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 her eye.
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 … 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 police.
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
‘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 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
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
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
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
Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington,
goes even further, asserting the issue was never even discussed with
"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
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," Cannistraro noted.
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
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 event."
ABCNEWS' Chris Isham, John Miller, Glenn Silber and Chris
Vlasto contributed to this report.