Revisiting Ramzi Yousef’s terrorism: World Trade Center bombing and Philippines plane bombing plot

Earlier this month, Judge Kevin Duffy passed away in the coronavirus epidemic now besieging New York.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Earlier this month, Judge Kevin Duffy passed away in the coronavirus epidemic now besieging New York. The retired 87 year-old jurist was most well known for presiding over trials for two plots, both involving the terrorist mastermind, Ramzi Yousef.

The ambitious plots, together, aimed to kill hundreds of thousands. They marked the start of a new kind of terrorism targeting civilians in huge numbers. Although they themselves caused relatively few casualties, they culminated in the 9/11 attacks—which, until the coronavirus pandemic, were New York’s biggest disaster in living memory.

From an historical perspective, Americans, and others in the liberal democracies, have enjoyed comfortable lives. Not since World War II have they faced real catastrophe. That has, arguably, led to a mentality of lax complacency—until now.

But history is “the march of folly,” as the Pulitzer prize-winning historian, Barbara Tuchman, famously wrote, and there are important lessons in America’s early handling of the mega-terrorism, relevant even to today’s coronavirus crisis.

Above all, mishandle a major challenge, and you will pay the price. 

World Trade Center bombing 

The individual whom we call Ramzi Yousef led the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC.) He was, by far, the most skilled of the conspirators, and he directed the bombing.

Yousef arrived in New York in September 1992, on an Iraqi passport, issued in Baghdad the year before. He was known among the New York extremists as “Rashid, the Iraqi.”

Ramzi Yousef's Iraqi passport. (Photo: Govt Exhibit 614, United States v. Mohammed Salameh)
Ramzi Yousef's Iraqi passport. (Photo: Govt Exhibit 614, United States v. Mohammed Salameh)

Yousef’s bomb, placed in the parking garage of the north tower, was intended to topple that building onto its twin and bring them both down. When Yousef was arrested two years later, he boasted that he had intended to kill 250,000 people.

The buildings did not fall, but the bomb did leave a crater six stories deep in the tower’s basement floors. The garage had a height limit, restricting the explosives that one vehicle could carry. Moreover, building codes in the northeast are stricter than in the rest of the country. The bomb could have, perhaps, brought down Chicago’s Sears Tower.

Despite the bomb’s power and sophistication, New York FBI, the lead investigative agency, soon made its first arrests. To Jim Fox, the head of New York FBI, the arrests were too easy. It looked to him like a plot masterminded by others, with some conspirators left behind to be arrested and take the blame.

Six days after the attack, the FBI detained a 26-year old Palestinian, Mohammed Salameh, who had returned to the Ryder rental agency for his deposit on the van that carried the bomb. Two of Salameh’s acquaintances were arrested soon afterwards.

Yousef, however, fled successfully.

Ramzi Yousef. (Photo: FBI)
Ramzi Yousef. (Photo: FBI)

So, too, did Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi, who had been born in the US and held US citizenship. Yasin came from Iraq before the bombing and returned to Iraq afterwards.

Who could have been behind that bomb? Fox suspected Iraq, and his suspicions were reflected in the reporting of The New York Times, which won a Pulitzer prize for that work. Noting “the role played by two Iraqis,” one story asked, “could the attack on the Trade Center have been, at least in part, an officially approved act of vengeance” for the 1991 Gulf War?

The White House knew of the suspicions of New York FBI, of course. But Bill Clinton, just one month into his presidency, did not want to hear that he had a serious problem with Saddam Hussein.

Until the WTC bombing, the US treated major terrorist attacks as a national security matter. The assumption was that they were state-sponsored. But Clinton changed terrorism from a national security issue, with the emphasis on states, into a law enforcement matter. Instead of asking which enemy state might have been behind a terrorist attack, Americans focused instead on the courtroom and the individual defendants on trial.

This change passed without objection from the CIA, including its new director, Jim Woolsey. The CIA should have investigated the question of state sponsorship, but there was no intelligence investigation of the WTC bombing.

Regulations in force then denied the CIA access to the FBI’s investigation into the “crime,” until after the trial ended. The Agency relied, instead, on information it gathered to reach its own conclusions—even as it lacked the most important information: the investigation into the bombing itself! 

J. Gilmore Childers, the lead prosecutor in the trial of the WTC bombers, once related how, following the trial’s end in March 1994, he took his investigators to meet with the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and make their findings available.

Although they had convicted four individuals, Childers’ office did not really understand the bombing, he told this reporter. Who was behind it? They were concerned it could happen again.

The CIA, however, was not interested in the results of the investigation in New York. It had already reached its own, somewhat incoherent, conclusion: loosely organized Islamic extremists, who had carried out the attack without support from any state.  

Plot to bomb US airliners: Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 

A second plot soon followed. In January 1995, Yousef was in Manilla, where he was plotting to bomb a dozen US airliners. But while mixing explosives in his apartment, he accidentally started a fire. The fire department was called, and the conspirators, including Yousef, fled.

Yousef was captured a month later, in Islamabad. With his arrest, more was learned about his identity. He is not Iraqi. He is not even Arab.

