AN AMERICAN TERRORIST
He's an assassin who fled the country. Could he help Washington now?
The New Yorker
Issue of 2002-08-05
On the evening of July 21, 1980, in Washington, D.C., Dawud Salahuddin, a twenty-nine-year-old African-American convert to Islam who was born David Theodore Belfield, prepared to commit murder. In an empty office at the Iranian Interest Section of the Algerian Embassy, on Wisconsin Avenue, where he worked as a security guard, he loaded a Browning semi-automatic pistol, test-fired it out a window into an alleyway, and stashed it in a gym bag. Then he went to sleep on a couch. The Iranian Embassy had been closed down a few months earlier, as United States relations with Iran continued to deteriorate after the overthrow of the Shah, in early 1979, the installation of the repressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the ongoing hostage crisis at the American Embassy in Tehran.
The next morning, Salahuddin woke before dawn and prayed. He walked along Wisconsin Avenue to a designated spot, where a friend, also an African-American and a Muslim, met him in a rental car, and together they drove northwest, toward the Maryland border. In the passenger seat, Salahuddin changed into a mailman's uniform and put on a pair of cotton gloves. He stuffed the pistol into a large Jiffy bag. On Idaho Avenue not far from the National Cathedral, another friend, a postal worker, was waiting with a mail-delivery jeep. Salahuddin drove the jeep by himself to Bethesda, Maryland. He stopped at a pay phone outside a diner to call the home of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, who had become an outspoken opponent of Ayatollah Khomeini. When Tabatabai answered, Salahuddin hung up. Minutes later, at around eleven-forty, he parked the jeep in front of Tabatabai's house, on a quiet cul-de-sac, and walked to the door carrying what looked like two special-delivery packages. He held one package, a decoy crammed with newspapers, in front; it obscured the second package, inside which Salahuddin held the pistol in his right hand, his finger on the trigger. The house was used as a meeting place for the Iran Freedom Foundation, a counter-revolutionary group, and one of Tabatabai's associates answered the door. Salahuddin asked for Tabatabai—saying that the delivery required his signature—and when he appeared Salahuddin shot him three times in the abdomen and fled. Forty-five minutes later, at 12:34 P.M., Tabatabai was pronounced dead at Suburban Hospital.
Salahuddin had been keeping a high profile, associating publicly with known Muslim radicals, and the police and the F.B.I. had been aware of him for some time. The morning after the killing, the authorities in Montgomery County, Maryland, obtained a warrant for David Theodore Belfield's arrest on a charge of murder. The plot, which involved many accomplices and dubious alibis, had unravelled quickly. The homicide report described the shooting as a "political assassination," and noted that "the deceased was the founder of an organization whose goal was the overthrow of the present regime in Iran." The killing fit into an over-all scheme of violence precipitated by political upheaval in the Muslim world. In a July 29, 1980, editorial, the Washington Post said the murder in Bethesda was "part of a wider pattern" in which insecure Persian Gulf governments "turn to the gun to rid themselves of their expatriate opponents." Eleven days before Salahuddin murdered Tabatabai, gunmen in Paris, posing as reporters, had tried to kill Shahpur Bakhtiar, the last Prime Minister of Iran under the Shah (a later attempt, in 1991, succeeded), and, in December of 1979, a nephew of the Shah had been assassinated, also in Paris.
After shooting Tabatabai, Salahuddin abandoned the jeep a few blocks from the murder scene, where his friend was waiting with the rental car, and they made their way to Montreal. There Salahuddin booked a flight to Paris with a connection to Geneva. On the flight, he picked up a July 24th copy of the International Herald Tribune and read a story about the Tabatabai killing. The F.B.I. had identified the "mailman" as David Theodore Belfield, the name on Salahuddin's passport. Somehow, he cleared customs in Geneva, but he had to wait seven days at the Iranian Consulate there for a visa to go on to Iran.
Salahuddin reached Tehran on July 31, 1980. Except for short periods in other Muslim countries and in North Korea, he has been in Iran ever since, and now lives in a comfortable garden apartment in an enclave of Turkish émigrés, about forty-five miles outside Tehran, with his wife, who is Iranian. Salahuddin speaks Farsi and works as a freelance writer.
