The Swords of Wicked Men, Part IV
On Monday, November 28, 2011, I submitted the first draft of my manuscript The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil to my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. As it now stands, the book contains 170,006 words and consists of 588 pages typed in Times New Roman, 12-point font. My records indicate that I started researching the book on Tuesday, June 30, 2009. I began writing the text on Wednesday, April 14, 2010. I completed this draft on Sunday, November 20, 2011, and spent eight days proofreading and editing the text. If all goes according to plan, the book will appear in print sometime during the summer or autumn of 2012.
Recall from my blog titled The Swords of Wicked Men, Part III that I am discussing the episodes recounted in the manuscript. This posting provides a synopsis of Chapters 7-12 of the work.
Chapter 7. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing and the Civil Rights Movement (1963): The civil rights movement that came to a head during the 1960s involved many infamous act of violence, including the attack on the Freedom Riders in Alabama in 1961; the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963; the murder the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964; the shooting death of Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965; and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Tennessee in 1968, among others. Many books have been written about the civil rights struggle and the terrorist attacks perpetrated against activists, black and white.
This chapter focuses on a symbol of the violence associated with the civil rights era. One of the best known, and most horrific, acts of terrorism was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10:19 on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in the church basement. It was not accident that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the site of the explosion; the church was a civil rights landmark in Birmingham, the site of mass rallies in the black community and hallowed ground where Dr. King had preached to the faithful. Bomb threats and promises of violence were nothing new to the movement’s adherents or to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, for that matter. Parishioners had always taken care to be vigilant and to protect people and property, but it is impossible to protect everyone against all threats.
The explosion that morning sent shock waves throughout the land. No one was secure. Destroying the famous church, a symbol of the desegregation effort, sent an undeniable message to would-be black activists: If you continue the fight against southern segregation, you had better be prepared to pay with your life.
As community leaders and investigators sifted through the rubble in the aftermath of the blast, they discovered four bodies: eleven-year old Denise McNair, and fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The girls had been preparing to sing in the church choir for Sunday services. By indiscriminately attacking the church and striking down innocents who could not be involved in political activity or “rabble rousing,” the terrorists inadvertently engendered sympathy not only in the black community, but for many millions of people of all races and colors. A media backlash generated enormous sympathy for the grieving black community.
The aftermath of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing
The FBI was on the scene immediately. Despite director J. Edgar Hoover’s well-known antipathy for civil rights “agitators,” he could not afford to neglect such a high-profile case. After all, the victims could hardly be characterized as “agitators." The bureau eventually concluded that four suspects were responsible — white supremacists Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. The Birmingham office recommended that they be prosecuted, but Hoover decided not to pursue the case. The file languished until it was closed in 1968.
With changing times and sensibilities, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case three years after the FBI had backed away from the investigation. On November 18, 1977, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case against the other defendants was reopened in 1988, although many more months would elapse before formal charges were filed. Herman Frank Cash remained a prime suspect, but he died in 1994 before he could be prosecuted. Finally, on May 17, 2000, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were charged with the murder. Blanton was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 2001. A judge originally ruled that Bobby Frank Cherry was mentally incompetent to assist his attorney, but eventually prosecutors overcame the ruling. On May 22, 2002, Cherry was found guilty of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, many murder cases from the civil rights era were reopened as new prosecutors sought to resolve an ugly chapter in the story of the American South. The lesson is a valuable one. Anyone who engages in terrorism had better be prepared to pay a price for his or her actions. Even if it appears that the terrorist escaped justice, he or she may be held accountable decades later.
Chapter 8. Weatherman and the Counterculture Movement (1960s): Weatherman, later known as the Weather Underground Organization, was a group of radical anti-war protestors that broke away from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969 to declare war against the United States government for engaging in military action in Vietnam. The name derives from a lyric in Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
The SDS was part of the self-proclaimed “Revolutionary Youth Movement” that sought to undermine capitalism through a working class revolution. SDS members agreed on the ends (forcing the United States government to end the war in Vietnam), but the means were a source of contention. During the summer of 1969, two factions formed — the National Office and the Progressive Labor Party — each claiming to be the real voice of the SDS. The more radical of the two, the Progressive Labor Party, continued to use the SDS name in their communications, but they eventually began using the name “Weatherman,” especially after the National Office closed early in 1970.
