Willful Blindness

A Memoir of the Jihad

by Andrew C. McCarthy

Encounter, 250 pp., $25.95

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, America has tried to understand how she could have been so blind. Countless books, articles, documentaries--in addition to the 9/11 Commission's high-profile investigation during a hotly contested presidential election year--have all attempted to answer one central question: How could a small band of al Qaeda terrorists execute the greatest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor?

For Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, the answer begins with a series of fateful events in the early 1990s. And in his exceptional new book, he documents a series of missteps that led America to consistently misjudge both the scale and the nature of the terrorist threat. McCarthy exposes a fundamental flaw in the government's counterterrorism strategy prior to September 11. While our enemies were waging a war, we were prosecuting them as mere criminals. Much of the burden of dealing with an imminent national security threat was, therefore, placed on the criminal justice system. But as McCarthy demonstrates in meticulous fashion, the courts are a poor substitute for the real battlefield, so much so that our terrorist enemies were consistently able to outflank us.

McCarthy's story is centered on the trial of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman ("The Blind Sheikh") and 11 of his followers. McCarthy led the prosecution of this dirty dozen in 1995. In landmark convictions, Rahman and his cohort were found guilty of participating in a broad conspiracy to attack Americans, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot to destroy landmarks in the New York area just months later.

It is no exaggeration to say that the convictions stand out as a singular achievement in counterterrorism history. At the time, the law was so ill-equipped to handle such a case that McCarthy and his team had to charge the sheikh with violating a Civil War-era statute prohibiting seditious conspiracy! The sheikh slyly avoided discussing precise tactics, preferring instead to lend his voice to theological justifications for violence. His blessing was crucial for the terrorists to move forward, but America's laws were not written with someone like Rahman, or his type of violence, in mind.

In McCarthy's words, "The legal system circa 1993 was woefully unprepared for radical Islam." Therefore, pinning these events on Rahman--who clearly, at the very least, inspired them--was no small feat.

McCarthy, however, does not rest on his laurels. In fact, one senses that if it were up to him, the trial of Rahman and his cohort would never have happened. The terror network centered on Rahman should have been years earlier--or, better yet, never allowed to develop on American soil in the first place. And in the aftermath of the events of 1993, the criminal justice system should not have been our frontline defense.

As McCarthy writes, "In the eight years between the World Trade Center's bombing and its destruction, the high-profile court cases that constituted the Clinton administration's counter-terrorism strategy resulted in the convictions of exactly twenty-nine terrorists." By way of contrast, consider that the former National Security Council official Richard Clarke has stated that "perhaps over 10,000 terrorists" were trained "at the camps in Afghanistan" alone. Clearly, America was not on a war footing.

From McCarthy's perspective, the missteps began in 1989 when the FBI prematurely abandoned its investigation into a group of jihadists conducting firearm drills in Calverton, Long Island. One of those jihadists, El Sayyid Nosair, went on to murder an extremist Jewish leader named Rabbi Meir Kahane on November 5, 1990. Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Nosair was acquitted of Kahane's murder and convicted of only lesser charges.

This miscarriage of justice, McCarthy explains, was further compounded by an incompetent investigation. Nosair left behind a treasure trove of information, including handwritten notes, connecting him to a broader terror network then operating in New York and New Jersey. But authorities failed to analyze much of it. Instead, Nosair was branded a "lone gunman" and the 40-plus boxes of evidence seized with Nosair were ignored, thereby allowing his fellow conspirators to initially escape scrutiny.

Nosair was no lone wolf, as McCarthy makes clear, but one of Sheikh Rahman's gaggle of followers. And together they had more grandiose designs. For example, in one of his initially overlooked notebooks, Nosair expressed his desire to destroy America's "high world buildings which they are proud of and their statues which they endear and the buildings in which gather their heads [their leaders]."

On February 26, 1993, more than two years after Kahane's murder, a powerful truck bomb was detonated underneath the World Trade Center. Seven people were killed, including an unborn child, but the damage could have been much worse: The terrorists responsible, some of whom had consulted Nosair in prison and attended the firearm drills in Long Island, wanted to kill thousands.

Nor did Rahman's jihadists stop there. They soon began plotting yet another, more devastating, attack. This time they wanted to simultaneously destroy several landmarks in the New York area, including the United Nations building and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. That plot never got off the ground because of a well-placed FBI informant named Emad Salem. Rahman's followers thought the Egyptian Salem was a committed jihadist who could provide them with invaluable explosives expertise. Instead, Salem led them down a path of misdirection: The plotters mixed the chemicals for a bomb in a Queens warehouse under Salem's (and the FBI's) watchful eye. Once a critical mass of evidence was collected, Rahman and his minions were rounded up, thereby short-circuiting their bomb making, and convicted as a result of McCarthy's relentless prosecution.

