The call came in the middle of the day. They normally did. And once I heard his voice, I knew it would be far more interesting than sorting through my notes about Miami's latest bureaucratic squabble.
His voice was husky and animated: "It was Memorial Day weekend in 2001 and we were on South Beach, on Washington between Fifteen and Sixteenth streets. He's staring at all these people crowding in there and he says " (here the caller's voice shifts to imitate a high-pitched Middle Eastern accent) "' Imagine, one bomb. Boom! All these people dead! It would be glorious! Glorious!'"
The caller was allegedly quoting Mohammed Atta, the Saudi Arabian ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers.
There were a lot of allegedlys in his story, which he revealed to me in a series of conversations during March and April of this year. I would often find myself exhausted from trying to keep up with his rambling narratives. He wove a tale involving terrorist cells and black-market explosives, and alluded to an al Qaeda member at large in the U.S. He believed another terrorist attack would take place in Miami.
He enticingly offered to let me view Atta's suicide tape, which he said was in a duffel bag he'd stolen from Atta shortly before the September 11 attacks.
After each installment, I'd review my notes to see what I could verify. Certain details checked out. No proof positive, but enough intriguing specifics in police reports, court records, and other public documents to whet the appetite of any reporter. Each call inched me closer to a predicament I'd never faced: Would there come a point when my responsibilities as a U.S. citizen would trump my professional role as a journalist? A point when I'd feel obligated to contact someone in law enforcement?
In hindsight I wonder if I willed myself into a suspension of disbelief. If this story were true, it might be vital to national security. Yet how likely was that? Not very. Of course, I wouldn't write anything until I had irrefutable proof namely, Atta's suicide tape.
The interaction between journalists and anonymous sources is always a kind of dance, often initiated amid mutual mistrust. A source doesn't know precisely how his information will be used, and risks having his identity revealed. A reporter tries to determine the source's motivation while verifying information. Journalists know they're being used; they simply need to ensure that the manipulation doesn't affect the facts. My secret caller never asked for money or any other form of compensation or consideration only that his story be told accurately. He contacted me, he said, after deciding he wanted his story in New Times.
He called himself Mr. Black and claimed to be a "high-level general in the Folk Nation," an alliance of outlaw groups from around the country, the most dominant member of which is the notorious black street gang the Crips. He made sure I knew he wasn't in Miami; he would mention various places in the South from which he was supposedly calling North Carolina, Georgia, Tampa. "At the very tail end of this thing it's going to get ugly," he told me on March 2. "There's too much compilation of too much shit. It ends with you or me or a whole lot of other people dead. What do I get out of this? I guess at the end of the day you got to put your own spin on it."
Was he delusional? He certainly didn't sound crazy. His conversations tracked. He peppered his stories with precise dates and locations.
Mr. Black was raised in New Orleans. The outlaw life, he claimed, was in his bloodline. His great-grandfather had been a gangster in Chicago and had faced down Al Capone. "My paternal grandfather adopted me back in Louisiana when I was like ten or eleven. He'd been in prison, racketeering charges back in the Fifties. He did time in Alcatraz. He died in '85. When he died, because of who he was, I became that person."
He said he started out as a member of the Rolling 60s Crips, and he claimed to have been instrumental in forging a 1991 truce between the Crips and their archrivals, the Bloods. "Let me tell you where I'm coming from," he said. "I could give a shit about the United States government. I don't vote. I don't use my Social Security number for shit. Here's my thing my oath, my code, my people: It's all about the sovereignty of the Louisiana Territories. Everything is based on that. That is the bottom line."
In contrast to other narrative details, he was vague about his own criminal activities. At one point he mentioned he was a "money man," raising cash for people who wanted to buy guns or drugs. He spoke French as a result of his New Orleans upbringing, so he often did business in Canada. That is where his circuitous journey to Miami began. In 2000 Mr. Black was in Toronto to conduct business (which he wouldn't describe) with a Chinese organization called the Hai Wop Sing. At some point he ended up in jail (he wouldn't say why), where he noticed that incarcerated Chinese gang members clustered around an Iranian named Monsour Ahani. "From the way I saw it, Monsour Ahani was most likely a paid assassin. You could tell by the way he moved when he was in a fight. He used Angolan jiujitsu. He knew way too much to be a schmuck." For some reason this Iranian was protected by Chinese gangsters inside jail.