Weatherman believed that the non-violent protests of the early 1960s were no longer effective. American society and government had become so corrupted that only violent, revolutionary change could force the “powers that be” to change. Aside from demonstrations on college campuses, Weatherman called for “urban guerilla actions” that would draw attention to their cause and assist in triggering a world-wide revolution. In the fall of 1969, they initiated a series of “Days of Rage” to “bring the war home.” Their first act occurred on October 8, 1969. They destroyed a statue in Chicago commemorating the 1886 Haymarket Riot. The bomb that toppled the statue blew out 100 windows and sent pieces of the monument onto the nearby Kennedy Expressway. A year later, after the monument had been repaired, Weatherman blew it up again.
The Days of Rage, 1969
Along with vandalism and property crimes, the group held a series of rallies specifically designed to inflame the crowd. Over three days in October, Weatherman led hundreds of protestors in riots in several areas of Chicago, including the affluent Gold Coast neighborhood. When the smoke cleared, the Days of Rage had cost Chicago and the state of Illinois $183,000 (including $100,000 for National Guard expenses, $35,000 in damages, and $20,000 for one injured bystander’s medical expenses). Many Weatherman and SDS leaders were jailed in lieu of $243,000 bail.
Despite setbacks, Weatherman remained active. They started a new phase of operations by throwing Molotov cocktails at the home of a New York State Supreme Court justice presiding over the trial of several Black Panthers. They had plans to attack the Fort Dix army base as well as Columbia University, but an accident put an end to their schemes. In March 1970, three group members died in Greenwich Village when the nail bomb they were constructing prematurely detonated. Not long afterward, surviving members “went underground,” changing their name to the Weather Underground Organization (WUO).
Membership in the WUO shrank, but the group’s proponents remained committed to convincing Americans that their government’s actions in Vietnam were morally unjustified. Rather than escalate the violence, the WUO initiated a campaign of bombing empty offices at night so no one would be injured or killed in the blast. If the WUO was going to claim the high moral ground, it was important to damage property without harming human life. Other high-profile activities included the bombing of a New York City police station in 1970, masterminding a successful effort to free LSD guru Timothy Leary from prison in 1970, and the bombing of the Pentagon in 1972.
By 1976, the times they were a-changin,’ and the Vietnam era was fading away. The war had ended several years earlier, Richard Nixon was no longer president, and the activist movement had dissolved. The WUO attempted to create an umbrella organization for activist groups, but the movement simply did not get off the ground. The old schisms remained as members debated whether to continue violent activities and, if so, how far to take the campaign.
A year later, the organization had ceased to exist. Within a few years, many members surrendered to authorities after availing themselves of President Ford’s amnesty program for draft dodgers. WUO leader Mark Rudd came forward on January 20, 1978, was fined $4,000, and received two years probation, light punishment reflecting the changing tenor of the times. Two other group leaders, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, surrendered in New York on December 3, 1980. The charges against Ayers were dropped and Dohrn received three years’ probation and a $15,000 fine. A few members who refused to surrender joined other terrorist and criminal organizations. The most notorious hold-outs were Kathy Boudin, Judith Alice Clark, and David Gilbert, all of whom joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA robbed a Brinks armored truck and killed two police officers and a security guard in October 1981. After their capture, trial, and conviction, the trio was sent to prison for lengthy sentences.
As terrorist groups go, Weatherman was not prolific or especially violent. Because they did not advocate violence against people and focused on symbolic property crimes, the surviving members rejoined mainstream society. Bill Ayers, for example, is a professor in the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the 2008 presidential campaign, his collaboration with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on various Chicago political projects was criticized, although both Ayers and Obama argued that their association was not close and had nothing to do with terrorism.
