Politics & Policy

Still Willfully Blind After All These Years

Laurie Mylroie pretends to review Willful Blindness.

I hate to seem ungracious, especially when a reviewer has had at least a few nice things to say about me and my new book, Willful Blindness — A Memoir of the Jihad. But I must confess to disappointment that the New York Sun, one of the best newspapers around, decided Laurie Mylroie would be a good choice to do the review.

BASIT’S NOT BASIT

Sometime in 1993 or 1994, a briefing at the Manhattan district attorney’s office was arranged for me and a few other federal prosecutors involved in the World Trade Center bombing cases. The briefer was Mylroie, then (if memory serves) a professor at Harvard, where she’d earned her doctorate in government. She was spouting a theory that the attack had been the work of Saddam Hussein and that we ignoramuses were completely missing the boat by charging Islamic terrorists, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that they had carried out the atrocity.

Mylroie’s theory was loopy. Indeed, for commentators (like Steve Hayes, Tom Joscelyn, and I) who have argued that there were, in fact, important ties between Iraq and radical Islam, Mylroie has been a thorn in the side for years — the analyst whose zany assertions are routinely used to discredit credible evidence of cooperation. Most notoriously, Mylroie has contended that Abdul Basit, the WTC bombing mastermind better known by his alias, Ramzi Yousef, is not really Abdul Basit. Instead, according to Mylroie, he is a shady Iraqi spy who was given the identity of Basit when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait and stole the identities of the “real” Basit family. In my book, I briefly discuss and dismiss Mylroie’s theory (at pp. 183-84 & 341-42, ch.14, n.3). Leaving aside various other implausibilities in her surmise, the government had several sources who knew Basit as Basit both before and after the time he spent in Kuwait.

Notwithstanding that at least 14 years have elapsed, I also well remember the Mylroie briefing because it was so shoddy. She contended our case against the jihadists was weak and ill-conceived, but her presentation actually had little to do with our proof that indicted defendants carried out terrorist acts. Rather, it focused on inferences she had drawn — some interesting, some daft, and none prosecution-worthy — that the conspirators were being guided by Iraqi intelligence. It was the work of a myopic academic who did not comprehend the difference between intrigue and evidence, between history and prosecution. On my questioning, she confessed that she had never read, and was otherwise unfamiliar with, the seditious conspiracy statute the defendants were charged with violating. I asked her how a student in one of her classes would fare if it turned out he hadn’t read the law used to indict a case he was attacking as unfounded. She mumbled something about planning to get to the statute soon.

Of course, even assuming for argument’s sake that Saddam had choreographed the whole 1993 bombing operation, the government’s charging of some people with a crime does not discount the possibility that others — including even state sponsors of terror — are also complicit. Mylroie seemed unable to grasp this simple concept. In a jury trial, you naturally train your sights on the defendants you have charged, placed under arrest, and brought into the courtroom. You get into uncharged conspirators only to the extent it is necessary for the jury to understand the case against those standing trial. That co-conspirators have not been charged — whether because they have diplomatic immunity, or are fugitives, or are outside the country and beyond government’s ability to apprehend, or are actors as to whom the government has not yet developed proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or any of a thousand other reasons — does not mean that they are innocent, much less that the people who actually have been charged are not guilty.

In any event, although it was not particularly complex, Mylroie didn’t understand the law or the evidence back then. Her review demonstrates that things haven’t improved.

THE “WEAK” CASE AGAINST THE EMIR OF JIHAD

Mylroie has long been on a mission to trash the case against Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh known to his acolytes as the “emir of jihad.” Perhaps this is because she remains studiously uninformed about the jihadist threat. Perhaps it owes to the incorrigible delusion under which she labors, namely, that if the Blind Sheikh is guilty that somehow must mean the state sponsors she prefers to blame are off the hook. In either event, she asserts in the Sun that “Sheik Omar is a loathsome figure, but the case against him was weak.” He was convicted, she elaborates, only because I devised a “clever strategy” to link several terrorist plots together in what she refers to as “a conspiracy ostensibly carried out by the Jihad Organization of which Sheik Omar was said to be the leader.”

