The New JackalsRamzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden, and the Future of Terrorism
Northeastern University PressCopyright © 2002 Simon Reeve
All right reserved.ISBN: 1555535097
The Twin Towers
JUST BEFORE 4 a.m. on 26 February 1993, a yellow Ford Econolinevan bearing the markings of the Ryder hire company emerged from adriveway beside a scruffy apartment block at 40 Pamrapo Avenue,New Jersey, and turned slowly on to the deserted streets of Jersey City,just across the Hudson River from the bright lights of Manhattan. Witha dark blue Lincoln and a red Chevrolet following closely behind, thethree vehicles drove the short distance down J. F. Kennedy Boulevardto the Shell petrol station at the junction with Route 440 and pulled upby the pumps.
From the passenger seat of the Ford van, a dark-haired man calledRamzi Yousef watched as Willie Hernandez Moosh, the forecourtattendant working the graveyard shift, left his small booth betweenthe pumps. Yousef lowered his window as Moosh approached.
`What do you want?' asked Moosh.
`Fill it up,' replied Yousef.
As Moosh began filling the tank, the passenger door opened, andYousef slid out on to the forecourt, bracing himself against the cold.Yousef was a tall, wiry man with large ears and a bulbous nose. Hiseyes flicked over the cars behind and then swept up and down thestreet. Then, as if a nagging thought was preying on his mind, hebegan inspecting the yellow van. Moosh removed the petrol cap andwatched idly as Yousef began checking the sides and glancing underneath.
Yousef knew the van was designed to hold 2,000lbs in its 295 cubicfeet of space. It had been carefully selected as the perfect size for carryinga massive terrorist bomb to attack a target on American soil.Yousef had travelled thousands of miles and spent six months inAmerica plotting and then building a 1,200lb bomb, which was restingin the back of the van with several heavy tanks of hydrogen. But wasthe cargo pushing the van low on its springs? Nothing could be left tochance.
Moosh was too busy watching Yousef to notice anything suspiciousabout the van. He had a long, pointy face, thought Moosh. The face ofa horse surrounded by a beard.
The 22-gallon tank on a yellow Ford Econoline van takes a fewmoments to fill, and Moosh left the nozzle in the tank and walkedback to the Lincoln. `Fill it up,' said Mahmud Abouhalima from thewarmth of the driving seat. A tall, stocky, red-headed man,Abouhalima had no desire to brave the bitter cold. Ramzi couldhandle any final inspection after all, he was in charge.
Moosh pumped petrol into the vehicle, then walked back to the vanto ask who was paying. Mohammad Salameh, a lean young man witha straggly beard, turned to Moosh from the driving seat and motionedto the Lincoln behind.
`He will pay,' said Salameh.
The Lincoln's window lowered again to let in the icy air, andAbouhalima handed Moosh a $50 note $18 worth of petrol for thevan and around $13 for the car. Abouhalima took the change, gaveMoosh a $2 tip, then Yousef jumped back into the van and the driversof all three vehicles gunned their engines.
There were few cars on the streets that night, and Moosh watchedthe convoy as it pulled slowly out of the forecourt. Suddenly the leadvan jerked to a halt. A white Jersey City police car was coming intoview, driving slowly along J. F. Kennedy Boulevard. The van quicklyswung round into a parking space behind the petrol station's office,with the two cars close behind, and Yousef and Salameh jumped outand opened the bonnet.
`Can you bring us some water?' Yousef shouted to Moosh, pretendingthere was a problem with the van. Moosh grabbed a jug of waterand walked over to the two men. Yousef and Salameh were peeringinto the engine bay and shooting glances at the police car cruisingslowly along the street. It must have been a nerve-racking fewmoments for the men.
Earlier that night Salameh had calmly rung the police from near thePathmark supermarket at the Route 440 shopping plaza and told themthe Ryder van had been stolen from the car park. It was a clever ruseto avert suspicion: Yousef was planning a heinous act of terrorism hedid not want detectives investigating his handiwork to trawl aroundrental centres and discover a group of Arabs had failed to return alarge van. Yousef decided they would report it as stolen and givepolice a false licence-plate number. But even without a stolen vehiclereport, many police officers might consider a three-vehicle convoydriving slowly around Jersey City before dawn vaguely suspicious.
