In the annals of undercover law-enforcement, few assignments have been as tough—or impactful—as the one Emad Salem signed up for in the fall of 1991. Salem, an Egyptian native who served in his country’s military before immigrating to the United States in 1987, recognized the dangerous threat posed by the presence of another Egyptian—Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh—in the New York area. And at a time when few believed that a terror attack could happen on U.S. soil, he agreed to be the eyes and ears of the FBI by embedding himself in what was essentially the first al Qaeda cell in America. He spent his days and nights gathering evidence against a group of jihadists who had planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And in the process, he helped thwart a massive plot to bomb multiple New York City landmarks that would likely have killed more people than the 9/11 attacks. Below, he tells HISTORY his extraordinary story.
HISTORY: You were working as head of security at a New York hotel, when an FBI agent approached you, asking for information related to some Russian guests there. What was that like?
ES: You cannot imagine…I’m a new immigrant to America, and the FBI needs my help. It was a big, great deal for me. I said, “Of course. What can I do?”
How did you get involved in the anti-terrorism side of the FBI?
After I worked to help that first agent, Nancy Floyd, she introduced me to special agent John Anticev and detective Louis Napoli from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the New York office. She told me, “They need your help.”
When you met them at a diner, they showed you some photographs—of whom?
They showed me a small picture of the Blind Sheikh [Omar Abdel-Rahman]. In 1979, the Blind Sheikh was the elected emir—emir means prince—for the Mujahideen [militant Islamists] around the globe. The Blind Sheikh had a Ph.D in Islam, he was the one who will give a fatwa, an Islamic religious decree, for the Mujahideen around the world to follow.
I knew of him because [he ordered] so many assassinations: reporters, newspaper chiefs, editors. Anybody who disagreed with him would be assassinated the next morning. But the biggest catastrophe in my life was October 6, 1981. The Egyptian military was celebrating the October parade, and President Anwar Sadat was on a stage, watching the parade. The Blind Sheik gave a fatwa—and his followers believed in his fatwa—that President Sadat should be killed.
And that’s because President Sadat made the first attempts to make peace with the arch-enemy, Israel?
Well, it was not an attempt. He was fought tooth and nail by the Arab leaders not to make this deal, but he stood his ground and he believed that the Israeli people have the right to live, Egyptian people have right to live, there is no war anymore, and we’re going to make peace.
So John Anticev and Louis Napoli showed you the picture of the Blind Sheikh. He’s in America at this point?
That’s unfortunately what they told me. He is in Brooklyn, at the Al-Farooq mosque. I said, “How come, guys? This man is a terrorist.” They said, “Bottom line, he is here.”
Then they asked you if you would infiltrate the cell. One of its top members, El Sayyid Nosair, was on trial for killing the militant rabbi Meir Kahane. So they brought you to the courthouse, and asked you to do…what?
They requested me to get as close as I could to Nosair’s followers at the beginning. And I created my plan to gain entry. When you go undercover, this is a very difficult job. You have to be trained to compartmentalize your brain. I wake up in the morning, 6:00, 7:00, I have one compartment, I am a father and a husband. Get the coffee to my wife, get breakfast to my kids. Then, 8:30 I have to switch to compartment number two. And that is, I’m an undercover operative for the FBI. I go meet the feds in a dark-window-tinted car, then get debriefed. Then, by 9:00, 10:00, I switch into a third compartment and I become a terrorist. Fortunately, undercover. And I have to talk like a terrorist, I have to curse at America, I have to curse at the feds and so on. So you need to train yourself to compartmentalize your brain, to be able to switch compartments.
And how did you get his followers in front of the courthouse to believe that you were one of them, and get on the inside?
I established as my entry point that I am an ex-Green Beret and I’m a jeweler. And part-time, I do electronic surveillance.
Why a jeweler?
Jeweler means I have money. And I know they are after money.
Why Green Beret?
Green Berets, I know they either want me to shoot somebody or they want me to build a bomb. Third thing is to say I’m doing electronic surveillance, because I might have recordings and if they see some recording devices with me, I don’t want it to raise a red flag.
Why were you willing to go undercover for a country you were new to?