On the street in Tehran, Salahuddin looks more like a visiting Islamic scholar from Qom than like a murderer. He is about six feet tall, has a closely cropped beard, and wears a knee-length tunic. "Generally, I blend in," Salahuddin said earlier this year. "I could be an Iranian Arab or an Iranian Baluch." He is a cordial, soft-spoken, and, it seems, even-tempered man. Yet he has declared that he is ready to kill again, "in certain circumstances." He also approves of bombing buildings if, in his opinion, they are "symbols of arrogant American power."
Salahuddin is beyond the reach of American law: the United States has no extradition treaty with Iran. Various attempts over the years to bring him to justice have failed. An F.B.I. spokesman told me that he is "unaware of any other approaches" to get Salahuddin back. If he were somehow lured to another country and caught, Salahuddin would face trial in Maryland. "It's an open case," Douglas Gansler, the Montgomery County prosecutor, told me. "The Iranians came here to recruit homegrown terrorists, and they found one in Salahuddin."
C.I.A. officers have maintained a keen interest in him. Although his capture would be a triumph for law enforcement, Salahuddin may be, from an intelligence perspective, more useful left in place. His efforts on behalf of the revolution have afforded him a high level of access to the inner circle of the government, especially among moderates and others interested in rapprochement with the United States. Intelligence sources have also speculated that he could provide information on the Iranian presence in northwestern Afghanistan, a contested area that Pakistan may have designs on. Salahuddin is known to have a close relationship with Ismail Khan, the warlord governing the region around Herat, in western Afghanistan, where American companies have considered building a pipeline for oil from the Caspian Sea, as an alternative to Saudi Arabian oil.
In conversations that took place over five days in Tehran last February, Salahuddin admitted to murdering Tabatabai. "I shot him," Salahuddin said, with no sign of discomfort or remorse, when I asked him about the killing during our first meeting. In a later e-mail, Salahuddin insisted that there was nothing "murderous" in his killing of Tabatabai. "It was an act of war," he wrote, and a religious duty. "In Islamic religious terms, taking a life is sometimes sanctioned and even highly praised, and I thought that event was just such a time." Some interpretations of Islamic law allow for killing when it is seen as a way to protect the Muslim community, and Salahuddin seems to have appropriated this view for his own ends. He was, by his own description, an "angry and alienated" African-American with "a good dose of rage with the American establishment." He told me that if the opportunity to kill Tabatabai had not come along, he is sure that he would have done something else like it, or something on an even larger scale. "I was primed for violence, and I thought about cratering the White House a quarter century before Al Qaeda did," he wrote to me. "It would be accurate to say that my biggest aspiration was to bring America to its knees, but I didn't know how."
Salahuddin grew up in Bay Shore, Long Island, as Teddy Belfield, the third of five children—four boys and a girl—in a churchgoing Baptist family that had moved to New York from North Carolina in the early fifties. His parents both worked at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, in Brentwood, his mother, Argenta, as a nurse's aide in the wards, his father, Charles, in the laundry room. Charles Belfield moonlighted as a security guard at Newsday and as a bouncer at a Bay Shore night club. Salahuddin still refers to America as home, and much of his talk is about his boyhood in Bay Shore: about the Bay Shore Bombers, a fast-pitch softball team; the high-school gymnasium where he first dunked a basketball; and shopping sprees at Ripley's, Lorry's, and Florsheim's. "He was right out of G.Q., with those half-gator shoes, thick-and-thin nylon socks, and a pinkie ring," his sister told me. A high-school friend remembers him as "the all-American boy . . . liked by blacks and whites." Yet throughout his childhood, Salahuddin said, he was deeply troubled by his race. "Maybe the most damage that was done to me as a kid was that it was somehow an indecency, an insufficiency, certainly a shame not to be white." From his earliest years, as a pupil at the predominantly white Brook Avenue Elementary School, in Bay Shore, he said, "I understood that the less black you were, hey, you had a little more breathing space. But you still had a problem." He remembered a project in third grade which required all the students to bring in an ingredient to make soup. One of his classmates, a very dark-skinned boy named Johnny Carter, brought a can of corn. "Now, what I saw," Salahuddin told me, "was when that soup was cooked, all my classmates who I thought were my friends picked the corn out of their soup. And to this day I remember that, and to this day I remember how I felt for Johnny."