Mr. Black left prison in September 2000 and traveled to New York on behalf of the Chinese syndicate (again he would not elaborate). "I go to the Chinese bank in Manhattan and meet a contact there. He tells me he knows these Pakistani dudes who want to move something for $5000 a key [kilo]. That's how I got hooked into these guys in Miami." So he headed south to the Magic City. Mr. Black said he'd spent time in South Florida in the mid-Nineties, so he knew his way around. While in Miami Beach, he met a seventeen-year-old Pakistani boy whose family lived in Canada. The teen, whose name he gave me, "was a contact that I was supposed to rendezvous with when I got there. I didn't understand a contact for what. He said he was told to find me. He had my name."
The teenager was seeking to connect with other individuals and needed Mr. Black's help locating them. The two stayed at the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Miami as a cover because they didn't have to show ID. "He was just a fixer," Mr. Black said. "He moved money around. He goes to people. He has a phrase he says. People give him money. He takes the money to contact number two. That's how a terrorist cell comes alive."
The Pakistani teen acted as Mr. Black's "liaison" and guide. For two months they bounced from homeless shelter to shelter in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami, first looking for his contacts and then, once connected, meeting others in the group. Mr. Black recounted eating at Middle Eastern restaurants with the teen and his cohorts, and watching them recite the Koran. "All I knew about [the teen and his contacts] was that they were religious fanatics. They always, always prayed. They prayed all the time. They went to a mosque in Kendall and one on Hollywood/Pines Boulevard."
Either through the teen or through the teen's contacts (he wasn't clear), Mr. Black asserted he learned that a contract had been taken out on the life of a former Israeli Mossad agent who was in Miami Beach. He gave me the former agent's name, the location of the Beach synagogue where he worked, and the name of the rabbi who headed the synagogue.
The hit never took place; in fact Mr. Black claimed he had met the former agent. "I asked him what this was about," he recalled. "The guy turned green, like he had seen a ghost. That's when I knew I was in some serious trouble."
He did not explain why members of a covert terrorist cell would take him into their confidence, though he did explain that the Crips considered themselves part of the Muslim brotherhood that flourishes in the U.S. prison system.
At one point the teen took him to a Palm Beach County mall. "It was a Thursday or Friday," Mr. Black remembered. "We took the Tri-Rail up there, and [the teen] met Atta in the mall. Me, I just stayed in the background. That was my first time meeting him."
On another occasion, the teen took him to meet "Adnan Shugu-juma, or whatever the hell his name is," he said. "We met Adnan on a soccer field at Miramar High School."
The Pakistani teen, Mr. Black said, finally left Miami in late November 2000, after Miami Beach police detained the two of them Thanksgiving night, November 23, on Purdy Avenue near the waterfront Island View Park.
It was after the teen left that Mr. Black claimed he met Mohammed Atta in Miami Beach, although why they met again is not clear. They were in South Beach during the busy Memorial Day weekend 2001 when Atta allegedly uttered his remarks about the glories of a bomb exploding amid the crowds. Mr. Black also claimed to have met Atta back at Island View Park, where he and some of his Miami criminal associates used a hidden video camera to record the encounter. "I'm going to let you see that tape," he told me. "You're going to see us sitting around laughing at him. I mean I was with guys who had been in federal prison and we were like, 'You going to do what? And the FBI and the Secret Service are going to be sitting around with their dicks in their hands while you're doing this?'"
This tape would be in addition to Atta's suicide tape, the one he repeatedly promised to show me. Our conversations always ended the same way, with him issuing a dire warning: "If there's gonna be a second attack, it's gonna be in Miami."
