An Icon Destroyed

Six years ago, when bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef was taken by helicopter to lower Manhattan where he would later be tried and convicted of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, one of the FBI agents escorting him loosened Yousef's blindfold momentarily. Below them the Manhattan skyline lit up the night sky like a trove of jewels, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center reflected the moonlight.

"See, you didn't get them after all," the agent said to Yousef.

Yousef fidgeted beneath his heavy manacles. "Not yet," he said quietly.

Today's attack on the World Trade Center brings to mind the bombing on February 26, 1993, in which six people were killed and thousands injured. But there are some critical differences. Back then, the attack was planned by a single well-honed terrorist who became the leader of a rag-tag group of dedicated revolutionaries, former Afghani soldiers, fellow believers, braggarts, hoodlums and hangers-on. The keenly intelligent and manipulative Ramzi Yousef lit the spark for a disgruntled group.

From evidence presented at his trial, it seemed like Yousef had been practicing for the 1993 WTC bombing for most of his adult life. In preparation, he built and exploded a bomb on a Philippine airline, killing one. He poured over flight schedules, scheming to bomb a dozen U.S. flights simultaneously. But the evil deed for which he became famous-the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, fell far short of his grandiose dreams. And he blamed his footsoldiers.

FBI officials admitted during the trial that, taken as a whole, the soldiers in Yousef's self-declared Holy War were laughably naive and disorganized. Using $3,000 worth of commonly found ingredients, they fashioned a homemade bomb, loaded it into a rented Ryder van and drove it from Jersey City, through the Holland Tunnel and into the World Trade Center's underground parking garage. Then they scattered. Although they intended to bring down the tower, Yousef didn't stick around to watch it. He was driven to Kennedy Airport and flew to Frankfurt and disappeared, probably to Afghanistan. His brother in crime, red-headed Mahmud Abouhalima couldn't bear to flee from the terror he had wrought. He waited in the classical music section of Tower Record in downtown Manhattan, eyeing the shining tower. Hours later, he too fled the country. Another terrorist, Mohammad Salameh was arrested when he returned to the Ryder office in Jersey City, demanding his deposit on the van be returned. On February 26, 1993, the World Trade Center merely shook but did not collapse. But it was a close call. Later, the WTC's architect would tell jurors that if the van had been left closer to the poured concrete foundations, they would have succeeded. The tower would have fallen.

Yousef's gang targeted the Trade Center for several reasons. It was the symbol of America's wealth and commerce and in their minds, was filled with the hated Jews. Most of all, Yousef and his gang wanted to kill thousands. The terrorists, and the second pack who plotted to blow up the bridges and tunnel's leading into the city, bragged that they wanted the American people to feel terror. The men behind the 1993 bombing fumbled their way toward the first terrorist attack on domestic soil. Today's attack was clearly carried out by a different kind of group. It was almost surgical in its relentless precision. Early evidence indicated that they are far larger, well-funded and well-disciplined. And there is another element at work that forever alters the calculus of law enforcement in this country. Today's attack used suicide bombers, the first time they have ever been seen on our shores. It is an event FBI officials have long feared since attacks by suicide bombers are groomed in secret, difficult to detect and nearly impossible to prevent.