This Week in History: Al-Qaida hits US for 1st time
On February 26, 1993, the United States’ home front was hit by international terrorism for the first time in contemporary history. Nearly a decade before the 9/11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, terrorists with deep connections to al-Qaida attempted to level the two buildings.
Shortly after noon that Friday morning, Kuwaiti-born Ramzi Youssef drove a rental truck into the parking garage under the World Trade Center’s North Tower in downtown Manhattan. Carefully positioning the truck in a location he thought would cause the tower to collapse into the South Tower, Youssef and his Jordanian accomplice Eyad Ismail lit a fuse and fled the building. At 12:17 p.m., the truck exploded, ripping a massive hole in the iconic building. Six people were killed.
The massive explosion immediately cut off electricity in the building and much of lower Manhattan. Over 1,000 people were injured in the blast, although most of them suffered from smoke inhalation, as smoke reached nearly 100 floors up. Chaos ensued as people attempted to escape the smoke and rubble, some fleeing to the roof where they were evacuated by police helicopters.
But the blast did not demolish either the North Tower or the South Tower as the attack’s planners had hoped.
Immediately after the attack, Ramsi Yousef escaped to Pakistan. Authorities in the US, however, were quick to pick up the trail of those responsible for the potentially massive act of terror. With most of the truck that had been used to deliver the bomb demolished, authorities managed to find an identification number on a piece of the truck’s axle, which led them to a truck rental company. Although the terrorists, Yousef’s accomplices, had reported the truck stolen, the FBI was waiting for them when they arrived a few days later to recover the security deposit. Authorities subsequently identified a number of other suspects and one-by-one, arrested many of them in the United States and abroad. Yousef was arrested in Pakistan two years later and extradited to the United States.
Prior to the bombings, Ramsi Yousef had sent letters to a number of New York-area newspapers explaining his attacks and making demands of the United States government. Two of the demands were that Washington cut aid to and diplomatic ties with Israel, and the third that the United States cease interfering in internal affairs of Arab countries. If his demands were not met, he said, more attacks would follow.
As the attack was the first modern act of international terrorism inside the United States in that era, the United States had yet to develop a doctrine to dictate its response. Only following subsequent attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania five years later would Washington begin to take overt military action in response to international terrorism, although the significantly higher death tolls in those attacks may be more relevant to the different response than the development of a doctrine of response.
Perhaps unique in the US’s response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings was that nearly all of the suspects were tried in civilian courts inside the United States. Contrarily, following the much larger and devastating attack on the Trade Center eight years later, most of the suspects were tried in military tribunals outside the country, if they have been put on trial at all.
Although the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center has largely faded from the public memory due to the 2001 attack on the site, it remains a significant event in the history of the United States’ experience with international terrorism and its introduction to al-Qaida as an adversary.