“I’m proud of the path of Osama bin Laden,” gushed Ilich Ramírez Sánchez from a French prison in 2002. Ramirez was also known during the 1970’s as “Carlos the Jackal,” and “The World’s Most Wanted Terrorist.” In 1967 Ramirez-Sanchez was an eager recruit into Cuba’s “guerrilla” (terror) training camps started by Che Guevara in 1959. “Bin Laden has followed a trail I myself blazed,” he continued during an interview with the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. “I followed news of the September 11 attacks on the United States non-stop from the beginning. I can’t describe that wonderful feeling of relief!”
“We will bring the war to the imperialist enemies’ very home,” raved Carlos the Jackal’s idol and spiritual mentor (Che Guevara) in his Message to the Tri-Continental Conference in 1966, “to his places of work and recreation. The imperialist enemy must feel like a hunted animal wherever he moves. Thus we’ll destroy him! These hyenas are fit only for extermination. We must keep our hatred (against the U.S.) alive and fan it to paroxysm!”
Fortunately, on Nov. 17 1962, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI foiled the “war” Castro and Che had planned for us “hyenas,” in some of our favorite “places of recreation.” On Saturday morning, November 17th, 1962, FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. took on “all the trappings of a military command post,” according to historian William Breuer.
As well it might. The night before an intelligence puzzle had finally come together. The resulting picture staggered the FBI men. And these had served at their posts during WWII and the height of the Cold War. They’d seen plenty. Now they had mere days to foil a crime against their nation to rival Hideki Tojo’s, including the Bataan Death March.
The agents and officers were haggard and red-eyed –but seriously wired. Like hawks on a perch they’d been watching the plot unfold, sweating bullets the whole time. It was nearing time to swoop down on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s agents, busy with a terror plot that would have made Bin Laden drool decades later.
Alan Belmont was second to J. Edgar Hoover at the time. Raymond Wannall headed the Bureau’s Intelligence Division. That nerve-jangling morning both were in Belmont’s office just down the hall from Hoover’s. Both were burning up the telephone lines to their agents in New York. On one phone they had Special Agent John Malone who ran the New York field office. On other lines they talked with several carloads of FBI agents slinking around Manhattan. These were keeping a touch-and-go, but more or less constant, surveillance on the ringleaders of the Cuban terror plot.
Castro’s agents had targeted Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdales, and Manhattan’s Grand Central Station with a dozen incendiary devices and 500 kilos of TNT. The holocaust was set for detonation the following week, on the day after Thanksgiving.
A little perspective: For their March 2004 Madrid subway blasts, all 10 of them, that killed and maimed almost 2,000 people, Al Qaeda used a grand total of 100 kilos of TNT. Castro and Che’s agents planned to set off five times that explosive power in the three biggest department stores on earth, all packed to suffocation and pulsing with holiday cheer on the year’s biggest shopping day. Macy’s get’s 50,000 shoppers that one day. Thousands of New Yorkers, including women and children–actually, given the date and targets, probably mostly women and children–were to be incinerated and entombed.
At the time, the FBI relied heavily on “HUMINT” (Human Intelligence). So they’d expertly penetrated the plot. One by one the ringleaders were ambushed. The first and most important was named Roberto Santiesteban and he was nabbed while walking down Riverside Drive. As the agents closed in, Santiesteban saw them and -took off! And as he ran, Santiesteban was jamming paper in his mouth and chewing furiously.
But six FBI agents were after him, all fleet of foot themselves. Finally they closed the ring and “triangulated” the suspect. Santiesteban fell, raging and cursing, flailing his arms and jabbing his elbows like a maniac. They grabbed his arm and bent it behind his back just as he was reaching for his pistol.
While this group got their man (and a vigorous workout), another FBI squad had the much easier task of arresting a couple named Jose and Elsa Gomez-Abad as they left their apartment on West 71st Street. These two gave in without a struggle. The FBI speculated that as many as 30 others might have been in on the plot, but these were the head honchos. Had those detonators gone off, 9/11 might be remembered as the SECOND deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Santiesteban and the Gomezes belonged to the Castro-Cuban Mission to the U.N., and plead “diplomatic immunity.” Other plotters belonged to the New York Chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, an outfit that became MUCH better known a year later on that very week.
“We greeted each other as old friends!” (Jimmy Carter describing his visit with Fidel Castro last month.)