Plainly, even all these years later, Mylroie still hasn’t gotten around to reading the relevant statutes. And while I’d love to take credit for being extraordinarily clever, the truth is that the case against Abdel Rahman was overwhelming.

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We did not charge the Blind Sheikh with just “a conspiracy.” We charged him with Congress’s seditious conspiracy statute (Section 2384 of Title 18, U.S. Code) — a Civil War-era law which targets those who confederate to levy war against the United States or use force against our government. Among other offenses, we also alleged that he’d solicited an attack on the American military. The proof, in part comprised of a wealth of Abdel Rahman’s recorded statements, included his brazen instruction to a government informant to develop a plan to bomb U.S. military installations. Far from weak, it was irrefutable.

The Blind Sheikh, moreover, was also convicted of both conspiring to murder, and soliciting the murder of, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. So insurmountable was the proof on these charges that Lynne Stewart, Abdel Rahman’s chief counsel, was reduced to arguing for jury nullification — i.e., conceding that the Sheikh wanted Mubarak removed “by any means necessary” but urging that the president had it coming. Nullification is always a desperation strategy, resorted to when there is no room for doubt. That Stewart was reduced to it was no surprise to anyone who actually followed the case: quite apart from the witnesses who had heard him call for Mubarak’s death, Abdel Rahman was on tape bragging about having issued the fatwa approving the murder of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and opining that Mubarak was worse and more deserving of the same fate.

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“NOT INVOLVED” IN THE WORLD TRADE CENTER BOMBING

Mylroie also reprises her ignorant, oft-repeated claim that the Blind Sheikh was not involved in the World Trade Center bombing. To the contrary, the evidence showed that Abdel Rahman, emir of the Islamic Group, a vicious Egyptian terror organization, was the formative figure in the jihadist organization that emerged in the New York metropolitan area in the late 1980s. Conspirators like Sayyid Nosair (the murderer of JDL founder Meir Kahane) and Mahmud Abouhalima (a WTC bomber) reported directly to him even before he relocated to the U.S. in 1990. Nosair and Siddig Ali (supervisor of the organization’s Sudanese cell) both told a government informant that bombing attacks could not go forward unless he approved them.

Abdel Rahman called for attacks against the United States (“the head of the snake”) from the time he got here. The conspirators began plotting a major bombing campaign in 1992 (after Nosair received a lengthy sentence for firearms and other offenses despite being acquitted by a state jury of the Kahane murder). At a 1992 meeting in Attica Prison, Nosair emphasized to plotters (including a government informant) that a fatwa from the Blind Sheikh was required before any bombings could proceed. After the informant left the investigation in summer 1992, bomb-builder Ramzi Yousef arrived from Pakistan and settled in Jersey City with Mohammed Salameh (a follower of the Blind Sheikh and an intimate of Abouhalima, Nosair and Nosair’s cousin, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny). In the months before the bombing, telephone records showed constant contacts between and among the residences of Yousef/Salameh (where the bomb was being built), Abouhalima, El-Gabrowny, and Abdel Rahman. Salameh and Abouhalima took days off shortly before the bombing to make the day-long trip to meet with Nosair up in Attica (meetings that were arranged by El-Gabrowny, who had previously told the government informant that the organization was looking for “high-power explosives”).

Shortly before the bombing, the Blind Sheikh gave a major speech in Brooklyn, commanding his underlings to “perform jihad for the sake of Allah,” and not to shun the label “terrorist” because “we must be terrorists and we must terrorize the enemies of Islam and frighten them, and disturb them, and shake the earth under their feet.” The bomb was detonated from within a Ryder van Salameh had rented a few days before. After the bombing, though Salameh and El-Gabrowny were quickly arrested, others fled the country, including Abouhalima. He, however, was captured in Egypt because the Blind Sheikh’s circle had been penetrated by Abdo Haggag, an informant for Egyptian intelligence. The Blind Sheikh spent the ensuing months conducting an aggressive investigation to determine who had betrayed Abouhalima.

