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Terrorists push plots from jail
A jailed Egyptian immigrant plots murder, bombings and a prison break with members of his jihad terrorist group during regular visiting hours.
A Palestinian arrested after entering the United States with bomb-making manuals uses his jailhouse phone privileges to call a friend who patches him through to a partner in New Jersey plotting to blow up the World Trade Center.
And the imprisoned spiritual leader of these terrorists, and others abroad, allegedly gets his messages out to followers despite intense government efforts to smother communications that could yield more terror.
As authorities investigating the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks choke off funding of terrorist groups and detain or arrest potential suspects, a disturbing reality has emerged: Even after terrorists are investigated, captured and locked up, they may still plot mayhem and communicate with fellow devotees from behind bars.
With that in mind, the Justice Department on Oct. 30 dramatically extended its powers over jailed terrorists and suspects, including a controversial order authorizing eavesdropping on attorney-client communications.
That move was made, in part, because of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind spiritual leader of Egypt's largest terrorist organization who was sentenced to life in prison for several violent plots, according to Justice Department sources.
Rahman allegedly has issued several statements from prison despite scrutiny by authorities. They included two last summer in which he withdrew support for his terrorist group's cease-fire in Egypt.
According to court testimony, Rahman, who also is a key figure for Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, issued a fatwa, or holy decree, from prison approving strikes against Americans. The decree reportedly was given to an Al Qaeda member training at a camp in Afghanistan in late 1998.
In addition to the new rules allowing officials to eavesdrop on lawyer-client communications, President Bush last week took what could be an even more drastic step by authorizing military tribunals for foreign terrorists--a move that even supporters acknowledge would severely limit the rights and freedoms of those accused and convicted.
"They don't deserve the same guarantees and safeguards that we use for an American citizen," Vice President Dick Cheney said last week.
Whether a gang leader is running a drug operation from behind bars or a con man uses jailhouse pay phones to rip off the elderly, the walls of America's penitentiaries echo a rich history of criminal acts perpetrated by those imprisoned.
Exploiting jail privileges easy
While jailed criminals can easily exploit phone, mail, visiting and other privileges, the Justice Department recognized five years ago how dangerous such abuses could be in the case of Rahman. The department implemented special restrictions in May 1996. Those regulations allow an intelligence agency chief, the attorney general or the head of a federal law-enforcement agency to severely limit a federal prisoner's reach into the world if "there is a substantial risk that a prisoner's communications or contacts" could result in further acts of "violence or terrorism."
Specific limitations are not detailed in the regulations, but are decided on a case-by-case basis. They can include solitary confinement to keep terrorists from relaying messages through other inmates, mail restrictions as well as elimination of visitation and phone privileges.
Currently, the Justice Department says a small number of inmates--far below 1 percent--are subject to the special national security and anti-terrorism restrictions.
The Oct. 30 rules on the monitoring of lawyer-client communications also allow the 1996 anti-terrorism restrictions to be extended to those in federal detention, including those not yet convicted or even charged.
Civil libertarians and defense lawyers have criticized the new powers. The Justice Department says safeguards barring prosecutors or investigators from reviewing legitimate attorney-client communications will be protected.
Rahman's 1995 conviction as the leader of a terrorist group centered not on the sheik's actions, but on his words. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy, bombing conspiracy, soliciting the murder of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and soliciting an attack on an U.S. military installation.
His followers were preparing to bomb bridges, tunnels and landmarks in New York and, prosecutors allege, Rahman gave them important blessings for the deeds. He was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 17, 1996.
Rahman also is the spiritual leader of al-Gama'a al Islamiyya, a banned terrorist group dedicated to installing an Islamic regime in Egypt. He is considered a key figure for Al Qaeda, with one of his sons recently photographed at bin Laden's side.
Rahman's activities behind bars have been severely restricted from the day he arrived at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Mo., records show. The facility houses some of the most seriously ill federal inmates.
Among other restrictions, Rahman, who has diabetes and other ailments, was cut off from other inmates, denied access to a tape recorder and barred from participating in communal Muslim prayers, records show.
Lines of communication
Sixteen days into the sentence, his defense lawyer, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, pressed the warden to grant Rahman broad freedoms, citing Rahman's status as an international Muslim leader. In a letter dated Feb. 2, 1996, Clark wrote Warden Patrick Keohane that Rahman should be allowed to communicate with his followers worldwide via direct conversations with "Islamic scholars, mosques and Muslim leaders."
The request was rejected, though Rahman still had some telephone privileges, records show.
In the months that followed, Rahman allegedly abused those privileges by calling people with whom he was allowed to speak only to have them patch the calls to others, records show.
In a notice sent to Rahman on April 3, 1997, the Justice Department cited "your practice, and the practice of your associates, of making `patch-through' calls to others," according to a copy of the notice. The associates were not named.
Keohane, who retired as warden, said prison officials were unable to determine who was getting the routed calls, and were unable to learn what was being discussed because they lacked an Arabic translator at the time.
Outside links curtailed
Because of the patch-through calls and "concern that you may solicit additional violent attacks upon others," Rahman lost virtually every avenue of communication with the outside world after the April 1997 notice, records show.
Communications with his attorneys could not be cut off, but they were forced to swear that they would not record any of their conversations with the sheik, patch through any of his calls, allow third parties to listen in on talks or forward his mail. They also could employ only interpreters cleared by federal prosecutors, and they had to promise never to leave even the pre-approved translators alone with Rahman.
