Were they part
of a massive spy ring which shadowed the 9/11 hijackers and knew that al-Qaeda
planned a devastating terrorist
attack on the USA?
02 November 2003
By Neil Mackay
Who do you think
they were? Palestinians? Saudis? Iraqis, even? Al-Qaeda, surely? Wrong
on all counts. They were Israelis - and
at least two of them were Israeli intelligence agents, working for Mossad, the equivalent of MI6 or the CIA.
and arrest that morning is a matter of indisputable fact. To those who
have investigated just what the Israelis
were up to that day, the case raises one dreadful possibility: that Israeli intelligence had been shadowing the al-Qaeda hijackers
as they moved from the Middle East through Europe and into America where they trained as pilots and prepared to suicide-bomb
the symbolic heart of the United States. And the motive? To bind America in blood and mutual suffering to the Israeli cause.
After the attacks
on New York and Washington, the former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin
Netanyahu, was asked what the
terrorist strikes would mean for US-Israeli relations. He said: "It's very good." Then he corrected himself, adding: "Well, it's not
good, but it will generate immediate sympathy [for Israel from Americans]."
If Israel's closest
ally felt the collective pain of mass civilian deaths at the hands of terrorists,
then Israel would have an
unbreakable bond with the world's only hyperpower and an effective free hand in dealing with the Palestinian terrorists who had
been murdering its innocent civilians as the second intifada dragged on throughout 2001.
It's not surprising
that the New Jersey housewife who first spotted the five Israelis and their
white van wants to preserve her
anonymity. She's insisted that she only be identified as Maria. A neighbour in her apartment building had called her just after the
first strike on the Twin Towers. Maria grabbed a pair of binoculars and, like millions across the world, she watched the horror of
the day unfold.
As she gazed
at the burning towers, she noticed a group of men kneeling on the roof
of a white van in her parking lot. Here's her
recollection: "They seemed to be taking a movie. They were like happy, you know ... they didn't look shocked to me. I thought it
down the van's registration and called the police. The FBI was alerted
and soon there was a statewide all points
bulletin put out for the apprehension of the van and its occupants. The cops traced the number, establishing that it belonged to
a company called Urban Moving.
John Schmidig said: "We got an alert to be on the lookout for a white Chevrolet
van with New Jersey registration and
writing on the side. Three individuals were seen celebrating in Liberty State Park after the impact. They said three people were
jumping up and down."
By 4pm on the
afternoon of September 11, the van was spotted near New Jersey's Giants
stadium. A squad car pulled it over and
inside were five men in their 20s. They were hustled out of the car with guns levelled at their heads and handcuffed.
In the car was
$4700 in cash, a couple of foreign passports and a pair of box cutters
- the concealed Stanley Knife-type blades
used by the 19 hijackers who'd flown jetliners into the World Trade Centre and Pentagon just hours before. There were also fresh
pictures of the men standing with the smouldering wreckage of the Twin Towers in the background. One image showed a hand
flicking a lighter in front of the devastated buildings, like a fan at a pop concert. The driver of the van then told the arresting
officers: "We are Israeli. We are not your problem. Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem."
His name was
Sivan Kurzberg. The other four passengers were Kurzberg's brother Paul,
Yaron Shmuel, Oded Ellner and Omer
Marmari. The men were dragged off to prison and transferred out of the custody of the FBI's Criminal Division and into the hands
of their Foreign Counterintelligence Section - the bureau's anti-espionage squad.
A warrant was
issued for a search of the Urban Moving premises in Weehawken in New Jersey.
