The New York Sun
January 13, 2006
By Laurie Mylroie
February 26, 1993
The Clinton administration's law enforcement approach to terrorism is now recognized as fatally inadequate. Yet
that approach, arguably, has left us with an enduring misconception about the nature of the terrorist threat.
Once the United States began treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue, it came to be understood as one.
In the 1980s, major terrorist attacks on America were considered to be state-sponsored, but in 1993, we began
to see terrorism in terms of one Islamic figure and his extremist followers. First, it was the blind Egyptian cleric,
Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, then Osama bin Laden, and now it is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Call this the "face of terror" approach to understanding terrorism. It is immensely appealing to the press and the
public, but does it really constitute a plausible explanation for major assaults? And does it obscure the far more
serious danger posed by terrorist states?
In Sheik Omar's case, this does indeed constitute a simplistic explanation, blinding us to the activities of enemy
states. Few people understand the key events that transpired in New York about 13 years ago: On February
26, 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed, with the intent of toppling one tower onto the other. The
mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, fled that night. The New York field office of the FBI, the lead investigative agency,
soon learned he had ties to Iraq. Known among the local militants as "Rashid, the Iraqi," he had entered
America on an Iraqi passport, showing a journey beginning in Baghdad. Another fugitive, Abdul Rahman Yasin,
had come from Iraq before the bombing and returned there afterward. Senior officials, like Jim Fox, who headed
New York FBI, suspected Iraq was behind the attack.
The first arrests, however, were of Islamic militants, and the FBI redoubled its efforts to penetrate them, leading
to a second bombing plot. A Sudanese emigre, Siddig Ali, proposed to the FBI's Egyptian informant that the
United Nations be bombed. Ali had close ties with two intelligence agents at Sudan's U.N. mission, and they were
to facilitate the entry of a bomb laden vehicle into the U.N. parking garage.
Sheik Omar, head of Egypt's "Islamic Group," lived in Jersey City. On a terrorism watch list, he was not
supposed to be here. In March, he was ordered deported, but was free as he appealed the order. The FBI tried
to get him, but the sheik's focus was overthrowing the Egyptian regime rather than attacking targets in America.
Thus, the FBI informant, Emad Salem, pleaded with Sheik Omar to approve an attack on the United Nations.
Sheik Omar told him no, be cause it "will be bad for Muslims ... damage them deeply," as the court records
reveal. Salem repeated that to Ali, but Ali paid no attention, affirming, "I have all the people in place from the
On the morning of June 24, 1993, these conspirators, who also had vague plans to bomb other targets, were
arrested, mixing what they believed to be explosives. They were notably incompetent. Told to buy fertilizer, they
returned from a Manhattan garden store with $150 worth of Scotts Super Turf Builder. As an FBI agent testified,
it is impossible to make an explosive from that material, because it has too little ammonium nitrate.
Following the initial arrests, which did not include Sheik Omar, New York politicians complained, because they
considered him dangerous. He was detained by the INS on the ironic charge he was a flight risk as he appealed
his deportation order. He soon lost that appeal, and his attorney began to suggest he was prepared to leave
The U.S. Attorney's Office, however, had developed criminal charges against Sheik Omar. The FBI opposed
pressing those charges; it wanted to deport him. The Justice Department in Washington enthusiastically
supported the criminal charges, and Attorney General Janet Reno made the decision to proceed. That decision
shifted public attention from terrorist states like Iraq and Sudan to individuals and groups. It typified Bill Clinton's
timorous approach to national security threats.
A trial is a narrow proceeding, focused on whether individuals committed specific crimes. The possible
involvement of a sovereign state is irrelevant. Sheik Omar was charged with conspiracy to lead a war of urban
terrorism. The government has significant leeway in prosecuting a conspiracy. Among other things, every
member of a conspiracy is legally responsible for the actions of every other member, whether he knows of those
actions in advance or whether he even knows that individual. Tenuous connections can serve as the basis for a
The prosecution claimed that a "Jihad Organization" arose in the United States, particularly in New York, led by
Sheik Omar. No such organization existed in reality, but as the prosecution stated, "It is not unusual for the
Government to define an organization in terms other than what the members may use to describe themselves: a
single conspiracy constituting an illegal cartel of garbage haulers may be comprised of members and associates
of different organized crime families."
The plot against the United Nations was attributed to the "Jihad Organization," as was the World Trade Center
bombing. Sheik Omar need never have met or spoken with Ramzi Yousef or know what he intended to do to be
legally responsible for that attack, because, as the prosecution maintained, Yousef was also part of the "Jihad
Yousef had little to do with Sheik Omar. He met him once at a mosque, Yousef told a friend. A government chart
(exhibit 508) shows only one call, lasting two minutes, between the apartment Yousef shared with Mohammed
Salameh (the 26-year-old Palestinian who was arrested as he returned for his deposit on the van that carried
the bomb) and the sheik's apartment.
Moreover, whether Yousef was a highly trained foreign intelligence agent who penetrated and used the Islamic
militants was irrelevant to Sheik Omar's trial. So, too, was Sudan's involvement in the second plot, as a senior
prosecution figure affirmed to this author.
Thus, a key event in the public understanding of the 1993 plots, said to mark the start of a new terrorism
phenomenon that did not involve states, was artificially constrained, because the involvement of states was
irrelevant to the proceeding.
Most analysts do not understand this. They do not read the voluminous court records, nor understand U.S.
conspiracy laws. Moreover, those involved in these proceedings may misrepresent them. Former FBI Director
Louis Freeh told the 9/11 Commission that with the second plot, the FBI prevented a major attack, "killing
potentially thousands and thousands of Americans." There was, however, little danger.
Similarly, a former official who prosecuted Sheik Omar told The New York Sun that the blind cleric was "the
mastermind of the greater plot to make a terrorist war on America, which the WTC bombing was a part of." That
is true only in the courtroom, where the far-reaching liability generated by conspiracy law obtained and the
involvement of a terrorist state was irrelevant.
"Know the enemy" is axiomatic to fighting a war. Sheik Omar's trial is long over; appeals are exhausted; 9/11
has happened, and we are at war in Iraq. Clinton-era misunderstandings that arose from fighting terrorism in the
courtroom need correction, so that we can better understand the dangers we face now. That is easy enough to
do. There is a clear court record, if only people would read it.
Ms. Mylroie is an adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Bush vs. the Beltway: The
Inside Battle over War in Iraq" (Harper Collins).