Egyptian immigrant Abdel Rahman Mosabbah won a green card in the 1997 visa lottery which enabled him to settle in New York.
His plan was to save enough money to later bring his wife and son to the United States from Egypt.
He rented a room in Brooklyn, in the Park Slope area, with other Muslim immigrants. The house was in bad shape: the air conditioner didn't work, so in the summer it was suffocating and smelled like garbage. But Mossabah did not care, he was determined to make his American Dream.
It was there, in the house, that he discovered that two of them were planning to blow up the Atlantic Avenue–Barclays Center, a busy subway stop, and plant two bombs on the B train, which is frequented by may Jews.
Thanks to Mossabah, the bloody attack was prevented, averting what police consider the first attempt at a suicide bombing on the New York City subway.
The story is being recalled now, in the midst of the controversy over President Donald Trump's criticism of visa lottery beneficiaries, by the writer and journalist Christopher Dickey, who wrote a book about the case.
Mossabah lived in the Park Slope house with a Palestinian immigrant, Gazi Abu Mezer, with whom he barely spoke. One day in July 1997, after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem killed 178 people, Mezer approached Mossabah to show him something. It was a homemade contraption built with nails, tubes, batteries and gunpowder. A bomb. "Did you see what happened in Jerusalem? Tomorrow it will happen here," he said.
Mossabah did not know what to do. He had only been in the United States for a few weeks. He went outside and approached two police officers at the Atlantic Avenue station. He told them what he had learned. After hours of questioning the attack was interrupted. At the time, then mayor of the city, Rudolph Giuliani, said: “The information received, some people attribute to good luck and good fortune,”
It was, writes Dickey, really good luck that the police on the metro line believed Mossabah as he struggled to get out the word "bomb."
They took Mossabah to police headquarters, where other detectives interrogated him. They finally called the NYPD-NYPD-which activated an emergency plan. The problem was that they could barely understand Mossabah.
After several unsuccessful attempts to find a translator, the FBI produced one. Mossabah was able to tell the story, draw a plan of the house and locate Mezer's room for the police, as well as that of Lafi Khalil, who was his accomplice. He described in detail the artifact that Mezer had shown him.
An emergency response team was sent to the house. Mossabah's description was so accurate that police were able to enter Mezer's room to confront the man. They were both shot, but survived and went to trial. Mezer was found guilty of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and Khalil was convicted as an accomplice. In his testimony Mezer confessed that he wanted to kill as many Jews as possible.
Trump's fear factor
Unlike the hero in this story, Mezer did not arrive in the United States on a lottery visa. This week Trump attacked the lottery program after a terrorist attack in New York was carried out by an Uzbek immigrant who obtained a U.S. visa thanks to the lottery.
Mezer had been awaiting the outcome of a request for political asylum, which he had requested on the grounds that he suffered persecution in Israel because of alleged ties to the Hamas militant group, something he denied.
An investigation later confirmed that Mezer was indeed linked to Hamas and that he had tried to unsuccesfully enter the country several times. One of those efforts involved funding from Saudi Arabia. Under tighter rules today he would never have managed to enter the United States, but his case pre-dated 9/11.
Dickey raises another question: what would have happened today in a similar situation? Would Mossabah have dared to report what he saw to the police? Maybe not, Dickey suggests, noting the fear that Trump is spreading with his campaign to limit entry to the United States and deport undocumented immigrants.
Dickey recalled the words in 1997 of Rudolph Giuliani, the then Republican mayor of New York, who said: “Some people attribute it to an act of God, or maybe to an act of a conscience that ultimately unites all men and women when they realized that beyond racial, religious, ethnic, and even political differences, we are all united as people and human beings and that we have to protect each other and help each other.”