For all of the demagoguery surrounding the Ayers-Obama controversy, it raises an important underlying point. What constitutes a “terrorist” group and did Weatherman meet that definition? The FBI labeled the organization a “domestic terrorist group,” but Ayers took issue with the characterization. As he wrote in a memoir of his underground experiences, “Terrorists terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate. No, we’re not terrorists.” Dan Berger, author Outlaws in America and an apologist for Weatherman, echoed Ayers’s main argument, namely that Weatherman “purposefully and successfully avoided injuring anyone... Its war against property by definition means that the WUO was not a terrorist organization.”
Chapter 9. The Unabomber (1970s-1990s): The story of Theodore John Kaczynski — the Unabomber — has become familiar to many Americans, but there is much subtext that is not as well known. The brilliant mathematician turned violent Luddite and social critic represents a domestic terrorist who suffered at the hands of society long before he pursued a career of mayhem and destruction. His story is a genuine tragedy on multiple levels.
Kaczynski’s life and career started with much promise. Born into an affluent family in Chicago in 1942, Ted was a child prodigy who was educated at Harvard University and the University of Michigan. After earning his Ph.D. in mathematics, he accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley at the age of 25. The eccentric young professor resigned after only two years, choosing to drop out of society as unmistakable signs of mental illness began to appear. In 1971, when he was 29, he moved into a remote shack with no electricity or running water near Lincoln, Montana.
Ted Kaczynski later claimed he would never have commenced his infamous bombing campaign had developers not encroached on the woods surrounding his home. From this simple beginning, he began his life of crime. Ted engaged in a series of bombing attacks on universities and airlines between 1978 and 1995, eventually killing three people and injuring 23. Before they apprehended the unknown assailant, the FBI identified him as the UNABOM (UNiversity and Airline BOMber), which the news media fashioned into the “Unabomber.”
Law enforcement officials often track criminals and terrorists through the trails they leave when they use credit cards, associate with other known criminals or terrorists, or attract attention to unusual, sometimes puzzling activities. Because he was a recluse who sometimes waited for years between his attacks, Kaczynski was virtually impossible to track. It was only in 1995, after he mailed a letter to The New York Times vowing to “desist from terrorism” if the newspaper published his anti-technology manifesto, that the police were able to capture the elusive fugitive. When it appeared in the newspapers, Kaczynski’s diatribe, which he called “Industrial Society and Its Future,” caught his sister-in-law’s attention. Linda Kaczynski was convinced that Ted was the perpetrator. Her husband, David, initially disagreed, but as he searched through old papers and letters he recognized Ted’s style of writing and contacted the FBI. In exchange for a guarantee that Ted would not receive the death penalty, David Kaczynski assisted the Bureau in apprehending his brother without incident.
The raid on Ted’s cabin in Lincoln occurred on April 3, 1996. Several FBI agents on the Unabomber task force were skeptical that Ted Kaczynski was the right person, but evidence recovered from the scene was persuasive. Some question still existed about whether all the acts attributed to him were the work of a lone individual since Kaczynski had occasionally written of “we” and mentioned other names in his writings. He was a canny terrorist, however, and deliberately attempted to confuse investigators with these mind games.
Ted Kaczynski is taken into custody
Ted Kaczynski’s lawyers wanted to arrange an insanity plea, but the defendant refused. In his view, he was not mentally impaired when he acted. His anti-technology, anti-society rants, while outside the mainstream, were not insane. The court agreed and allowed the trial proceedings to continue. Kaczynski pled guilty to ten counts involving various terrorist acts, although he later tried to change his plea. The court refused to grant his request and Kaczynski’s appeal was unsuccessful. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Unabomber case is somewhat unusual because Kaczynski was not part of an organized group. He was a loner who “psychologically shut down,” in his brother David’s words, when confronted with uncomfortable or stressful situations. What he shared with other terrorists, though, was a conviction that mainstream society was corrupted and could not be reformed through conventional means of redressing grievances. Violence became an acceptable form of protest for someone who viewed technological progress and societal change as anathema.
Chapter 10. The Oklahoma City Bombing (1995): Timothy McVeigh shared some of Ted Kaczynski’s attributes; he was an intelligent young man with some aptitude for mathematics. He often kept to himself and mistrusted conventional society. He longed for a simpler time when the government was far less intrusive in the life of the individual.
