Twenty years ago today terrorists first tried to take down the tallest buildings in America's largest city.
In retaliation against United States' support of Israel and intervention in the Middle East, two men parked a yellow Ryder truck in a public parking garage beneath the World Trade Center and detonated a half-ton bomb. The blast did not topple the towers, as the driver of that truck, Ramzi Yousef, had hoped. But smoke choked the buildings and knocked out its power. Six people died and more than a thousand others were injured. It was the first ever terrorist attack on American soil.
The man whose wire transfer funded that attack, Yousef's uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would mastermind an even larger one eight years later. Both were conducted and planned by men of Middle Eastern descent intent on revenge against the U.S. and Israel's military action in the region.
As the seven conspirators of the first attack sat trial, U.S. News's Richard Chesnoff published the story below, piecing together a picture of a new threat. The Soviet enemies of the Cold War had been replaced by Middle Eastern ones of the Gulf War, who had now taken the conflict to American soil. The tension evident in Chesnoff's piece remains in place today, as the U.S. continues its war in Afghanistan and it vigilance against terrorism at home.
However, since the second World Trade Center attack in 2001, terrorism by Muslim-Americans has fallen precipitously. The homegrown Muslim or Middle Eastern terrorist cell that Chesnoff fears in his story has not come to fruition.
Of the more than 300 American deaths from political violence and mass shootings since 9/11, only 33 have come at the hands of Muslim-Americans, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. The Muslim-American suspects or perpetrators in these or other attempted attacks fit no demographic profile—only 51 of more than 200 are of Arabic ethnicity. In 2012, all but one of the nine Muslim-American terrorism plots uncovered were halted in early stages. That one, an attempted bombing of a Social Security office in Arizona, caused no casualties.
Chesnoff was right about one thing: the growing Muslim population. Because the Census doesn't collect religious data, it's difficult to pinpoint an exact number, but most estimates place the number of American Muslims between 2 million and 7 million. But even at the low estimate, that translates into less than 10 potential terrorists per million U.S. residents, according to the Center.
Between Bombers and Believers
By Richard Z. Chesnoff
A host of radical groups are at work in America
It has been seven months since a Ryder rental truck exploded in the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center, convulsing the twin towers in the worst act of terrorism ever committed on American soil. This week, six somber-looking men will take their seats in a New York courtroom, and prosecutors will attempt to convict them of the crime.
That the men were followers of Sheik Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric now charged with directing the alleged bombing campaign, has heightened concerns that Middle Eastern terrorists now hope to target Americans in their own country. "America is not immune," says Xavier Raufer, an internationally known expert on terrorism. "The disciples of Mideast terrorism are among you."
True believers. But what are they doing, exactly? Despite Abdel-Rahman's calls for the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the fact that Iran has provided money to the sheik, FBI investigators have established little firm evidence that the bombing campaign was to have been carried out at the behest of a foreign government. "There are indications," says a senior FBI official knowledgeable about the case. "Indications aren't evidence."
And yet, for many Americans, indications are enough. Iranian mullahs, Lebanese preachers, radicals from Gaza, Tunisia and Sudan—all regularly enter the United States on legal visas. Once here, they deliver sermons, publish pamphlets and raise money. The activity is legal, protected by the constitutional guarantees of free speech and worship.
Most of the new arrivals are also true believers. Islam today is the fastest growing religion in America, claiming ever larger numbers of converts among the general public, in addition to the country's 2.5 million Arab-Americans.
James Zogby, of Washington's Arab American Institute, warns against blaming an entire community for the actions of a tiny minority. Within the ranks of the burgeoning Muslim communities, however, a small and increasingly violent faction seems to have found a home. The FBI's counterintelligence specialists cannot prove it in every case, but some Muslim groups are known to have ties to and receive support from foreign terrorist groups, if not from foreign governments themselves. "Representatives of all [the Mideast extremist] groups exist in the United States," says Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center. Increasingly, the evidence suggests, the direct links that existed five or 10 years ago between terrorist organizations and their government sponsors have become more nebulous. What may be happening now sounds more akin to spiritual motivation—albeit motivation to commit acts of violence. "What they're providing," says Cannistraro of the radical Muslim groups operating in America, "is a world vision, a means of direct participation in God's plan. That can be very appealing."
The number and diversity of the radical Islamic and Palestinian organizations operating here is dizzying. The Islamic Committee for Palestine, for example, is based in Tampa, Fla. Two conferences sponsored by the organization featured representatives of the fanatic Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization among its principal speakers. The group's spritual leader, Sheik Abd al-Aziz Odeh, addressed the gathering with Rachid al-Ghanouchi, the leader of Tunisia's outlawed al-Nahda Party, which is financed by the government of Sudan. Despite these links, spokesmen for the Islamic Committee deny any ties to the Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks and kidnappings in the Middle East.
Not all the radical Middle Eastern groups based in the United States are religious. Last April, FBI agents in St. Louis charged four Arab-Americans who they said belonged to the deadly Abu Nidal terrorist organization. The men were charged with complicity in the murder of one cell member's daughter. The three were also plotting an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Washington and had compiled a hit list of as many as 3,000 Americans, the FBI said.
Fund raising. Even Hezbollah, the radical Party of God, has representatives and sympathizers active in the United States. In the 1980s, terrorists affiliated with Hezbollah were responsible for most of the Americans taken hostage in Lebanon. The organization also supported the car bombers who killed 241 American marines in Beirut in 1983. Today in Detroit, where large portraits of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decorate the walls of the Islamic Center of America, activists sell calendars to raise money for Hezbollah's military wing, known as the Islamic Resistance. In nearby Dearborn, where many Lebanese also live, cable channel 23 regularly rebroadcasts programs from Beirut's al-Manar TV, which is owned by Hezbollah. "I am pro-Islam—not Hezbollah," says Sheik Abdel-Latif Beri, of Dearborn's Institute of Islamic Knowledge. On visits to Beirut, however, the sheik makes a point of conferring with Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
Some relationships are more dangerous than others. Israeli security sources say that another Palestinian arrested recently testified that he and other young enthusiasts received bomb training at a secret session of a pro-Hamas conference in Kansas City, Mo. FBI officials initially discounted reports of Hamas activity. U.S. News has learned, however, that the FBI has recently intensified its investigation of pro-Hamas organizations in America. Late last week, FBI Director Louis Freeh ordered top officials to report to him what steps can be taken to counter the new and more dangerous threat of terrorism in America. The principal focus of the FBI effort? The radical Muslim groups now at work in so many communities across the nation.