In 1963, when he was in seventh grade, Salahuddin watched the television footage of Eugene (Bull) Connor, the police chief of Birmingham, Alabama, turning back civil-rights marchers with fire hoses and attack dogs. He began to develop "an implacable hatred toward all symbols of American authority." By his senior year in high school, he was refusing to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance. He told his sister to listen to the words of the pledge: "They don't apply to everyone."
These resentments, he said, were nourished by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., by his reading about slavery, and by what he saw at Johnny White's, the night club where his father worked, in the black section of Bay Shore. "Johnny White's was more instructive than anything else," he said. "It was the repository of all the bad things slavery had done to the minds and hearts of black men." He spent a lot of time there in his early teens, and witnessed barroom violence: shootings and knifings, and bottles broken over people's heads. Salahuddin said that he began drinking at thirteen, getting "blind drunk" a number of times. By the time he was sixteen, he had a gun, and on one occasion pistol-whipped a teen-ager who had stolen a television set from his house. "I was about to shoot him," Salahuddin said, "when another guy grabbed my arm."
All the Belfield children went to college. Teddy entered Howard University, in Washington, in 1968, but he quit after one semester, having lost interest in his classes, and worked as a day laborer on construction projects. "This put me in direct touch with a class of black men that I had known every day of my youth, but now I was working with them," he wrote to me. "These men had no education, rarely a stable family, lots of them were alcoholics, and not one had a future." Salahuddin said he came to believe that "black America is the Third World in a First World setting," and that "it is dangerous and unsustainable for all concerned."
Throughout the years that Salahuddin spent in Washington, his closest non-Muslim friend was a fellow New Yorker who had taken the African name Brother Oleigi, and who is now a recreational therapist working with autistic children in Maryland. Oleigi remembers Salahuddin as an avid reader—works by W. E. B. DuBois and the historian Carter G. Woodson; Ferdinand Lundberg's "The Rich and the Super-Rich"—"who could quote a passage from a book verbatim and give you the page it was on." Oleigi, however, said that he had no inkling in July, 1980, of what his friend was about to do.
At a loft that was a gathering place for black writers and activists, Salahuddin met a Korean War veteran he admired, who told him, "I'm not talking to you anymore until you read the Koran." When he did, Salahuddin found that Islam was "color-blind." In February, 1969, when he was eighteen, he converted, taking the name Dawud Salahuddin, after the twelfth-century Muslim warrior. Despairing over the future of the black man in America, he joined a fringe organization called the Black Man's Volunteer Army of Liberation, which encouraged urban blacks to return to Africa and become farmers. (He quit after a few months, convinced that the group was a scam and that its leader was a police informer.) During this period, he became the editor of a small Islamic newspaper in Washington and spent much of his time at mosques. Salahuddin also said he had committed "grab and run" robberies of jewelry stores and pawnshops, for which he was never apprehended or charged: "I would ask for the biggest plate of gold they had, dump it into a big, empty pocket in my coat, and out the door."
In the months following his conversion, Salahuddin began to meet Islamic revolutionaries, including some who were later involved in the overthrow of the Shah. He spent time at an Iranian student center that was run by Bahram Nahidian, Ayatollah Khomeini's main operative in the United States. The center, used as a meeting place and a staging area for pro-Khomeini demonstrations, has long since shut down (it is now a private residence), and Nahidian is thought to be living in northern Virginia.
Sometime in the early seventies, Salahuddin began visiting high-security prisons and jails in Washington and its environs. His purpose, he said, was to bring the message of Islam to black inmates. The police suspect that these visits were part of a recruitment effort, possibly paid for by Iran. "The inmates got a twenty-five-cent tour of Islam, but the visits were to find recruits for political activities and violence," a police source told me.