This is my choice. I choose to live in America. I was born without a choice in Egypt, but when I chose to live in America, then this is my America. And nobody will mess with my America. Make no mistake about that.
Tell us the day-by-day. What did you do inside the cell?
It was 18 hours a day. I have to introduce myself to the crowd at the courthouse, I have to curse at America, curse at the FBI, be believable. I got the recognition of the radicals who were supporting Nosair and then, after that, we go to meet in the mosque in New Jersey. We spent three, four hours in the mosque, discussing what should we do. Then we moved from the New Jersey mosque, which is called Al-Salam mosque, and we go to Queens, to Abu Bakr mosque. In Queens, we started sending letters to collect money for the defense of Nosair.
Eventually you were brought on the inside enough to actually meet Nosair. Where did you meet him?
I became as close as I could to his cousin Ibrahim Elgabrowny, and he said, “Sayyid heard what you’re doing and how you’re helping us. He would like to see you.” He was in Rikers Island jail and I said, “I would be glad to meet our hero.” We used to call him a hero, of course. They took me to Rikers Island, I met with him, and we had a very superficial conversation in the beginning—so he can feel my dedication and my personality, which I think clicked with him.
Did you ask him about whether he killed rabbi Meir Kahane?
I couldn’t ask him in the first meeting, otherwise I’d be blowing my cover. So I waited until they transferred him to Attica prison. And he started to hear more about me, that I’m gathering money for him, for his defense. His cousins took me to visit Sayyid in Attica. And that’s when I approached him differently. I said, “Sayyid, we are so proud of the hero job you have done. But for me, as a retired military person, how did you do that in a room of 200, 300 people?” And he made a gesture with his hand and he said, “This.” And he motioned that did it from the hip.
He shot from the hip?
Right. That was enough information to acknowledge that he did it like this. And I conveyed that to the agents when I came back.
After a while, he started asking you to do things that were more serious, right?
Correct. I was asked to build 12 bombs by Ibrahim Elgabrowny. They would be distributed, and the majority of these bombs would go into synagogues in Brooklyn and in Queens. And there was a bomb for the judge who ruled against El Sayyid Nosair, a bomb for an assemblyman from Brooklyn and a bomb for Senator [Alphonse] D’Amato.
To report back, without wearing a wire, you had to remember all the details of all of these conversations and the names. And meanwhile FBI agents were doing surveillance, taking photos outside. You had to put names to faces. That was a lot of dangerous work.
It is dangerous, but I didn’t mind it if I am doing what I think is the correct thing. Because I know how brutal the Blind Sheikh is. I know how much blood he has on his hands. I experienced it firsthand in Egypt, so I don’t want that to happen in my American streets. So, I didn’t mind.
When you started making these 12 pipe bombs, then what happened?
Actually, they switched gears. Ibrahim Elgabrowny invited me into his house and he blasted the radio loud, because he was thinking the FBI was monitoring his apartment. And he asked me, “Can you build big bombs?” I said, “Yes, I can.” He asked, “What do you need to build big bombs? Because the 12 bombs are not really making me happy. I wanted something big.” I said, “I need a detonator.” And then I gave him some demands. So they switched gears from 12 small pipe bombs into a big, massive bomb similar to the Oklahoma City bomb.
How did you position yourself so you wouldn’t be considered a conspirator? You had to walk a very fine line, to gather evidence that would hold up in court, but not lead them to do things. Were there strict rules you had to follow?
I was schooled very well by the special agents who were handling me. John Anticev, Louis Napoli, Nancy Floyd, they schooled me not to suggest targets, not to suggest bombing, because that’s called entrapment. All of that was new to me, the American law. So, I start to learn quickly to give open-ended questions, to let them roll and to give me the information needed. Yet, I didn’t want to jeopardize the case later on by suggesting that I’m leading them. I learned that through my case agents.
Once the bombing plan got serious, the FBI wanted you to wear a recording device, right?
