“…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.
And much like all of us, he wouldn’t have gotten by without a little help from his friends.
Domino’s Pizza deliverymen don’t fit the typical profile for an international terrorist, so 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 modern terrorism, especially the emergence of al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State.
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 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 fuels 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, although only 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 a quarter million 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 250,000 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, came 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.
Yousef’s original plan had been to use this trip to scout possible Israeli targets in New York, and then to return to Pakistan for fundraising and planning, before returning once more to New York to stage his attack. Ironically enough though, he found that all of Israel’s assets in New York were much too well protected, and so he decided on the next best thing. Perhaps because he couldn’t find a deli that could service a quarter-million circumcised customers at once, Yousef decided on going after the two biggest victims New York City had to offer: he planned to tip the North Tower of the World Trade Center onto the South Tower.
After all, he’d heard that the Towers were chock full of Jews from a buddy back in Pakistan. What more proof did he need? Although in reality the destruction of both Towers wouldn’t kill 250,000 citizens of any sect – combined they had a maximum capacity of only 50,000 employees – Yousef figured this would have to do, and went about preparing for his attack.
Regardless of exactly why the Twin Towers were chosen as a target, the mechanics of the attack do even more to deflate the idea that Yousef was a grave threat to our national security, who alone embodied the most sinister danger facing the country. Although Yousef was a “harbinger of a new type of independent, non-state-sponsored global terrorist,”4 his failings drastically outweigh the minor tactical impact of the attack. The creation of the fifteen-hundred pound bomb used in the attack, however, was not without its admirable aspects.
Which makes sense, as Yousef had plenty of experience and training in crafting bombs.
After toying with the idea of having a deadly cloud of cyanide accompany the blast, Yousef dismissed it as too pricey and set about building a bomb as frugally as possible. He settled on using urea nitrate, and after twelve days of phonebook-fishing found a distributor willing to sell it to him in bulk, no questions asked. Armed with his supply of fifteen-hundred pounds of urea – commonly used to fertilize gardens, it’s sold as unassuming grayish spheres not unlike rock-hard Dip ‘n’ Dots – and 130 gallons of nitric acid, Yousef and his ad-hoc team of terrorists went to work.
Each day for about two months the men mixed up a volatile mash of urea, tap water, and nitric acid and then let it dry out on newspapers in their apartment. After it dried, each load was driven in a 1978 Chevy Nova to a self-storage shed in Jersey City. To ensure that the bomb had the most potent ratio of ingredients possible, they used Liberty State Park as impromptu proving grounds for scaled-down versions of the bomb. Over the course of several weeks their bomb accumulated in the shed, and was finally fortified with 100 pounds of aluminum powder.
This simple formula allowed for the quick construction of a massive bomb with tested potency. Seemingly on a whim, three hydrogen tanks were later strapped on to it. However they failed to explode in the blast, and remained as testimony to the fact that even in the plot’s most sinister aspects it was still mildly harebrained.
It’s worth mentioning that although the men Yousef chose were not proven operators, nor really trained at all, this had its benefits. With his innate charisma he was able to employ men who were both pliable and disposable. This made his immediate job of assembling the fifteen-hundred pound bomb go by quickly and sans second-guessing. But it would return to haunt Yousef after the blast, when the ineptitude of the men he’d surrounded himself with would spin the strings that led authorities to Yousef – even though he’d fled halfway around the globe.
But tracing the attack to him took several years, so in the short term his selection paid off. In less than two months Yousef was able to penetrate America, set up his own independent terrorist cell, and cheaply construct a bomb with the potential to do an enormous amount of damage.
The conclusion of the bomb’s construction marked the end of the minor role that rationality played in the production of the attack. Declaring the bomb finished had nothing to do with it being strong enough to do the job. Although he possessed a degree in computer-aided electrical engineering, there is no evidence Yousef even made any effort to calculate the magnitude of a blast needed to undermine a support column in one of the Towers.