In May of 1975, Salahuddin met Said Ramadan, an Egyptian lawyer and Islamic scholar, who was the guest speaker at a prayer service at the Islamic Center, a large mosque on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. Ramadan, the founder and head of the Centre Islamique, in Geneva, had been living in exile in Switzerland since the nineteen-fifties. Salahuddin describes Ramadan, who was his adviser and spiritual guide until his death, in 1995, as "the international point man for the Muslim Brotherhood." (The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, was, according to Salahuddin, the inspiration for almost every militant group in the Muslim world. Ramadan's father-in-law was its founder.)
During the summer of 1975, Ramadan stayed with Salahuddin in a house in Washington about a mile from the Howard University campus. They often talked through the night. "I don't think another human being, including my biological parents, knew me any better," Salahuddin said. One subject they discussed was Salahuddin's personality, particularly his capacity for violent action. Ramadan, he said, assured him that if he were to commit such an act he wouldn't be emotionally scarred by it—it would "be accomplished and simply forgotten."
In December of 1979, Salahuddin called Ramadan in Geneva to seek his advice about working for the Iranians as a security guard. It was ten months after the overthrow of the Shah, and Ayatollah Khomeini, now in power in Iran, was on guard against a counter-revolution. Salahuddin said he remembers Ramadan telling him to do everything he possibly could on Khomeini's behalf. "His tone was emphatic," Salahuddin said, "and for me it was taken as a command."
Salahuddin told me that Ramadan hadn't known about his plans to kill Tabatabai, but an article in the Washington Post on August 8, 1980, reported that there were three calls around the time of the murder to Ramadan's Geneva home from pay phones near the Iranian diplomatic office. A law-enforcement source involved in the Tabatabai case told me that investigators believed the calls were made by a Salahuddin "handler," a Khomeini operative in the United States, who was not charged in the murder.
The man who recruited him to kill Tabatabai, Salahuddin told me, was "someone in Washington" who was "passing along instructions" from the Iranian government. He would not divulge the identity of his "contact," and would say only that he believes he met him at the Iranian student center: "At no point did I advertise myself as a hit man, though it was clear to people who knew me that I had no profound fear of violence or of the authorities." Salahuddin said that he was given "a chunk of cash" (actually, five thousand dollars) and five weeks to get the job done. "What I regret is my shoddy planning, which put friends of mine behind bars for years," he said. Police and F.B.I. agents found that, in addition to the driver of the rental car and the postal worker, Salahuddin had had at least three other accomplices: one who had rented the getaway car, one who later wiped it clean of fingerprints, and one who staged a hijacking to create an alibi for the postman who had lent Salahuddin his jeep. In all, ten of Salahuddin's associates—most of them African-American Muslims who, like him, had met Iranian revolutionaries at mosques or other Muslim gathering places in Washington—were arrested and prosecuted, five as accomplices in the murder and five on unrelated charges, including bank robberies and illegal gun possession.
The D.C. police intelligence division already had a thick file on Salahuddin. He had been arrested in New York on November 4, 1979—the day the siege of the American Embassy in Tehran began—with Bahram Nahidian, Ayatollah Khomeini's operative, and a group of pro-Khomeini demonstrators who briefly chained themselves to the railings at the crown of the Statue of Liberty and unfurled a banner denouncing the Shah. In the spring of 1980, tensions developed between the conservative leadership of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue and a group of militant pro-Khomeini Iranians and African-American Muslims. On April 2nd, the director and the assistant director of the center told police that the revolutionary faction was threatening a violent takeover of the mosque. Salahuddin and Nahidian were thought to be the ringleaders. The police feared that the trouble at the mosque might be a ploy to incite police action against Muslims and generate the kind of television images—Muslims at worship being attacked by helmeted police in the nation's capital—that would jeopardize the American hostage situation in Tehran and set off an international call to arms.
Salahuddin described himself as a "time bomb," whose raging anger was harnessed by the Iranian government. When the emissary from Tehran approached Salahuddin about killing Tabatabai, he said he tried without success to get the emissary to authorize him to assassinate two Americans instead. "If you want to make an impact, you don't kill an exiled Iranian," he said he told the emissary. "That's not a big deal." He did not disclose that he had already done his "homework" on the two other targets: Kermit Roosevelt, a former C.I.A. official who had helped bring the Shah to power, in 1953; and Henry Kissinger, whom he had pinpointed because of Kissinger's involvement in the bombing of Cambodia and the coup against Salvador Allende, in Chile. "Did you ever see footage of the attack on Allende in the Presidential Palace?" Salahuddin asked me in Tehran. "Why is that O.K., but an attempt on the White House is a mark of unutterable inhumanity?"