Yousef and Salameh held their breath, but the car cruised by.Perhaps the officers did not see the small convoy. Perhaps they hadnot been given the report of a stolen yellow Ryder van. Moosh noticeda man in the red car motioning to the others and pointing at the road.Yousef and Salameh left the water untouched, slammed the bonnetshut, climbed back into the van, and the convoy turned back on to thestreets of Jersey City.
By 8 a.m. the van was nosing through the New York rush-hourtowards Manhattan. With Yousef giving directions the van arrived ata hotel in midtown Manhattan where an old friend of his called EyadIsmoil, a baby-faced Jordanian college student, was staying for a fewdays. `They were knocking on the door at 9 a.m. and saying "Hurryup, we are going to be late",' said Ismoil. `I took a bath and went withthem and he [Yousef] asked me [to] drive; he said, "You are a taxidriver and a driving expert in the street." I laughed and told them Iwas willing to drive.' Ismoil climbed behind the wheel of the van, andthe group drove towards southern Manhattan. `In the middle of amajor street we stopped at a traffic light; he [Yousef] said "Go to theright from here" in the direction of an underground tunnel,' saidIsmoil. `I did and we went down underground. I was surprised ... Hesaid "Park here" ...'
At the southern tip of Manhattan island, dominating the New Yorkskyline, the twin towers of the World Trade Center stand proud,symbolizing commercial power and the core American values ofhard work and success. New Yorkers are rightly proud of the vastbuildings, which rise 107 storeys or a third of a mile into the skyand are served by 250 different lifts. Tower One hosts a hugeantenna which pushes the total height to 1,710 feet above sea level.The entire World Trade Center complex comprises seven hugebuildings, and even the underground basement boasts impressivestatistics: a subterranean world of cooling pipes, parking garagesand offices, bigger than the Empire State Building, it houses a smallarmy of 300 mechanics, electricians, engineers and cleaners whokeep the towers alive for the daily working and visiting populationof nearly 150,000.
On 26 February 1993, Monica Smith was one of those working in asmall office on level B-2 in the town under the ground. Monica was apretty, dark-haired, 35-year-old woman from Ecuador, a secretarywhose main responsibility was scrutinizing time-sheets submitted bycleaning contractors. She had met her husband Eddie in the WorldTrade Center when he had gone to the building for a sales meeting, andnow she was seven months pregnant with little Eddie, their first child.Her colleagues adored Smith, fussing around her attentively from themoment she announced her pregnancy. Just a few days previouslyStephen Knapp, a 48-year-old maintenance supervisor, had even askedhis wife Louise to bake Monica a special dish of aubergine parmigiana.
At noon the room next to Smith's office was being taken over forlunch. A meeting about maintenance services had finished with thearrival of Robert Kirkpatrick, the 61-year-old bespectacled chief locksmithfor the towers, closely followed by Bill Macko, a 47-year-oldmaintenance worker. Kirkpatrick always sat in the same large oakchair for lunch and no meeting would get in his way. Macko unfoldeda newspaper, pulled out a knife from his pocket and slowly beganpeeling an orange. Stephen Knapp, the next to join the group, crackedopen an illicit beer from a refrigerator in the corner of the room andflopped wearily into a chair.
Bill Lavin, who worked for the chief maintenance contractor for theTrade Center, eyed his friends, then decided he wanted to seedaylight, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the snow forecast on the televisionthat morning. It was falling lightly outside, dusting Manhattanin white. Lavin told the others he would be back in a few minutes andwalked down the corridor towards the elevators.
A solid concrete wall separated the lunchroom from a ramp to thepublic car park. It was supposed to be a no-parking zone, with signswarning off anyone tempted to stop, but it was so close to the officesthat nobody took any notice of the rules. As Knapp, Macko andKirkpatrick ate their lunch, a yellow Port Authority van was parked inthe zone. One of the basement army, a purchasing agent leaving themaintenance meeting, grabbed a set of keys to the van and drove offto buy some lunch. There were no windows through which the threeworkers could see another yellow van glide slowly down the rampand into the same space. Nobody saw the driver and passenger slideout a few minutes later and disappear. There was no one to stop them,no one to question them, and certainly no one to tell them they wereillegally parked. Even if a guard had seen them, he would haveassumed the van was owned by a maintenance company. Yellow vanswere often left on the ramp while heavy boxes were loaded orunloaded.