Unlike Kaczynski, though, McVeigh was a classic underachiever in school. He simply did not see the value in pursuing higher education or in developing whatever gifts he might possess. Instead, he expressed interest in guns as well as survivalist literature and tactics. Shortly after he turned 20 years old, McVeigh enlisted in the U.S. Army. In light of his interests and talents, it seemed to be a suitable match.
Something happened to Timothy McVeigh after he joined the army. His first two years were rewarding as he found discipline and structure in his life. Even after he was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1991, he seemed to thrive on army life. Yet darker forces were at work. McVeigh began to read racist, anti-government literature, especially The Turner Diaries, a fictional diatribe penned by a white supremacist that recounts the misadventures of an anti-government zealot who blows up the FBI headquarters building in Washington, D.C. with a truck bomb.
McVeigh was accepted into the U.S. Army Special Forces training program, a prestigious position, but he failed to complete the training. By the end of 1991, he had left the army and was working a variety of odd jobs. He began writing a series of increasingly angry letters to congressmen and newspapers expressing his outrage and alienation over the growth of the powers of the federal government. He was particularly incensed by the FBI’s 1993 standoff with cult leader David Koresh at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where 74 people, many of them women and children, died in a fiery blaze set by Koresh after federal agents forcibly tried to remove him from the house. McVeigh had visited the scene of the confrontation in Waco and was even interviewed by a reporter from a college newspaper.
McVeigh was convinced that the Waco episode had been ordered by law enforcement officials operating out of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995 — the second anniversary of the Waco attack as well as the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in the American Revolution — McVeigh drove a Ryder rental truck filled with a 4,800-pound bomb made from ammonium nitrate and other chemicals in front of the building in an apparent act of revenge. He set a five-minute fuse to the bomb and escaped to a waiting vehicle. The resultant blast killed 168 people, 163 of whom were inside the building.
As first responders arrived to assess the situation and assist the wounded, McVeigh fled the city and drove north on Interstate 35. He had been meticulous in his planning and careful to obey the speed limit and all traffic laws as he piloted the truck to Oklahoma City before the attack, but he was not as careful in his escape. Sixty miles outside of the city, a state trooper stopped his car because a license plate was missing. As he was talking with the trooper, McVeigh mentioned that he had a gun in the car. Although he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, the permit was not legal in Oklahoma. The state trooper arrested him as a result.
In the meantime, back in Oklahoma City the FBI found a Vehicle Identification Number on the rear axle of the truck and traced it to the Ryder Center where McVeigh rented it under an alias. Eyewitnesses supplied law enforcement with enough details for a sketch artist to produce a composite drawing, which police circulated. A motel clerk identified the man in one drawing as Timothy McVeigh. Using this new-found information, the FBI launched a nation-wide manhunt. A few days later, authorities discovered that McVeigh was already in custody in Oklahoma.
Timothy McVeigh takes a "perp walk"
As law enforcement officials delved into McVeigh’s background, they uncovered his anti-government diatribes as well as his obsession with the 1993 Waco incident. They also followed the trail to two of McVeigh’s army buddies, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. The former assisted McVeigh in constructing the bomb while the latter helped to compile information about the Murrah federal building. Nichols eventually was convicted of conspiracy in the bombing and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. He received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fortier agreed to a plea bargain in exchange for a 12-year sentence and immunity for his wife, Lori, who provided false identification cards to McVeigh. After his release from prison in 2006, Fortier entered the federal witness protection program.
McVeigh remained unrepentant, calling the death of children inside a day care center “collateral damage.” On June 2, 1997, he was convicted of 11 federal counts, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction by explosives, and eight counts of first-degree murder. Eleven days later, the jury recommended he receive the death penalty. After initially going through a lengthy appeals process, McVeigh asked his attorneys to stop the appeals. He was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Timothy McVeigh remains one of the most baffling cases of domestic terrorism. A seemingly “normal,” middle-class American with many prospects for a bright future somehow decided that violence was an appropriate form of protest. His case suggests that the conventional wisdom about why people choose terrorism — because they are poor and ignorant with few appealing prospects for a happy life — does not adequately explain the motivations of every terrorist.
