For most Americans, it used to be something that happened "over there"—in the Middle East or in Europe. Sure, the specter of terrorism chilled. But it was mostly a distant threat, spawned in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in June 1967, when Israel defeated its Arab foes, occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and found itself locked in an escalating guerrilla conflict marked by bombings, assassinations, and other acts of terror. In the early 1970s, radical Palestinian groups began blowing up Mideast oil installations and hijacking airliners—some United States carriers—to publicize their fight against Israel and its American ally. In 1972, Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization boldly carried the campaign to Europe, killing 17 people, including 11 Israeli athletes, during an attack at the Munich Olympics. Throughout the decade, anti-U.S. ferment spread across the region, culminating in the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Iran and the seizing of 63 hostages.
Shocking as it was, Iran was a mere curtain raiser for the horrors that followed. During the 1980s the United States increasingly became the target overseas of Islamic radicals. In April 1983, a car bomb exploded in front of the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. Six months later, a suicide bomber in the same city drove an explosives-filled truck into the U.S. Marine Corps compound, killing 254 U.S. servicemen and 58 French paratroopers. And in September 1984, a van bomb in front of the U.S. Embassy there killed 14 and injured 70.
Targets. Compounding the mounting outrage in the United States was a series of smaller attacks that made it clear just how vulnerable individual Americans were to the increasing violence. In March of 1985, journalist Terry Anderson was kidnapped in Lebanon and held for more than six years. In June, a TWA flight was hijacked to Lebanon, and American television viewers saw the body of murdered Navy diver Robert Stethem dumped onto the tarmac. And in October, 69-year-old New Yorker Leon Klinghoffer was rolled in his wheelchair across the deck of the hijacked Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and tossed into the ocean.
The same year also saw an attack on a U.S. military base in Frankfurt that killed three, including a GI. An American passenger was murdered on a hijacked Egyptian airliner, and an Arab hit-squad assault on U.S. and Israeli airport counters in Rome and Vienna killed 16 bystanders. The mayhem continued through the decade with more hostages seized in Lebanon, an explosion aboard a TWA jetliner approaching Athens that killed four passengers, and the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque popular with GIs.
For more than two decades, Islamic radicals used crude but effective methods that employed massive amounts of explosives and fanatics who were willing to die. Then, in December of 1988 came a frightening demonstration of how technically sophisticated the enemy had become. Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747 bound from London to New York and carrying a high-performance plastic explosive inside a radio-cassette player, was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. After 20 years of attacks "over there," terrorism was inexorably heading for American shores.
Sooty faces. The first domestic attack—little more than a feint—came in January 1993 when a lone gunman, Mir Aimal Kansi, opened up with an AK-47 outside CIA headquarters, killing two employees and injuring three. But everything changed Feb. 26, 1993, when a 1,000-pound bomb in a car parked in an underground garage at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Those images of terrified office workers with soot-blackened faces fleeing through smoke billowing from the twin skyscrapers can now be seen as a frightening harbinger of an even more terrible blitz. Fortress America was no longer invulnerable to attack by outside enemies—or from within.
In April 1995, a crude but powerful truck bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 adults and children. First suspicions fell on Islamic extremists, but in an ironic and unexpected twist, home-grown radicals and U.S. citizens Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were convicted of the worst terrorist attack on a domestic target. In the wake of that tragedy, Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House was closed to traffic and security tightened at federal targets nationwide.
Overseas, the assaults continued and escalated. In March 1995, two U.S. diplomats were murdered in Pakistan in apparent retaliation for the arrest in that country of Ramzi Yousef, later convicted of masterminding the New York Trade Center bombing. In Saudi Arabia, seven died that same year in the bombing of a U.S. training center, followed by a 1996 bomb attack on the U.S. military's Khobar Towers barracks that killed 19 airmen and wounded 500. The following year, four Texas oilmen were murdered in Pakistan after Kansi was arrested there for the CIA shootings, and in August 1998, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing 224 and injuring some 5,000. Last October, a small boat filled with powerful explosives was detonated by suicide bombers alongside the destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors. It was another audacious assault on a symbol of American military might that left the nation wondering where the next would occur. Now we know.