An Egyptian Muslim just-arrived in the United States on a Diversity Visa—precisely the type that Donald Trump is trying to blame for the bike-path murders on Halloween in Lower Manhattan—in fact stopped a terrorist atrocity that would have been much, much worse.
The plot took shape back in 1997, targeting the New York City subway. And in counter-terror circles it’s a well-known case. Sam Katz wrote a superbly reported book about it in 2005, Jihad in Brooklyn: The NYPD Raid That Stopped America’s First Suicide Bombers, and I dealt with it extensively in my 2009 book, Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counter-Terror Force, the NYPD. Indeed, I even appeared on Hannity in May 2009 to talk about the incident. But if Donald Trump was watching back then, it seems he’s forgotten.
Here’s the gist of it:
The capture of the suicide bombers in 1997 owed more to divine providence than solid police work. “The information received, some people attribute to good luck and good fortune,” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said afterward, putting an elegant spin on the facts. “Some people attribute it to an act of God, or maybe to an act of a conscience that ultimately unites all men and women when they realized that beyond racial, religious, ethnic, and even political differences, we are all united as people and human beings and that we have to protect each other and help each other.”
In the event, an Egyptian university graduate recently arrived in the United States after winning a green card through the State Department’s diversity visa lottery system, and had wound up sharing a small, filthy apartment in a makeshift structure behind a Park Slope tenement on Fourth Avenue with several other Arab immigrants. The living conditions were horrendous in the dead of summer, the rooms airless, stifling, putrid with the smell of garbage—much like what Jacob Riis had described in the alleys of lower Manhattan a century before. But after the extraordinary good luck of winning legal entry to the United States, Abdel Rahman Mosabbah was willing to endure. All he wanted to do was earn enough money to bring his wife and children to join him.
On the morning of July 30, 1997, in faraway Jerusalem, however, two suicide bombers detonated their explosive vests in the packed Mahane Yehuda market, killing 16 people, wounding 178. And that night in Park Slope, one of Mosabbah’s roommates, a young Palestinian named Gazi Abu Mezer to whom he rarely spoke and whom he hardly knew, proudly showed him something he’d constructed in a satchel with bits and pieces from hardware stores.
There were segments of pipe about five inches long wrapped with four-inch nails. Wires ran from them to toggle switches and 9-volt batteries. Inside the pipes was gunpowder bought on a short trip to North Carolina. (No need to home-brew TATP explosives when you can get the good stuff over the counter.) “Did you see what happened in Jerusalem?” the Palestinian asked the Egyptian. “Well, tomorrow it will happen here.”
Abu Mezer’s personal odyssey to Brooklyn made disconcerting reading at the time and seems appalling today. He had applied for asylum in the U.S. after repeated failures to get a legal visa or to sneak into the country from Canada. He said on his asylum application he feared persecution in Israel because he was identified as a member of Hamas, but that really he wasn’t. Thus was he able to plot mass murder in New York City while waiting for the federal bureaucracy to process his various applications.
Abu Mezer’s plan was to emulate a favorite Hamas tactic: two bombs in quick succession. The first would go off and create mayhem. The second, larger one would detonate as people tried to rescue the dead and wounded. As his sidekick, Abu Mezer had enlisted another Palestinian roommate, Lafi Khalil, who came from a relatively well-to-do family near Ramallah.
The two Palestinians planned to target the crowded transportation hub underground at Atlantic Avenue, where the commuter trains of the Long Island Rail Road and six subway lines come together. With luck, they hoped to get on the B train typically used by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews commuting from Brooklyn to work in the Midtown Diamond District. Scores of people would die, possibly hundreds. As the Egyptian Mosabbah listened dumbfounded, Abu Mezer sprinkled some of the gunpowder on the floor and set it alight. “This is how the Jews will burn,” he said.
The young Egyptian excused himself to go for a walk. He was petrified. He wanted to warn somebody. But he had only been in the States a few weeks. He had no idea who to call or how to make himself understood. Outside the Atlantic Avenue station, he saw two men in uniform standing near a white car with lights on top and the word “police” on the side. They weren’t the FBI or the NYPD or the Joint Terrorism Task Force or the Marines or the Green Berets. They were a couple of young Long Island Rail Road cops making their rounds. Mosabbah tried to explain what he’d seen. He kept repeating the word “bomba” and making the noise of an explosion.
The clock was ticking on toward 11 p.m. and the LIRR cops might easily have turned Mosabbah away as another pitiful late-night nut case. But he was just so scared. Sweat poured off his body. “It was warm but not that hot,” one of them said afterward. “Anyone who looked into his eyes that night would have known how serious he was.”
