The New Terrorism

The possibilities were stupefying too dreadful to be believed. Some day very soon, perhaps as early as this week, New York would be struck by a series of powerful explosions that would bring the city to its knees. First, bombs would go off in the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, trapping thousands of commuters deep below the Hudson River in the ultimate claustrophobic horror. The lucky ones, those closest to the explosions, would die instantly. The unlucky would be shredded by flying glass and metal or crushed by falling debris, then burned alive in the uncontrollable gasoline fires that would surely break out next. Two more explosions would follow: at the United Nations building on Manhattan's East Side and at the Jacob Javits Federal Building near city hall. Swamped by multiple catastrophes, police, fire and ambulance crews would be stretched beyond their limits. New York would panic.

All this, allegedly, was the goal and high ambition of a scruffy band of Muslim fundamentalists known to the FBI as "the Beta cell." Eight suspected members were busted in coordinated raids around New York last week. And if it is consoling to note that the FBI had the cell under meticulously tight surveillance since early May, or that its alleged ringleader was dumb enough to engage an FBI informer as his chief bomb maker, it is nevertheless a disturbing fact that such a plan almost certainly would have worked. Blow up the Hudson tunnels? Almost anyone can do it. All you need is a certain amount of nitrate fertilizer, a certain amount of fuel oil and a blasting cap. As last week's arrests suggested, and as the World Trade Center bombing last February demonstrated all too well, New York and many other "soft targets" across America are now undeniably vulnerable to terrorist attack.

By whom and for what? Here the plot thickens-indeed, becomes almost incomprehensible. The alleged Beta cell conspiracy can be variously traced to the World Trade Center bombing, to the 1990 assassination in New York of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, and ultimately into the impenetrable thickets of Muslim fundamentalism all across the Mideast. The nation of Sudan, once a U.S. ally but now run by a rabidly anti-American regime, may be implicated, along with radical mullahs in Iran. America's support for the shah, its role in the Persian Gulf War, its alliance with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (one of four political figures targeted in the plot) and its long track record of support for Israel-all these are the sins for which the United States is being punished. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric and fiery fundamentalist who now resides in Jersey City, N.J., seems to be a pivotal figure. Some of the suspects in the World Trade Center explosion, who are scheduled to go on trial in New York this September, were followers of the sheik. So were several of the alleged members of the Beta cell-and Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, the alleged mastermind, until recently was Omar's translator.

_B_'No, you cannot':_b_Swooping down on a rented garage in the Jamaica section of Queens, at 1:30 in the morning, FBI agents and New York police nabbed Siddig Ali and four others in what they said was the very act of making the bombs-five metal drums filled with what the FBI's New York regional chief, James Fox, called a "witches' brew" of fuel oil and fertilizer. Three others were arrested elsewhere, and all eight were charged with attempted bombing and conspiracy the next day. The garage had been bugged, and much of the cell's activities over the preceding weeks had been recorded or reported by the FBI informer--a former aide to Sheik Omar named Emad Salem, 43, said to be a former officer in the Egyptian Army. Federal officials said that Siddig Ali told the informer he was involved in the preparations for the World Trade Center bombing, and that Siddig Ali boasted the tradecenter blast was intended to send a message "We can get you any time." The answer, said U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, was, "'No, you cannot'--we will not let the likes of these defendants terrorize our citizens."

Bravely said--and probably a reflection of the fact that the Beta cell was firmly within the FBI's investigative grip almost from the beginning. "As they dug into the World Trade Center bombing, the FBI agents found some things that scared the hell out of them," a U.S. official said last week. "These people [Muslim radicals living in the New York area] were not scared off by the quick success of the WTC investigation." The Beta operation began sometime in April, federal sources said, and its course thereafter was tersely described by a federal complaint released last week. Though not identified by name, Emad Salem played a crucial role throughout the investigation and may have been an FBI source for years. "He used to come up with ideas and want people to do things," one of the sheik's followers said, adding that lately, Salem "started to be more he was trying to set someone up. Fortunately, many people didn't trust him."

