. The FBI ended the surveillance, and the men continued to train — and Kahane became their first victim.
After the assassination, one might have expected all of this evidence and surveillance to arouse deep suspicions of conspiracies and future terrorist attacks. However, authorities went out of their way to assure everyone that Nosair was just a “lone deranged gunman”, in the words of the NYPD. The FBI, which had plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, ignored it completely. The Bush 41 administration did nothing to pursue a trove of evidence from Nosair that something larger could be afoot in Abdel Rahman’s cell, and surveillance apparently remained off-limits.
Be sure to read the entire essay from McCarthy. After doing so, ask yourself how much we have learned since Kahane’s assassination — and how much we have forgotten since 9/11.
UPDATE: Or did it come ten years earlier, almost to the day?
On the evening of July 21, 1980, in Washington, D.C., Dawud Salahuddin, a twenty-nine-year-old African-American convert to Islam who was born David Theodore Belfield, prepared to commit murder. In an empty office at the Iranian Interest Section of the Algerian Embassy, on Wisconsin Avenue, where he worked as a security guard, he loaded a Browning semi-automatic pistol, test-fired it out a window into an alleyway, and stashed it in a gym bag. Then he went to sleep on a couch. The Iranian Embassy had been closed down a few months earlier, as United States relations with Iran continued to deteriorate after the overthrow of the Shah, in early 1979, the installation of the repressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the ongoing hostage crisis at the American Embassy in Tehran.
The next morning, Salahuddin woke before dawn and prayed. He walked along Wisconsin Avenue to a designated spot, where a friend, also an African-American and a Muslim, met him in a rental car, and together they drove northwest, toward the Maryland border. In the passenger seat, Salahuddin changed into a mailman’s uniform and put on a pair of cotton gloves. He stuffed the pistol into a large Jiffy bag. On Idaho Avenue not far from the National Cathedral, another friend, a postal worker, was waiting with a mail-delivery jeep. Salahuddin drove the jeep by himself to Bethesda, Maryland. He stopped at a pay phone outside a diner to call the home of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, who had become an outspoken opponent of Ayatollah Khomeini. When Tabatabai answered, Salahuddin hung up. Minutes later, at around eleven-forty, he parked the jeep in front of Tabatabai’s house, on a quiet cul-de-sac, and walked to the door carrying what looked like two special-delivery packages. He held one package, a decoy crammed with newspapers, in front; it obscured the second package, inside which Salahuddin held the pistol in his right hand, his finger on the trigger. The house was used as a meeting place for the Iran Freedom Foundation, a counter-revolutionary group, and one of Tabatabai’s associates answered the door. Salahuddin asked for Tabatabai—saying that the delivery required his signature—and when he appeared Salahuddin shot him three times in the abdomen and fled. Forty-five minutes later, at 12:34 P.M., Tabatabai was pronounced dead at Suburban Hospital.
Salahuddin had been keeping a high profile, associating publicly with known Muslim radicals, and the police and the F.B.I. had been aware of him for some time. The morning after the killing, the authorities in Montgomery County, Maryland, obtained a warrant for David Theodore Belfield’s arrest on a charge of murder. The plot, which involved many accomplices and dubious alibis, had unravelled quickly. The homicide report described the shooting as a “political assassination,” and noted that “the deceased was the founder of an organization whose goal was the overthrow of the present regime in Iran.” The killing fit into an over-all scheme of violence precipitated by political upheaval in the Muslim world. In a July 29, 1980, editorial, the Washington Post said the murder in Bethesda was “part of a wider pattern” in which insecure Persian Gulf governments “turn to the gun to rid themselves of their expatriate opponents.” Eleven days before Salahuddin murdered Tabatabai, gunmen in Paris, posing as reporters, had tried to kill Shahpur Bakhtiar, the last Prime Minister of Iran under the Shah (a later attempt, in 1991, succeeded), and, in December of 1979, a nephew of the Shah had been assassinated, also in Paris.
Salahuddin now lives in Iran, and has since a week after this assassination. He openly talks of attacking American targets if given the opportunity, and told New Yorker that he had tried to figure out how to “crater the White House” twenty-five years before al-Qaeda attempted it. His life ambition is to bring America to its knees. The question is whether he acted on his own, or whether Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the hit. (via CapQ reader Shivan M)