A decade before 9/11, the worldwide surge in Islamic fundamentalism and its virulent hatred of the West was largely unrecognized in America. We did not notice when some of the most prominent radicals moved to this country and set up operations just across the river from the World Trade Center. Those early militants, ignored in their new chosen homeland, would become the role models and inspiration for some of the World Trade Center and Pentagon hijackers in 2001.
Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue is only thirty minutes away by the Number 4 train from the World Trade Center. Before September 11, a nearby waterfront promenade offered postcard views of the twin towers. But these two New York neighborhoods might as well be different countries. The sterile and overbuilt financial center on the tip of Manhattan that was rendered into a giant open-air cemetery covered by tons of twisted debris is quintessentially American. The mile stretch of Brooklyn seems a much closer cousin to downtown Cairo than Wall Street. It is a neighborhood overcrowded with the city's densest concentration of Arabs.
If someone just arrived from Lebanon or Syria, they might feel at home along those gritty and packed streets. Many Muslims, in traditional robe and turban, crowd near the Islamic community centers and bookshops, Middle Eastern restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries, smoke shops, translation services, and hairdressers. Some men gather in small groups at outdoor cafés, sipping minted tea and smoking from bubbling hookahs, large, standing water pipes filled with fruit- and herb-infused tobacco. Women in layered skirts and head-covering scarves, babies in tow, walk several paces behind the men. Quavering Arab music blares from several record stores. On Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer, when the mosques fill, overflow crowds by the hundreds throw down small prayer rugs on the sidewalk and prostrate themselves toward Mecca.
The mosques range from lavish Ottoman-style buildings to basements of car service garages. But the best known house of worship is Masjid al-Farooq, located on several floors of a run-down commercial building. The second-floor sanctuary is bathed in a soft light, tinted green from jade-colored walls and worn purple-and-emerald-colored carpet. Worshipers line up shoulder to shoulder, creating human stripes across the carpet, all facing Mecca and praying. Incense sticks resting in cracks in the plaster walls fill the room with a sweet smell. Racks along the back wall hold a collection of workingmen's shoes: Nike sneakers, paint-spattered construction boots, worn-out wing tips, scuffed thick-soled shoes of civil servants. Among the crowd of émigrés are African-Americans, young men with knitted skullcaps or baseball caps turned backward.
The imam, the mosque's prayer leader, stands in a simple brown robe behind a plain wooden lectern, reading verses from the Koran. Many of the faithful-men in their twenties from Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, and the West Bank-gather in the hallway after the service. They trade information about jobs at cab companies and at construction sites, and pass along tips on cheap rooms for rent and religious activities for Arabic-speaking newcomers. Some discuss the attack on the World Trade Center three days ago, but when they see a stranger approach, they revert to Arabic.*
This Arab mecca in the heart of New York is not a recent phenomenon. The migration had started in the early 1900s as Arabs fled persecution in the Ottoman Empire. Some set up shop not far from their stop at Ellis Island-on Manhattan's Washington Street and Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. In the 1930s, and again after World War II, there were waves of new immigrants. Manhattan's high prices drove most newcomers to Brooklyn. "This area is known as an Arab enclave throughout the world," boasts Sam Moustapha, a co-owner of the family-run Oriental Pastry and Grocery Company.
It is a neighborhood where Arabs are not timid about embracing political sentiments that often seem continents removed from nearby Manhattan. Many of the local businesses have long displayed prominent anti-Israeli, pro-intifada signs and banners. Even in the immediate wake of 9/11, a flyer posted outside al-Qaraween's Islamic bookstore, next to a mosque, declared, "Allah is great-may justice come to the infidels." At the nearby Fertile Crescent, a Middle Eastern market, pictures of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon were stamped over with the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle scope.
A small convenience store had a half dozen posters plastered on the wall behind the counter. They were grainy black-and-white blowups of young men, all holding weapons, wearing kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads and covering their faces like Bedouins in a sandstorm. All that was visible were the intense stares of angry young Arab militants that Americans have now come to know too well. Arabic writing was scrawled on the posters. They were tributes to suicide bombers. Each of the men on the wall had blown himself apart in a terror attack against Israel. When asked about the posters and why they were on display, only miles from where thousands of Americans and foreigners lay dead from a suicide mission, the clerk pretended he did not speak English. More questions were answered only with grunts and dismissive waves.