He simply stopped compiling his fertilizer bomb when he ran out of his $3,000 of funding and figured he was good to go. Oddly enough, the raw materials for the bomb itself only consumed $400 of that bankroll. As imaginative as Yousef was and despite an educational background which could have allowed him to readily absorb the information if he’d tried, he “knew little about physics, civil engineering, or the structural safeguards built into the Twin Towers.”5
His plot to tip one Tower into its Twin wasn’t just absurd, it was impossible – because of gravity and “the enormous inertial mass of the buildings… structural failure would result in pancaking.” The buildings, as we would all discover to our horror nearly a decade later, were destined to collapse straight down. From its inception Yousef’s plot was fated for mediocrity. But all the same, two months of mixing, testing, and planning would all go to waste if the bomb ended up in the wrong place or the moving van it was being transported in crashed en route to the World Trade Center. You might assume terrorists operating against a foreign nation would be meticulous drivers, however Yousef had already been hospitalized once in New York City due to a car accident during the bomb’s construction.
Shoddy driving is also a theme of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, the men responsible for that attack piled up their own stack of traffic violations from State Troopers across the country during their time in America prior to the attack. For Yousef’s attack transportation was even more critical, as everything hinged on the bomb being safely driven to its destination.
Yet Yousef didn’t seem to think about this much, it wasn’t until the night before the attack that he finally went about recruiting the man who’d drive the bomb into the parking garage of the North Tower. And even this was only after he and his men placed dozens of frantic calls to rental agencies across town to find the Ryder van they’d use to transport the bomb on the eve of the attack.
While cohesive terrorist groups typically spend several months prepping the man who will drive a bomb to its destination, Yousef impetuously waited until the last moment to find both a driver and a vehicle. On top of this, during their getaway from the World Trade Center’s basement parking garage in a red Chevrolet Corsica, Yousef and his compatriots were stopped dead in Manhattan traffic just outside the Towers for two very long minutes – the bomb had been set to explode with an effect they could only guess at in just five more.
This extraordinary insouciance towards timing would also be a theme of the 9/11 attacks, as the men who hijacked United flight 175 out of Logan Airport made it through airport security and onto their plane with very little time to spare.
Had clearing security taken just six more minutes, they would’ve missed their flight on the morning of September 11th entirely.
This chapter of the story highlights that the 1993 bombing was the action of an independent actor, not an organized terrorist group. Yousef was sporadically in touch with contacts in Pakistan during the two months the bomb was being built, but there is no evidence at all that he was given operational orders or even advice by any supervisory leadership. Yousef did consult with the Blind Sheikh, but again there is no evidence the Sheikh did more than bless the concept of killing several thousand American Jews and put him in touch with the motley selection of volunteers willing to help him.
Knowing and accepting that he was operating within his own framework is vital to understanding how Yousef and his 1993 van-bombing of the Towers fits into the currents of terrorism coalescing at the time.
He wasn’t a member of a group apocalyptically bent on destroying America, he wasn’t a member of any group. Ramzi Yousef was simply a mildly megalomaniacal commando trying to bomb his way to fame. He wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda. Even though plenty of significance has been made of the assertion that al-Qaeda “returned” eight years later to topple the Twin Towers, this supposition is deeply flawed.
In 1993 al-Qaeda, as much as it existed at all, was at most a terrorist’s Tao – guidelines for a way of life. It took many years for it to evolve into a comprehensive ideology that would transcend our borders and our nightmares. At the time only a small handful of men knew that the seed for the ideology even existed.
Al-Qaeda translates literally as “the base” and can be used in the sense of a “base camp” or the foundation upon which a structure or ideology is founded. It’s only in that last sense that al-Qaeda existed in 1993: it was a maxim and an approach to operate by, not yet the unified group it became in the mid ’90s. The training manual unwittingly carried by Ajaj was not an annual membership mailing with the name of the group which published it stamped on the cover – it was simply a general How-To guide for terrorists.
Capitalization in the English translation of its Arabic title seems to insist that it stood for the name of a group, but in the Arabic language there’s no such thing as capitalization. The concept of proper nouns simply doesn’t exist – there are no upper-case letters in Arabic – and so the manual’s title could just as easily be “the basics” as “The Base.”