Mr. Black had given me enough specifics that I had no excuse for not doing some initial poking around, at least to justify the time I spent listening to him. I couldn't check out the man himself because he didn't provide any identifying details. But I did find a reference to Monsour Ahani on an Amnesty International Website. Ahani, a former Iranian intelligence officer, was being held in Canada on immigration charges. He was fighting deportation to Iran, claiming he'd be tortured if returned. I also found stories about Adnan G. el Shukrijumah, a Saudi living in Hollywood, whom authorities placed on their "terrorist watch list" after linking him to paramilitary training in Afghanistan following 9/11. Obviously this proved nothing, except that Mr. Black might be well read (he claimed he'd never used a computer).
I didn't find any published records of a Chinese syndicate named the Hai Wop Sing operating in Canada, but I did find reference to the Hip Sing, a tong, or gang, in Toronto.
As well as I could, I tracked Mohammed Atta's movements in Florida via The 9/11 Commission Report and witness accounts in news stories. Although there was no mention of Atta visiting Miami Beach on Memorial Day 2001, the 9/11 Commission did state he rented an apartment in Coral Springs on April 11. On May 8 witnesses placed him in Shuckums, a Fort Lauderdale bar. Apparently he stayed in South Florida until a cross-country surveillance trip took him to Las Vegas and Boston at the end of June. It wasn't inconceivable that Atta visited Miami Beach between those dates. There was no reference in the report or from any witnesses to Atta socializing with black gangsters or any African Americans at all.
As I researched some of the more obscure details Mr. Black provided, I felt myself slipping through the rabbit hole. On the other side, things began to look rather strange.
I drove to the Miami Beach intersection where Mr. Black said I'd find the synagogue at which the former Mossad agent supposedly worked. The synagogue was indeed there, as was the presiding rabbi whose name Mr. Black had given me. When I approached the rabbi, he seemed defensive. "I can't give out information on former employees, or even confirm if someone did or didn't work here," he said sternly.
Online I checked LexisNexis, a global database of newspaper and magazine articles, and after some searching found a small item in the Toronto Sun dated August 4, 2000, concerning a missing-person case in the Toronto suburbs: "York police need help finding a missing Markham teen." The paper included the Pakistani boy's name (which has a very unusual spelling), his age, and requested that anyone who saw him contact police. I called the York Police Department and asked a public information officer about the case. "That person was located in the City of Miami in good health," the officer said, reading from a November 23, 2000 Miami Beach Police Department report. "He was heading to the Salvation Army." (The date and city were exactly as Mr. Black had told me.)
I filed a public-records request with the Miami Beach Police Department for any documents relating to the teen. I was told none existed. I gave them the case number the Canadian officer provided. There was no such document, I was told again.
Now it was official: I was definitely intrigued. Being intrigued, however, was not at all the same as actually believing Mr. Black's implausible story, which seemed to expand every time we talked. For example, an additional scenario he began weaving into his narrative was his association with another alleged terrorist. Sometime after September 11, 2001, Mr. Black said, he made contact with a Nigerian businessman living in Miami-Dade County, a man intent on building a radioactive dirty bomb. According to Mr. Black, the bomb would be placed aboard a private boat heading down the Intracoastal. When the payload reached a designated spot near Miami Beach, the bomb would be detonated, spreading radioactive particulates in the air. How or why he partnered with the Nigerian remained unclear, other than he had presented himself to the businessman as an explosives expert. Mr. Black's ultimate goal, he claimed, was to double-cross the man and steal money or whatever other valuables he could. "I was ambushing him," he said.
With the Nigerian's money, Mr. Black said, he negotiated to buy four barrels of ammonium nitrate (a type of fertilizer that can also be used to make bombs) from members of the Michigan Militia, a secretive, right-wing paramilitary organization. The Nigerian, whose name he gave me, allegedly did business with African oil-drilling ventures, from which he was able to acquire cesium-137, a radioactive material used in oil extraction to determine rock density. When I checked on the Nigerian, I found a number of businesses and nonprofits under his name, as well as a 1994 felony Medicaid fraud charge in Palm Beach County.
Flirting with this tale was taking a toll on me. I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I ignored deadlines for other stories. I didn't return phone calls. I checked my rearview mirrors frequently while driving, in case I was being followed. I could understand if someone thought I was coming unhinged. With the Patriot Act empowering authorities, and ramped-up computer and electronic monitoring by the government in a post-9/11 world, I believed it was possible the feds would catch wind of what I was doing and subpoena my notes. So one night after dinner I sat my girlfriend down and told her that in the course of doing my job I might be arrested for refusing to cooperate with law-enforcement officials. It didn't seem melodramatic at the time.