Nobody was planning to unload the contents of this yellow FordEconoline bearing the markings of the Ryder hire company. In theback, Ramzi Yousef used a cheap cigarette lighter to ignite four 20ft-longfuses. They would take just 12 minutes to burn down to hismassive bomb. Yousef clambered out of the van, jumped into the redcar that had followed him into the garage, and then drove carefullyout towards West Street. Then he had a shock: another van was blockingthe exit, barring his escape from the car park. Yousef must have feltlike a character in a Hollywood disaster movie, with the seconds tickingdown to oblivion. The van driver shouted to Yousef he wouldmove in a few moments, and within two minutes Yousef was out ofthe Trade Center and back on the crowded streets of southernManhattan.
In her office Monica Smith was carefully checking time-sheets. Nextdoor the lunching workers were indulging in a little verbal sparring,joking and gently teasing each other. In the back of the Ryder van thefuses, encased in surgical tubing to limit smoke, were burning downat the rate of an inch every two and a half seconds. The criticalmoment came at 12.17 and 37 seconds. One of the fuses burnt to itsend and ignited the gunpowder in an Atlas Rockmaster blasting cap.In a split second the cap exploded with a pressure of around 15,000lbsper square inch, igniting in turn the first nitro-glycerine container ofthe bomb, which erupted with a pressure of about 150,000lbs persquare inch the equivalent of about 10,000 atmospheres. In turn, thenitro-glycerine ignited cardboard boxes containing a witches' brew ofurea pellets and sulphuric acid.
In the split second that followed the huge explosion blasted in alldirections, tearing the van to shreds and ripping through the nearestoffice, stamping the patterned imprint of Monica Smith's greensweater into her shoulder. It killed little Eddie, tore apart her lungs,arteries and internal organs, fractured her pelvis and broke her leg.Concrete blocks pummelled her head. She died instantly, `bluntimpact trauma' extinguishing her life.
Bob Kirkpatrick was the next to die. A veteran of the Korean war,just six months from retirement, he was hurled across the room, hisskull rent apart by a piece of piping; the left side of his body flattenedon impact.
Bill Macko, another ex-military man, was sitting next toKirkpatrick: small chunks of concrete, moving faster than speedingbullets, ravaged the left side of his face. The blast ripped apart hisvertebrae, tore his intestines from the side of his abdomen, andruptured his arteries, spleen and kidneys. Before Stephen Knapp hadtime to close his eyelids tiny particles of concrete peppered his eyes,then his body was thrown backwards.
One floor above, Wilfredo Mercado, the 37-year-old receiving agentfor the Windows on the World restaurant (that sits a quarter of a mileabove the basement at the top of One World Trade Center), had beenhaving a quiet snooze. Mercado studied engineering in his native Perubefore moving to New York, and his short nap was a daily ritual, abrief moment of rest in a busy day. For most of the week Mercadoworked in the twin towers checking that all the fruit and vegetablesfor the restaurant were delivered correctly. The other two days hereturned to the building to work as a security guard. His wife Olgaand two young daughters were his life. Mercado probably never wokefrom his brief slumber. Like a giant hand rising from below, the explosionplucked the Peruvian out of his room and sucked him down fivefloors. He landed head first, still in his chair, and his body was crushedunder tonnes of concrete.
Back in the car park 45-year-old John DiGiovanni, a dark-haired,olive-skinned dental products salesman from Valley Stream, NewYork, had just parked near an underground ramp when the bombwent off. He was thrown around 30 feet, his body crumpled andbloodied. Paramedics eventually reached him and took him to StVincent's Hospital, but it was already too late. John DiGiovanni diedof traumatic cardiac arrest, caused by the extreme nature of his injuriesand deep smoke inhalation.
Timothy Lang had been waiting to get into the car park behindDiGiovanni. A successful young stock-trader, Lang parked his carunderground just moments before the explosion. Now he foundhimself dazed and barely conscious. He crawled through piles ofrubble, his neck bleeding profusely, his lungs hacking from the smoke,and collapsed. Such are the vagaries of life. DiGiovanni had cut infront of Lang as their cars entered the building. Lang survived;DiGiovanni died.
