(ABCNEWS.com), June 21, 2002 -- Millions saw the horrific images of the
World Trade Center attacks, and those who saw them won't forget them.
But a New Jersey homemaker saw something that morning that prompted an
investigation into five young Israelis and their possible connection to
Maria, who asked us not to use her last name, had a view of the World
Trade Center from her New Jersey apartment building. She remembers a
neighbor calling her shortly after the first plane hit the towers.
She grabbed her binoculars and watched the destruction unfolding in
lower Manhattan. But as she watched the disaster, something else caught
Maria says she saw three young men kneeling on the roof of a white van
in the parking lot of her apartment building. "They seemed to be taking
a movie," Maria said.
The men were taking video or photos of themselves with the World Trade
Center burning in the background, she said. What struck Maria were the
expressions on the men's faces. "They were like happy, you know Š They
didn't look shocked to me. I thought it was very strange," she said.
She found the behavior so suspicious that she wrote down the license
plate number of the van and called the police. Before long, the FBI was
also on the scene, and a statewide bulletin was issued on the van.
The plate number was traced to a van owned by a company called Urban
Moving. Around 4 p.m. on Sept. 11, the van was spotted on a service road
off Route 3, near New Jersey's Giants Stadium. A police officer pulled
the van over, finding five men, between 22 and 27 years old, in the
vehicle. The men were taken out of the van at gunpoint and handcuffed by
The arresting officers said they saw a lot that aroused their suspicion
about the men. One of the passengers had $4,700 in cash hidden in his
sock. Another was carrying two foreign passports. A box cutter was found
in the van. But perhaps the biggest surprise for the officers came when
the five men identified themselves as Israeli citizens.
'We Are Not Your Problem'
According to the police report, one of the passengers told the officers
they had been on the West Side Highway in Manhattan "during the
incident" ‹ referring to the World Trade Center attack. The driver of
the van, Sivan Kurzberg, told the officers, "We are Israeli. We are not
your problem. Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the
problem." The other passengers were his brother Paul Kurzberg, Yaron
Shmuel, Oded Ellner and Omer Marmari.
When the men were transferred to jail, the case was transferred out of
the FBI's Criminal Division, and into the bureau's Foreign
Counterintelligence Section, which is responsible for espionage cases,
ABCNEWS has learned.
One reason for the shift, sources told ABCNEWS, was that the FBI
believed Urban Moving may have been providing cover for an Israeli
After the five men were arrested, the FBI got a warrant and searched
Urban Moving's Weehawken, N.J., offices.
The FBI searched Urban Moving's offices for several hours, removing
boxes of documents and a dozen computer hard drives. The FBI also
questioned Urban Moving's owner. His attorney insists that his client
answered all of the FBI's questions. But when FBI agents tried to
interview him again a few days later, he was gone.
Three months later 2020's cameras photographed the inside of Urban
Moving, and it looked as if the business had been shut down in a big
hurry. Cell phones were lying around; office phones were still
connected; and the property of dozens of clients remained in the
The owner had also cleared out of his New Jersey home, put it up for
sale and returned with his family to Israel.
'A Scary Situation'
Steven Gordon, the attorney for the five Israeli detainees, acknowledged
that his clients' actions on Sept. 11 would easily have aroused
suspicions. "You got a group of guys that are taking pictures, on top of
a roof, of the World Trade Center. They're speaking in a foreign
language. They got two passports on 'em. One's got a wad of cash on him,
and they got box cutters. Now that's a scary situation."
But Gordon insisted that his clients were just five young men who had
come to America for a vacation, ended up working for a moving company,
and were taking pictures of the event.
The five Israelis were held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in
Brooklyn, ostensibly for overstaying their tourist visas and working in
the United States illegally. Two weeks after their arrest, an
immigration judge ordered them to be deported. But sources told ABCNEWS
that FBI and CIA officials in Washington put a hold on the case.
The five men were held in detention for more than two months. Some of
them were placed in solitary confinement for 40 days, and some of them
were given as many as seven lie-detector tests.
'Plenty of Speculation'
Since their arrest, plenty of speculation has swirled about the case,
and what the five men were doing that morning. Eventually, The Forward,
a respected Jewish newspaper in New York, reported the FBI concluded
that two of the men were Israeli intelligence operatives.
Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of operations for counterterrorism
with the CIA who is now a consultant for ABCNEWS, said federal
authorities' interest in the case was heightened when some of the men's
names were found in a search of a national intelligence database.
Israeli Intelligence Connection?
According to Cannistraro, many people in the U.S. intelligence community
believed that some of the men arrested were working for Israeli
intelligence. Cannistraro said there was speculation as to whether Urban
Moving had been "set up or exploited for the purpose of launching an
intelligence operation against radical Islamists in the area,
particularly in the New Jersey-New York area."
Under this scenario, the alleged spying operation was not aimed against
the United States, but at penetrating or monitoring radical fund-raising
and support networks in Muslim communities like Paterson, N.J., which
was one of the places where several of the hijackers lived in the months
prior to Sept. 11.
For the FBI, deciphering the truth from the five Israelis proved to be
difficult. One of them, Paul Kurzberg, refused to take a lie-detector
test for 10 weeks ‹ then failed it, according to his lawyer. Another of
his lawyers told us Kurzberg had been reluctant to take the test because
he had once worked for Israeli intelligence in another country.
Sources say the Israelis were targeting these fund-raising networks
because they were thought to be channeling money to Hamas and Islamic
Jihad, groups that are responsible for most of the suicide bombings in
Israel. "[The] Israeli government has been very concerned about the
activity of radical Islamic groups in the United States that could be a
support apparatus to Hamas and Islamic Jihad," Cannistraro said.
The men denied that they had been working for Israeli intelligence out
of the New Jersey moving company, and Ram Horvitz, their Israeli
attorney, dismissed the allegations as "stupid and ridiculous."
Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, goes
even further, asserting the issue was never even discussed with U.S.
"These five men were not involved in any intelligence operation in the
United States, and the American intelligence authorities have never
raised this issue with us," Regev said. "The story is simply false."
Despite the denials, sources tell ABCNEWS there is still debate within
the FBI over whether or not the young men were spies. Many U.S.
government officials still believe that some of them were on a mission
for Israeli intelligence. But the FBI told ABCNEWS, "To date, this
investigation has not identified anybody who in this country had
pre-knowledge of the events of 9/11."
Sources also said that even if the men were spies, there is no evidence
to conclude they had advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks on Sept.
11. The investigation, at the end of the day, after all the polygraphs,
all of the field work, all the cross-checking, the intelligence work,
concluded that they probably did not have advance knowledge of 9/11,"
As to what they were doing on the van, they say they read about the
attack on the Internet, couldn't see it from their offices and went to
the parking lot for a better view. But no one has been able to find a
good explanation for why they may have been smiling with the towers of
the World Trade Center burning in the background. Both the lawyers for
the young men and the Israeli Embassy chalk it up to immature conduct.
According to ABCNEWS sources, Israeli and U.S. government officials
worked out a deal -- and after 71 days, the five Israelis were taken out
of jail, put on a plane, and deported back home.
While the former detainees refused to answer ABCNEWS' questions about
their detention and what they were doing on Sept. 11, several of the
detainees discussed their experience in America on an Israeli talk show
after their return home.
Said one of the men, denying that they were laughing or happy on the
morning of Sept. 11, "The fact of the matter is we are coming from a
country that experiences terror daily. Our purpose was to document the
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