When this syntactical evidence is combined with the fact that an “Encyclopedia of Jihad” compiled in Pakistan between 1991 and 1993 is devoid of a group named “al-Qaeda,” the most likely conclusion is that Yousef was not operating under any affiliated aegis. He was simply trying to kill as many thousands of Americans as possible using the cheapest and quickest means he could think up in an effort to bolster his own notoriety. Yousef wasn’t working in the service of the late Osama bin Laden. At the time of the attack, Osama bin Laden was one of dozens of men vying for legitimacy and followers among those who remained from the muj who’d repelled Soviet forces from Afghanistan – he had “no monopoly on militant Islamic activism.” Although Osama is given a brief nod of thanks in the aforementioned encyclopedia, the only actual organization mentioned is an “Office of Services.”6
And although funding for the attack has been traced back to bin Laden, up to that point he’d coordinated literally millions of dollars of funding for various acts of violence and there’s no indication he played any role at all ordering, planning, or targeting Yousef’s attack.
Even during the lead up to the 1995 trial for the bombing, the FBI investigators considered bin Laden just “one name among thousands.” And during the trial the prosecution mentioned bin Laden’s name only once, and the group “al-Qaeda” one time less than that – not at all. More evidence for this argument is supplied by one of the 1993 bombers, Khalfan Khamis Muhammad, who testified during the trial that he’d never heard of al-Qaeda as a group, but only as a “formula system” for attacks.7
The men who came to New York City years later to fly planes into the Twin Towers did not consider themselves members of a group which was returning to finish a job, they were operating under a much different framework of destruction than Yousef. His aim was simply to kill Americans, the more numerous and more Jewish the better.
Yousef possessed no concept of the Twin Towers as a symbolic manifestation of imperialist American capitalism, he was just under the impression they housed many thousands of Jews. The impact of the 1993 attack didn’t aim to be symbolic, only lethal and tactical. His intent was to take out a Tower’s 110-story central support beam, to efficiently strike at a hardened tactical target with makeshift ordnance.
There would have been inescapable symbolism had one or both Towers collapsed, however the means of the attack – exploding a bomb four floors deep into a parking garage – meant that the minimum outcome of the blast would be destruction visible only as dust and smoke. No symbolism.
And this is what ultimately happened: the bomb failed to collapse either Tower and managed to kill only six people: ill-fated construction workers who were unfortunate enough to be enjoying lunch just above the blast.
The sheer force of an explosion, or of any attack, can be mitigated by the circumstances surrounding its occurrence.
When there is no real meaning behind an explosion, it won’t end up meaning much at all. Even so, sometimes the physical damage that is done hardly matters, as the means of an attack can magnify its impact well beyond reality. And through misdirection and confusion, an attack can still accomplish its intended ends and live on long past its fires.
The images of panicked sooty executives evacuating the Twin Towers captured by the American media in 1993 were unsettling in their own right, but they paled starkly next to the terrifying images immortalized by the media when the Towers – hemorrhaging bodies, soot, and flame – collapsed. On 9/11 the plan was to set the buildings on fire, to create Twin Torches to light the way for the emergence of a new Islamic vanguard. That was bin Laden’s explicitly stated intent of the attacks, and their collapse came as a complete surprise to him.
However 1993 was not 2001, and the intentions of each attack were on opposite ends of the terrorist spectrum. Because of the raw destructive force of a fifteen-hundred pound bomb, had it been placed almost anywhere else in New York City except surrounded by many tons of insulating concrete, Yousef would’ve managed to kill at least a few dozen people and leave a blast site much more visible to the media’s cameras.
But since the plot was guided only by Yousef’s whims, it wasn’t subject to the forces applied to a plot hatched and implemented within a group. Without these forces, not that much useful analysis of the plot itself can be made.
And so here what is interesting is not the plot itself, but Yousef.
Although he did embody Churchill’s “commando idea” of “guile unified with fortitude and imagination,”8 luckily for us, Yousef’s commando traits didn’t make up for what he lacked in brains.
In addition to the haphazard events leading up to the attack – getting hospitalized in a car wreck a few weeks before the bombing, being written up for multiple moving violations, finding a driver only the night before the bombing, just assuming his bomb would be big enough to collapse the Towers when money to buy materiel had run out, and nearly not making his get-away because of Manhattan traffic – his final blunder should’ve been a fatal one. He stored a nitroglycerin additive for the bomb in a refrigerator, which he mistakenly believed would lessen its volatility.