The blast-wave roared upwards, passing through five reinforcedconcrete floors and severing all power. For a brief moment the buildingswere plunged into darkness. In an underground station below thetwin towers commuters screamed as the blast blew out a hole 180ft by12ft in the side of the wall on level 2. Concrete and twisted metal flewthrough the air, ripping through legs and arms, and lacerating spines.
Outside on the street, several hundred feet from `ground zero', thecentre of the blast, the back window of a car waiting at traffic lights onWest Street blew out. The shockwave spread out from its source, andwithin seconds tourists one mile away on Liberty and Ellis Islands inNew York harbour felt the ground shudder gently. Many New Yorkersthought there had been an earthquake.
`There was a big boom, the building shook and I looked out of thewindow across the Hudson River to see if New Jersey had disappeared,'said Lisa Hoffman, a worker in the nearby World FinancialCenter.
The first call to the emergency services came within five seconds of theexplosion.
`Police operator five. Is this an emergency?' queried the operator.
`Yes, there is an emergency,' said a male caller at precisely 12.17 and42 seconds. `Something just blew up underneath the parking garagetunnel between World Trade Center Tower One and the WorldFinancial Center, across the street.'
`Okay, it's in the World Trade Center?'
`No, it's an underground parking garage, the entranceway downthere.'
`Hold on a minute,' said the operator. `What street is it on?'
`On West Street.'
`West,' said the caller, `near Vesey, just toward the FDR from Vesey.'
`Okay, hold on for the Fire Department, you're in Manhattan,right?'
The operator decided the caller was genuine and transferred him tothe Fire Department operator.
`Fire Department, Fletcher, 191.'
`Hi,' said the man, `there was a big explosion in the undergroundentranceway to the parking lot on West Street between World TradeCenter Tower One and the World Financial Center across the street onWest.'
`Okay, would that be, like, by the Vista Hotel?'
`Okay, and it's what number are you calling from?'
`I'm calling from 298 6020.'
`Okay, Fire Department is on our way, sir.'
The Fire Department were already there. Lieutenant MattDonachie, 36, was standing just around the corner on Liberty Street,watching Fire-Engine 10 backing into its bay, when he heard the explosion.Donachie jumped up into the front seat of the tender andradioed his dispatcher. A 12-year veteran, Donachie was convinced itwas an electricity transformer explosion a routine call. The tenderdrove around the corner and slowed to look for signs of damage. As itcruised past the 22-storey Vista Hotel, which stood between the twintowers, Donachie saw a wisp of smoke curling out into the street froma ramp leading down to the underground car park. He radioed formore units.
While the Fire Department moved into action, workers on the upperfloors of the towers were already smelling smoke in their offices. Carfires in the basement were pumping out thick, acrid smoke, whichspiralled up through stairways, elevator shafts and ventilation pipesas if the towers were giant chimneys.
During construction of the building safety and union officials hadwanted the stairways pressurized, so the air pressure inside would behigher, preventing smoke entering during a fire. Their advice wasignored: now tens of thousands of people had to escape from one ofthe world's tallest buildings through thick smoke and down blackenedstairwells.
Many people were crushed underfoot as panic began to spread.Hysterical men and women punched and kicked their way down thestairs. In a country fed a regular diet of disaster movies, it was almostinevitable that many would think they were facing death. DeniseBosco, a secretary, was working on the 82nd floor when the bombexploded: `The whole building shook. The lights flashed on and off,the computers went down. Then, instantly, there was smoke. I wasterrified. People panicked. They started pushing and shouting to getout. Some of them were throwing up. I said, "Oh, dear God, what isit? Is it my time? Is this the way?"'
Many of those in the towers evidently thought so. Rescue workerson the ground saw people hanging out of windows, apparentlyconsidering whether to jump. One man threw a hastily written notefrom one of the upper storeys addressed to his family. It said simply:`I love you and will always love you.'
Amid the panic there were great acts of heroism. Two men carrieda female lawyer in a wheelchair down 66 storeys. Debbie Matut, apregnant transmitter technician, was plucked off the roof of one towerby a police helicopter hovering 50ft above in powerful crosswinds.But for most there was just a seemingly endless ordeal.