Chapter 11. Eric Rudolph (Late 1990s): In many ways Eric Rudolph, a young man disillusioned with life in the United States after a stint in the armed forces, resembles Timothy McVeigh and many other disaffected terrorists in the United States. He became a serial bomber following a period when his behavior became unstable and erratic. His anti-government philosophy, such as it was, sprang from his sense that white fundamentalist Christian values were threatened by changes in modern lifestyles as homosexuality, abortion, and centralized government authority were on the rise.
Rudolph chose one of the most high-profile venues of the 1990s, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, as the site of his first major terrorist act. Recalling the terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) took special care to ensure that security forces were out in full force and alert for any danger. Law enforcement personnel were out in full force at each venue in the downtown Atlanta corridor.
Early on the morning of July 27, 1996, Tom Davis, an officer with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), was making a routine patrol near a lighting tower in Centennial Olympic Park, a large open area designed for tourists and athletes to socialize between events. As Officer Davis surveyed the crowded scene, a private security guard, Richard Jewell, approached and told him that several apparently intoxicated men were causing a commotion nearby. Davis and Jewell went to investigate, but the men ran away when they saw the uniformed officers approaching.
After the men were gone, Davis observed a green military-style backpack lying unattended near a bench. Davis and Jewell initially searched for the owner, but when that person was nowhere to be found they discussed the possibility that the backpack contained a bomb. The two men examined the package and saw wires and a pipe inside. While Davis alerted the bomb squad, Jewell quietly began clearing the area, although he was careful not to create panic.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to Davis and Jewell, a 911 dispatcher received a bomb threat. A man’s voice said, “There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes.” This warning might have been sufficient to ensure that the park was cleared in time, but a series of communications errors, including confusion about the Centennial Park address, meant that Davis, Jewell, and other officers in the park were unaware of the 911 call.
At 1:18 a.m., approximately 20 minutes after the 911 call was received, the homemade device exploded, killing one woman instantly and triggering a fatal heart attack for a Turkish cameraman who was present. One hundred and eleven other people were injured in the blast. Had Davis and Jewell not acted with as much dispatch as they did, the destruction and death toll probably would have been considerably higher.
As agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) poured into the scene, no suspects were immediately forthcoming. The FBI began to assemble a profile of the probable offender, determining him to be a white American male who operated on the “fringes of law enforcement [and] who would plant a bomb so he could come to the rescue.” Richard Jewell seemed to fit the profile. Consequently, the FBI focused their investigation on him. Fearful that he would be framed for a crime he did not commit, Jewell hired an attorney and spent almost three months clearing his name. When authorities eventually ruled him out as a suspect, precious time had been lost and the case was cold.
In the months and years to come, other bombings similar to the Centennial Park incident occurred. On January 16, 1997, a device exploded at a suburban Atlanta family planning clinic that performed abortions for pregnant women. A second device exploded about 45 minutes later in a trash bin as emergency response personnel arrived to assist victims from the initial blast. A month later, a bomb detonated at a popular Atlanta gay and lesbian nightclub. Authorities were able to disable a second bomb before it could detonate. Within a few days of the nightclub bombing, several media outlets received anonymous notes purporting to be from the bomber. He claimed that abortion and homosexuality were destroying America and he was doing what was necessary to save the country from these insidious forces.
The police believed these bombings were tied to the Centennial Park blast, but they still did not have a suspect in custody. The first major break in the case would not come for another year. On January 29, 1998, a bomb at an abortion clinic exploded, killing a security guard and seriously injuring a nurse. The bomber might have escaped once again had an alert student not noticed a strange man walking away from the scene while everyone else was walking toward the source of the commotion. Along with assistance from another man, the student followed the strange fellow and copied down the license tag number of the man’s pickup truck. It was registered to Eric Rudolph of North Carolina.
