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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 11:24 pm | Fair 52º


Diane Dimond: In Wake of Brussels Bombings, Fears Rise Over Terrorist Sleeper Cells

Another week, another deadly terrorist attack, this time in Brussels. The aftershocks heightened security across Europe and here in the United States.

Understanding why Muslim extremists continue to kill innocents and what they are likely planning for the future can best be predicted by someone who used to live, eat and pray among them.

Meet Emad Salem, a devout Muslim who, after serving as a major in the Egyptian military, became a U.S. citizen 31 years ago. However, he became more than that — he became one of the FBI’s most valuable undercover assets in the war on terror, beginning in the early 1990s.

The day after the horror in Belgium I spoke at length with Salem. He remains part of the witness protection program, lives somewhere in the United States, and is reachable only by a secure, “spoof” telephone that seems to originate in New York, though that’s not where he resides.

Salem and his family have changed locations and identities 15 times since he testified as the key witness at the 1995 trial of Omar Abdel-Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh” and “Prince of Jihad.”

“I went undercover ... and rose to become the sheikh’s bodyguard,” he told me.

Drawing on his expertise in the Egyptian military, Salem was trusted enough to become the bomb maker for the sheikh’s American-based terror cell.

In 1993, “ISIS was not yet created,” he explained, his Egyptian accent still thick. “They spoke of creating a ‘Day of Mayhem’ (in New York). ... They came to me and said we need to build five bombs to hit five places. And I told the FBI.”

What were their targets, which were to be spaced just 10 minutes apart? The United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and the federal building housing the FBI.

Massive surveillance was set up within the rented warehouse where Salem constructed the bombs, and that video and audio evidence was instrumental in securing life sentences for the sheikh and his 12 followers.

Seeds of global terror were planted on American soil by the sheikh, and today — as evidenced most recently in Brussels, San Bernardino and Paris — the world endures the extermination tactics of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and other terror groups.

Salem, so familiar with the terrorist’s mindset, told me he believes that ISIS is now “absolutely” making plans for many more “Days of Mayhem” worldwide.

Salem says the evil ones are driven by the attention their attacks receive, the power to disrupt economies and the money they attract from Muslims who don’t fight but contribute to the cause.

“We created our own nightmare when we brought the blind sheikh into America,” Salem told me. (In a comedy of errors by U.S. immigration, the sheikh was granted permanent residency status in 1991.)

“Even in federal prison he was still guiding his people in Egypt,” Salem correctly recalled. “Now he’s (transferred to) a hospital ... and my biggest fear is that our lovely president will release him for health reasons.”

If that happens, Salem believes, the sheikh, 77, will use his enormous power to bring together ISIS, al-Qaeda and all other splinter terror groups into one unstoppable organization. So what’s a president to do to stop the scourge? Salem has no faith in our current administration.

“There is a way to defeat them, but the sad part is that our president is ... helping ISIS (by) giving them the space and the time to grow,” he said.

Salem is confident ISIS could be defeated if a U.S.-led coalition got serious.

“If our new president puts another ‘shock and awe’ (military campaign) on to ISIS we can destroy them in two weeks.”

ISIS is already in a weakened economic position given the lowered price of their stolen oil caches and continued desertions and casualties. Salem says that once top leadership is taken out, the terror groups will disintegrate.

“We won’t be able to kill them all, but the rest of them will melt away into the population, believe me,” he said.

But back to the present. Should Americans be fearful of imminent attacks on our homeland? Salem thinks New York might be safe, for now, because of the NYPD’s intense counterterrorism unit.

However, “They might now go after softer (civilian) targets,” he said. That means anywhere Americans gather in significant numbers, like a stadium, mall or community event.

Are there really sleeper terrorist cells in the United States?

“Oh, yes, we do have them,” Salem said. “Some are known to us and some are dark. I don’t have numbers but they are spread all over the states.”

The most terrifying takeaway to the decades of terror we’ve all endured may be that we squandered our best chance of stopping it when the first seeds were planted.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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