On the morning of February 26, 1993, Islamic militants steered a nondescript Ryder van through the winding darkness of the parking garage under the World Trade Center. They had spent years planning this moment in secret meetings at mosques and jailhouses, in rural outposts that served as paramilitary camps, and in safehouses where explosive compounds were mixed in makeshift labs.
Loaded into the van’s rear compartment was a 1,400-pound chemical bomb.
The explosive detonated at a few minutes after noon. The hyper-intensive shockwave bored a six-story canyon into the bowels of the complex. Seven people were killed (one of the six officially listed murder victims having been well along in her pregnancy), over a thousand were injured, and the structural damage would cost nearly a billion dollars to repair.
Amid the terror, the dark cloud that envelops us still 15 years later, was a silver lining. This time, the “battalion of Islam” — as the “blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, liked to refer to the cells in his emerging jihad army — had failed.
It had been the intention of the World Trade Center bombers to annihilate tens of thousands of Americans, in addition to rendering the world’s most significant financial district uninhabitable. Detonation was consciously timed for maximum carnage: high noon on a Friday, when as many as 120,000 business professionals, laborers, diners, tourists, and area residents typically swarmed the Twin Towers and their immediate Wall Street environs.
More diabolically, not content with their sophisticated, powerfully combustible urea-nitrate mixture, the jihadists laced the compound with deadly sodium cyanide and attempted to boost the explosion with hydrogen tanks. The aim was a horror virtually unimaginable back then (though it is, today, an omnipresent fear): wide dispersal of a lethal, aerated chemical, killing the thousands too distant to be obliterated by the sheer force of the blast.
The battalion, however, miscalculated. They’d hoped to place the bomb close enough to primary support structures that one tower, in its decimation, might topple into the second. The van, though, had been parked many yards away from the ideal location. Added to this good fortune, the hydrogen tanks had been destroyed upon detonation, adding nothing but shards to the impact. And another break: The cyanide failed to vaporize — simply burning away like the rest of the bomb components.
So yes, the aftermath resembled the ninth ring of hell, but the devastation was orders of magnitude less than it could have been.
In hindsight, we now know the silver lining caused us to miss the ferocity and determination of our enemies.
Only a few weeks before the bombing, the blind sheikh, who had been in constant communication with his co-conspirators, had attracted a crowd of followers at a Brooklyn rally. “God has obliged us to perform jihad,” he thundered. “The battalions of Islam and its divisions must be in a state of continuous readiness . . . to hit their enemies with strength and power.”
The “enemies at the foremost of the work against Islam,” he declared, were “America and the allies.” For them, he had a warning:
If those who have the right [to have something] are terrorists then we are terrorists. And we welcome being terrorists. And we do not deny this charge to ourselves. And the Qur’an makes it among the means to perform jihad for the sake of Allah, which is to terrorize the enemies of God and our enemies too. . . . Then we must be terrorists and we must terrorize the enemies of Islam and frighten them and disturb them and shake the earth under their feet.
Radical Islam had sought an Armageddon for its declaration of war. But the paltry number of deaths, an absolute miracle under the circumstances, denied the jihadists the monstrous “victory” they’d hoped for. Simultaneously, it confirmed us in our determination to regard them as mere criminals.
That they would learn from their errors faster than we from ours is now clear. In truth, it was clear then. On the hard drive of Nidal Ayyad, one of the bombers arrested in early March 1993, the FBI recovered a claim-of-responsibility letter. It is even more chilling today than it was all those years ago:
We are, the Liberation Army fifth battalion, again. Unfortunately, our calculations were not very accurate this time. However, we promise you that next time it will be very precise and World Trade Center will continue to be one [of] our targets unless our demands have been met.
And so it was.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, an NRO contributing editor, directs the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His book, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, will be published by Encounter Books next month.