Rudolph fit the FBI profile especially well. He had been in the U.S. Army and received training in explosives and demolitions. After he failed to qualify for the Army Rangers Special Forces unit, he became disillusioned with a life in uniform. His behavior worsened until he left the service. Rudolph’s family was affiliated with the Christian Identity Movement, a militant white supremacist organization that fostered anti-government messages and railed against sins such as homosexuality and abortion.
When Rudolph learned that the authorities wanted to question him about the spate of bombings, he disappeared into the forests of North Carolina. Trained as a survivalist, he had the skills and wherewithal to live off the land, which he did for an incredible five-year period. Police investigators suspected he was receiving assistance with friends and family, but they could not prove it. Finally, in the early morning hours of May 31, 2003, a police officer in Murphy, North Carolina, spotted a man lurking in an alley behind downtown businesses. Thinking a burglary was taking place, the officer arrested a man who later turned out to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Eric Rudolph.
Eric Rudolph is escorted to prison
Initially uncooperative, Rudolph eventually agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole in lieu of the death penalty. As part of this arrangement, Rudolph disclosed the location of 250 pounds of explosives. He also put to rest any lingering doubts about Richard Jewell’s involvement in the Centennial Park bombing when he indicated that he and Jewell did not know each other and had no connection.
Once again, as with Timothy McVeigh, the Eric Rudolph case shows what can happen when a disillusioned individual believes that his failures are caused by an outside force, in this case imperial, obdurate federal authorities. Moreover, because Rudolph wanted to fight threats to fundamentalist Christian values, especially abortion and homosexuality, he thought he was justified in undertaking acts of violence. He escaped detection for as long as he did because he was prepared to “go off the grid” and not leave a paper trail.
Chapter 12. The 1993 and 2001 WTC Bombings and the Radical Islamic Movement: Shortly after noon on February 26, 1993, a truck bomb exploded in the parking garage of Tower One of the World Trade Center in New York City. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. What no one realized at the time was that a new chapter of terrorism had opened in the United States. A group of Islamic extremists, incensed at the corrupting influences of Western culture, had decided to attack the values of a society they believed was undermining all that was right and holy in the world. Eight and a half years later, a group of Islamic Fundamentalists would attack American targets with far greater results and casualties.
The 1993 attack was planned by a group of conspirators that included Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh Nidal Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin, and Ahmad Ajaj, with financing from Yousef’s uncle, Khaled Shaikh Mohammed. The men were part of a growing cadre of Islamic activists that often are labeled “Fundamentalists.” Although some commentators deride the use of the term “Fundamentalist” with respect to Islam, it is widely used, nonetheless. Fundamentalists in any religious tradition believe there was a perfect moment in time but the moment has come and gone. To again enjoy the apex of their influence that has vanished with this bygone time, fundamentalists strive to recover the moment. The effort occasionally requires them to confront threats to the ideal. Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad believe the realization of their vision of an Islamic state is being undermined by corrupt leaders in predominantly Muslim countries. The pervasive dominance of external Western powers, especially the United States, is also seen as both polluting and exploiting Islamic culture. Some groups have sought to work within particular political systems but others have resorted to violent extremism.
Yousef’s warriors were part of the violent extremists. As such, they paid a price. In March 1994, four men were convicted of carrying out the bombing: Abouhalima, Ajaj, Ayyad and Salameh. The charges included conspiracy, explosive destruction of property, and interstate transportation of explosives. In November 1997, two more were convicted: Yousef, the mastermind behind the bombings, and Eyad Ismoil, who drove the truck carrying the bomb.
According to evidence revealed at the trial, Yousef and Eyad Ismoil, a Jordanian friend, drove a Ryder truck into the World Trade Center parking lot and parked inside. Yousef ignited a 20-foot fuse and immediately fled from the premises. Twelve minutes later, the bomb detonated. Although the parking garage was damaged extensively, Yousef had hoped that the towers would collapse. Had he parked the truck closer to the concrete building foundations, the plan might have succeeded. As it was, the 1993 bombing was a dress rehearsal for a far greater act of terrorism to come.
