Twenty years ago today, I happened to be in New York City on the last day of a consulting gig with a large international bank. As I left the offices of the bank to walk to my hotel to checkout, I decided to stop for a bite to eat on the way to LaGuardia for my flight. It was a little after noon as I was sitting finishing my meal when I heard all hell break out on the street, the most sirens I had ever heard in my trips to NYC — and that’s saying a lot. Dozens of police, fire trucks, and fire rescue were heading in one direction: downtown. I asked around but nobody seemed to know what was going on; in those pre-internet days the only way to get news was print, radio or TV — and I had a dearth of all three heading to the airport and boarding my flight.
As soon as I was able to, I used a new-fangled toy aboard my flight: an AirFone (remember those?). I called home to find out everybody was worried sick about me and the terrorist attack in New York. Needless to say I was more than a bit shocked and surprised. That terrorist attack was the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center towers by the blind Sheikh Abdul Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew. I don’t remember visiting New York City after that for a long time. It turned out that that day was my last opportunity to see the Twin Towers in all their glory.
I regret it to this day.
* * *
Here’s the FBI’s recounting of the attack. twenty years ago today.
Fifteen years ago this week, at about 17 minutes past noon, a thunderous explosion rocked lower Manhattan.
The epicenter was the parking garage beneath the World Trade Center, where a massive eruption carved out a nearly 100-foot crater several stories deep and several more high. Six people were killed almost instantly. Smoke and flames began filling the wound and streaming upward into the building. Those who weren’t trapped were soon pouring out of the building—many panic-stricken and covered in soot. More than a thousand people were hurt in some way, some badly, with crushed limbs.
It was Friday, February 26, 1993, and Middle Eastern terrorism had arrived on American soil—with a bang.
As a small band of terrorists scurried away from the scene unnoticed, the FBI and its partners on the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force began staffing up a command center and preparing to send in a team to investigate. Their instincts told them that this was terrorism—they’d been tracking Islamic fundamentalists in the city for months and, they’d later learn, were tantalizingly close to encountering the planners of this attack. But hunches weren’t enough; what was needed was definitive proof.
They’d have it soon enough. The massive investigation that followed—led by the task force, with some 700 FBI agents worldwide ultimately joining in—quickly uncovered a key bit of evidence. In the rubble investigators uncovered a vehicle identification number on a piece of wreckage that seemed suspiciously obliterated. A search of our crime records returned a match: the number belonged to a rented van reported stolen the day before the attack. An Islamic fundamentalist named Mohammad Salameh had rented the vehicle, we learned, and on March 4, an FBI SWAT team arrested him as he tried in vain to get his $400 deposit back.
One clue led to another and we soon had in custody three more suspects—Nidal Ayyad, Mahmoud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj. We’d also found the apartment where the bomb was built and a storage locker containing dangerous chemicals, including enough cyanide gas to wipe out a town. All four men were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life.
The shockwave from the attack continued to reverberate. Following the unfolding connections, the task force soon uncovered a second terrorist plot to bomb a series of New York landmarks simultaneously, including the U.N. building, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, and the federal plaza where our office in New York is housed. On June 24, 1994, FBI agents stormed a warehouse in Queens and caught several members of a terrorist cell in the act of assembling bombs.
Meanwhile, the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing was still on the run—and up to no good. We’d learned his name—Ramzi Yousef—within weeks after the attack and discovered he was planning more attacks, including the simultaneous bombing of a dozen U.S. international flights. Yousef was captured in Pakistan in February 1995, returned to America, and convicted along with the van driver, Eyad Ismoil. A seventh plotter, Abdul Yasin, remains at large.
We later learned from Yousef that his Trade Center plot was far more sinister. He wanted the bomb to topple one tower, with the collapsing debris knocking down the second. The attack turned out to be something of a deadly dress rehearsal for 9/11; with the help of Yousef’s uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al Qaeda would later return to realize Yousef’s nightmarish vision.
Here’s a terrifying first-person witness account of the explosion titled “‘A Symphony of Evil’: Two decades later, victim of first World Trade Center bombing recalls attack” by Alana Goodman:
On the morning of Feb. 26, 1993, Tim Lang stepped out of his car in the parking garage under the North Tower of the World Trade Center and began walking to a work meeting that would never happen. Seconds after his first step, a massive truck bomb exploded nearby, ripping a five-story-deep crater into the ground.
Terrorists had detonated a 1,500-pound fertilizer bomb in the garage with the intent to take down the World Trade Center. Six Americans died in the attack. More than 1,000 were injured.
“I was driving in listening to the news, there was a story about a bomb going off, a mafia hit, somewhere,” Lang told the Washington Free Beacon. “My last thought, before I went unconscious, was that the car next to me blew up.”
“I woke up on the ground in the dark,” said Lang. “I tried to stand up and I couldn’t because I was just dizzy. So I crawled.”
Lang made his way to an exit stairwell only to find it blocked by debris. He remembers falling across a dead body while attempting to force his way into an office to find a phone.
“The smoke is getting thicker. I feel pain in my chest from the smoke. It’s hot. All the car alarms have gone off so you have this maddening noise from 100 car alarms,” said Lang.
“A symphony of evil,” he said. “I felt I was in hell.”
Twenty years after the first World Trade Center attack, experts said the bombing marked the beginning of the end of American innocence about the threat of global terrorism.
“Just before the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, the FBI and the NYPD were in the process of disbanding the [FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force],” said Christopher Voss, a former FBI investigator with the Joint Terrorism Task Force who helped investigate and convict the Blind Sheikh after the 1993 bombing.
“Before that bombing, most of us had been reassigned from terrorism to gang crimes,” Voss said. “We didn’t believe that terrorism could come to the United States. We thought it was something that happened outside the United States. […] Since then, we’ve been disabused of that notion.”
Tom Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also said the U.S. had underestimated the global threat before the 1993 attack.
“They hadn’t seen that the bombing really came from trainees who were trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the fight against the Soviet Union and thereafter,” said Joscelyn. “Basically the U.S. government wasn’t prepared for the unintended consequences of what was coming out of the region.”
The 1993 bombing shifted Lang’s perspective on the threat of Islamic terrorism.
“Just think about 1993. We were innocent,” Lang said. “Who would think there were people out there who would want to kill you just because of who you are?”
Lang was also in downtown Manhattan during the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was a couple blocks away when it hit,” he said. “And I knew exactly what it was as it was happening.”