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CNS Reports

February 1993 Bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City

Extract from:

John V. Parachini, “The World Trade Center Bombers (1993)” Chapter 11 in Jonathan B. Tucker, (ed.) Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. (2000), pp.185-206

The February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City marked the beginning of an ugly new phase of terrorism involving the indiscriminate killing of civilians[1]...The World Trade Center bombing was motivated by the desire to kill as many people as possible. The target of the bomb plot was the World Trade Center (WTC) complex, a sixteen-acre site in lower Manhattan... Although the explosion killed six people and injured more than 1,000 [1,042], the consequences could have been far worse...

This chapter largely refutes the claim that the WTC bombing involved the terrorist use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, substantial evidence indicates that Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the attack, seriously considered employing chemical agents in the WTC bombing and in subsequent attacks. Examining the motivations and behaviors of terrorists who would have used a chemical weapon if it was available, but did not for logistical or financial reasons, may offer important lessons about how to thwart such attacks in the future.

The perpetrators of the WTC bombing turned out to be a group of New Jersey men who had been suspected of terrorism for more than two years.[2] Yousef attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, where he honed his skills as an explosives expert. He then traveled around the world working as a professional terrorist in the name of Islamic Jihad, although expressions of religious faith or motivation were notably absent from his statements....

The terrorists apparently selected the World Trade Center as a target not because it was a symbol of Western values or the financial power of the United States, but simply because toppling the twin towers would enable them to inflict a large number of casualties... Thus, while the symbolism of the World Trade Center cannot be ignored, it does not fully explain its selection over other buildings or places occupied by large numbers of people. Physical attributes and location appear to have been more important. The imposing profile of the twin towers on the New York skyline lay in clear view from New Jersey, where the bombers assembled their weapon. Mahmud Abouhalima [one of the perpetrators] also picked up many of the fares for his car service right across the street from the WTC...

In November 1992, the conspirators started to prepare for an attack on the WTC. It took them more than two months to acquire the chemicals, assemble the sophisticated urea-nitrate bomb, and transport it to the designated target...

On February 26, 1993, the terrorists drove a yellow Ford Econoline rental van into the basement of the WTC and set a timer to detonate the 1,500-pound urea-nitrate bomb. The massive blast created a cavernous crater 200 feet by 100 feet wide and seven stories deep in the garage of the World Trade Center... In all, the explosion killed six people, injured more than 1,000 [1,042], and caused nearly $300 million in property damage...[3]

With any major calamity, conspiracy theories tend to emerge when key details of the case appear incomplete. A few analysts suggest that Yousef and Ajaj [another of the bombers] were either Iraqi agents or freelance terrorists employed by Iraqi intelligence to exploit Islamic militants residing in the United States, as a means of continuing the Persian Gulf War on American soil...[4] Nevertheless, the theory that the Iraqi government sent Yousef on a mission to avenge the Gulf War relies too much on circumstantial evidence to create a compelling case...

As Yousef was being flown from Pakistan to the United States to stand trial, he told Secret Service agent Brian Parr that he would have put sodium cyanide into the WTC bomb if he had had enough money...[5]

Instead of state sponsorship, a large body of evidence indicates that the WTC conspirators were “transnational terrorists”—inspired and assisted by several Islamic militant groups operating in the United States and abroad, but not a formal part of any of them...

In 1995, investigative journalist Steven Emerson noted that federal investigators had identified links between the WTC bombers and at least five Islamic organizations: the Gama al-Islamiya, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, the Sudanese National Islamic Front, and al-Fuqrah.[6] He observed that these groups work together more closely in diaspora communities outside the Middle East “because they feel they are surrounded by a common enemy: Westerners and their values.”...[7]

Several historical forces created a fertile climate for a loose collection of individuals to act out their anti-American feelings, even though they were not a part of a formal terrorist organization. The decade-long struggle in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union created a generation of rebel warriors who were fervently anti-Israel and anti-American. Both Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Ismoil, who drove Yousef in the rental van to the WTC garage, claimed to have had relatives killed during the Persian Gulf War or at the hands of the Israelis.[8] Moreover, the political mood throughout the Middle East immediately after the Gulf War, particularly in the Palestinian community, was strongly anti-American...

Osama bin Laden, widely believed to have been the mastermind of the August 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, would seem a natural candidate to support the WTC bombing, but to date none of the government indictments against him indicate a connection to the incident.[9]...

Although proof is lacking for the actual use of cyanide in the WTC bomb, much evidence suggests that the conspirators considered lacing the bomb with poison...