I asked Salahuddin what he thought he would have accomplished by assassinating Kissinger. "It's like this—you deal with a bully," he began. "You go to school the first day, a guy takes your lunch money, and that's going to go on every day of the year until you do something to him that will discourage that kind of behavior." He added that even though he knew there was "an excellent chance" that he would get shot by Kissinger's bodyguards, he was prepared to go ahead. "I don't see myself as being in love with danger," he wrote in an e-mail, but "the excitement of it is a psychic drug and in the midst of potential life-and-death circumstances you understand what it is to be alive."
Salahuddin discovered, in his early years in Iran, that even though he believed in violent jihad, there were limits to his militancy. In the eighties, he said, a branch of Iranian military intelligence asked him to hijack planes, but, he said, "there is something about being trapped inside of something that I would not give in to." He added, "I might do other things if it's just bang and gone, but the idea of keeping people under pressure. . . . "
Salahuddin says that he has received no direct payments from the Iranian government aside from the five thousand dollars for killing Tabatabai. "Some people believe that I am on some special government payroll, but no one has ever given me a sinecure job in Tehran, nor have I ever been subsidized in any meaningful way." He said that he worked briefly for the Revolutionary Guards as an English teacher; that he was the moderator, last year, of a twice-weekly news program on Iranian television; and that for nine years he was an editor, editorial writer, and war correspondent for one of Tehran's four English-language newspapers. Salahuddin told me that in February, 1991, he went to Iraq to cover the Gulf War and obtained an interview with Abu Abbas, the Palestinian terrorist who led the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Salahuddin also travelled in the militant Muslim world as a kind of diplomat for Said Ramadan: "I presented myself as Ramadan's envoy, and that was with his encouragement." Salahuddin wrote that in 1986 he made "certain representations on behalf of Ramadan to Muammar Qaddafi" through one of Qaddafi's cousins, and in 1995 he said he delivered a message from Ramadan to President Burhanuddin Rabbani, in Afghanistan, warning him that the Taliban had ties to the C.I.A. From December of 1986 to May of 1988, Salahuddin said, he served in Afghanistan as a soldier with the mujahideen.
In 1993, shortly after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, when intelligence agents were desperate for information, a former intelligence detective named Carl Shoffler, who served with federal agents on an interagency counter-terrorism task force in Washington, got in touch with Salahuddin. Detective Tom Cauffiel, of the Montgomery County police department, told me, "Carl figured that Dawud might be one of the few people who knew what the bombing was about, and might know what else was on the agenda, what other targets."
Salahuddin began a back-channel relationship with American authorities and talked about returning to the United States to stand trial in the murder of Tabatabai. "I was serious about it at the time," Salahuddin acknowledged, "and Carl was the one guy who might have brought me home."
"The idea," Cauffiel said, "was to use the leverage of the murder to find out what he knows." Salahuddin told Shoffler that the bombing was directly related to the United States military presence in Saudi Arabia—an inflammatory issue among radical Muslims.