In fact, its volatility was increased by the cold, and he was lucky not to have blown himself up along with his apartment. As you already know, a few years and several continents later his luck in this respect ran out, and sloppy explosive storage would led to his apartment’s incineration and his own incarceration. And yet being far from the sharpest spoon in the drawer doesn’t make Yousef unique among terrorists, it’s something that can certainly be said of another solo terrorist operator with a penchant for homemade bombs: Richard Reid.
Reid brought along only a soggy matchbook instead of a reliable mechanical lighter to set off the bomb secreted in his shoe, a placement pioneered by Yousef, on a mission also undertaken after meeting with the Blind Sheikh, in Reid’s case in London.
And so, proven both by the aftermath of his bombing and the events leading up to it, Yousef was not the brilliant calculating terrorist mastermind he was made out to be in the media. There is much more to be learned about terrorism by examining him not as a terrorist, but instead as a refugee.
Ramzi Yousef may not have been versed in structural engineering or the explosive nuances, but he was capable when it came to crossing international borders, to fitting into new societies, to adapting to foreign ways of life and blending into whatever cultural mélange he found himself in. After all, it was his heritage.
Born in Pakistan and then raised in the same Kuwaiti suburb as the man who is considered the chief architect of the 9/11 plot, Yousef seems to have a very early connection to 9/11. But that man, Khalid Sheik Muhammad, was simply Yousef’s uncle. In the grand scheme, Khalid Sheik is best understood a well-connected Maven, whose role will later be more fully described.
While Yousef was away at school in Wales for his college education, his family returned to their homeland of Baluchistan, a small embattled province along the Pakistani border that could make the term “war-torn” want to settle down and raise a family.
In Baluchistan, kidnapping is so commonplace that signs are posted in public places explaining “What to Do In Case of Kidnap,” and authorities adopted the ironic, unorthodox, and tongue-twisting tactic of kidnapping a kidnapper’s kin to coerce an exchange of kidnappees. Here, everyday life was war. Growing up in Baluchistan, Yousef’s father and brothers supported the Afghani resistance, becoming capable smugglers, contractors, and traders of military materiel. Yousef was especially proud of the fact that two of his uncles had died waging jihad against the Soviets.
He visited his family in Baluchistan during summer holiday from college, and spent time during those months using his education in computer-aided electrical engineering to teach bomb-making. But after graduating from college he put militantism aside and decided to settle in Kuwait to work for the government, until the Iraqi invasion of 1990.
Shortly thereafter, Yousef returned to Pakistan to find a proper Baluchi wife before going on to Peshawar where he spent about six-months in the training camps and earned the moniker “the Chemist.”9
While in these camps he made contact with the jihadists he’d later seek safe-haven with following the 1993 van bombing, violent and disaffected Southeast Asian men who would soon make their own contributions to the tide of terrorism approaching the West’s shores.
It’s unclear just how many excursions Yousef made between the West, Kuwait, Pakistan, and various locales in Southeast and Central Asia in the years preceding his attack on the Twin Towers. Exactly where and how he spent his time is a matter of speculation, and besides it’s largely irrelevant.
What is clear is that Yousef had no trouble acquiring reams of fake documentation and gliding easily through customs and into Western countries through the loopholes provided by political asylum laws and apathetic security personnel. This same modus operandi would again be used in many other terrorist assaults against the West and by the terrorists who did succeed in bringing down the Twin Towers.
On the night of the fifteen-hundred pound blast, Yousef simply walked onto an international flight departing out of LaGuardia airport and plopped down in his first-class seat. The flight bounced from Karachi to the provincial capital of his native Baluchistan, where he stayed for a bit before scampering off to Peshawar’s donkey-ridden back-streets. He later made his way to Thailand for an abortive plot on the Pope, then headed to the Philippines for his ultimate undoing in Operation Kaboom. Meanwhile, back in New York, the dimwittedness of the men he’d left behind would launch both his notoriety and a massive worldwide FBI manhunt.