Peter Stanhope, a British banker working on the 85th floor, wastrapped for hours. Many of his colleagues tried to escape down thestairs, only to find the lighting had been turned off to prevent electricalfires. `We had very little communication from the outside world,bar what came in on the emergency telephone line,' he said. `Weclosed the doors and put wet towels across the bottom of them.'More than 200 five-year-old children were caught in the panic. Onegroup of 70 children from a Brooklyn school was trapped in darknessin lifts for five hours before rescue arrived. Anna Marie Tesoriero, theirteacher, sang `This Old Man' and used her cigarette lighter to keepspirits high while children wept and vomited with fear.
Calls flooded into emergency control rooms, television stations andradio programmes. The thousands of workers stuck in the towerswere terrified. Was the basement on fire? Should they stay where theywere? Should they brave the smoke and try to navigate the pitch-blackstairways? In a panic, many smashed windows, showering lethalshards of glass on to the emergency services hundreds of feet below,and feeding the fires inside the building with oxygen. Flames began toroar out of control at the base of the building.
The New York City Fire Department sent a total of 750 vehicles to theexplosion, and did not leave the scene for the next month. It tookhundreds of firefighters two hours to extinguish the blazes and morethan five hours to evacuate both towers.
Christopher King walked down dozens of flights of stairs from theDean Witter brokerage. `Once we made that decision [to leave], somepanic set in,' he admitted. `There were no lights, so we put our handson the person in front of us to see and made a human chain. As weheaded down the stairs, it became hotter and hotter and you neverknew if, when you turned a corner, there would suddenly be a wall offlames. Towering Inferno was in our minds all the way. When I reachedthe ground, my face was dark and sooty from the smoke, I wasdrenched in sweat, but all I cared about was being alive.'
Among the last to leave was Peter Gseslad, a 26-year-old trader atSumitomo Bank on the 96th floor. `We were still trading after theexplosion,' he said. `We thought it was just lightning. We were told bythe brokers we were doing deals with; they said, "Hey, there's smokecoming out of your building."' Gseslad and his colleagues struggleddown the stairs, some of them talking and conducting deals on theircellular phones on the way, but by the time they reached the 60th floor,`people started freaking out': `Lots of them just couldn't breathe. Bythe time we got down to 24 it was like a race. We just ran for it.'
Gasping for breath, their faces blackened by soot and muck, thousandsof workers and visitors staggered out on to the street andcollapsed into the snow, many of them hacking up blood from theirlungs.
The bombing took six innocent lives. It also caused 1,042 injuriesand more hospital casualties than any other event in domesticAmerican history apart from the Civil War. Many of those whoescaped without apparent physical injury will be scarred mentally forlife, and yet it is almost miraculous that in such a huge bomb attackeven more were not killed or injured. More certainly would haveperished had the bomb not been detonated during lunchtime, whenmany workers had left the twin towers. If it had exploded in the earlyevening, as thousands were returning to their cars in the undergroundgarage, many hundreds might have died.
A persisting mystery is why the terrorists did not drive straight tothe twin towers after leaving Willie Moosh's gas station and detonatethe bomb earlier in the morning. Several of the gang were religiousMuslims, indoctrinated by mullahs preaching hatred and murder, andsome American investigators believe they went to another safehouse onethat has never been uncovered by the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation (FBI) to pray and prepare. Another theory is thatYousef tried to attack the headquarters of the United Nations, furtherup the east bank of Manhattan from the World Trade Center, but wasprevented from getting close to the building by security officers. Thegang instead turned to their fall-back target the twin towers.
As it was, some of the most serious casualties were found in thePort Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) station underneath the TradeCenter. One victim had three inches of bone exposed as rubble penetratedhis back. `We crawled under pipes when we arrived and everythingwas on fire,' said Edward Bergen, one of the first firefighters toenter the station. `Suddenly a guy came walking out of the flameslike one of those zombies in the movie Night of the Living Dead. He wasa middle-aged man and his flesh was hanging off.'
Neil E. Herman, the 46-year-old senior FBI Supervisory Special Agentin charge of the FBI-led Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF), was at hisdesk on the 28th floor of the FBI's New York headquarters whenYousef's bomb exploded. A veteran anti-terrorist specialist with theappearance and demeanour of a seasoned poker player, Herman wasbrought up in St Louis, Missouri, briefly followed his father into journalismafter leaving college, and then joined the FBI during a recruitingdrive in the early 1970s. He spent 14 weeks at the FBI trainingacademy in Quantico before transferring at the age of 25 to theBureau's office in Miami, Florida the `Super Bowl of Crime'. A yearlater Herman was transferred up the eastern seaboard to New York,and arrived in the city the day President Richard Nixon resigned fromoffice.