In the teeth of this evidence (all and more of which is laid out in detail in Willful Blindness, though Mylroie opts not to discuss it in her review), Mylroie offers a peremptory wave, “[A]s 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.’” This thoroughly distorts a larger legal discussion Mylroie mulishly refuses to hear, no matter how many times it is explained to her. The defendants in the Blind Sheikh case — half of whom truly had no participation in the WTC plot — were not charged with the substantive crime of bombing the World Trade Center. They were instead charged, as relevant here, with (a) seditious conspiracy to levy war against the United States, and (b) conspiring from the late 1980s through June 1993 to conduct bombing attacks. In both of those counts, the World Trade Center bombing was alleged as an overt act in furtherance of each conspiracy.

To be sure, a defendant can be guilty of a conspiracy without being guilty of all the overt acts committed during the conspiracy. His degree of culpability is assessed at sentencing. Under the guidelines that were in effect at the time, then-Judge Mukasey had to determine whether the defendants convicted of the conspiracies had been complicit in the WTC bombing (it made a significant difference in the sentences imposed).

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Contrary to Mylroie’s claim, Judge Mukasey made exacting findings at sentencing that Abdel Rahman (like several but not all of his co-defendants) was deeply involved in the WTC attack. Furthermore, in upholding the Blind Sheik’s conviction and life sentence, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recounted that Judge Mukasey had “ruled that the reduction [of sentence] would be denied to those defendants whom he concluded were involved with completed [overt] acts, notably the World Trade Center bombing ([Abdel] Rahman, Nosair, Hampton-El, and El-Gabrowny)[.]” United States v. Abdel Rahman, 189 F.3d 88, 143 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 982 (1999) (emphasis added); see also id. at 170 (“The evidence established that each defendant joined either the plot that resulted in the bombing of the World Trade Center or the plot to bomb major New York City tunnels and bridges, or both plots”) (emphasis added).

#ad#One might have thought reviewing a book that extensively recounts these details might have induced Mylroie to engage them. I guess it is to be expected, though, that if she won’t look at the dots, she can’t connect them. Thus, regarding the “Landmarks Plot” — a spring 1993 plan for simultaneous attacks on the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the U.N. complex — Mylroie continues to belittle the evidence against Abdel Rahman as equivocal and to complain that he was “presented as the central figure.” The prime mover, she maintains, was really the Sudanese regime, a fact she accuses me of intentionally obscuring by emphasizing Abdel Rahman’s role.

HOW I COVERED FOR SUDAN

Preposterous does not begin to describe how off base Mylroie is. To begin with, the Blind Sheik was presented as the central figure of the overall jihad organization that formed in the New York metropolitan area in the late 1980s. We did not portray him as the central figure in every plot — that was not his role (any more than the aloof, insulated mafia boss micromanages every button-man’s day-to-day). There was considerable evidence that terrorist attacks could not go forward without Abdel Rahman’s blessing. (And indeed, Osama bin Laden has since publicly credited him with issuing the fatwa that approved the 9/11 attacks.) Yet, the proof also showed that his underlings took pains to keep him above operational details, and that — except where Mubarak was concerned — Sheikh Omar carefully limited his conversations about specific plots, adopting a Delphic style with those he suspected of being informants. Abdel Rahman was the central figure in the overarching conspiracy to wage war against the U.S.; it was for him to flash the red or green light for large-scale initiatives; but he did not command jihadists in the field, and I’ve never suggested otherwise.

Nevertheless, even sillier than Mylroie’s recitation of the case against Sheikh Omar is her assessment of my role in what she fictionally portrays as the American government’s concealment of Sudan’s participation in the planned attack on the United Nations.

In 1993, our prosecution team disclosed tape-recordings which proved that Siddig Ali, a top Abdel Rahman aide and the Sudanese mastermind of the Landmarks plot, had received key assistance from Sudanese government officials. Specifically, two diplomats at Sudan’s U.N. mission in New York, Consul Siraj al-Din and Deputy Consul Ahmed Yousef, agreed to provide, among other things, the diplomatic plates that would enable Siddig to drive a bomb-laden car onto the U.N. complex. Just prior to the 1995 trial, I sent a letter to all defense counsel identifying the two diplomats and the Sudanese mission itself as potential unindicted co-conspirators.

