The Wall Street Journal
Bookshelf, October 24, 2001
The First Attempt At the Towers, And Its Sponsors
By WLADYSLAW PLESZCZYNSKI
And what to do next? Yes, Osama bin Laden is the target of the moment, and rightly so, but what about
those other culprits who harbor or sponsor terrorists? From the moment of the Sept. 11 attacks, the
question of state sponsorship has hovered over the terrorist debate, and the anthrax scare has pressed
it on us even harder. Some terrorists may be freebooters, but others require money, technology and
logistical support that only a state can provide. (Where does the average fanatic get anthrax spores
ground into a deadly powder?) But it is often difficult to show the connection between, say, an oil-rich
dictator in the Mideast and terror's far-flung foot soldiers.
To address the state-sponsorship question there is no better place to look than "Study of Revenge"
(American Enterprise Institute, 321 pages, $24.95) Laurie Mylroie's painstaking investigation of the
1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The book appeared last year, in a more complacent time, but is
now revised to address the urgency of the moment. The subtitle captures the theme: "The First World
Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America." In the foreword, former CIA director
R. James Woolsey, who has endorsed Ms. Mylroie's findings in op-ed and magazine articles, uses a
number of apt terms to describe the book, including "brave," "lucid" and, note well, "careful."
During the 1990s, as Ms. Mylroie explains, U.S. policy endorsed the notion that "loose networks" of
Islamic fundamentalists were responsible for strikes on American interests. A staple of Cold War
thinking, that state sponsorship undergirded terror, disappeared from view -- even though Saddam
Hussein remained alive and well after the Gulf War and committed to avenging Iraq's defeat.
Since Sept. 11, the idea of state sponsorship has made a comeback, in Afghanistan's support for
Osama bin Laden. Left out of the discussion, however, are the connections, not all of them sketchy,
between bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence. Or between bin Laden's actions and Iraq's interests. After all,
the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, soon recognized as the work of al Qaeda,
coincided with Saddam's strongest push to rid Iraq of United Nations inspectors.
Although the embassy bombings are the last terrorist events discussed by Ms. Mylroie, her book will be
invaluable to post-Sept. 11 inquiries. Sifting through the evidence, she uncovers a mix of terrorist cells
backed at critical moments by Iraqi agents and other forms of support -- and a determined effort on the
part of U.S. officialdom to treat the entire matter as nothing more than criminal activity by unattached
To this day the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center is regarded as a non-Iraqi operation, just as it is
often forgotten that the bomb that left a huge crater deep under the south tower was designed to
release sodium cyanide, killing thousands. (Iraq was known to have imported more than $1 million of the
chemical in 1990.) Ms. Mylroie examines the background of the seven figures originally indicted in the
case: three Palestinians, two Egyptians and two Iraqis. Not by accident, the Iraqis fled the U.S. to safety
after the attack, leaving the others to fend for themselves.
The Iraqis made quite a pair. One was an American by birth who a half-year earlier had obtained a U.S.
passport in Jordan. He was ostensibly coming to America for medical treatment but instead helped to
build the WTC bomb. Although detained by the FBI after the attack, he feigned cooperation, was
released and flew back to Jordan the next day, and from there went to Baghdad, where he received
repeated FBI-instigated phone calls from his brother urging him to return to the U.S. (Good luck.) The
other member of the pair was Ramzi Yousef, who arrived in the U.S. on an Iraqi passport in time to
mastermind the construction of the bomb.
Ms. Mylroie shows that Yousef is more likely a Baluchi tribesman (with no reliable citizenship) than an
Iraqi. Either way, there's no evidence he is a fundamentalist former mujahed, as he is often described by
those eager to play down his Iraqi connections. To prepare for his escape from the U.S., Yousef
obtained a Pakistani passport but did so by presenting pages from passports belonging to one Abdul
Basit, whom he claimed to be. As it happens Basit and his entire family disappeared in 1990 after the
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, where his father was employed. Ms. Mylroie interviewed Basit's former
instructors at his British college to confirm his true identity.
According to Ms. Mylroie, Yousef was using documents seized and doctored by Iraqi intelligence. She
discovered that when Yousef did depart the U.S., he flew not, as a court document claimed, to
Peshawar, the city in Pakistan at the border of Afghanistan, where presumably he could have sought
shelter among mujahedeen, but to Quetta, hundreds of miles west, near the Baluchi hinterland.
Shortly before the first World Trade Center bombing, President-elect Bill Clinton said he was willing to
believe that Saddam Hussein's attitudes toward the West could change. "I believe in deathbed
conversions," he declared. What signal that sent to Saddam can be imagined. Mr. Clinton himself was
later the first to recognize that Saddam remained as dangerous as ever -- though for every instance of
retaliation ordered by Mr. Clinton there were countless instances of evasion and backing down.
Even after the defection of Saddam's son-in-law in 1995 led to a new awareness of Iraq's biological
weapons, the administration remained feckless. Writes Ms. Mylroie: "Never once did Clinton do as
[George] Bush had done --demand that Iraq cooperate with a specific inspection, and use the threat of
force to oblige it to do so." Domestic politics always had the upper hand. Indeed, when several years
later Mr. Clinton unleashed four days of Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, he did so at a time when the
situation of the U.N. inspectors was, ironically, better than it had been in months. The House, though,
was about to vote on impeachment.
Against such a background, it's heartbreaking to read Ms. Mylroie's comment on the first World Trade
Center bombing: "If the conspirators had indeed succeeded in causing the death and destruction they
planned, the bombing would have been a historically traumatic event on the scale of Pearl Harbor or the
sinking of the Maine." She adds: "On such occasions people want immediate answers." In the event, a
terrorist failure, instead of goading us to ask hard questions and gird ourselves for more, left us open to
a second, deadly try.
Mr. Pleszczynski is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.