Wear a recording device, go back to Attica with it, then record Sayyid Nosair in jail when he’s telling me this thing. I said, “I can’t do that. I will give you the intelligence, corroborate it your way, but if I testify in open court, my sister will be beheaded in Egypt. The Blind Sheik has followers in Egypt, everywhere.” If they see my face in an American court, putting their prince in jail, they will kidnap my sister. They chased my niece in the streets. She was able to hide from them. They wanted to kidnap her after I testified in court later on. So I was afraid of that and that’s why, thank God, the FBI brought my family here before my testimony.
When you refused to wear a wire, what happened?
I could not wear a wire for the protection of my family. So [higher-ups in the FBI] said, “Okay, if you don’t wear a wire, go home.”
What? Go home?
Go home. I said, “Okay. But, when the bomb gets built by somebody else and goes off, don’t come and knock on my door.” And unfortunately, that’s what happened.
So, suddenly you were not in the cell anymore. Where did they think you had gone?
The cell, every day, two, three times a day they called at home. “Brother Emad, you need to come back to the mosque to finish what you started. You need to finish cooking.” Of course, I’m not a cook, but I was building a bomb and that’s what cooking meant up here. Just to be on the safe side, I’m reporting [back to the FBI on] the phone calls that came to me for three months, until the cell contacted another technician to build the bomb for them. They sent a fax to Osama Bin Laden and requested another technician [who came and] built a bomb that they blew up, unfortunately, on February 26, 1993.
Tell us about that day and what happened.
I was sitting in my living room, watching TV, and all of a sudden reports came that a transformer exploded in the World Trade Center. I called my wife immediately and said, “Honey. They did it. This is not a transformer; this is the bomb. They did build the bomb.” And unfortunately that’s what it is.
How did that make you feel since you had been on the inside of the cell?
I was so sad. I really felt so guilty that six people got killed. One of them was an unborn child. It’s just brutal, ruthless. I was so guilty, I was so upset that I could’ve helped, I could’ve reported that in advance. I could’ve stopped it.
After the 1993 bombing, the FBI asked you to come back?
Yes. Because they don’t have ear and eyes inside the cell. And they say, “Okay, come back, we need to know what’s going on.” I agreed, out of guilt. I felt guilty that there are six people who got killed on my watch. I could’ve helped, I could’ve prevented that. And that, for a military man, that is like a stab to my honor. So they said, “When you come back you’re going to need to wear a wire.” I said, “I will do whatever it takes, because I know that’s not the end of it.”
Why did you decide to wear a wire now?
Because at that time, the FBI was working with the State Department to bring my sister to America. She would be protected in the Witness Protection Program. If I wear a wire, I’m the only one in danger, and if they discover that I’m wired or if they discover that I’m an FBI undercover operative, I’m the one who would be killed. I can live with my death, but I cannot live if my wife, or my son, or my sister, or my daughter is harmed in any way.
So tell us about going back into the cell. Did you become closer to the Blind Sheikh?
Yes. One day I was asked to go to his apartment in New Jersey, where he said, “I heard that you have electronics experience and you’re an electrical engineer. Can you find out if the FBI is monitoring my apartment or not?” I said, “Yes, I have a device, but it’s not on me. It’s at home.” He said, “Bring that device and come tomorrow.”
So here’s where you compartmentalize. You’re an undercover FBI informant being asked by the man you’re following whether the FBI is tracking him. How do you handle that?
I got a make-believe device. It’s not a real sweeping device, but it’s a device that will create noise on command. Because I know the sheik is blind, but he’s going to hear. When I said, “I got the device, Sheik,” we went to the bedroom. I was moving the device on the wall and I turned the volume up, and said, “Oh, my god, there is a recording device in the bedroom. Let us walk out of here.” I made sure to say there are recording devices in the entire apartment except the kitchen. I knew that that’s my safe zone, the kitchen. It’s small, it’s confined, it has a lot of wooden cabinets. So it’s a good environment to record what I need.
And the Sheikh felt it was a safe place?
Yes, but he requested from me, “You have to give the bayah.”
It’s when you go to the sheik, you kiss his hand, and you put your forehead on his hand and say, “I dedicate my life to you. I give you dedication for whatever order you say, I must obey.” If he accepts, he puts his hand on my head and says, “Okay, I accept.” From that point on, that means he trust me 100%. If he tells me, “Jump out of the window,” I must. So that’s what established that trust. He said, “Okay, let’s go talk in the kitchen.”
