Archive for September, 2012
Paterson- New York magazine occasionally runs a segment of their real estate section called “Fame Slept Here” about astronomically priced homes for sale on the NYC market that were inhabited by all manner of celebrity past and present. I’ve spent parts of the last decade looking at much less desirable habitations of the men involved in the ‘planes operation’ (9/11) around the world from Kuala Lumpur to San Diego. Blog entries like this one are not meant to be exhaustive chronologies but a portion of my research.
Yesterday I finally made the trek from midtown Manhattan to a northern New Jersey slum called Paterson where up to six of the hijackers stayed during the summer preceding 9/11. I took a Latino shuttle bus from the front door of the New York Times’ ivory tower across from the dreary Port Authority bus terminal. The unassuming coach then pulled away from Arthur Sulzberger Jr’s vertical empire of glass and steel toward the Hudson River, through the Lincoln Tunnel and on to Paterson and neighboring Totowa, New Jersey.
In continuing my (what seems like) never ending journey to document the lead up to 9/11 which has been quite a global endeavour, it had been bothering me that I haven’t done some of the work closest to home.
According to man called Jimi Nouri, Hani Hanjour (believed to have crashed American Airlines 77 into the Pentagon) and Ahmed al-Ghamdi rented the third floor unit in May of 2001. It was in this red brick black where Nawaf al-Hazmi would relocate after leaving San Diego now joined by his brother Salem and Khalid al-Midhar along with Majed Moqed and Abdelaziz al-Omari.
On a side note, al-Omari was mentored by Suliman al-Elwan, a jailed Saudi Salafi theologian profiled by my colleague Murad Batal al-Shishani for the February 2011 edition of Militant Leadership Monitor (which I edited-subscription only).
The next stop on my trek took me just over two miles directly down the road to the ATS travel agency in the lower middle class town of Totowa. It was here that Hani Hanjour and Majed Moqed bought Hanjour’s ticket on AA 77 for 9/11. (For reference see: FBI Summary about Alleged Hijacker Hani Hanjour, p.50.) This small converted house on a hill in north Jersey unknowingly facilitated partial destruction of the Pentagon. Undoubtedly all of the people who inhabit or utilize these particular locales today would prefer these highly unpleasant affiliations end up in the dust bin of history but I am trying ensure, sorry to say, that they never be.
In 2010, I revisited the Parkwood Apartments in San Diego’s Clairemont area and noticed the complex had been pleasantly renamed “Blossom Walk” since I first photographed them in 2002 after finding out that Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and allegedly Saudi student/spy Omar al-Bayoumi had resided there.
My third and final stop on the Jersey terror tour brought me to the tidy Arab and Turkish enclave of south Paterson below the Passaic River. I’d first gotten off the shuttle bus here far too early at the beginning of the day when I was trying to get my bearings and so I came full circle back to Main Street. Bathed in a splendid late afternoon sun after a very light rain shower was Apollo Travel on Main Street.
It was here that in early July 2001 Mohammed Atta bought his ticket from Miami to Madrid via Zurich in order to rendezvous with Ramzi bin al-Shibh (though they ended up meeting in coastal Catalunya when bin al-Shibh could only get a ticket from Hamburg to Reus Airport) in what was believed to have been a final planning meeting for the planes operation in the EU. As a Yemeni, bin al-Shibh was unable to secure an American visa to join the men in Paterson or south Florida. He now resides at the detention facility at Guanánamo Bay.
For more on this, see my post from August 2011: Retracing Mohammed Atta’s Footsteps in Catalunya
Exhausted I flagged down a shuttle bus trundling down Main Street bound for Manhattan. Listening to Bloc Party’s Four on my iPod I look through the windshield as the bus crests over a slight hill on the highway to see the new World Trade Center in the distance towering over the New Jersey foliage. I realize the AQ operatives would have inevitably seen this view while they were driving around this area doing their mundane errands with the Twin Towers–their intended target–rising above the hot Atlantic landscape 11 summers ago.
I thought about how many people in this country and around the world, especially those that never had to live through 9/11, still cling to wildly unfounded conspiracy theories rather than confront and cope with history and reality. To see these ordinary facets of the 9/11 plot, the air ticket offices, halal meat markets, run down apartments, an ATM here, a big box store there, is to visit a painful period of recent American history that lacks any of the glamour of the elaborate plots dreamed up by the ‘inside job’ crowd where suited Bilderbergers in Langley or Tel Aviv or god knows where planned to hoodwink the entire world on live television.
What’s partly fascinating in all the exploration I’ve done from San Diego to Hamburg to Scottsdale to Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles to Bangkok and now New Jersey is the sheer banality of it all. There is no imagined evil lair from an Cold War Ian Fleming novel. These are living, breathing locales. I bought a Vitamin Water in the utterly non-descript mini-market below the hijackers old apartment. All of it still exists for those that bother to look.
New York- Yesterday for the 11th anniversary of 9/11 I decided to do something a bit off the beaten path. Though New York City was the site of the attacks, no other part of the ‘planes operation’ timeline is known (to my knowledge) to have occurred in the city’s five boroughs. The closest thing would be when several of the hijackers led by Hani Hanjour moved into an apartment in Paterson and rented mailboxes at Mail Boxes Etc. in Fort Lee and Wayne, New Jersey nearby.