Other than the lawyers, Rahman was allowed to speak only with his wife in Egypt by phone once a month. The conversations with his wife were monitored, and prison officials could end the discussion if the call was transferred.
Despite such scrutiny, Rahman allegedly found ways to communicate with his terrorist followers.
In June 2000, after being moved to a prison medical center in Rochester, Minn., Rahman allegedly withdrew his support for a cease-fire declared by his Gama'a terrorist organization in 1997. The cease-fire had been called after a Gama'a attack in November 1997 that killed 62 people, mostly foreign tourists, in the Luxor resort area of southern Egypt.
Although it did not gain attention in the United States, Rahman's withdrawal of support was widely reported by Cairo-based news organizations, including the newspaper Al-Ahram, Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press.
In its English-language weekly edition, Al-Ahram wrote: "From his U.S. prison cell, Abdel Rahman was quoted by his American lawyer, Lynne Stewart, as saying, `I'm withdrawing my support for the cease-fire initiative, for it's clear that the government is still pursuing its old ways.'"
Days later, news organizations in Cairo reported receiving a second statement from Rahman reaffirming his policy move. He said he would leave the final decision to his Gama'a brothers in Egypt.
"I didn't cancel the [cease-fire] initiative, but I did withdraw my support for it and expressed my opinion," the AP in Cairo quoted Rahman as saying, attributing the statement to "an open letter faxed to the Associated Press."
Al-Ahram reported receiving the same statement via e-mail.
Stewart, the attorney quoted in the Egyptian press last summer, did not return numerous calls placed to her Manhattan office by the Tribune during the past month.
Clark, who is Rahman's lead attorney, also did not return calls for comment.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Rahman's communications, and officials would not detail the restrictions he was under before the June 2000 statements became public.
Another communication reportedly issued by Rahman from prison dealt directly with the U.S.
Plotter helps government
Ahmed Ressam, who plotted to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport during New Year's 2000, became a government witness after his conviction this year.
Testifying last summer at the federal trial of an Algerian co-defendant in New York, Ressam said he was handed a piece of paper in late 1998 while training at a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan. He told jurors it was "a fatwa issued by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman with his picture on it, a piece of paper with his photograph on it. It said it was a fatwa by Omar Abdel Rahman from prison.
"It says fight Americans and hit their interest [sic] everywhere," Ressam testified.
Even before Rahman, federal and state law-enforcement officials had been stung by two cases in which jailed terrorists plotted destruction from behind bars.
El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian immigrant and follower of Rahman, played a key role in the 1990s bombing plots of New York landmarks, bridges and tunnels. The schemes were hatched despite Nosair being locked up at a New York City jail and a state prison, records show.
At the time, Nosair was imprisoned for the murder on Nov. 5, 1990, of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a radical Zionist who promoted violence and the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
Plotted openly with visitors
Others later convicted as part of Rahman's so-called jihad group regularly visited Nosair, according to court records. During the visits, Nosair suggested numerous terrorist operations to the men, plotted the murder of the judge who sentenced him and discussed a prison break.
Nosair also berated his jailhouse visitors for waiting too long to undertake the plots, according to testimony. He once directed them to seek a fatwa from Rahman approving the attacks.
Nosair, a hero to the jihad group for shooting Kahane, also tape-recorded inspirational messages for the terrorists, including one in which he said, "God the Almighty ... will facilitate for the believers to penetrate the lines no matter how strong they are."
In the weeks leading up to the World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, 1993, the men later convicted for that crime also visited Nosair at Attica state prison near Buffalo, N.Y., records show. Though it is not known what was said to the plotters, Nosair told his wife in a recorded telephone call, "[A]nd what will happen in New York, God willing, it will be ... because of my prayers," according to testimony.
The landmark threats were detected before the bombings began, but the World Trade Center attack was not. In the scheme targeting the financial complex, another terrorist was making arrangements with cohorts from behind prison walls, according to court records.
Mohammad Ajaj, a Palestinian jailed for entering the country with false papers, had his jailhouse calls patched through to the trade center bombing's mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, in the months before the attack.
From Pakistan, Ajaj and Yousef entered the country together through New York at Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 1, 1992. The U.S. Customs Service arrested Ajaj, but not Yousef.
In his luggage, Ajaj was carrying what prosecutors called "a terrorist kit," which included instructions on bombing buildings and two notebooks filled with handwritten formulas for creating the necessary explosives, according to court records.
While in federal custody, Ajaj tried to arrange a way for his lawyers to recover the seized bombing formulas so they could be delivered to Yousef, according to court files. He also tried to avoid making detectable calls to Yousef from jail.
Ajaj did that by making collect calls to a friend who operated the Big Five Hamburger stand in Balch Springs, a Dallas suburb. His friend in Texas would connect Ajaj to Yousef in Jersey City, N.J., according to court records.
In addition to the precaution of patching the jailhouse calls, the men discussed the bomb plot in coded language, prosecutors said, calling the attack a "study" or a "business," and the bomb formulas "university papers," according to testimony.
Talks translated too late
The coded language did not matter. Though authorities, who had the right to monitor jailhouse calls not involving lawyers, taped the calls, no one translated or listened to conversations until after a rental van packed with a 1,200-pound bomb exploded in the trade center's underground parking lot.
Ajaj, despite his confinement during the entire plot, was still convicted, along with four others, for his role in the bombing. The attack killed six people, injured more than a 1,000 others, caused millions of dollars in damage and opened America's eyes to the world of high-profile terrorism.
Naftali Bendavid contributed to this report from Washington and Andrew Martin contributed from Chicago.