At trial, we proved that Sheikh Abdel Rahman had close ties to Hassan al-Turabi, leader in the early 1990s of Sudan’s de facto government, the National Islamic Front; that under Turabi’s influence, Sudanese jihadists were permitted to emigrate to America; that Siddig Ali was one of these, and coordinated his activities with both the Blind Sheikh and Sudanese officials; that Siddig used his Sudanese government contacts to facilitate the flight of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Mahmud Abouhalima; that when Siddig plotted in early 1993 to murder Mubarak, he obtained information about the Egyptian president’s itinerary from his Sudanese diplomatic connections; that Siddig coordinated closely with diplomats al-Din and Yousef on both the U.N. bombing plot and arrangements for his escape therefrom; and that when the conspirators needed help with financing and fuel for bomb construction, they turned to Mohammed Saleh, a Hamas associate whom Siddig knew through his Turabi connections.

I have spoken with Laurie Mylroie one time since the briefing she gave me in 1994. She called me out of the blue about three years ago. It had been over a decade since our testy exchange, and we had a long — at times amicable, at times difficult — conversation. She now reports that I told her al-Din and Yousef were not indicted because “Sudan would not lift their immunity.” I doubt I said it the way she seems to remember it. I am quite confident there is no way Sudan’s jihadist regime would have waived sovereign immunity if it had been asked to do so, and I would not have been shy about telling Mylroie that. But I don’t know if anyone in the U.S. government ever went through the motions of asking Sudan that question. I don’t recall ever hearing that that was done, and the decision whether to try would have been made by President Clinton and Secretary of State Christopher in Washington, not by a line prosecutor in New York.

To me, however, this is all beside the point. As I explained to Mylroie (though she does not mention it in her review), the Clinton State Department publicly and quite appropriately expelled al-Din and Yousef because of their complicity in the bombing plot. Moreover, contrary to Mylroie’s bloviating, a futile indictment of the two Sudanese diplomats would not have made a bit of difference to the public’s understanding of Sudan’s role. Whether or not al-Din and Yousef were in the courtroom as defendants, we would have presented the case exactly the same way: The evidence against Siddig Ali, his Sudanese cell members, and Mohammed Saleh — all of whom were defendants on trial — was such that the case could not have been proved without showing the Sudanese regime’s participation.

In Willful Blindness, I not only describe the Sudanese treachery against the U.S. at great length; I trace the working relationship between Abdel Rahman and Turabi back to the 1980s. Moreover, ten years ago, I wrote a lengthy, feature essay for the Weekly Standard entitled, “The Sudan Connection — The Missing Link in U.S. Terrorism Policy.” That essay (which is cited and drawn on in Willful Blindness) laid out in gory detail the Sudanese complicity in the Landmarks plot; argued that Sudan’s anti-American terrorism justified President Clinton’s decision, after the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in east Africa, to order a cruise-missile strike against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum (believed to be a joint Iraq/Sudan/al-Qaeda weapons venture); and criticized the Clinton administration for appearing to apologize for the strike rather than recounting the rich record of Sudanese complicity in jihadist terror that had been established beyond peradventure in the Blind Sheikh trial.

A central theme of my book is the incapacity of the criminal-justice system to deal adequately with a national security threat. Another is that, while the threat that confronts us is fueled by a strain of Islamic ideology, terror networks would not be able to project power on a consequential scale absent facilitation by such rogue nations as Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Sudan. Reading Laurie Mylroie’s review, a reader would come away figuring I must have argued, in contravention of what Willful Blindness actually says, that international terrorism is merely a crime and state sponsorship a trifle. Under the guise of reviewing a book, Mylroie ignores the book, using the opportunity instead to reprise her half-baked theories and cavalier dismissal of Islamic radicalism. It’s a shame the Sun let her do it.

Andrew C. McCarthy is author of Willful Blindness: Memoir of the Jihad and director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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