But as McCarthy reveals, even this success has a troublesome back story. The FBI first recruited Salem to serve as a mole prior to the World Trade Center bombing. Skittish agents, who mishandled Salem from the first, alternated between fears that they could not corroborate his testimony and that Salem's fellow plotters would be successful despite Salem's meddling. In the latter case, the FBI would have known about a plot that it failed to stop--a surefire recipe for public scorn. The bureau, therefore, decided to end Salem's employment several months before the World Trade Center bomb was detonated.

The failure to properly vet Nosair's documents, or to continue using Salem's services in the months leading up to the World Trade Center bombing, is bad enough. What's worse is that Sheikh Rahman was allowed to freely operate and inspire these terrorist acts from American soil in the early 1990s. At that point, for more than a decade, Rahman had provided the religious justification for numerous terrorist plots in Egypt, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He was the spiritual head of Egypt's two main terrorist groups, both of which were instrumental in aiding al Qaeda's rise. And he was a player in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, where he made numerous allies, including Osama bin Laden himself.

Yet, despite his dark past, Rahman was repeatedly granted U.S. visas. It is ironic, then, that while the sheikh could not safely preach in Cairo, he could preach in mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City.

Had McCarthy stopped at telling the story of the many tactical failures that allowed Rahman's terrorists to menace America in the early 1990s, Willful Blindness would have been an invaluable addition to the literature of 9/11. But he takes his argument a step further, showing how these tactical failures were merely symptoms of a larger strategic failure to comprehend the nature of our terrorist enemies. In the process, McCarthy has given us one of the most important books on jihadist terrorism.

The strategic failure McCarthy exposes is ongoing, and extends even to something as basic as naming the enemy. Just as Willful Blindness was released, the State Department and other agencies published an edict banning the use of the word "jihadist" (as well as similar terms) from the government's lexicon. The thinking is that the terrorists like to call themselves "jihadists," thereby appropriating an Islamic term which can have far more benevolent meanings, such as the struggle for spiritual betterment or simply to do good.

It is true that, in some Islamic traditions, "jihad" has been endowed with such inoffensive meanings. But as McCarthy rightly argues, "jihad" has far more frequently been used to connote violent campaigns against infidels since the earliest days of Islam. When Sheikh Rahman called on his followers to wage "jihad," they knew that their master did not mean for them to become absorbed in prayer.

Moreover, Washington is apparently too obtuse to notice that Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda's terrorists, Tehran's mullahs, and Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi clerics have called for a militant brand of jihad persistently over the past several decades. All of these parties know how their words will be interpreted by the Muslim masses, and no fiat from the Washington bureaucracy will undo this widely accepted meaning.

Not only does Washington have a hard time properly naming our jihadist enemies, it still fails to understand that terrorist-sponsoring regimes have long backed them. Here, McCarthy has been at the forefront of explaining how jihadist terrorism is frequently, but not exclusively, a tool of hostile regimes: Writing in these pages in 1998 ("The Sudan Connection"), he explored the many ties between the 1993 plotters and the Sudanese regime then led by an Islamic radical named Hassan al-Turabi. Indeed, Turabi and Rahman were longtime friends and allies. McCarthy returns to this aspect of the story in Willful Blindness to show how Sudan's U.N. delegation provided material support to Rahman's terrorists as they plotted to blow up New York's landmarks. (The Clinton administration even expelled two Sudanese delegates because of their involvement.)

Sudan's sponsorship went far beyond Rahman's goons. In the early 1990s Turabi forged a broad terrorist coalition that included Osama bin Laden's core group of followers, all of al Qaeda's affiliates, and a number of other organizations. Turabi envisioned bringing all of these parties together in one grand anti-American terrorist coalition. And he received the support of the two leading state sponsors of terrorism: Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the mullahs' Iran. Out of this witch's brew of state and nonstate actors grew the network that we commonly call "al Qaeda."

It is beyond my scope here to summarize all of the evidence that supports this thesis, but suffice it to say that McCarthy is exactly right when he asserts,

It is not difficult to find some current or former intelligence official ready and willing to opine that Sunnis [such as Rahman and bin Laden] would never cooperate with secularists or Shiites--overlooking abundant evidence of the Ba'athist Saddam Hussein coddling Sunni jihadists and a years-long history of collaboration between al Qaeda and Shiite Hezbollah.

McCarthy argues that, more than a decade after the Blind Sheikh was convicted of inspiring terrorism on American soil, America remains largely blind. Even the September 11 attacks did not fully awaken our nation, or its leaders, from their slumber. An implacable hate drives our enemies to never-ending violence. For them, we are the "other," infidels who deserve to be slaughtered as victims of a religious jihad, and there are many who are willing to support their war on us.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).

Next Page