That key point was explained by John Burns, reporting from Pakistan for The New York Times. Although Yousef had identified himself as Iraqi In New York, in Pakistan he identified himself as Baluch. And he is Baluch!

Most Americans have never even heard of the Baluch. They are a traditional, tribal people living primarily in eastern Iran and western Pakistan. They have their own language, customs, and compact territory. They aspired to a state of their own in the 20th century. But their bid for nationhood failed, and their territory was divided between Iran and Pakistan.

Notably, the Baluch are Sunni Muslims, adding an important sectarian dimension to their often hostile relations with the regime in Tehran.

A map of Baluchistan and neighboring territories. (Source: American Baluch Council)
A map of Baluchistan and neighboring territories. (Source: American Baluch Council)

“Pakistan officials said they were investigating the possibility that Mr. Yousef may have originated from the Iranian part of Baluchistan,” Burns wrote.

“The Pakistan newspaper, The News, which is said to have good sources in the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said that ‘if features could betray geography,’ Yousef appeared to Pakistani investigators, ‘as if he is from the coastal belt of Baluchistan,’” Burns continued.

“Iraq had tried to exploit animosities against the Iran government among Baluch tribal people in southeastern Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s,” Burns stated.

“This could explain how Mr. Yousef came into possession of the Iraqi passport that he used when he arrived in New York in September 1992, six months before the World Trade Center bombing,” The News continued.

“‘If Ramzi is in fact of Iranian Baluch origin, it would not have been a big problem for him to get an Iraq passport,’ the newspaper said,” Burns’ New York Times report stated. 

Read More: Saddam and the Baluch

Yousef stood trial for the two plots and Kevin Duffy was the judge in both proceedings. Another man, Abdul Hakam Murad, who is also Baluch, was a defendant, along with Yousef, in the trial for the plane bombing plot.

Both Yousef and Murad speak English well, but Duffy, nonetheless, offered them a translator—an Arabic translator. Murad responded with a quip, “Why not a Baluch translator?”

The Baluch and the Arabs are two different people, and their languages are mutually unintelligible. A Baluch speaker does not understand an Arabic speaker and vice versa.

Notably, the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was also involved in the Philippines plot. Mohammed was indicted for his role, but managed to escape and eventually made his way to Afghanistan, where he joined with Osama bin Ladin and al Qaida.

Mohammed is also Baluch!

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. (Photo: Archive)
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. (Photo: Archive)

“Persistence in Error” 

The phrase, “persistence in error,” was coined by Barbara Tuchman in her magisterial book, The March of Folly. Because government, typically, holds a monopoly of power, once a mistake takes hold, it can be very difficult to correct.

The attacks on the World Trade Center occurred decades ago. Saddam Hussein is gone, and whether or not he was involved in them is, in several respects, moot.

Yet there is one key point. The US is still at war with Islamic radicals. One cannot reasonably expect to defeat an enemy that they will not make the effort to understand. In that respect, the issue remains relevant, because it touches directly on the question: What is the nature of the enemy?

Is it really, as prevailing opinion has it, one Islamic figure and his extremist followers? Of course not! That is a simplistic stereotype. Almost everywhere, it is a complex mix, of which Islamic extremists are just one element.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the enemy, at its core, are those who were ousted by the US after 9/11. Some years ago, this reporter was a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan. The best account of the enemy came from a US Marine and a British intelligence officer who had worked together over the past year.

They were leaving, and I was arriving, and they said, “The enemy here are the losers in post 9/11 Afghanistan.”

In Iraq, the core of ISIS is the former Iraqi regime, as Der Spiegel explained in a 2015 report, a leak from German intelligence. Indeed, at that time, I had a big fight with a friend, the Special Forces officer who had supervised my work in Afghanistan.

He was considering leaving the Army and starting a company to address the challenge of understanding the views of the population in areas where the US was fighting an insurgency. That is key to winning the fight, and I would have been his lead analyst.

But he thought the notion that the former Iraqi regime was behind ISIS far-fetched. In the end, he stayed in the army and deployed for a year in Iraq.

When he returned, he was in total agreement: the core of ISIS is the former Iraqi regime. “Let’s write a book,” he suggested, while he had some choice words for some US officials.

Senior Kurdish officials speak similarly. As Dr. Najmaldin Karim, former Governor of Kirkuk Province, told Kurdistan 24, the insurgents in Kirkuk were “all local people.”

“They take this al-Qaeda, Jund al Islam or whatever, grow a beard, put on a dishdasha, and present themselves as Islamic, although the threat is local,” Karim said. 

Read More: Najmaldin Karim: Islamic State is resurgent, dominated by locals

Americans, however, cannot see ISIS, or other “Islamic” terrorism, in this light. They remain mired in the understanding that emerged during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when he turned terrorism into law enforcement.

“Persistence in error is the problem,” Barbara Tuchman wrote. “Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps.”

“Above all, lure of office, known in our country as Potomac fever, stultifies a better performance of government,” Tuchman continued. “The bureaucrat dreams of promotion, higher officials want to extend their reach, legislators and the chief of state want re-election; and the guiding principle in these pursuits is to please as many and offend as few as possible.”

Editing by John J. Catherine