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When Worlds Collide

June 08, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Americans' long-standing belief that our country was invulnerable to a terrorist attack changed forever on a wintry Friday morning four years ago. On Feb. 26, 1993, New York's 110-story twin World Trade Center towers were rocked by a devastating bomb explosion. Six people died and 1,000 more were injured.

A year later, four Muslim extremists--all followers of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a Muslim cleric who viewed the United States as an enemy of the Islamic world, were sentenced to life imprisonment for that crime, as was Abdel Rahman in a separate trial last year on conspiracy charges.

HBO's latest movie, "Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing," chronicles the often unbelievable behind-the-scenes story of how these men eluded investigators before the bombing and then wound up being caught by the FBI and the New York Police Department.

"It's a very striking story," offers co-producer Alasdair Palmer. "You are seeing things in the movie that you haven't seen before. One thing that comes out clearly is essentially how easy it is, in any free society, for a small group of very determined and ruthless individuals to wreak appalling havoc through bombs."

"Path to Paradise" depicts the FBI being aware of the extremists before the bombing but failing to realize just how serious and deadly they were. Agents weren't the only ones who blundered, however. The sheik's followers were disorganized and rocked by infighting. They made several major mistakes, including one that miraculously ended up saving lives and preventing more destruction: They parked the truck with the bomb in the wrong area in the World Trade Center garage.

Peter Gallagher ("To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday") and Marcia Gay Harden ("Spitfire Grill") star as FBI agents John Anticev and Nancy Floyd. The pair began investigating the blind sheik and his followers after one of his disciples, El Sayyid Nosair (Shaun Toub), murdered religious extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990.

Gallagher said he was drawn to Ned Curren's script "because it seemed true to me. Whereas a lot of disaster movies feel the need to pump it up and dramatize something already quite dramatic, this, for me, was dramatic in its detail. It also exposed in a very real sense for me the collisions of culture and how vulnerable we all are and the fact everybody messed up."

Ned Eisenberg portrays Emad Salem, another of the sheik's followers who approaches the FBI after Kahane's murder to volunteer information about other terrorist activities being planned. Using him, the FBI expands its investigation of Abdel Rahman (Andreas Katsulas) and his group. But when Salem refuses to wear a wire, the FBI loses its only inside connection.

After the bombing, the FBI renews its contact with Salem--but now he is asking for $1 million and placement in the federal witness protection program.

The FBI, co-producer Palmer says, "was just one step out. Their thinking was, 'This is just a small group of Islamic fanatics who don't really pose a big danger to ordinary American citizens. They are fighting among themselves all the time. There's really nothing to be worried about.'

"In a way, it was perfectly understandable that they should take that view. You have to see it, to some extent, from their point of view and why it was difficult for them to put two and two together and get four."

Nevertheless, Palmer says it's very important to have an "FBI and a police force who take this kind of [internal threat] incredibly seriously. When the movie starts, [the FBI] didn't have anybody who knew anything about fundamentalist Islam. They didn't have anybody who could speak Arabic. America is a free society and it wants to stay a free society, so you have got the presumption of innocence for everybody and also the right to unimpeded movement and free speech. It is not a crime [to write about terrorist plans], and it's not a crime to [talk about] it."

"Path to Paradise' makes extensive use of previously unreleased transcripts of tape recordings, some of which were used word for word in the script. Palmer was granted access to the enormous archives of a Washington-based journalist who specializes in Islamic organizations in the United States.

Larry Williams, who directed the film with his wife, Leslie Libman, points out that Salem not only tape-recorded his conversations with the sheik's followers, but also with the FBI.

"When the FBI put him in the witness-protection program and this whole thing went to trial, they took all of his tapes and put them into evidence without listening to them first," Williams says. "By putting them into evidence, they became accessible to the defense and the public."

The directors, who previously have done rock videos, commercials and MTV's dramatic film series "Out of Order," set out to make an atypical docudrama--one that played up the unbelievable twists.

"One challenge," Williams says, "was to take a story where there were seven or eight guys with beards and similar names and make them distinctive. The other challenge was, 'How do we play up the absurdity of this?' How do you play that up, yet remember the very big tragic aspect to our story? Ultimately, we decided to play it straight and let the story and situations be absurd."

"In our opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the story is that it's very evenly dealt with," Libman says. "It's not only about a bunch of crazy terrorists blowing up a building. It's about cultural misunderstandings. It's about procedure within the FBI. It's about everyone messing up and all the close calls."

"Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing" airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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