But Siddig Ali evidently did. Siddig Ali is 32 and Sudanese. He entered this country in 1988 and married a Trinidadian woman; the couple and their daughter live in Jersey City, not far from Sheik Omar's apartment. Siddig Ali worked until recently as a security guard, and he was a striking figure, in his long white robes and skullcap, around his neighborhood. Sheik Omar called him "a very, very good translator" who had helped him for about six months-but the sheik also said "I don't know anything about him." The FBI did. One tip-off came when workers built a mysterious chimney on a roof across the street from Siddig Ali's apartment-probably to conceal a video camera. "Two FBI guys would come once a week and change the film," said Don Bui, who owns a liquor store next to Siddig Ali's apartment building. "We knew [about the surveillance] maybe two months ago." Recently, Bui said, the FBI rented an apartment on the top floor of a building facing Siddig Ali's apartment. The hidden camera came down, but the surveillance continued.

On May 7, the federal complaint notes, Siddig Ali and Salem discussed the plan to use a car bomb to attack U.N. headquarters-and on May 18, Siddig Ali told the informer that the Javits Federal Building, which houses the FBI's New York office, might also be a target. The next day, the FBI said, Siddig Ali gave Salem $300 to rent a safe house in Queens for the conspirators. This turned out to be 13901 90th Avenue, a small apartment building with an attached warehouse. The warehouse became the bomb factory-but not before the FBI had wired it for video surveillance. "I knew the tenants spent the first few days installing electric lines, phone lines, but I didn't question it," said Ziya Mouslouglu, the landlord. Neighbors suspected that some sort of police operation was underway, and one resident of the building, Yolanda Almonte, said the new tenants seemed to come and go at night.

Gradually, Siddig Ali introduced Salem to the other suspects. Four were Sudanese: Fares Khalafallah, 30, Fadil Abdelghani, 30, Amir Abdelghani, 32, and Tarig Elhassan, 38. One, Mohammad Saleh, 37, was Jordanian and another, Victor Alvarez, 27, was a Puerto Rico-born Muslim convert. The last and oldest was an African-American Muslim named Clement Rodney Hampton-El, 55, also known as "Dr. Rashid." Alvarez and several others were worshipers at the sheik's Jersey City mosque. Hampton-El, who reportedly had been wounded in the leg while aiding mujahedin rebels in the U.S.-backed guerrilla war in Afghanistan, lived and worked in Brooklyn. According to the federal complaint, both Siddig Ali and Hampton-El told Salem that they had participated in a test explosion for the World Trade Center bomb. Siddig Ali also told the informer that Hampton-El would provide two hand grenades for use as detonators in the bombs the Beta group was trying to build.

There was talk of assassination as well--probably wild talk, but no one knew for sure. Although the FBI complaint did not mention it, investigators leaked reports that the group hoped to kill Egyptian President Mubarak, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an outspoken critic of Sheik Omar and a staunch supporter of Israel. D'Amato was notified by New York police of a possible assassination plot very early in the game--on May 1. Hikind, who has insisted for months that the World Trade Center bombing was directly connected to the murder of Meir Kahane, and that Sheik Omar was connected to both, was notified on May 17. Both politicians got round-the-clock police protection.

By mid-june, the FBI said, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels had been added to the target list and various members of the group were meeting regularly at the bugged Queens safe house. Siddig Ali allegedly talked in transparent code: U.N. headquarters was the "Big House," the federal building was the "Center" and hand grenades were "balls." The complaint says Alvarez agreed to provide stolen cars to carry the bombs and that Mohammad Saleh, who owns a gas station in suburban Yonkers, provided the fuel oil used to make the bombs. The FBI also said Salem and Siddig Ali tested the explosive in rural Connecticut, and investigators reportedly videotaped some of the suspects buying fertilizer pellets at a Manhattan hardware store. On June 23, the complaint says, "two unidentified males" brought the fuel oil from Saleh's gas station to the safe house and the bomb-building began in earnest.