Instead of sending him on his way, the LIRR cops accompanied Mosabbah to the 88th Precinct house where detectives left him sitting alone in an interview room while they tried to figure out what to do with him. Finally, they called One Police Plaza, the NYPD headquarters. Alerts went out, the brass came in. The members of the Emergency Service Unit got ready in case Mosabbah’s story turned out to be true and they had to lay a siege or storm a bomber’s apartment. But nobody could really figure out what Mosabbah was saying. Eventually a rookie cop with a North African background from the 13th Precinct near Gramercy Park was hauled over to Brooklyn to translate, but the two men didn’t speak the same dialects and with all the excitement there was considerable confusion. Hours later, an FBI translator was rousted out of bed, but he arrived slowly at the scene, and reluctantly.
Mosabbah described the devices Abu Mezer had shown him in as much detail as he could. He drew a diagram of his apartment showing where everyone slept. But doubts about his story continued. It was almost 5 in the morning, seven hours after he had first made contact with the police and just 90 minutes before the B train would be packed with commuters, that the armored and helmeted team from the Emergency Service Unit (The E-men as they were called, expert in special weapons and tactics, and other skills) opened the door of the apartment with Mosabbah’s key and crept inside.
Abu Mezer grabbed the first cop who came into his bedroom. The E-man fired his pistol without hesitation. The first shot grazed Abu Mezer’s face, then a second one hit him in the midsection and threw him back across the room. Khalil dived for the bomb, but the cop caught him with two rounds and took him down. A second E-man was now through the door of the room. He pumped another round into each of the Palestinians.
In the end, both of the would-be Muslim martyrs survived. Everybody in the room survived. But it was a miracle. If Abu Mezer had not bragged to the Egyptian, if the Egyptian had not gone for the police, if the LIRR cops had not taken him to the NYPD, and if the NYPD brass had not acted on the sketchy information he was providing through unreliable translators—if Mosabbah’s descriptions of the rooms and the bomb had not been so accurate, if Abu Mezer or Khalil had moved a little faster: Those were not the kind of ifs you liked to think about. And even five years later when David Cohen, the deputy commissioner for intelligence, came to the NYPD after a career in the CIA, there was no good answer to the most central question of all: Did somebody send Abu Mezer to New York as a terrorist, or did he just get worked up on his own?
Samuel M. Katz, in Jihad in Brooklyn, leaves the question up in the air: Mezer had thrown rocks at the Israelis, he had been in and out of Israeli jails, and he had connections not only to Hamas sympathizers but to people who knew how to build bombs to Hamas specifications. In the trash outside his house, police found the torn pieces of a two-page handwritten note laying out all the components and how to put them together. But when Abu Mezer lived in Hebron, he hung out with the more secular boys around the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. His efforts to enter the United States had been determined but disorganized. When he was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he posted $5,000 bail with money sent from Saudi Arabia through the informal hawala system, which leaves no paper trail. But hawala transfers are used by immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia whether they are terrorists, trash collectors, or, for that matter, doctoral students.
What can we conclude from all this 20 years later?
This was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and much has changed since.
Asylum claims are vetted much more carefully and extensively, and have been for years. It’s very doubtful that Abu Mezer could have entered the United States in the same way he did then, especially after his multiple attempts to enter illegally (from Canada, not Mexico, by the way).
And unlike Abu Mezer, the young Egyptian, Abdel Rahman Mosabbah, from a small town on the Upper Nile near Luxor and the only member of his family with a university education, wanted to build a future in the United States. His was the classic immigrant dream: to put down roots and eventually to bring his wife and raise his family in a land of freedom and opportunity. He saw the terrorists as anything but heroes or martyrs. He saw them as a threat to him and to his new country that must be stopped. And had he not acted, the slaughter on the B Train would have been horrific.
The NYPD and FBI and probably the LIRR cops are much more aware than they once were. From 2002 onward, the NYPD searched and found already in its ranks among more than 30,000 sworn officers hundreds of people who spoke languages from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Asia because many of them had been born abroad. The job of a policeman, since the days of Irish, German, and Italian immigration in the 19th century, has always been a coveted position for newly arrived residents and citizens of the United States.
But here’s the question we ought to be asking ourselves today as we look back on that morning when jihadis were stopped in Brooklyn: Would an Abdel Rahman Mosabbah dare go to the police today? Would he go out in the heat of a dark summer night to try desperately to warn the cops of an impending attack when all Muslims, all immigrants, are being treated as suspect? Would he do that when diversity visas—like his visa—are being attacked by the president of the United States as if they they were a terrorist laissez-passer, a virtual license to kill?
In fact, this Muslim Diversity Visa recipient saved the lives of scores of Americans he had never met. And if Americans want to remain safe, they would do well to embrace such people, not shun them, shame them, and put them under threat.