So after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, some members of the cell were captured and arrested. Were there new terror plans being developed at that point?
I was with [a cell member named] Saddiq at 3:00 in the morning in his apartment in New Jersey, and he said, “They arrested Ibrahim Elgabrowny, they arrested Mahmud, they arrested our brothers.” I said, “Son of a bitch, can you believe that?” He said, “You know, we have to do something serious very soon.” I said, “I’m all ears and eyes. Tell me. What do you want to do?” He said, “We need to blow up the military armory. There is one here in Manhattan.” I said, “That’s a good idea.” I’m accepting his suggestions because that’s what I was schooled to do.
So what were his suggestions?
Saddiq suggested the armory. And then, after that, a couple of days later, he added the United Nations, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, George Washington Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and 26 Federal Plaza, which houses the FBI.
So you started going around with Saddiq and looking at some of these targets to figure out how to attack them?
I brought my video camera to start recording. Officially recording, with legal permission from the FBI and everything. We start to case the places. We went to Federal Plaza, and we saw the way the cars went into the garage, so we were going to set a fire at the corner. When the guards ran to extinguish the fire, we were going to roll the bomb in the basement. That’s one.
The second one is the Statue of Liberty. We went to the Statue of Liberty and then Saddiq said, “Stand here, brother, let me take your picture with the Statue of Liberty because it will not exist anymore.” Of course, inside I’m on fire—the Statue of Liberty, the magnitude of it…and we’re going to blow it up and he’s laughing. It just drove me nuts.
Another picture was when I was eating a hotdog and he saw the World Trade Center still standing and he said, “Brother, let me take your picture with the World Trade Center because it will not be here anymore hahaha.” And we laughed. We started to case the places on video and in still pictures, as well. The Lincoln and Holland Tunnels recording video to mark the spots in the middle of the tunnels where we would leave the car that was carrying the bomb, then they press the button. Then they would jump out of the car, and there is another car to take them out of the tunnel. We would blow up both tunnels simultaneously and the Hudson River would drown Manhattan and New Jersey together.
This was referred to later as the landmark terror plot, and it went to trial. Did you understand the enormity of what was going on? I think they were planning to do the attacks, five simultaneously?
Correct. And I think judge Michael Mukasey put it in a basic language. He said, “Thank God Mr. Salem was on our side, otherwise we would have a catastrophe worse than the Civil War in Manhattan.” And that hit me, the enormous amount of people who would die drowning, or in the bombing. Thousands upon thousands of people could get killed with these five bombs. Remember, one bomb in Oklahoma City, the same design, had massive casualties. So imagine five of these bombs topple the United Nations, George Washington Bridge, the FBI building. It was a big investigation; it was a big plot. It could’ve really caused a lot of harm to Manhattan.
So when they asked you to build these bombs, you needed a place to do that, right?
Yes. I agreed to build the bombs and, of course, I immediately contacted the feds. The agents said, “Okay. Now you need a place to build these bombs. We call it the safe house.” So they showed me, it’s a big garage in Jamaica, Queens, and it’s fully wired. They said, “Once you take that key, and you bring the bad guys, we are monitoring you 24/7.” I started to bring Saddiq, who told me he would introduce me to the people underground. I started to see completely new members of the cell, who came to help in mixing the bombs. From that point on, we started to have five bombs built inside that factory.
It’s just amazing to be able to actually have that kind of video. We can actually see you stirring and building the bombs, serving coffee to the different cell members.
Serving the coffee was for a purpose, because these people underground, yes we have them on tape, but when I serve them tea, and they grabbed the cups, I can obtain these to have fingerprints. That was the first time, I think, that the FBI had the ability to monitor terrorists actually mixing the bombs, in actual time.
Did you worry that they would not be able to close this plot down, that the plot might happen despite all your best efforts?