Somewhere around our fourth or fifth phone conversation, we'd become friendly enough that we were sharing small talk. Mr. Black wished me well on an upcoming vacation. I sympathized with him about some of his friends who'd just been arrested. Then I heard him take an audible suck of air: "Well, there's no way to tell this story without my name being all over it. So you might as well know it." His name, he revealed, was William Young. He also gave me his date of birth. For the first time talking to him, I couldn't wait to hang up.
But I didn't. Instead I continued listening. He told me how he had acquired Atta's suicide tape. "I stole it from him on September 8, 2001," he said. "We used to rob them guys like it was payday. They were all scrawny guys none of 'em could fight." (On September 7 Atta flew out of Fort Lauderdale for Baltimore, according to The 9/11 Commission Report. Was Young lying or was he off on his dates by a day?)
He said he was preparing a ten-minute excerpt from the tape to show me. "What's gonna happen is, somebody's going to come to your office and you'll take a ride in the back of an SUV or something, and you'll have a little DVD player back there."
A couple of days later he sent me a package via the U.S. Postal Service. Inside was a blue bandana (the Crips' color) and a photocopied photograph of a man he maintained was the at-large member of al Qaeda, including his name and last known address in Boston.
For all his assertions that he lived in an underground world, Young had left behind quite a trail of ink in this world. One of the first things I checked was his family's criminal history, and I did find a reference to Sam Young, a black Chicago-area criminal figure who ran gambling operations around 1915, just when Al Capone's career began taking off.
Then I got to work on William Young himself. I ran his name through a database that showed me his past addresses. He was linked to a Hollywood address in 2001 and a Ninth Street apartment in Miami Beach in 2002. I checked court records via computer. Interestingly, I discovered that Canada's court system is not computerized; clerks must literally retrieve a paper file. After several frustrating phone calls, I decided to delay this task until later.
There were no federal charges against Young in the U.S., but I did find cases in which he'd been arrested in Miami-Dade County. I went to the courthouse, pulled them, feverishly made copies of all the records I could, and then carted them back to the New Times office in an accordion file that was dangerously close to splitting at the seams.
As I pored over those papers, a portrait of Young emerged that was different from the noirish figure I pictured working black markets between here and Canada. In October 2001, a clerk at the Public Storage facility at 1301 Dade Blvd. in Miami Beach called police about a suspicious black man renting a unit. He appeared to be sleeping in the bushes on the property. Young used his real name to rent the storage unit. When police checked their records, they saw earlier police reports citing Young for trespassing at the Public Storage business and at nearby Island View Park during a period when there was a sudden rash of burglaries in the area. Young now became the cops' number one suspect in those crimes. Det. Mark Corley was assigned to investigate.
Three months later, on January 7, 2002, Corley, who had a picture of Young taped to his police squad car's visor for easy identification, was eating lunch in his cruiser across from the Public Storage building when he spotted Young approaching on foot carrying a laptop computer case, a backpack, and a duffel bag.
Corley ended up arresting Young, and in a later deposition explained he'd followed Young into the building. "He had the [storage] bay open to the floor, and it was one of the biggest messes that I have seen," said the detective, who was dressed in plainclothes at the time. "He had stuff laid out all over the floor." There were tool boxes, computers, and speakers, but one of the first items to catch Corley's eye was a datebook Young was inspecting. "So he's thumbing through that," Corley recounted. "He looks up and sees me standing there looking at him and he was maybe intimidated or he thought I was robbing him or too nosey. He goes, 'Yo, what the hell you looking at?' I thought he was going to get nasty, which is when I pull out my badge." Corley took a closer look at the datebook and saw that the owner's address was in Germany. He suspected a tourist robbery. In fact Corley recognized the German's name from an auto burglary a few days earlier. He slapped cuffs on Young and carted him off to police headquarters at Washington Avenue and Eleventh Street. There was so much stuff in the storage unit that police had to use a pickup truck to haul it all to the station. Among the items found on Young was a military ID card identifying him as a major in the army. Corley showed it to investigators with the Veterans Administration. They said it was fake.