_B_Lethal gumbo:_b_ At that point, the FBI's James Fox said, "the public-safety factor became the overriding consideration" and the investigators charged in. The raid was so sudden that some of the suspects were unaware of the agents' presence until the handcuffs clicked around their wrists-and the bust, like almost everything else connected with the investigation, was captured on videotape. Siddig Ali and four others were arrested in the warehouse, while Saleh, Khalafallah and Hampton-El were arrested in their homes. The bomb squad carted off three blue and yellow, 55-gallon drums and two smaller barrels filled with lethal gumbo. There were no detonators-Hampton-El, who allegedly promised to get some, had apparently failed in his mission. Were the radicals as inept as they seemed? Maybe, said Lt. Walter Boser of the New York police bomb squad, "but they sure did OK the last time."

But this time the FBI averted catastrophe-and its informer seemed to be the real hero. Emad Salem was tall, muscular and mysterious. He lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his European-born wife and two children. Muslim activists in the New York area said he suddenly appeared on the scene about two years ago, insinuating his way into Sheik Omar's entourage by pretending to be a sympathizer of El Sayyid Nosair, the Egyptian who in 1991 was acquitted in the murder of Meir Kahane. After the trade center bombing, they said, Salem moved up, sometimes serving as a translator or as a security man for the sheik's press conferences.

It got murkier. Salem boasted of his expertise with weapons and explosives and said he had been a lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian Army during the 1973 ArabIsraeli War. According to a neighbor, he also said he had helped guard Egyptian President Anwar Sadat before Sadat's assassination in 1981. He was in the habit of displaying a photo album that, in addition to family pictures, included photographs of people being tortured-a man in a cage, and a woman being burned with cigarettes. One of Sheik Omar's associates said he had once caught Salem with a bag of tools in the sheik's apartment and that Salem coolly explained he had been checking the phone for taps. All this suggested a connection to Egyptian intelligence-and last week Salem simply vanished, along with his wife and children. "He'll be taken care of," an FBI official said.

"A scroungy informer," said the lawyer for one of the suspects-while William Kunstler, the doyen of left-legal activists and the attorney for defendant Siddig Ali, charged that the FBI had "masterminded this 'conspiracy' from start to finish."

Maybe-but the FBI, like everyone else in the federal government, seemed powerless to lay a finger on Sheik Omar himself. At the weekend its agents were searching through 14 boxes of papers they had seized in a raid on the sheik's apartment, and Washington sources suggested this pile of evidence might yet contain the makings of a case against the cleric. But a senior FBI official predicted there would be no solid proof of the sheik's direct involvement in the new case, just as there had been no proof of his complicity in the World Trade Center bombing. "I am alone and I am a blind man," the old man complained last week. "They asked me if I knew these people, and I said I wouldn't answer until I have a lawyer."

So for the moment, at least, the Beta cell investigation wound up with a peculiarly American dilemma-the fact that a man who has fanned the flames of Muslim extremism in the United States seemed beyond the reach of U.S. law. Senator D'Amato and other conservatives protested the Clinton administration's continuing refusal to detain the sheik while his immigration case is resolved, and administration sources said the issue may ultimately be resolved by Attorney General Janet Reno. To Bill Clinton, who was said to be "outraged" by the continued legal impasse over the sheik's immigration status, that was annoying enough. But the larger implications of the arrests in New York last week were truly chilling-a clearer view of the new face of terrorism, and yet another warning of just how vulnerable we are.

MAHMUD ABOUHALILMA Was a part-time driver for the sheik

MOHAMMED A. SALAMEH Attended the Sheik Omar's Jersey City mosque

RAMZI AHMED YOUSEF Worshiped at the sheik's mosque

IBRAHIM ELGABROWNY President of a Brooklyn mosque, where the sheik preached regularly. The sheik helped him raise funds for his cousin, imprisoned on a conviction related to the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

EMAD SALEM A close aide to the sheik, the informant who helped the FBI

SIDDIG IBRAHIM SIDDIG ALI Alleged ringleader; was the sheik's interpreter for the past six months; worshiped at the sheik's mosque

VICTOR ALVAREZ A.k.a. Mohammad, worshiped at the sheik's Jersey City mosque. The FBI says he helped mix materials for bombs.

FARES KHALAFALLAH Attended the sheik's mosque. Cops say he helped test bomb-timing devices.

MAP: In the Cross Hairs: Targeted by the Fanatics

The targets picked by the alleged Muslim terrorists ranged from crowded Manhattan tunnels to the president of Egypt.