New York has always been a theatre for terrorism. Within a fewmonths of Herman's arrival in the Big Apple a wave of bomb attacksrocked the city, most perpetrated by the Puerto Rican independencemovement. `One thing led to another and I pretty much stayed in thisprogramme [anti-terrorism] my whole career,' he said.
Herman worked on terrorism cases throughout the 1970s, but it wasnot until May 1980 that a decision was taken to form a special JointTerrorist Task Force to pool the resources of the FBI and New YorkPolice Department (NYPD). The reason was simple: `We were gettingthe hell kicked out of us,' said Herman. `Basically we were competingwith and against the NYPD, instead of working with them. It wasn'tcost effective.'
The JTTF was formed with 25-30 investigators, originally just fromthe FBI and NYPD. Herman took over as supervisor in 1990, and bythe time of the World Trade Center bombing the squad numbered40-50 and comprised agents from the FBI, NYPD, the StateDepartment, the Secret Service, the Immigration and NaturalisationService (INS), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the USMarshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF),the New York State Police and the Port Authority of New York andNew Jersey.
The team was permanently on call from its Manhattan offices. `Wehad police radios with us at all times and within about five to tenminutes of the [World Trade Center] blast we began to hear a series ofcommunications,' said Herman. `There was a flurry of activity thatindicated there might have been a fire or a transformer explosion orsomething like that. Within about 15 minutes the activity began toincrease. I walked down to the World Trade Center about six orseven blocks away with about half a dozen investigators, to determinethe extent of the damage and see what happened.'
Herman arrived at the scene around 12.45 p.m., less than half anhour after the explosion. `It was a total madhouse,' he said. Hundredsof fire-trucks, police cars, ambulances, Port Authority vans and carswere blocking the roads around the massive complex. Herman and histeam pushed through the crowds, flashed their identification, andconducted a quick survey of the scene. He could see that the VistaHotel had been badly damaged, and that the road had buckled outsidethe complex. Gut instinct told him it was more than a transformerexplosion, and within an hour of the blast he had issued instructionsto open the command centre at FBI headquarters in the massivefederal government building at 26 Federal Plaza.
Herman's boss James Fox, the FBI Assistant Director in charge ofthe New York bureau, had been eating swordfish and chips for lunchat Harry's restaurant, a short walk to the north-east of the World TradeCenter complex, when his pager began to bleep. The veteran agentwas walking to a public phone to respond when a friend whohappened to be in the same restaurant told him a PATH train hadderailed under the WTC. His office at 26 Federal Plaza gave him a fewmore details: they initially thought it was a transformer explosion.
Fox was a wily character. The lawyer son of a Chicago bus driver,he had spent most of his FBI career working in Counter-Intelligenceand battling the KGB. He moved from smaller FBI offices in NewHaven, Connecticut and San Francisco, to the larger bureaux, Chicagoand Washington, before joining the New York bureau in 1984. `Someguys get into FCI [Foreign Counter-Intelligence] and it gets in yourblood. It got in mine. Others want to break down doors and put handcuffson people and get scumbags off the streets,' he said.
Fox had spent so much time working in the shadows that the high-profilerole of heading the FBI's New York bureau must have come asa shock. But he was still a reassuring figure, best known to NewYorkers for his comments the previous April on the conviction of JohnGotti, the legendary mobster who strutted around New York in silksuits. Gotti, known as the `Teflon Don', because prosecutors couldnever get anything to stick to him, was finally convicted on charges ofmurder and racketeering. `The Teflon is gone,' Fox had told thecameras. `The Don is covered with Velcro, and all the charges stuck.'
Like Herman, Fox was instantly suspicious of the reports that atransformer had exploded under the World Trade Center. `I thought,"If this was a transformer explosion, it's the biggest one I've heard of."In this business, you wonder if it is an accident, or is it terroristinspired?'