No, I had faith in the FBI at this point because they were taking it seriously, they had dedicated a lot of agents for the investigation. When the bomb started to get mixed, we had a very volatile, dangerous situation. If, God forbid, in that very hot environment in that garage, if there were any sparks, it would blow five bombs. You’ve got five, six city blocks blown away. The FBI is very careful not to harm the public, so they came to a point when they said, “We need to exchange the real material into fake explosive. You will be the only one who will know.” We made a date that they would come at 3:00 in the morning, they took the real explosive out and they put fake explosives, for the public’s protection.
What was it like to come in the next morning, and know that those bombs had fake explosive devices?
Nothing much. I have to switch to the third compartment, which is a covered operative. I have to maintain my heartbeat, I have to maintain my sweat, I have Saddiq one day walk from the room, we had a semi-automatic gun ready for any FBI agent or cops, and he pointed it at me and looked at me with a solemn face, shaking me down. If I panic, I don’t know if my cover being blown, if I sweat…all of that, I would be dead. So I succeeded to pull the gun out of his hand and point at him. I said, “That’s what martial arts would do hahaha.” And we laughed and I gave him back the gun. But after that, the FBI took the gun, took the firing pin out of it for my safety.
When did they finally decided to take down the plot? How did that work?
I was hoping that they tell me in advance, so I would be aware of the raid. But they kept that a secret. All of the sudden, at 1:00 in the morning, I see the front door open, the back door is open and a black-masked SWAT team is jumping in with shotguns and everything. They [pushed] me down, put a leg on my neck, put a shotgun to my head, saying “Don’t move. I’ll blow your head,” and stuff like that. And silence. Everybody is under control.
At that moment, I thought the FBI arresting me with them and they’re going to charge me as a terrorist. They are not gonna admit that I was delivering information to them. So I get a panic attack, I start sweating, losing my breath, they took me straight to the hospital. They spend the night next to me—and I’m still here.
That’s an amazing story. To be able to bring this to trial, what did you have to do to prove the Blind Sheikh was the group’s spiritual leader, issuing the orders? He wasn’t in the day-to-day, making bombs.
I got him to trust me until he said, “We need to talk and let us go to the kitchen.” The recording device I had at that time was analog, a three-hour recording device [hidden] in a briefcase. So I held the Blind Sheikh in my left arm, I take my briefcase with me, we go to the kitchen. I told him, “Sheikh, Saddiq and are I building a big one and we’re gonna bring the United Nation down. Should we do it or not?” To get a fatwa. And he said, “Don’t do it.” I said, “Don’t do it? Why?” So he said, “Because the world thinks the United Nation is the center of the peace and they would take it out on the Muslims, that Muslim people are against peace and that will not put the Muslims in a good light. However… ”
And then he came to my left ear with his mouth, whispering, “Find a plan to blow up, or to inflict damage”—verbatim—”on the American army.” I said, “Okay, I got it. Thank you so much. That is illicit or permissible?” He said, “No, it is not illicit.”
So, of course, he is whispering in my ear and I was so concerned that the microphone in my right hand, in the briefcase [could capture that]…so I slowly but very carefully bring the briefcase up, close to my nose, close to his mouth. Of course, he’s blind, he doesn’t see what I’m doing. But my concern is six, seven people sitting [in the other room] with AK-47s and machetes. I would be beheaded if they saw me in that position. But I was able to get his fatwa to blow up the army on record. And I immediately dropped my briefcase before anybody could come to the kitchen and see me in that awkward position.
But there was there something strange about the briefcase, right?
That briefcase had a red light. Once you press record, that red light flashes. Okay, the Blind Sheikh is not gonna see that flashing light, but I have 12 people in the next room. If anyone of them saw…so I got a piece of gum, I chewed it and I just stuck it on the red light, just to save my neck.
And that was enough? To get the Blind Sheikh on tape was enough to actually convict him at trial?
That was the only and the first time that Blind Sheikh got caught with his pants down. He always give the fatwa, do the provocation, do the fiery ceremonies and stay in the background, waiting for the result. But that was the first time somebody succeeded to have him on tape when he is giving a fatwa to blow up some target.
You do training sessions for FBI agents at Quantico on a regular basis. What is your advice to agents fighting terrorism today?
My advice is, get close to the Muslim community, to melt the icy wall for them to be able to feel safe to report their black sheep.