"I did a background check and he had an extensive criminal history for theft, extortion, possession of stolen property, and weapons violations," Corley said in his deposition. "His extortion was out of Canada. If you run an FBI criminal-history check on him, that will provide you with the extensive criminal past he has."
While sifting through Young's pile of goods, Corley came across a pair of brand-new computer speakers. He was able to identify the owner from a shipping label on the packing box. It was none other than the Nigerian businessman Young claimed was planning to build a bomb. When the detective called the Nigerian and asked if he was missing a pair of speakers, he replied, "Yeah, Willie took them." Corley asked who that was. "Willie is a guy that came here, befriended us, and told us he was a major in the military."
The Nigerian was asked to provide a deposition in the criminal case against Young. He did so on June 25, 2002, explaining that Young and two other men, one of whom was Middle Eastern, had been hired to help renovate a building. Young did construction work and was allowed to sleep in the unfinished building. "This guy claimed that he was a major in the army," the Nigerian added. "I looked at him. I said, 'I don't think anyone who was a major in the army [would] come to mess up like this."
Young eventually pleaded guilty to several burglary charges and served nine months in the Miami-Dade County jail system.
It was unsettling material to read. In stark black-and-white, Young looked an awful lot like a simple grifter and thief, maybe one with a hyperactive imagination. Yet nothing in the police reports contradicted what he'd already told me, including his living on the streets as cover. In addition, some of what the Nigerian said in his deposition only bolstered Young's credibility. He'd bragged that his uncle was a big shot in Nigeria's military, which confirmed what Young had told me earlier. (This was the source of the Nigerian's contacts that would allow him to smuggle radioactive material.) Also, the Nigerian said he'd never reported the thefts to police because he "didn't want to get involved." Certainly someone who was involved in illegal activity would not want to call police.
When I asked Young about the Nigerian's deposition, he told me he was never hired as a laborer he'd been hired to assemble explosives. The Nigerian never reported the "thefts" because Young hadn't stolen anything. Moreover, the whole renovation project was a cover. "I did the nine months because [the Nigerian] paid me $300,000 to take the hit," Young claimed. He was paid to keep quiet, he asserted, so the plan to explode a dirty bomb would not be discovered. (The Nigerian's motivation for this plot was never made clear to me.)
Young told me to look at one of the trespassing arrest reports. I rifled through the files until I found it. On December 10, 2001, a Miami Beach cop on patrol found Young sitting in a car at the same Public Storage facility at 1:15 in the morning. The report mentioned that another man was named as his codefendant but didn't provide further information. I went to the courthouse and pulled the records. It turned out that police found this second man, from Dowagiac, Michigan, inside a rental truck next to the car in which Young was sitting. The Michigan man was "in the back hiding from officers," according to the report. In Young's car, officers found blank checks from one of the Nigerian's nonprofit businesses. "When questioned about checks in vehicle, [the second man] looked at [Young] and both became silent." Police arrested the two for trespassing. The charges were later dropped.
The second man, Young alleged, was one of the Michigan Militia members from whom he bought the ammonium nitrate. Police never searched the rented truck, he said. "If they had, they would have found a barrel of ammonium nitrate in there," he laughed. (The ammonium nitrate, by the way, never made it into the hands of the Nigerian, Young said, because he and some of his crooked pals stole it at gunpoint from the Michigan boys along with three Ford trucks at a rendezvous point near the intersection of Biscayne Boulevard and 123rd Street. "This guy begged us to let them keep one truck, so I did." When caught by police at the storage facility, the Michigan man was transferring the last of the barrels to Young, per their arrangement. It was just the conclusion of a bit of outlaw business. As for the ammonium nitrate, Young said he sold it to a motorcycle gang. "What am I going to do with it?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't make bombs.")
I called the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps on file the names of members of hate groups, such as militias. The name of the man arrested with Young was not in their records, although their lists are not complete.
Young knew I was interested in his story; he also knew I believed the tapes were critical for his credibility, among other things. Many times he'd promised to let me view them, describing their 73 minutes vividly. By April my frustration had peaked. I decided I would not chase any more leads until I'd seen those tapes.