Yet even among senior FBI agents there was still a natural reluctanceto believe New York had joined the roll-call of internationalcities synonymous with terrorism. `This sort of thing just doesn'thappen in New York' seemed to be the prevailing wisdom. But violentdeath had hardly been a stranger in the city over the preceding coupleof decades. Two weeks before the bombing six residents of the Bronxwere lined up in an apartment block and shot through the head. Aseventh victim of the same feud was shot dead outside the Bronx courthouse.Nor were terrorists strangers in southern Manhattan. Fortypeople died and more than 200 were injured when a bomb explodedduring lunchtime on Wall Street in September 1920.
Fox wasn't taking any chances. He left his lunch in Harry's, walkedquickly to his car, switched on its flashing red strobe-light, and drovethe short distance to the World Trade Center. By the time he arrivedthe scene was already cluttered with dozens of fire-engines and ambulances.Fox decided the FBI command centre at 26 Federal Plazawould be the best place for him to direct the agency's response.
Neil Herman had also made his way back to FBI headquarters andtook a lift up to the command centre on the 26th floor. Although anadjoining operations centre is open all the time, the command centre,with video screens lining a wall and banks of desks and telephones, isonly activated during a major crisis. From that moment the FBIcommand centre was manned 24 hours a day for the following sixweeks.
As reports of the explosion circulated on TV and radio news, a spateof copycat hoax phone-calls were made to the police and FBI. At 4.25p.m. a bomb warning sent police cars scurrying to the Empire StateBuilding. Tens of thousands of visitors and workers were evacuatedand the police spent hours checking for bombs. The state NationalGuard was put on full alert, and security was tightened at the UnitedNations, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which received a `generalbomb scare' at 5.45 p.m., and New York's three airports Newark, JFKand La Guardia. On a `normal' day in New York City, the police expectto receive less than 10 bomb threats. Between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. on26 February 1993, they received 69.
Herman monitored the situation for several hours from thecommand centre, then rallied a group of senior agents and bomb techniciansand headed back down towards the twin towers to try toexamine the site. The damage was enormous: great slabs of masonrythe size of small cars were still falling into a massive crater at thebottom of the complex, and by early Friday evening Herman had stillseen only the periphery of the explosion.
Yet by 5 p.m. the FBI and NYPD were confident the damage had beencaused by a bomb. Leslie E. Robertson, the original structural engineerof the World Trade Center, had been rushed down to the complex bypolice car from his office on East 46th Street, and was certain it wassabotage. Agents from the JTTF had also studied plans of the complex;there was nothing in the area of the explosion that could possibly havecaused such devastation. There was no electrical transformer, no hiddengas-storage depot. It was a public parking area it must have been abomb. But nobody could be absolutely sure, because getting to the heartof the explosion was `like finding a route down to hell'.
The JTTF swung into action. A moment wasted could have giventhe bombers precious time to escape. Herman's investigators began byanalysing the calls claiming responsibility for the bombing. At firstthere were rumours one had been received from the SerbianLiberation Front (SLF) a few minutes before the explosion, but whentime-sheets were checked agents discovered the call was received at1.35 p.m. more than an hour later. A man with a foreign accent hadrung the NYPD First Precinct, which houses the twin towers within itsboundaries, and said the SLF was responsible. Out of more than 20calls claiming responsibility in the hours following the attack, this wasthe only one treated seriously, partly because of the speed with whichit was received (at that time the emergency services still thought therehad been a transformer explosion) and partly because the caller tookthe trouble to ring a police station rather than the 911 emergency line.
There were other reasons to suspect Balkan involvement: thePentagon had just announced it would start parachuting aid suppliesinto Bosnia, and America had been targeted before by Balkan extremiststaking their internecine war across the Atlantic. Between 1968 and1993 Croatian extremists conducted 26 separate attacks within theUnited States in support of their claim for independence fromYugoslavia.
However, each call still had to be considered and analysed. Another17 callers to 911 during Friday evening and Saturday morning claimedto know who was responsible, with blame attached to everyone fromthe Black Liberation Front to Colombian drug cartels. Neil Herman'steam was not short of help; even Nita Lee, a `psychic counsellor' fromOklahoma, contacted the authorities to offer details of `mental images'she claimed to have about the bomb and the suspects.