[S]ources suggest that Yousef was motivated by an inchoate mixture of visceral hatred and personal affirmation, wrapped in a variety of geopolitical rationales. The primary motivation for the WTC bombing was to kill and injure a large number of Americans. Yousef told Agent Parr that he intended for the explosion to cause one tower to fall into the other, inflicting 250,000 civilian casualties.[10] Throughout Yousef’s terrorist career in the mid-1990s, he sought to carry out truly diabolical terrorist acts, all of which he justified by visceral hatred of the United States because of its support for Israel. Another striking feature of Yousef’s motivations is the absence of a religious rationale... Yousef’s declared motivation was not religious but rather an anti-occupation crusade aimed against Israel and its main supporter, the United States. In contrast, Ayyad Abouhalima, and Ajaj all expressed religious sentiments during their statements at sentencing but never admitted any connection to the WTC bombing.[11] Their statements were more affirmations of faith than rationales for a terrorist attack. Given that several of the conspirators were followers of Sheikh Omar [Abdul Rahman], Yousef’s lack of religious justification is conspicuous by its absence. He appears to have been a secular terrorist who mobilized others by playing on their religious zeal. At the root of the WTC bombers’ intent to inflict mass casualties was a strong desire to punish, to seek revenge, and to underscore the dignity of Muslims. In the letter claiming responsibility for the bombing, they stated that their “action was done in response for the American political, economical, and military support to Israel, the state of terrorism, and to the rest of the dictator countries in the region.”[12] ...

Yousef justified his terrorism as both punishment and revenge. Since the United States never learns, he argued, it must be punished. Yousef equated the U.S. punishment inflicted on Libyan and Iraqi civilians with the punishment he had dispensed: “the United States is applying the system of collective punishment against Iraq and Libya—when either government makes any mistake, the United States punishes the people in their entirety for the government’s mistake. We are reciprocating the treatment.”[13]...

In essence, the terrorists argued that to appreciate the tragedy Palestinians had experienced at the hands of the Israelis, innocent Americans had to die. The implication of Yousef’s twisted logic was that as a result of the losses inflicted by terrorism, the American people would come to value Palestinian lives as much as their own and stop supporting Israel. Yousef also justified terrorism against U.S. civilians as revenge for what he perceived as a long history of moral transgressions by the United States... Working with deadly materials with the intent to cripple a global superpower by killing its people fed Yousef’s view of himself as an expert and a genius.

The World Trade Center bombers proved that determined terrorists can obtain large quantities of chemicals, mix them into a potent explosive device, and deliver them to a major target, potentially killing or injuring tens of thousands of people... Yousef’s terrorist crusade appears to have been driven by a confluence of anti-American and anti-Israeli rage and a significant dose of ego rather than religious ideology. He had more in common with the famous Latin American terrorist Carlos the Jackal than he did with the religiously inspired suicide-bombers of Hamas. Although he drew on the diaspora of militant Islamic fundamentalists, his attempt to inflict mass casualties in New York City did not stem from religious conviction. Instead, his twisted belief about how to respond to the plight of the Palestinian people seemed driven by the thrill of being an explosives expert, killing innocent people, and moving on to practice his brand of terrorism another day. His exploits as a transnational terrorist affirmed the high opinion he held of himself. A terrorist who thinks that he is a genius will set the highest goals for practicing his craft. In Yousef’s case, that meant attempting to kill as many innocent people as possible.


[1] Jim Dwyer, David Kocieniewski, Deidre Murphy, and Peg Tyre, Two Seconds Under the World: Terror Comes to America—The Conspiracy Behind the World Trade Center Bombing (New York: Crown Publishers, 1994), p.50. See also Laurie Myroie, “The World Trade Center Bomb: Who is Ramzi Yousef? And Why It Matters,” The National Interest, No. 42 (Winter 1995/96), pp. 3-15.

[2] Dwyer, et. al., Two Seconds Under the World, p.88.

[3] U.S. Senate, Committee on Judiciary, Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information, Statement by Childers and DePippo, Foreign Terrorists in America.

[4] Myroie, “The World Trade Center Bomb,” pp.3-15.

[5] Direct Examination of Brian Parr, United States of America v. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Eyad Ismoil, S1293CR.180 (KTD), October 22, 1997, pp. 4734-4735.

[6] Emerson, “The Other Fundamentalists,” New Republic, June 12, 1995, p.40.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Raghidah Dirgham, “Ramzi Yusuf Discusses WTC Bombing, Other Activities,” Al-Hayah, translated in FBIS-NES-95-097 (12 April 1995) p.5; Statement of Eyal Ismoil at sentencing, United States of America v. Eyad Ismoil, S1293CR. 180 (KTD), April 3, 1998, p. 16.

[9] Indictment, United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, Muhammad Atef, Wadih El Hage, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-‘Owhali, S(2) 98 Cr. 1023 (LBS).

[10] Direct Examination of Brian Parr, United States of America v. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Eyad Ismoil, S1293CR.180 (KTD), October 22, 1997, p. 4721.

[11] Statements of Mohammed A. Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Amad Mohammad Ajaj at Sentencing, United States of America v. Muhammad A. Salameh et. al., S1293CR 180 (KTD), May 24, 1994, pp. 26-34, 41-49, 53-65, 65-113.

[12] Ibid; Government Exhibit 196.

[13] Dirgham, “Ramzi Yusuf Discusses WTC Bombing,” p.5.

Author(s): John Parachini, Jonathan Tucker
Related Resources: Terrorism, Reports
Date Created: 12 September 2001
Date Updated: -NA-