Yousef and his co-conspirators were apprehended in a manner similar to Timothy McVeigh. Law enforcement officers found a truck axle containing a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that they traced to a Ryder truck rental outlet in Jersey City. Investigators learned that Mohammad Salameh had rented the truck and subsequently reported it stolen. They arrested him on March 4, 1993, when he returned to the outlet to demand the return of his $400 deposit. From this beginning, the police unraveled the rest of the conspiracy.
The next attack on the World Trade Centers has become etched in the minds of virtually all Americans, indeed all world citizens, who were old enough to follow the sequence of events. On September 11, 2001, in a coordinated effort, nineteen hijackers seized control of four commercial airliners traveling to San Francisco and Los Angeles from Boston, Newark, and the Washington Dulles International Airport. For most hijackers, escape presents an almost insurmountable obstacle, but in this case the hijackers had no intention of escaping.
At 8:46 a.m., one group of terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. United Airlines Flight 175 collided with the South Tower 17 minutes later. A third group of hijackers piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. United Airlines Flight 93 probably was headed for the U.S. Capitol Building or the White House, but the passengers revolted and the airplane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m.
United Airlines Flight 175 on a collision course with the South Tower
What the 1993 bombing failed to achieve, the 2001 attacks completed, namely the collapse of three buildings in the World Trade Center Complex. The South Tower fell at 9:59 a.m., after burning for 56 minutes in a fire caused by the impact of United Airlines Flight 175. The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m., after burning for 102 minutes. When the North Tower collapsed, debris heavily damaged the nearby 7 World Trade Center, which eventually collapsed at 5:20 p.m. on that same day. Approximately 3,000 people died as a result of these horrific events.
The FBI discovered the names and personal details of the suspected pilots and hijackers within a short time. Fifteen were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon. Mohamed Atta, generally regarded as the ringleader, owned luggage that did not make his connecting flight. Inside the luggage were papers identifying the terrorists and providing details about their motivations and plans. Intelligence data also revealed that Osama bin Laden, leader of an Islamic terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda, was the mastermind of the plot along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, financier of the 1993 WTC bombing. Mohammed first presented the idea to bin Laden in 1996, but it wasn’t until 1999 that planning began in earnest.
Al-Qaeda originated in 1979 as bin Laden and his associates sought to resist the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by creating the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK). After the Soviets departed in 1989, MAK evolved into an organization designed as a “rapid reaction force” jihad (religious struggle) against governments across the Muslim world. Under the tutelage of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden became a radical. In 1996, bin Laden issued his first fatwa calling for American soldiers to leave Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was not an official Islamic scholar; therefore, he was not qualified to issue a fatwa under Islamic law. The charismatic leader’s followers simply ignored such niceties. In 1998, bin Laden issued a second fatwa outlining his objections to U.S. foreign policy, notably American support of Israel and the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden used MAK to create an offshoot, al-Qaeda, the organization that would sponsor the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the aftermath of the attacks, President George W. Bush enjoyed what some commentators have called a “rally ‘round the flag” factor. Americans and indeed many people the world over expressed their support of the president’s efforts to pursue and capture the terrorists responsible for the death and destruction. Bush’s approval rating soared to 90 percent. On September 20, 2001, he spoke before a joint session of Congress about the attacks and his planned response to those events. In the months and years to come, American policy was driven by concerns about terrorism. A variety of events, including the decision to send troops to Afghanistan and the enactment of the USA Patriot Act, were to have a lasting, and controversial, effect on American public policy. Bush also used the 9/11 attacks as partial justification for the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, although the linkage between al-Qaeda and Iraq generally has been dismissed as illusory. American forces killed bin Laden at a hideout in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, but the "war on terror" that he initiated still continues.
The 9/11 attacks will be studied and deconstructed for as long as terrorism remains an issue of concern for law enforcement and intelligence personnel. In retrospect, many signs pointed to an imminent al-Qaeda attack on American soil in 2001. Had American intelligence agencies been more vigilant in sharing information and data, the attacks might have been prevented. In any case, the reorganization of American intelligence agencies and the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are among the many changes that occurred in the aftermath of these attacks.
In a subsequent blog, I will discuss the lessons I learned from these episodes.