the first death

“…superbly trained and disciplined warriors whose missions are compact, highly focused, usually swift, often secret, inescapably perilous, and – if successful – likely to pay off in big ways.”

- Derek Leebaert

One year before Operation Bojinka was foiled by the Filipino version of a Benny Hill skit, Ramzi Yousef managed to come quite a bit closer to slaughtering several thousand civilians. Horrible harbinger to an attack that would occur less than a decade later, Yousef carried out the first plot against the New York City skyline’s twin guardians in 1993.

Much like all of us, he wouldn’t have gotten by without a little help from his friends.

And since a Domino’s Pizza deliveryman doesn’t fit the typical profile for an international terrorist, the JFK Airport immigration official who detained Ahmed Mohammad Ajaj must’ve been a bit surprised to discover that he was carrying a cornucopia of terrorist paraphernalia: How-To manuals and instructional videos on mixing explosives, detonators for those explosives, and a propaganda video showing the American Embassy in Kenya being suicide-bombed. One of these manuals carried on its cover a word that would soon become synonymous with international terrorism: al-Qaeda.

This paraphernalia, and the fact the picture on his suspicious Swedish passport was peeling off, was enough to cause the official to detain Mohammad Ajaj.  But little did she know, Ajaj was only serving as a mule for Ramzi Yousef, who slipped by security after being disgorged from the same New York-bound flight in September of 1992. The $2,700 bribe to an official in Pakistan, his forged $100 passport, whatever money he spent on his silk suit, and the cover story Yousef had concocted about political persecution in Iraq all paid off – he was waved through immigration and into the heart of New York City, free to roam the streets as he pleased.

In addition to being a particularly clever illegal alien, Yousef, as it would turn out, was a remarkable man in many ways. But one of his friends noted that the most remarkable thing about him was “his apparent pleasure in learning about new languages, cultures, and peoples, then proceeding to blow them up.”1

His first order of business was a tête-à-tête at Brooklyn’s al-Kifah Refugee Center on Atlantic Avenue with the “Blind Sheikh,” a radical cleric expelled from Egypt because of his suspected involvement in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. Sadat’s assassination was a critical moment in the nucleation of Islamic fundamentalism which can – and will later – be used as a link to an uncanny amount of the terrorism carried out by modern terrorists.

The Blind Sheik himself, Omar Abdul-Rahman, holds a place of particular importance in the formation of modern Islamic extremism. In the parlance of the recent social theory which explains societal mass behavior as a finely-tuned orchestra of thresholds, he is a Connector.

This Tipping Point theory posits that social epidemics – be they fashion trends, fads, contagious diseases, or revolutions – hinge on the passage of information and behavioral habits through a system of discrete sets of people, who act either as Connectors, Salesmen, or Mavens. When this system magnifies a sufficient volume of material it hits a Tipping Point, and a new concept can sweep across an entire society. Sometimes this new concept is an ideology, the kind that fuel campaigns of terrorism.

So what’s a Connector?

Connectors are the people who make parlor games like the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” possible.The name of that game originates from an experiment run by the most revolutionary social scientist of his time, Stanley Milgram, who in the late 1960s mailed identical packets to one-hundred and sixty randomly selected people in Omaha, Nebraska.

In the packet was the name of a stockbroker living in Boston, who Milgram had selected at random. Each person who received the packet was asked to write their name on it, and then mail it on to someone they knew who they thought might get the packet closer to the stockbroker. Without the stockbroker’s exact street address, they were forced to mail it to someone they knew, who they figured might know the stockbroker. Or at least someone who would then send the packet on to someone they knew, who in turn might actually know the stockbroker in Boston.

Milgram discovered that most of the packets made their way to the stockbroker in five or six steps, which is where we get the concept of “six degrees of separation.” But not only did following the paths the packets took in this experiment show proof for this concept, it traced the outline of a larger social reality.

Out of the one-hundred and sixty packets, half of the letters passed through the hands of three men – identified by their last names as Jacobs, Jones, and Brown. From the millions and millions of possible acquaintances – family members, college roommates, coworkers, childhood friends – just three men were in fact linked to half of the initial group. This doesn’t mean that each of us is linked to the other by just six steps, but that “a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through these special few.”2 Those few are the Connectors.

Connectors such as Paul Revere have directed the course of world history by serving as an active conduit through which vital military information was disseminated. His importance to the early success of the American Revolution, which although humbly enshrined in classroom poetry, is rarely given the credit it is due for preventing the British from striking a decisive first blow. Because when an idea comes close to a Connector, it gains the power and opportunity to spread through society with a fury that “exponentially” only begins to hint at.

So it should be no surprise that Ramzi Yousef connected with the Blind Sheikh before continuing his mission, since Yousef’s path was one that had already been followed by many before him and would be followed by many more after his passing.  The emergence of modern Islamic fundamentalism also draws on the Mavens and Salesmen of tipping points, but for now we return to Ramzi Yousef.

After arriving at the Blind Sheik’s mosque, Yousef was introduced to the best jihadists the city had to offer and began to assemble the rag-tag crew he’d need to accomplish his goal of a quarter-million dead Americans. And they might have been the best New York City could offer, but that doesn’t mean the men co-opted by Yousef were all that great. His recruits were “largely marginal, unaccomplished men,”3 none of whom had any experience in bomb-crafting, and none with any experience in killing on the grand scale necessary to cause 250,000 deaths.

This number was neither random nor unreasoned. Yousef intended his attack to be grand enough to be considered an act of war by America – to prove to the Great Satan that her very existence was threatened by soldiers she couldn’t possibly stop. Yousef’s stated desire was to kill as many civilians as the United States was estimated to have killed with the two atomic bombs it dropped on Japan during WWII: Fat Man on Nagasaki and Little Boy on Hiroshima.

It’s important to remember that Yousef had no larger campaign or ideology to fulfill, his singular goal was to kill a quarter-million Americans – not to jump-start a revolution nor to produce the corpses that are so often used to flesh-out an ideology. Yousef explicitly intended his attack to be interpreted as an act of war. He wanted his attack to be a stunning military strike that would single-handedly force American influence out of the Palestinan Occupied Territories, where Yousef felt America was aiding Israel in the oppression and murder of his fellow Muslims.

But this is where the logic of the attack, for what it was worth, comes to an abrupt halt.

Since he was unfamiliar with the layout of New York, Yousef spent some time driving around Brooklyn scouting out targets. But he didn’t choose Brooklyn because it is widely considered America’s financial headquarters, nor because it is home to several of the world’s largest skyscrapers. Yousef drove around Brooklyn because he’d heard lots and lots of Jews live there. And Yousef was determined to off as many Jews as possible, a theme which runs consistently through much of the terrorism carried out against the West by Islamic extremists.

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