By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The first time Saraah Olson called the FBI about her husband was on Feb. 26, 1993. At 12:27 p.m. Eastern time, a truck bomb had exploded inside the garage of New York City's World Trade Center.
While working on a term paper at her Garden Grove apartment, Olson turned on her television and saw coverage of the explosion, which killed six and wounded 1,042 people. She immediately called her husband, Hisham Diab, an Egyptian immigrant and insurance salesman for MetLife whom she had married two years earlier. She reached Diab at his office in Carson, California.
"They blew up the Trade Center," Olson told him, her voice frantic with disbelief. "They keep saying, 'The Arabs did it; the Arabs did it. They are blaming Arabs.'" Olson recalls that her husband didn't seem the least bit surprised.
He uttered exactly two words. "They should," he said. Then he hung up the telephone.
Olson had been growing suspicious about her husband for several months, ever since Diab had invited a blind Egyptian cleric to stay in their apartment building for three days while he gave inspirational sermons at the local mosque. The cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, would later be charged in connection with the Trade Center bombing. But more than anything, it was Diab's apparent lack of surprise and cold reaction to the Trade Center bombing that led Saraah Olson to call the FBI.
"I was like, son of a bitch," Olson says. "What kind of person would say, 'they should' unless they know something they're not supposed to know?"
Immediately after calling Diab, Olson dialed the number of the Santa Ana office of the FBI. A nice-sounding woman answered the telephone and asked how she could help. "I need to give someone some information," Olson said. "I don't know who I should talk to. I married an Arab. He's Egyptian. He's a friend of the blind cleric. He has some extreme political beliefs, and I just told my husband they blew up the Trade Center and are blaming Arabs, and he said they should. I just think somebody should look into that."
As Olson recalls the conversation, the woman thanked her for calling and hung up.
"She didn't take my name or anything," Olson recalls.
So Olson called the FBI again. She demanded that the woman write down her name and telephone number. This time, the woman was less friendly.
"We're not interested in that," she said.
Nearly 12 years later—and after what she estimates were nearly three dozen fruitless telephone calls to the FBI—Saraah Olson visited New York's Ground Zero. It was September 2004, three years after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. She took a brief detour on her trip from John F. Kennedy airport to the Manhattan offices of ABC News. She had just flown to New York to tape a segment of Primetime Live in which she would recount how her ex-husband recruited an Orange County teenager named Adam Yahiye Gadahn into Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al-Qaeda.
Olson would claim that Diab and his best friend and next-door neighbor, a Palestinian-American named Khalil Deek—both of whom, like Gadahn, disappeared in the Middle East shortly before 9/11—were members of an Orange County terrorist sleeper cell. At the time, the FBI had just identified Gadahn, a masked figure calling himself "Azzam the American" in videos aired on Al Jazeera, as an emerging voice of propaganda for Al-Qaeda.
In the tape, Gadahn warned Americans they should convert to Islam or risk terrorist attacks that will dwarf those of 9/11. "The streets of America will run red with blood," he predicted.
Olson remembers those words as something the blind cleric had said during his visit to her apartment. As she surveyed the gaping hole where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had once stood, one phrase ran through her mind.
"All of this could have been stopped," she thought. "All of this could have been stopped if just one person had stopped talking and listened to me."
* * *
On a recent weekday morning, Saraah Olson sips a cup of coffee at Hof's Hut, a busy diner on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. She's explaining how she unwittingly married a terrorist and provided cover to an Orange County sleeper cell, how she tried to stop 9/11, and why she now fears for her life. Arranging the interview has taken several months. Olson doesn't visit Long Beach, where she moved as a teenager from her hometown of Vancouver, Washington, very often. She refuses to say where she lives now, except that she divides her time between Texas, California and Hawaii.
Olson's bizarre journey through the U.S. war on terror began in 1991, when she first met Hisham Diab while a teaching assistant at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson. For the next several years, Olson says, she lived in fear of Diab as she gradually realized he was infiltrating Orange County's Muslim community in an effort to establish a terrorist network. She says she watched helplessly as her husband helped Sheik Rahman evade arrest after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and endured a beating when she accidentally foiled Diab's plot to provide Osama bin Laden with a phony U.S. passport.