There are however a few tangential, yet important locales that fit into the larger picture. One quietly resides in a nondescript brown brick medical office complex at 55-16 Main Street in Flushing, Queens. This had been the site of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s ‘Mission’ to the UN (not a terribly convenient location for access to Turtle Bay?). I visited this dull building a couple of times in August of 2001 while trying to acquire a visa for Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The State Department ordered the two rather sullen ‘diplomats’ to close the office on February 13, 2001. But when I knocked on their door that summer there was still a sign on the front of the office door in English, Pashto, and Dari that listed it as their mission. And the phone still worked as either Abdul Hakeem Mujahid or Noorullah Zadran (most likely Zadran) would occasionally and very skeptically listen to my queries. I thought about titling this post a Salafi-jihadi tour of New York but of course the Taliban were hardcore Deobandis influenced more by radical Islam in British India than modern Saudi Arabia.
From Flushing I made the long subway trek to downtown Brooklyn in the footsteps of the now long dead Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. Azzam was bin Laden before bin Laden was. The original transnational jihadi ideologue, Azzam was born near Jenin, British Mandate Palestine in 1941. He fled to Jordan after the 1967 war when the Israelis began to militarily occupy his homeland. During his radicalization, Azzam was an early adapter to the Salafi interpretation of Islam and preached accordingly. According to New Yorker writer George Packer, the building pictured below was the location of Azzam’s Afghan Services Bureau which was used to recruit volunteers to fight in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad as well as funnel funds there.
Next door to the perfume factory is the infamous al-Farooq mosque (and former al-Kifah Refugee Center) at 552 Atlantic Avenue. It was here that, according to French scholar Giles Kepel, Azzam had kindly requested sympathizers to the jihad to send their donation checks made out simply to “Service Bureau.” Azzam had opened a checking account several blocks northwest of the office and mosque complex at the Independence Savings Bank on the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue (which is now a Trader Joes supermarketin line with the area’s intense gentrification).
A 1995 New Yorker article describes how the CIA-linked Azzam as well as the currently imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman preached at al-Farooq and a rustic masjid in Jersey City called al-Salam. Azzam is most often referenced as Osama bin Laden’s ‘mentor.’ After the conclusion of the Afghan jihad, Azzam and his sons were killed in a bombing in November 1989 while en route to salat al-juma (Friday prayers) at the “Mosque of the Martyrs” in Peshawar’s University Town district. The reasons for Azzam’s killing have never quite revealed themselves. Some believe it was factional infighting amongst the Arab jihadis in Peshawar who were adrift after the Red Army had withdrawn from Afghanistan earlier that year. It has even been speculated that bin Laden himself ordered his henchmen to carry out the bombing.
Whether Azzam is as relevant today to those in the sway of Salafi rhetoric I can’t be sure but it is very likely that Mohammed Atta and other old school AQ core operatives were very much influenced by the writings and speeches of a man with cause who once dined in Brooklyn’s halal eateries and opened a checking account with great ease in an open society.
On a side note, it was on this street that in the fall of 2000 I purchased a shalwar kammez–Pakistan’s national dress–at an Arab store (ie not a Pakistani one) to work on my senior thesis in…Peshawar.
New York- Ten years ago today a group of neoconservative goons and their attendant lackeys were busy plotting the destruction of the Iraqi capital in the auspiciously named “Office of Special Plans” at the Pentagon. The result was what you see in the above photo. Me, entering Iraq illegally without a visa, able to climb to the top of Baghdad Tower with a group of looters calling themselves members of the Kurdistan Socialist Party. Situated below is the posh al-Mansour district where President Saddam Hussein–then the world’s most feared Tikriti–had been busy constructing the al-Rahman mosque which was meant to be the third largest in the world after the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina and the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
From the top of the tower (which I had read was supposedly a revolving restaurant seated close the pinnacle of a post-Gulf War telecom needle) were spectacular views of the brown concrete and asphalt city below. Fires could be seen burning unabated with no fire department in sight, the constant echo of gun shots ricocheting here and there, groups of men in adidas track suits careening around in Toyota rustbuckets robbing Ba’ath Party buildings with abandon. The mosque–ostensibly a Sunni one–was immediately taken over by the Shia hawza that April. It still sits in the historically Sunni al-Mansour area unfinished to this day. It cannot be demolished for reasons of religiosity and cannot be completed for reasons of economic priority.
It was a real party in the ancient seat of the Abbasid Caliphate that April. The Americans had bombed the al-Ma’moun communications center at the tower’s base but had yet to secure access to the tower itself when I arrived that afternoon. Unlike several other of Saddam Hussein’s garish architectural adventures, the tower was never enveloped into the Green Zone (hence locating it in the amorphous, deadly geographical de facto superimposition known as the Red Zone).
I sometimes stare at these photos and ponder how many suicide bombings in the ensuing years could have been witnessed from the 360-degree views provided by the tower’s observation deck. How many Iraqis died and how Douglas Feith and other American Likudniks are still living such comfortable lives. Contrary to media reports, these Iraqis were neither nameless or countless. But…their deaths were indeed both needless and pointless.
As the current unending pseudo-debate over Iran and its nuclear program illustrates, Israel’s military hegemony in the Levant was not particularly enhanced by the destruction of Ba’ath Party edifices in Baghdad in 2003 and it is no more secure today as a result. More importantly, Iraq is certainly not anymore secure. It is now a venue for Iranian influence and a conduit for Sunni salafi-jihadis to enter the Syrian civil war.