Boxes of papers and computers
were removed. The FBI questioned the firm's Israeli owner, Dominik Otto Suter, but when agents returned to re-interview him a
few days later, he was gone. An employee of Urban Moving said his co-workers had laughed about the Manhattan attacks the
day they happened. "I was in tears," the man said. "These guys were joking and that bothered me. These guys were like, 'Now
America knows what we go through.'"
former chief of operations for counter-terrorism with the CIA, says the
red flag went up among investigators
when it was discovered that some of the Israelis' names were found in a search of the national intelligence database. Cannistraro
says many in the US intelligence community believed that some of the Israelis were working for Mossad and there was speculation
over whether Urban Moving had been "set up or exploited for the purpose of launching an intelligence operation against radical
This makes it
clear that there was no suggestion whatsoever from within American intelligence
that the Israelis were colluding
with the 9/11 hijackers - simply that the possibility remains that they knew the attacks were going to happen, but effectively did
nothing to help stop them.
After the owner
vanished, the offices of Urban Moving looked as if they'd been closed down
in a big hurry. Mobile phones were
littered about, the office phones were still connected and the property of at least a dozen clients were stacked up in the
warehouse. The owner had cleared out his family home in New Jersey and returned to Israel.
Two weeks after
their arrest, the Israelis were still in detention, held on immigration
charges. Then a judge ruled that they should
be deported. But the CIA scuppered the deal and the five remained in custody for another two months. Some went into solitary
confinement, all underwent two polygraph tests and at least one underwent up to seven lie detector sessions before they were
eventually deported at the end of November 2001. Paul Kurzberg refused to take a lie detector test for 10 weeks, but then failed
it. His lawyer said he was reluctant to take the test as he had once worked for Israeli intelligence in another country.
their lawyer, Ram Horvitz, dismissed the allegations as "stupid and ridiculous".
Yet US government sources still
maintained that the Israelis were collecting information on the fundraising activities of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Mark
Regev, of the Israeli embassy in Washington, would have none of that and he said the allegations were "simply false". The men
themselves claimed they'd read about the World Trade Centre attacks on the internet, couldn't see it from their office and went
to the parking lot for a better view. Their lawyers and the embassy say their ghoulish and sinister celebrations as the Twin
Towers blazed and thousands died were due to youthful foolishness.
New York Jewish newspaper, The Forward, reported in March 2002, however,
that it had received a briefing on the
case of the five Israelis from a US official who was regularly updated by law enforcement agencies. This is what he told The
Forward: "The assessment was that Urban Moving Systems was a front for the Mossad and operatives employed by it." He added
that "the conclusion of the FBI was that they were spying on local Arabs", but the men were released because they "did not
know anything about 9/11".
Back in Israel,
several of the men discussed what happened on an Israeli talk show. One
of them made this remarkable comment:
"The fact of the matter is we are coming from a country that experiences terror daily. Our purpose was to document the event."
But how can you document an event unless you know it is going to happen?
We are now deep
in conspiracy theory territory. But there is more than a little circumstantial
evidence to show that Mossad -
whose motto is "By way of deception, thou shalt do war" - was spying on Arab extremists in the USA and may have known that
September 11 was in the offing, yet decided to withhold vital information from their American counterparts which could have
prevented the terror attacks.
11, 2001, more than 60 Israelis were taken into custody under the Patriot
Act and immigration laws. One
highly placed investigator told Carl Cameron of Fox News that there were "tie-ins" between the Israelis and September 11; the
hint was clearly that they'd gathered intelligence on the planned attacks but kept it to themselves.
The Fox News
source refused to give details, saying: "Evidence linking these Israelis
to 9/11 is classified. I cannot tell you about
evidence that has been gathered. It's classified information." Fox News is not noted for its condemnation of Israel; it's a ruggedly
patriotic news channel owned by Rupert Murdoch and was President Bush's main cheerleader in the war on terror and the invasion
of around 140 Israelis were detained prior to September 11, 2001, in the
USA as part of a widespread investigation
into a suspected espionage ring run by Israel inside the USA. Government documents refer to the spy ring as an "organised
intelligence-gathering operation" designed to "penetrate government facilities". Most of those arrested had served in the Israeli
armed forces - but military service is compulsory in Israel. Nevertheless, a number had an intelligence background.