The agents assembled in the FBI's command centre began to formulatetheories. Perhaps the explosion was a botched presidential assassinationattempt, suggested some agents. The US Secret Service, whichguards the President, has its New York headquarters in the WorldTrade Center. Three Secret Service agents were injured one of them,Pamela Russillo, was literally blown out of her shoes and severalSecret Service cars, including the bullet-proof limousine used byPresident Clinton during visits to New York, were destroyed.President Clinton had travelled in the car when he had visited theUnited Nations headquarters in eastern Manhattan the previousMonday. Perhaps, suggested one FBI agent, it was a device planted inthe car that had detonated at the wrong time.
The theory was dismissed as the scale of the devastation becameclear. The bomb would have been huge and conspicuous it couldnever have been missed in security checks. There must have beenanother vehicle. Perhaps Mario Cuomo, New York's Governor, hadbeen the target, suggested one agent. He had been due to leave hisstate car in the garage on level B-2 on Friday, but had cancelled a meetingin the Center only hours before the explosion.
`What about the Macedonians?' suggested another agent with agrasp of Balkan politics. An anonymous claim of responsibility hadbeen received from a group acting `for a former-Yugoslav republic'.That was part of the new name for Macedonia.
Later it was proposed that the bombing was a quick retaliation forthe US bombing of the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, on 17 January1993. The Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had invited a number ofIslamic fundamentalist leaders from around the world to the hotel fora conference when the building was struck by a US missile. ThePentagon apologized for the attack and said it had been an accident,but CIA analysts thought one of the fundamentalists staying in thehotel could have decided to exact revenge and sent supporters tobomb the Vista Hotel. `They suggested the real target had been theactual hotel, and not the [twin] towers,' said a retired CIA official.
Officials from the CIA and the State Department were soon channellingother theories into the FBI's command centre. On the same dayas the World Trade Center explosion a bomb had been placed in asmall coffee shop in Cairo, killing four people. It was one of the worstacts of political violence in the Egyptian capital for years perhapsthere was an Egyptian connection.
Another possibility, barely perceived in the immediate aftermath ofthe bombing, was that the motive might have been purely criminal.The bomb blew open the underground vaults of the Bank of Kuwait.An FBI agent tasked with checking this theory soon dismissed it:unless the robbers had been hopelessly inept such a device wouldnever have been designed to break open a vault. Perhaps then,suggested another agent, it was just the building that was the target.The New York police were taking no chances. They began questioningPort Authority workers to see if anyone had a serious grudge againsthis or her employer.
Then there were Islamic militants, responsible for massive bomb-ings in the Middle East. `The modus operandi of the bombing wasvery similar to what we'd seen with Islamic extremists overseas, butwe really didn't know. We looked at several different groups that wethought were capable of doing something like this,' said Neil Herman.`We started to get a series of investigative leads, none of which reallytook us anywhere. And we were also analysing classified intelligencefrom overseas.'
The FBI was initially drawn to the theory that Balkan extremistswere responsible, and the hypothesis was bolstered when Herman'scommand centre was informed by agents of the Diplomatic SecurityService, part of the State Department, that a bomb had been found infront of the American embassy in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, fivehours before the World Trade Center explosion. The prevailingevidence was enough to establish a tenuous link to the Balkans.Friday night four agents from the JTTF were sent to upstate RocklandCounty to watch the homes of Balkan activists already known to theFBI. Phone records were checked by `pattern-searching' computers.JTTF agents back in Manhattan began trawling through a specialcomputer database, containing more than 185,000 names of menand women from around the world suspected of involvement interrorism.
Within 12 hours of the explosion the investigation was mushrooming,but technicians had still not found forensic evidence thatconfirmed the cause was a bomb. `The massive amounts of communicationsand paper were almost overwhelming,' said Herman. `Thenthere were regular briefings to people in Washington and of course tothe White House.' Managing the investigators became a priority. `Oneof the big mistakes in some of these investigations is that you have tobe careful. You can burn people out very quickly. You have to putpeople in shifts and send them home. It has to be seen as a marathon asa long run. On the first night by 4 a.m. we decided we wantedpeople to go home, change if not get any sleep, and then be back by6 or 7 a.m. People were wearing suits and ties, and they needed to bedressed down.'
Herman himself rang his wife from his mobile phone to tell her hewould be home `when he could', then finally drove at around four inthe morning to his home just outside Manhattan. He had a quickshower, changed, and was back in his office by 6 a.m. His marathonwas only just beginning.