Then on April 6 he called and surprised me. "I'm in Miami," he said. "Let's meet."
At 8:30 that night I stood on the dark, deserted platform of downtown's Eleventh Street Metrorail station as a train approached. When the wheels screeched to a halt and the doors slid open, a solid-looking black man stepped out. He was wearing hip-hop chic new silver-and-white Nike high-tops, blue denim calf-length shorts, a long-sleeve Coosi shirt, and a green G-Unit knit cap. His clothes were clean and pressed. He was about five-eleven, with a stocky build; no mustache, short black beard twisted into tiny braids. We were the only two people on the platform.
I had hoped this meeting would result in his handing me a tape, although he hadn't mentioned that. Indeed he had no tape. Instead the point of this encounter, I realized, was to size each other up. We journeyed in my car to the Best Buy store at Dadeland Station, where he inquired about purchasing a $1700 flat-screen TV. He pulled a thick wad of bills from his pants pocket and asked the salesman if he could make a deal. The salesman said no. Young shook his head and we left. We drove back to the Metrorail station, stopping first at the Players Club on NE Eleventh Street to have a beer. Young paid for the round, dropping a twenty for two Buds and leaving the change behind. Near 11:00 p.m. we parted ways.
A couple of days later we spoke again. He had decided to let me eavesdrop, via a three-way phone call, while he talked with a U.S. Customs agent, explaining that he'd met with this agent a year earlier and relayed to her the same story he told me. He asked me to be quiet while he dialed. "Whatever happened to that stuff I gave you?" Young asked when the agent answered. He was referring to a tip about an arms sale in another state.
"I passed on the information."
"Well, what happened?"
"I'm not going to tell you what happened," the agent snapped.
It appeared she had little patience for Young. He sparred with her for a few minutes before bringing up the Mohammed Atta tapes. The agent shot back: "You've been dangling these tapes like a carrot on a stick for over a year. If you have tapes that are incriminating of others for the events discussed, then bring 'em in and let's see if they exist."
Young just laughed. "Why would I do that?"
Perhaps he intended to impress me with his connections to federal agents, but the exchange merely revealed that someone else out there was feeling jerked around by this guy.
I've pulled into the parking lot of the Denny's on Biscayne Boulevard at 36th Street. It's a sunny spring day. The air is vibrating with possibility. I'm not talking to Young anymore, and my mind has cleared. He dumped me rather brutally, phoning a couple of weeks after our Metrorail meeting to tell me the deal was off. "What can I say? Shit happens. You don't control the flow of things," he said. "You'll get to see the tapes just like everyone else when I go public with them." Then he hung up.
Apparently I'd prepared myself well for this, because I was relieved. The anxiety about trusting this man was over. So was my research. I wouldn't bother contacting the Nigerian, or tracking down the Pakistani teenager in Canada, or pawing through more piles of court records.
But there was one last thing I did want to do. I pushed open the doors of Denny's and found the man sitting in the booth.
Even before Young reneged on his agreement, I had called a contact in law enforcement who gave me the name of an FBI agent involved with counterterrorism. I finally made that call. As we ordered our eggs and coffee, I provided him the salient facts, the name of the teen, the Nigerian businessman, the man from Michigan. I gave him what dates I had. I handed off the picture and name of the man Young alleged was an al-Qaeda member living in the U.S.
The agent said it didn't sound kosher that terrorists would take an African American any American for that matter into their confidence, but he'd look into it.
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Later the agent called. Evidently Young had shopped this story to other federal agencies in addition to Customs. His motives were unclear, but they did not find him a credible source.
I hung up the phone and chuckled, mostly at myself. The only thing I had lost was time. It had almost been like a dream. But then as I packed up the folders littering my office, I couldn't help wondering: Should I do more to resolve the unanswered questions? Where did Young come up with the name of the Pakistani teen? Was the man from Michigan really handing off a barrel of ammonium nitrate? How about the Nigerian's radioactive material? I never did get around to checking Young's criminal history in Canada. Should I make one last call up there?
And they never did find suicide tapes from the hijackers, did they?