Yousef was sitting comfortably on his first-class flight to Karachi and hadn’t bothered to consider the fate of any of his accomplices. Because all of their funds had been spent, Yousef’s men were left without a way to flee the country. One of these men, Mohammed Salameh, realized that his involvement had left a paper-trail. Fearing arrest, he was determined to find a way to flee.
And Salameh knew where he could get himself some money. He returned to the leasing agency that had rented them the Ryder van used in the bombing, claiming the van had been stolen and demanding his $400 deposit back. He was turned away the first time.
But, insistent and a little belligerent, he went back. Three times in less than two weeks. Unluckily for him, the section of the Ryder van labeled with its vehicle identification number had survived the blast, and by the time he returned to the agency for the third time the FBI was waiting for him.
From Salameh the conspiracy began to unravel, and the threads which had tied it together slowly began to encircle Yousef. The US Government posted a $2 million dollar bounty on his head and dropped 32,000 matchbooks with Yousef’s picture on them into Pakistan. Although neither of these tactics led to his capture, they serve well to illustrate the perceived level of threat he’d been able to embody.
It is this perceived level of threat that makes the overall tactical failure of the bombing almost irrelevant when analyzing the attack as an act of terrorism. The bombing was considered a screw-up even by the men who’d plotted and implemented it, but the simple fact that someone had been able to detonate a massive explosive under one of the most recognizable buildings in the country disseminated fear and an immediate sense of vulnerability in America.
That a fifteen-hundred pound bomb strong enough to demolish the better part of Yankee Stadium hadn’t accomplished anything other than killing six construction workers and turning a few million dollars worth of big rocks into little rocks was overshadowed by the simple fact that any attack had happened at all. And so American authorities spoke of the threat posed by Yousef on a scale that vastly exaggerated what the country was facing.
So for a few long moments, as the dust was settling and the bodycount pending, America felt like she was at war.
Because terrorism, “like war, and perhaps even more so… preys on minds and wills”9.2 and “finds its meaning in death.” For war and terrorism alike, “the cause is built on the back of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. The dead become the standard-bearers of the cause and all causes feed off a steady supply of corpses.”9.5
It is the ’93 WTC bombing that provided the first of those corpses. As ineffectual as the attack was, it set a precedent and showed what was possible. And so its importance is impossible to overstate when you’re considering the emergence of modern Islamic fundamentalism as a whole, since “it is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened.”10 Yousef was just as much a failed assassin, a clumsy commando, as a terrorist. In his head he was a soldier, in the eyes of his victims he was the lowest form of criminal. His goal, after all, was simply to kill the enemy, not terrorism in the pure political sense of the word.
Although the two always go hand-in-hand to some degree, here it was very casually so. Yousef himself thought of the attacks as an act of war – he was simply visiting the same level of innocent death America herself had earlier visited on her own foe in World War II in an attempt to end America’s military influence in the Occupied Territories. His goals were not ideological, they were political. And he was not acting on behalf of al-Qaeda, al-qaedaism was simply his axiom.
Lacking formal affiliation with a unified organization, not intending to provoke retribution, with no means to further his assault, and with no overarching ideological inspiration – Yousef teaches us as much about commando tactics as he does about political terrorism. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive, they lie on the same spectrum of asymmetric aggression. Although Yousef did present the United States with a list of demands centering on disbanding any assistance to Israel, his threats had no organized backing.
At most they were just a vehicle for his hubris. After he failed to kill even one-tenth of one-percent of his stated goal he simply fled the country and moved on to other targets.
As a political terrorist Yousef was a flop – he incited no retaliation and the only concrete civil policies his attack created were commonsense traffic regulations in and around the Twin Towers. Inherent in true political terrorism is the goal of inciting an overreaction by the attacked entity, to cause a system’s true colors to emerge as it retaliates with further oppression against those the attackers claim to be defending. So as a pure political terrorist, Yousef failed in that he provoked a substantial backlash only against himself, and not any group, organization, or ideology.
And yet in terms of being a commando he’d proven his mettle. But before we can trace Yousef’s path back to the ancient great-great-godfather of all commandos, we need to take a closer look at the death and destruction that’s haunted the Arab world for generations. As it was within this chaos that Yousef’s identity coalesced, and which caused him to see violence as the most logical means to reaching a political end.