Five Israelis were seen filming as jet liners ploughed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 ...
ruin and terror in Manhattan,
but, over the Hudson River in New Jersey, a handful of men were
dancing. As the World Trade Centre burned and crumpled, the five men
celebrated and filmed the worst atrocity ever committed on American
soil as it played out before their eyes.
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
Their discovery 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.
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.
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 was strange.”
jotted 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.
Chief 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.”
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.”
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.
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 Islamists”.
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.
respected 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”.
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.
Following September 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 Iraq.
Another group 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.
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
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.
According to 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 spy
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.
Hollywood in 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.
Put together, 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
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.”
Margolin, 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.
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 violation.”
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.See the international reaction to this story
02 November 2003