Willful Blindness: Prosecuting the War on Terror


Andrew McCarthy prosecuted the blind Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, head of Egypt’s “Islamic Group,” in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad” (Encounter, 250 pages, $25.95) engagingly recounts that experience, for Mr. McCarthy is a good writer. He was also a sharp, aggressive prosecutor, and his book authoritatively makes several important points, correcting misunderstandings about the case and highlighting issues that have received insufficient attention.

SURVIVOR A man who had walked down from the 105th floor of the World Trade Center after the bombing, February 26, 1993.

Tim Clary/AFP/Getty Click for slideshow> slide  SURVIVOR A man who had walked down from the 105th floor of the World Trade Center after the bombing, February 26, 1993.

To begin with, Al Qaeda was not, as many believe, involved in the February 1993 bombing, Mr. McCarthy reminds us, nor the subsequent “Landmarks Plot,” which targeted the United Nations, New York’s Federal Building, and two tunnels. Established in 1988, Al Qaeda was only in its infancy in 1993.

“Willful Blindness” presents a valuable portrait of the Islamic extremists in New York, although Mr. McCarthy does not make enough of his material, as he does not emphasize sufficiently the degree to which the extremists were penetrated by the intelligence agencies of several states that operated among them and used them for their own purposes.

Egypt had a spy within Sheik Omar’s entourage — Abdo Haggag, a sympathetic neighbor who turned against Sheik Omar, and who came to see Sheik Omar as “a conniver” and “hypocrite,” petitioning for asylum in America even as he railed against it. (The sheik was also a womanizer, and Mr. Haggag resolved to expose him for it.) Mr. Haggag began reporting to Egypt’s U.N. mission, but American authorities did not know that initially, arresting and indicting him along with the others. The FBI had its own plant among the extremists — another Egyptian, Emad Salem — who also had ties to Egyptian intelligence. Mr. Salem’s work after the Trade Center bombing — gathering intelligence and acting as agent provocateur — led to the Landmarks Plot, planned in conjunction with two Sudanese intelligence agents.

Such complexity is often lost in a trial, whose focus, typically, is very narrow. As Mr. McCarthy explains, “The legal system’s job is not to produce the definitive version of history,” but “a judgment about the provenance of facts the government chooses to put in dispute” to convict the accused. Whether the accused “may have been abetted by a rogue nation” is secondary, if not irrelevant, to a prosecutor’s job. And this blind spot is the great weakness of Mr. McCarthy’s work.

In April 1993, Siddig Ali, a Sudanese émigré, told Mr. Salem he wanted to bomb two armories. “Seeing he had a live one,” the FBI’s Salem “egged him on.” Soon afterward, Ali said he wanted to bomb the United Nations instead, because “he had contacts in the Sudanese government mission who would help them obtain the credentials necessary to drive a vehicle laden with explosives into the complex.” The Sudanese agents introduced Ali to a Palestinian, Mohammed Saleh, with whom they also had close ties. Saleh owned a gas station in Yonkers and agreed to provide fuel for the bombs. The trial transcript also shows one agent discussing with Ali a target for possible attack, with Ali taking direction from the Sudanese official.

“Willful Blindness” misrepresents a crucial exchange touching on just this point, leaving out key parts, although the entire discussion exists in court records. (The book regularly cites court records without providing references, diminishing its authority and usefulness.)

The transcript strongly suggests that Sudanese intelligence was far more involved in the Landmarks Plot than Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was presented by the prosecution as the central figure. In late May, Mr. Salem met privately with Sheik Omar, who suggested forcefully that Mr. Salem discard plans to attack the United Nations and focus instead on the American military. Mr. McCarthy describes Sheik Omar as “slick” and ambiguous in this exchange, suggesting that he did not rule out the possibility of targeting the U.N., and fails to report a subsequent exchange, captured on the same surveillance tape: As they drove home from Sheik Omar’s apartment, Salem related the sheik’s response to Ali, who understood clearly that the U.N. plan had been rejected, telling Mr. Salem, “No, I’m not going to do it.” Yet before the ride ended, Ali had decided to go forward anyhow, because, he said, “I have all the people in place from the embassy.”

Despite the central involvement of Sudanese agents in the Landmarks Plot, they were not indicted. The reason, Mr. McCarthy once explained to me, was that Sudan would not lift their immunity. Yet federal prosecutors indicted Panama’s ruler during the Reagan administration, and Bush 41 brought him to trial. But the Clinton administration would not likely have agreed to indict the agents and demand the Sudanese government produce them for trial; focusing attention on a hostile state would have risked stirring a public outcry for more serious action.

Sheik Omar is a loathsome figure, but the case against him was weak. The FBI opposed indicting him and wanted to deport him. Mr. McCarthy devised a clever strategy in which several crimes were linked together in a conspiracy ostensibly carried out by the “Jihad Organization” of which Sheik Omar was said to be the leader, and which included the Trade Center bombing and the Landmarks Plot. This allowed the prosecution to suggest to the jury that some defendants were involved in the Trade Center bombing without really making that claim. Consequently, many people think Sheik Omar was involved in that attack. Yet as Judge Michael Mukasey, now Attorney General, affirmed of Sheik Omar and his co-defendants: “[T]hey’re not charged with committing the World Trade Center bombing.”

Mr. McCarthy unwittingly illustrates how President Clinton’s policy of treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue caused it to be understood as one: If Mr. McCarthy had indicted the Sudanese intelligence agents, Americans would have understood Sudan’s role in the Landmarks Plot, and Sheik Omar would not occupy such a central role in our collective consciousness. Perhaps we would also understand that the government has never really explained what party was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And, finally, we might have better understood the nature and scope of the terrorist threat, including the real possibility that it did not change with that bombing, as the Clinton administration claimed, but remained just what we had known it to be — state-supported violence. The misunderstanding left America vulnerable on September 11, 2001, and may yet leave this country vulnerable to another major assault.

Ms. Mylroie is an American Enterprise Institute adjunct fellow and author of “Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War Against America.”

URL:   http://www.nysun.com/arts/willful-blindness-prosecuting-war-terror