1993 World Trade Center bombing taught tough lessons
NEW YORK — It had to be an accident.
Although hard to imagine, that was the prevailing theory moments after an explosion rocked the World Trade Center about noon on a chilly Feb. 26, 1993.
The truth — that a cell of Islamic extremists had engineered a car bomb attack that killed six people, wounded more than 1,000 and caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage — “was incomprehensible at the time,” recalled FBI Agent John Anticev.
On the eve of the 20-year anniversary of the bombing, Anticev and law enforcement officials involved in the case reflected on an event that taught them tough lessons about a dire threat from jihadists.
“In those days, terrorism wasn't the first reaction,” former federal prosecutor David Kelley said.
The scale of the attack was the first dramatic demonstration that “terrorism is theater and New York is the biggest stage,” police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
A two-time commissioner, Kelly was serving his first stint when the initial report came in to police that day that there was an apparent transformer explosion at the trade center.
Kelly raced to the scene, where the bomb planted in a parked Ryder van had left a crater half the size of a football field in the trade center garage. For the first time since it opened in 1973, the trade center stood in the darkness that night.
“I remember seeing this tremendous sea of first-responder vehicles ... and smoke was coming out,” Kelly said.
A day later, when a utility mishap was ruled out, authorities “started to come to the conclusion it was a bomb,” Kelly said.
The probe took a dramatic turn when investigators found a vehicle identification number on a piece of the blown-up van.
Investigators later learned that the renter of the van wanted to get his deposit back after reporting it stolen — a break that sounded too good to be true.
“I was betting he wouldn't show up,” said Kelley.
The renter, Mohammed Salameh, appeared to demand his deposit about a week after the blast.
When Anticev heard Salameh's name, “I really almost started to cry,” the agent recalled.
His dismay was well-earned. He had long been watching Salameh and other radical Muslims in the FBI's investigation of the assassination of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane at a Manhattan hotel.
A pipe bomb attack “was as big a plot as we thought they were capable of,” he said.
In hindsight, Anticev believes agents were “too Western” in their attempts to neutralize the terrorists before they struck.
He described using tough interrogation tactics that would have spooked ordinary criminals — obtaining subpoenas and bringing them in for questioning in rooms where they purposely displayed surveillance photos of them on the wall.
“We thought they would be chilled by that experience,” he said. “But it was like water off a duck's back. That did not scare them at all. They just did it anyway. ... That was a big lesson.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Navy boots 34 in cheating scandal
- Cleanup follows heavy storms in Phoenix area
- Last 4 hostages freed in suburban Chicago
- Beheading doesn’t deter U.S., who launches new airstrikes
- Contraception, abstinence push U.S. teen birthrates to historic lows
- Scathing report says college trustees fail in mission
- Florida looks good: Farmer’s Almanac predicts ‘super-cold’ winter, above-average snow for Northeast
- Mortgage deal isn’t likely to cost $17B
- More states pick up tab for ACT exams
- WASHINGTON Gay marriage on hold …
- Poll: Common Core educational standards loses support