As we stood on the appointed street corner at the appointed time, a van pulled up with the side door sliding open even before coming to a complete stop. As soon as we jumped in and sat down on the bench seat, the door slammed shut and the van quickly accelerated into downtown Washington, D.C. traffic.
As I looked around the back of the van, three things became quickly apparent. Because of a solid partition separating us from the front of the van and curtains over the darkened windows in back, there was no way to see where we were going. The two men riding with us in the back of the van were heavily armed. This was going to be a case like no other in my lifetime.
So began the first of many trips I made in the summer of 1997 to visit a reputed member of the Saudi Hizballah (Hezbollah) terrorist organization, Hani al-Sayegh, at an unknown U.S. government facility somewhere in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area. As a Washington, D.C. private detective, I was appointed by a federal judge to serve as an investigator for al-Sayegh's court-appointed attorney who had specifically requested me. At the time, al-Sayegh was believed to be involved in the 1996 truck-bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia. The attack killed 19 U.S. Air Force airmen and wounded more than 350 multi-nationals – including other Americans.
Along with me in the back of the van was al-Sayegh's attorney and members of the U.S. Marshals Service who were charged with hiding and protecting al-Sayegh. At the time, it was believed al-Sayegh – who had been captured in Canada and turned over to the FBI – would cooperate with U.S. authorities investigating the bombing. At the top of the list of questions that Attorney General Janet Reno and the Clinton Administration wanted answers to was whether or not Iran was behind the bombing. Iran was, and is, a well-documented state-sponsor of Hizballah around the globe.
To meet with al-Sayegh, the Marshals Service would drive us around for varying lengths of time – often changing vehicles in underground garages – with other security teams in accompanying vehicles and a helicopter providing cover overhead. These precautionary steps were designed to be sure that we were not followed by anyone intent on killing al-Sayegh so he couldn't cooperate and to be sure that al-Sayegh's attorney and I did not know the location of where al-Sayegh was hidden. When we exited the van, we were in a garage attached to a building with no windows where we would find al-Sayegh waiting with an interpreter.
The al-Sayegh case was the second time I was appointed by the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Columbia to serve as the investigator for an attorney representing a captured Islamic terrorist. The first time was in September of 1987, during the Reagan administration, when Fawaz Younis – a Lebanese Hizballah militiaman who, in 1985, led a team that hijacked a Jordanian airliner with Americans on-board – was captured during a sting operation by the FBI in international waters off the coast of Cyprus, Greece. Younis was the first international terrorist ever to be arrested overseas and returned to the U.S. to stand trial. I spent more than two years working the Younis case.
In both the al-Sayegh and Younis cases, I signed secrecy agreements with the U.S. government declaring under penalty of imprisonment that I would never reveal any information provided to the defense team by numerous U.S. intelligence agencies involved in the investigations. That agreement, along with the attorney-client privilege, appropriately restricts me from discussing any non-public information about either case.
However, nothing prevents me from sharing what I personally believe about Islamic terrorism based on the al-Sayegh and Younis cases and from interviewing dozens of intelligence operatives, federal law enforcement officers and non-government Islamic terrorism experts over the 25 years that have passed since I first met Younis in a jail cell in 1987.
For me, there are two simple truths.
First, Islamic terrorism is an act of war – not a crime. Historically, presidential administrations of both parties – often for political and diplomatic reasons – incorrectly treated Islamic terrorists as criminals instead of as warriors or, to use the legal phrase, enemy combatants. In my cases, President Reagan erred with Younis and President Clinton erred with al-Sayegh by treating them as criminals.
Younis was convicted in 1989 of air piracy and related crimes, served a federal prison sentence and was deported to Lebanon in 2005 where he is a free man. al-Sayegh, after eventually refusing to cooperate, was extradited to Saudi Arabia in 1997 where he was imprisoned and then, reportedly, released. In June of 2001, after he was no longer in U.S. custody, al-Sayegh and twelve others were indicted by the U.S. for the Khobar Towers bombing.
Beyond my cases, one look no further than the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole for deadly examples of dozens of wrong-headed decisions by presidents to treat Islamic terrorists as criminals instead of warriors. It wasn't until the atrocities of September 11, 2001 that we awakened as a nation to the reality that Islamic fundamentalists had long before declared war on us and that it was time to fight fire with fire when and where appropriate.
Second, and most important to what is underway across the globe this month, there are a significant number of Islamic fundamentalists who get up every day with the goal of killing Americans. It really is that simple. Some, like al-Sayegh, are well-educated and some, like Younis, have almost no education at all. But, they share a common desire to rid the world of "American infidels."
These Islamic warriors do not need an excuse. At this point, there is nothing we can do as Americans to dissuade their murderous desires. They believe it is their religious duty to kill us.
Frankly, after 9-11, I never thought I'd have to remind my fellow Americans of these two simple truths. But, given the naïve reaction by far too many to the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Libya – and the subsequent Islamist attacks on dozens of American facilities around the globe – the following reminder is in order.
They really do want to kill us.