Eighteen minutes after noon on February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the basement parking garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The massive explosion killed six people, injured more than 1,000, and forced about 50,000 people to evacuate the Twin Towers as smoke and fire spread through the buildings.
The bombing brought back the horrific new reality of radical Islamic terrorism as a global phenomenon that directly affected the United States and its citizens. The planned scale of the attack dwarfed previous terrorist plots, and the plot’s leader, Ramzi Yousef, later told the FBI that he hoped to bring down one tower in the other, killing about 250,000 civilians. Tragically, the 1993 bombing heralded a much larger attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in which a different group of Muslim extremists managed to achieve at least part of Yusuf’s horrific goal.
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1. The bomb exploded in a huge crater several floors below the World Trade Center.
Loaded with about 1,300 pounds of urea nitrate (an explosive made from fertilizer) and hydrogen gas cylinders, along with cyanide, the bomb exploded inside a yellow Rider truck parked on the B-2 floor of the parking garage under the North Tower. The massive explosion killed six people near the blast site and injured more than 1,000, most of whom suffer from smoke inhalation during the evacuation from the towers.
2. While searching 4,000 pounds of rubble, investigators found key clues about the perpetrators.
Within minutes of the explosion, members of the New York Joint Counter-Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) headed to the World Trade Center, where they would coordinate the investigation including the FBI, the New York Police Department (NYPD) and others. Federal, state and municipal government agencies. The FBI and JTTF had been tracking Islamic fundamentalists in the city for months before the attack, and they immediately suspected this was an act of terrorism. The day after the attack, agents searching the wreckage found several parts of the car that had apparently exploded from the inside out. Two plots showed a vehicle identification number (VIN), which investigators traced to a truck reported stolen the day before the attack at a rental agency in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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3. When the towers reopened in late March 1993, the authorities had arrested four suspects.
When Mohamed Salama, the man who rented the van, returned to the rental agency on March 4 to try to recover his $400 deposit, an FBI team arrested him. Things quickly unfolded from there: FBI investigators discovered bomb-making chemicals that matched evidence found at the World Trade Center in a self-storage unit in Jersey City, while The The New York Times He received a message claiming responsibility for the attack from a group called the Liberation Army’s Fifth Battalion. A search of Salameh’s apartment led to the arrest of three other suspects, including Nidal Ayyad (whose DNA matched saliva on the envelope of the letter), Mahmoud Abu Halima, and Ahmed Ajaj. Investigators questioned another suspect, Abdul-Yasim, but released him for lack of evidence. He subsequently fled the country and was never arrested.
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4. Their leader was at large for two years.
While Salameh, Ayyad, Abu Halima and Ajaj were tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in March 1994, the man identified as the mastermind of the plot fled to Pakistan soon after the bombing. Over the next two years, Ramzi Yousef was involved in several other terrorist acts, including planting a bomb on a commercial airliner in the Philippines in order to test a larger plot involving bombings on up to a dozen American airliners. Yousef was arrested in February 1995, extradited to New York City, tried and convicted of both the bombing and the plot of the plane in Manila, codenamed “Bojinka”. He was sentenced in January 1998 to life in prison plus 240 years, with the judge factoring in the life expectancy of six people killed in the 1993 bombing. Yousef was not forgiving, claiming he wanted to punish the United States for its role in providing aid to Israel. “Yes, I am a terrorist and proud of that,” he told the court.
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5. Many of the World Trade Center bombers were associated with the mosque itself, led by an influential extremist cleric known as the “blind sheikh”.
The arrests of Salama, Abu Halima, and Ayyad led FBI investigators to a Brooklyn mosque attended by the three, and to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a hard-line Sunni cleric who immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s. Abd al-Rahman, who lost his sight at a young age, converted to a fundamentalist type of Islam that condemns secular Muslims, Western materialism, and US support for Israel and Egypt. In the early 1980s, he was tried and acquitted twice for inciting the assassination of that country’s president, Anwar Sadat.
6. Several months after the bombing, investigators thwarted another terrorist plot against major New York City landmarks.
In June 1993, as part of its ongoing surveillance operation, the FBI camera caught a group of men making a bomb in a garage in Queens, New York. Authorities then arrested Abd al-Rahman and nine of his followers and accused them of plotting to simultaneously bomb the United Nations Headquarters, the George Washington Bridge, Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, among other targets. They were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in late 1995. Even behind bars, Abd al-Rahman continued to exert a strong influence on radical Muslims. Peter Bergen, journalist and biographer of Osama bin Laden, described him as the “spiritual guide of 9/11”.
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7. The 1993 bombing proved to be a deadly rehearsal for 9/11.
By early 1996, US authorities had determined that Ramzi Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had conspired with his nephew to shoot down planes in the “Bojinka” plot and had sent him the money before blowing up the First World Trade Center. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (as he was known) evaded capture and rose through the ranks of the Islamist militant group Al Qaeda to become one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants. As the “chief architect” of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed succeeded where his nephew had failed, orchestrating the destruction of the Twin Towers and the mass murder of thousands of civilians on American soil.
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