Further down the block, at the sixty-five-year-old Damascus Bread and Pastry, Arab men have been eating and arguing politics for decades. The showcases are packed with displays of sticky dates, nut-filled pastries, and an amazing assortment of pita bread, some of which is put to good use right outside by a falafel vendor. Inside the tiny room, dense with thick and heady smoke from hours of chain-smoking, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Lebanese sit, packed elbow to elbow, discussing the terror attacks. Many have lived through years of crises, including four Arab-Israeli wars, the arrests of local Hamas bomb makers, the nearby murder ten years earlier of radical Jewish activist Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Gulf War, and the now legendary neighborhood tales of the first World Trade Center bombers who lived and worshiped along these very streets.
Five young men at the counter, cradling cell phones and packs of cigarettes, were not as reticent as the others to talk to a stranger. Yes, the World Trade Center attack was terrible. But America must have known how hated it was, and that such a strike was surely coming. One slammed the Formica counter so hard with the palm of his hand that his demitasse of mudlike coffee flipped over. How could America support the terror state of Israel, he asked, and then cry foul when the underpowered struck back?
On this unusually warm autumn day, only days after the September 11 attacks that pushed America into a world it did not seek nor for which it was prepared, walking along Atlantic Avenue, one can still see the buildings that once served as rallying grounds for the neighborhood's militants. These were the places that fueled the activism that eventually led to attacks like 9/11.
At one end of a block, where the elevated subway train casts deep angular shadows over the intersection of Foster and McDonald avenues, an Arabic chant blares over a loudspeaker every Friday, sounding the call to prayer at the Abu Bakr Siddique mosque. Except for a fortresslike entry, the building doesn't look much different from other wood-frame houses nearby. But it was here that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind extremist Egyptian cleric now serving a life sentence for seditious conspiracy for the "day of terror" plot intended to blow up New York City landmarks, tunnels, and bridges, preached his violent rhetoric.2 Rahman had immigrated to the United States in 1990 and inexplicably cleared Customs although he was on a domestic terrorist watch list.
Virtual solitary confinement in a federal prison hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, evidently did little to temper his hatred. In 1998, from his cell, he smuggled out a fatwa, a religious order, urging his followers to "cut all links with the United States. Destroy them thoroughly and erase them from the face of the earth. Ruin their economies, set their companies on fire, turn their conspiracies to powder and dust. Sink their ships, bring their planes down. Slay them in air, on land, on water. And with the command of Allah, kill them wherever you find them. Catch them and put them in prison. Lie in wait for them and kill these infidels. They will surely get great oppression from you. God will make you the means of wreaking a terrible revenge upon them, of degrading them. He will support you against them." That fatwa has become part of the curriculum in more than thirty thousand Islamic religious schools in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen.
At the other end of the block, just a few hundred yards from the mosque, is a simple red-brick house at the corner of Ocean Parkway and Foster. One cannot tell from the outside that until 1997 it was the headquarters of Kahane Chai, the militant Jewish group. That was the same year the State Department branded it a terrorist organization. Kahane Chai was devoted to the teachings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, gunned down in Manhattan by an Arab immigrant in 1990. The rabbi preached a strident racism that attracted adherents in local Jewish neighborhoods. Among them was a young doctor, Baruch Goldstein, the former Brooklyn resident who in 1994 slaughtered twenty-nine Muslims while they prayed in a West Bank mosque.
But on this day, with the sun setting in less than an hour, the interest is in the remnants of the Alkifah Refugee Center, Sheikh Rahman's old preaching grounds. The center used to be nestled behind one of the ordinary-looking storefronts along Atlantic Avenue. Its stated purpose was to raise money so local Muslims could join the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Federal officials say the now shuttered center was a gathering place for Islamic terrorists, the first American base for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. The center was where key personal relationships were forged between men of different nationalities who shared bin Laden's extreme interpretation of Islam.