The first glimmerings
of an Israeli spying exercise in the USA came to light in spring 2001,
when the FBI sent a warning to other
federal agencies alerting them to be wary of visitors calling themselves "Israeli art students" and attempting to bypass security at
federal buildings in order to sell paintings. A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report suggested the Israeli calls "may well be
an organised intelligence-gathering activity". Law enforcement documents say that the Israelis "targeted and penetrated military
bases" as well as the DEA, FBI and dozens of government facilities, including secret offices and the unlisted private homes of law
enforcement and intelligence personnel.
A number of Israelis
questioned by the authorities said they were students from Bezalel Academy
of Art and Design, but Pnina
Calpen, a spokeswoman for the Israeli school, did not recognise the names of any Israelis mentioned as studying there in the past
10 years. A federal report into the so-called art students said many had served in intelligence and electronic signal intercept units
during their military service.
a 61-page report, drafted after an investigation by the DEA and the US
immigration service, the Israelis were
organised into cells of four to six people. The significance of what the Israelis were doing didn't emerge until after September 11,
2001, when a report by a French intelligence agency noted "according to the FBI, Arab terrorists and suspected terror cells lived
in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as in Miami and Hollywood, Florida, from December 2000 to April 2001 in direct proximity to the Israeli
The report contended
that Mossad agents were spying on Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehi, two
of leaders of the 9/11
hijack teams. The pair had settled in Hollywood, Florida, along with three other hijackers, after leaving Hamburg - where another
Mossad team was operating close by.
Florida is a town of just 25,000 souls. The French intelligence report
says the leader of the Mossad cell in Florida
rented apartments "right near the apartment of Atta and al-Shehi". More than a third of the Israeli "art students" claimed
residence in Florida. Two other Israelis connected to the art ring showed up in Fort Lauderdale. At one time, eight of the hijackers
lived just north of the town.
the facts do appear to indicate that Israel knew that 9/11, or at least
a large-scale terror attack, was about to
take place on American soil, but did nothing to warn the USA. But that's not quite true. In August 2001, the Israelis handed over
a list of terrorist suspects - on it were the names of four of the September 11 hijackers. Significantly, however, the warning said
the terrorists were planning an attack "outside the United States".
The Israeli embassy
in Washington has dismissed claims about the spying ring as "simply untrue".
The same denials have been
issued repeatedly by the five Israelis seen high-fiving each other as the World Trade Centre burned in front of them.
Ram Horwitz, insisted his clients were not intelligence officers. Irit
Stoffer, the Israeli foreign minister, said the
allegations were "completely untrue". She said the men were arrested because of "visa violations", adding: "The FBI investigated
those cases because of 9/11."
an FBI spokesman in New York, implied that the public would never know
the truth, saying: "If we found evidence of
unauthorised intelligence operations that would be classified material." Yet, Israel has long been known, according to US
administration sources, for "conducting the most aggressive espionage operations against the US of any US ally". Seventeen
years ago, Jonathan Pollard, a civilian working for the American Navy, was jailed for life for passing secrets to Israel. At first,
Israel claimed Pollard was part of a rogue operation, but the government later took responsibility for his work.
It has always
been a long-accepted agreement among allies - such as Britain and America
or America and Israel - that neither
country will jail a "friendly spy" nor shame the allied country for espionage. Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Boston's Political
Research Associates and an expert in intelligence, says: "It's a backdoor agreement between allies that says that if one of your
spies gets caught and didn't do too much harm, he goes home. It goes on all the time. The official reason is always visa
What we are left
with, then, is fact sullied by innuendo. Certainly, it seems, Israel was
spying within the borders of the United
States and it is equally certain that the targets were Islamic extremists probably linked to September 11. But did Israel know in
advance that the Twin Towers would be hit and the world plunged into a war without end; a war which would give Israel the
power to strike its enemies almost without limit? That's a conspiracy theory too far, perhaps. But the unpleasant feeling that, in
this age of spin and secrets, we do not know the full and unadulterated truth won't go away. Maybe we can guess, but it's for
the history books to discover and decide.
Copyright © 2003 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088