On March 5, 1994, at Shoffler's urging, Salahuddin sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno. It was his only formal contact with the United States government. In the letter, he laid out his terms "for mediating between the U.S. and certain key figures in the worldwide Islamic movement" and for providing information on some of his "work" for Iran. "The price for this service is freedom from all prosecution to the charges I face in the Bethesda affair," Salahuddin wrote the Attorney General. Salahuddin said that he never received an answer from Reno or from anyone else. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that no record of Salahuddin's letter exists. In 1996, before a deal could be worked out, Shoffler died of pancreatitis, and Salahuddin's interest in surrendering faded. He learned of Shoffler's death in an e-mail from a former C.I.A. officer named Jack Platt. "I went through the files and got the e-mail address that Carl was using," Platt told me. Salahuddin, he said, sent him back an e-mail and then called: "He was very distraught. Two times he said, 'I just can't believe it,' and I said, 'Well, you just have to.' "
In May of 2001, Salahuddin resurfaced in an unlikely way: as an actor in the Iranian film "Kandahar," which was shown at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and released worldwide soon afterward. The film is based on the true story of an exiled Afghan woman's journey home to find a friend who is threatening suicide because of harsh treatment by the Taliban. "Kandahar" created controversy, first in Iran, because it focussed attention on the country's failure to provide schooling for Afghan refugee children, and then in the United States and Europe, for the casting of an accused assassin in a prominent role. (Salahuddin is listed as Hassan Tantai in the credits.) The film's director, in a statement on his Web site, says that he likes to use non-actors in his films, and takes no responsibility for Salahuddin's past. "I am not nosy about their lives," he writes. "I am an artist, not a judge, or a policeman, or an F.B.I. agent." Salahuddin, who refuses to say how he got the part, plays a compassionate American doctor who befriends the Afghan woman. For most of the film, the doctor wears a fake full beard to fit in among the Afghan men, but in one brief scene he removes it. From that scene, a friend of the Tabatabai family recognized Salahuddin and immediately called Mohammad Reza Tabatabai, the twin brother of Ali Akbar. "I was horrified," Tabatabai told me. "By taking off the beard, he was saying, 'O.K., I killed a man, but here I am, a movie star, and nobody can do anything about it.' "
One afternoon, Salahuddin joined me for tea and biscuits in my hotel room. I asked him, as I had several times before, to tell me what he thought of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. Was it mass murder? "It was nothing less than that," he answered. "The religion allows you to kill people, but it's very strict about whom you can kill." He went on, "The World Trade Center was obviously a symbolic target and the one the bombers concentrated the most on, yet from a religious point of view Muslims are forbidden to kill civilians and noncombatants. It is something that I have always been very careful about."
Salahuddin told me that, as it happens, one of his cousins was a survivor of the attack on the Pentagon and that his family's doctor in Bay Shore lost a son in the World Trade Center. Nonetheless, he said, to my astonishment, "I had no problem with the Pentagon. I felt sorry for the people who died there, especially the civilians, but in a situation like that they knew where they were working." He added, "If I had to choose a target in Washington, it would be the White House."
When I asked him if he thought Mohamed Atta, one of the pilots who crashed into the towers, was an aberration, he said, "I would think that Egyptian society in particular and Saudi Arabia to a lesser extent have been incubating this type of personality for decades." Iran has tended to use surrogate organizations and operatives for its terrorist activities.
Salahuddin was sharply critical of the regime that had recruited him and given him asylum. "The Iranians of my immediate association turned out to be far from paragons of virtue," he said. "The corruption here among the highest levels of the mullahs is incredible—it includes financial malfeasance, gross human-rights violations, extrajudicial murder, and two systems of justice, one for the mullahs, and one for citizens."
The freedom with which Salahuddin attacks the mullahs suggests an immunity perhaps earned by his successful execution of an "act of war"—or maybe it merely suggests recklessness, for he is well aware of the risk of dissent in Iran. He has told me that his present circumstances are "not sustainable" and, in an e-mail just before my arrival in Tehran, he wrote, "If you don't see me at the airport, it means I am either dead or under arrest."
Salahuddin is clearly looking for a way out of Iran. The events of September 11th and the new paradigm for the revolutionary—suicide—have left him behind. He is restless, and ill at ease in his adopted country.
"What's ahead for you?" I asked him, as we were being driven to the airport along a pitch-black, deserted back road.
"Sitting here right now talking to you, I frankly don't know," he said. "I'm at an impasse." Later, in an e-mail, Salahuddin wrote that he is "in one of those rocky patches of reinvention." He is fighting despair. "Depression is one of the dangers of long exile," he wrote to me. "I suffer from bouts of it. Over the past five years I would say that four months out of the year I am in some degree of mental depression."
One option for Salahuddin is to give himself up and face prosecution for the murder of Tabatabai, but he is unwilling to do this: "The idea that I go home and go to jail is something that I cannot really countenance." Salahuddin said he takes solace in the fact that he is alive. "Had I stayed home, I doubt that I would have made it through the eighties. I am sure that I would not have died of natural causes and equally certain that I would not have died alone."