In the mid-1980s, the Alkifah Center was a neighborhood hub on Atlantic Avenue. It started out as a single desk in the al-Farooq mosque around 1986 and then moved into a grungy second-floor apartment in a building a few doors away at 566 Atlantic Avenue, above what is now a perfume factory. That tiny space had barely enough room for a desk, a few chairs, a phone, and a fax machine. Although many in the neighborhood recall that the Alkifah Center ran on a shoestring, documents submitted in U.S. court cases revealed that tens of thousands of dollars flowed through its bank accounts during its heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The center's director was Emir Mustafa Shalabi, a young Egyptian immigrant with a shock of red hair. Shalabi was infused with the same religious fervor for the Afghan cause that roused many young Muslims who regarded it as a holy war to liberate an Islamic country from communist domination. Neighbors began calling Alkifah the "jihad office."* Shalabi invited Sergeant Ali Mohamed, a former Egyptian army officer and U.S. Army Green Beret, to the center's basement offices under the al-Farooq mosque. Armed with official U.S. Army videotapes and military documents marked "Top Secret," Mohamed conducted a series of weekend "training" classes and a two-week-long intensive seminar. Almost all the volunteers were Arab immigrants. They bought $600 one-way fares as a sign they were willing to give their lives for Islam.
At those training classes were such future terrorists as El-Sayyid A. Nosair, the Egyptian immigrant later charged with killing Rabbi Kahane; Mohammed Salameh and Clement Rodney Hampton-El, convicted in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; and Mahmud Abouhalima, Sheikh Rahman's part-time driver, found guilty of conspiracy in the 1998 East African embassy bombings that killed fifty-nine and wounded more than five thousand. Sergeant Mohamed himself would eventually plead guilty to conspiring to bomb the East African embassies.
Even when the Soviets humiliatingly withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the turmoil of the civil war to which Afghanistan fell victim echoed in Brooklyn, and Shalabi kept Alkifah open. The religious fury of many young Arab men who had fought the Soviets now turned against secular Arab governments and, ultimately, America, with its military presence in the Persian Gulf and its support for Israel. Also, the mujahedeen, or holy warriors, in Afghanistan were now fighting to create a strict Islamic state admired by many of the younger men in Brooklyn.
The turning point for the Alkifah Refugee Center came in 1990 when Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman arrived in Brooklyn. An almost legendary cleric whose extreme rhetoric had incited the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Rahman had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was a friend of the wealthy Saudi mujahedeen leader, Osama bin Laden. As word of Rahman's interest in the center spread in the Muslim community, hard-core fundamentalists flocked to it.
Emir Shalabi, who was the American representative of the Afghan Services Bureau, a recruiting organization cofounded by bin Laden, had sponsored Rahman's entry into the country.3* Shalabi took the blind sheikh into his house, gave him a part-time driver, helped him move to an apartment in Bay Ridge, and even paid for his food and telephone bill. He also made the sheikh an integral part of his Afghanistan campaign. And when the al-Farooq needed a new imam, the fifty-two-year-old Sheikh Rahman, with the support of Shalabi, was selected, and started delivering the fiery sermons that condemned anti-Islamic practices and tyrannical foreign governments. Before long he denounced other mosque members, including some Yemenis who sold pork, beer, and pornographic magazines in local grocery stores.
Not long after the sheikh's arrival, there was a power struggle at the Alkifah Center. Rahman wanted to channel some of the jihad office's donations to his militant supporters in Egypt. Shalabi refused. He remained loyal to the man who had originally inspired him, Abdullah Azzam. A Palestinian professor of Islamic studies in Jordan, Azzam was a mentor to Osama bin Laden. Azzam had visited America often in the 1980s, urging support for the war in Afghanistan.
Others in the tightly knit Arab community in New York and Jersey City, where the sheikh moved after feuding with Shalabi, say there were rumors that Shalabi had stolen money from the jihad office and might be involved in counterfeiting. Despite the whisper campaign, which Rahman fostered, Shalabi refused to relinquish control of the fund-raising. Rahman's supporters began complaining that Shalabi had become "an internal problem." A vicious quarrel over political direction and leadership-the organization's very soul-was under way. The fight worsened when Rahman publicly denounced Shalabi at a local mosque, accusing him of mishandling Arabs' money. Flyers appeared urging Muslims not to give any more money to Shalabi.
From the Hardcover edition.