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Persian Gulf Oil Inferno – March 1, 1991

This new form of terrorism brought a wave of toxic gases over Kuwait and its surrounding area. At the same time, large areas of ocean life in the Gulf were destroyed.

At the beginning of August 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in order to gain control of its oilfields and make it a province of Iraq. The United Nations immediately condemned this action and, when diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis failed, a coalition of many countries was assembled to reclaim Kuwait by force. Air attacks on Iraq were launched early in January of 1991 and later ground forces crossed into Kuwait. The ground war was brief and by the end of February 1991 Iraqi military units had been completely defeated. There were many Iraqi deaths, perhaps as many as 100,000. Among the armies of the coalition between two and three hundred were killed.

This might have been the end of the story but Iraq decided to launch a series of environmental acts of terrorism as it withdrew from Kuwait. A flood of oil was released into the Gulf destroying most forms of life there. At the same time, hundreds of oil wells were set on fire within Kuwait, creating a massive blanket of air pollution. From the air the fires from the oil wells made the country look like a huge black blanket through which oil flares shot upward from time to time. It was a double terrorist catastrophe with great implications for the future of the surrounding environment, comparable in its destructiveness to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and greater in its extent than any other oil spill in history.

Animals and people alike were having trouble breathing. There was a stinging unpleasant smell everywhere that irritated lungs, clothing, and skin. On the ground there were pools of oil that caught fire occasionally as some nearby flame reached them. Trees, buildings, cars, anything on the land surface, all were covered with tar. Specialists in fire control were brought in at an early stage from all over the world. So challenging did the task seem to them that their first estimate for getting rid of all the fires was five years. Logistical problems faced them on every hand. The airport was not accessible so they had to wait for the smoke and fires around it to be cleared before they could bring in personnel and materials.

During their short period of occupation, the Iraqis had stripped the country of everything movable. Roads had to be created from fire site to fire site because the soldiers had cut defensive trenches across highways. In addition, the retreating army had left stores of ammunition and discarded vehicles everywhere. Minefields had to be cleared but no one knew where they were. Frequently the fire crews used huge bulldozers to pile up heaps of sand to fill in the trenches. At the same time they were able to use these mountains of sand to absorb the impact of exploding mines and thus get rid of them.

The scale of destruction by the Iraqis was so great that every innovative method possible was welcomed. Every day, about 15 percent of the world’s consumption of oil was going up in smoke or forming rivers of oil. That amounted to six million barrels, roughly the quantity consumed daily by all the gas-powered vehicles in the United States. This went on for almost two months before the first fires were extinguished. Two months supply of oil is often the amount of emergency reserves stored in western countries. Furthermore, Kuwait was not the only casualty of Iraqi’s environmental terrorism. All the surrounding countries, covering an area twice that of the area of Alaska, were smothered with poisonous black air, creating all kinds of health problems.

Most of Kuwait’s oil wells are operated by underground pressure. There is no need for the kind of surface derricks so common in North America where oil has to be pumped up. Each Kuwaiti well is, therefore, a small inconspicuous structure carrying the usual “Christmas tree” of control pipes and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Where Iraqi damage was minimal, it was possible to stop the fire just by using an ordinary wrench. These opportunities were few. For the most part explosives had been used to destroy the control equipment. A critical part of the controls was the blow out preventer, a valve that adjusts pressure to cope with sudden increases from below. The loss of this control as fires were being extinguished led to sudden ignition in a few places, killing workers. Five men lost their lives in this way.

For the bigger fires a remote-operated crane was used to place a huge wide-diameter pipe over the well. Water and dry chemicals were then poured into the pipe to smother the flames. Both the heat and the noise made it impossible to talk to one another when close to the well so hand signals were used. Large supplies of liquid nitrogen happened to be on hand in Saudi Arabia and this was found to be an excellent chemical for putting out a fire. Its minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit temperature was an ideal cooling agent. Where flames shot out of a well horizontally as well as vertically it was too dangerous to use the wide-diameter pipes. Explosives became the only answer. They quickly put out the flames and, though they caused additional damage, they made it possible to reach the well and rebuild it.

As each team from the various countries coped with one fire after another the effect on the work as a whole was quite dramatic. Visibility gradually opened up. Teams could see better what was going on and were able to tackle those that seemed to be doing most damage. Instead of the original five-year prospect, the end of their work began to look more like one year. The final landscape looked like the moon. Swamps were everywhere, mainly filled with a mixture of oil and mud, and the ground had become saturated into a thick black mass. It would be a long time before any plants took root in that kind of soil. The end came in November of 1991. The last well was put out eight months after the first foray.

The other half of the environmental catastrophe, the oil flooding into the Gulf, was receiving the same intensive attention as the flaming oil wells and over the same period of time. For some places there was nothing that could be done. Salt marshes, mangrove plants, and coral habitats of rare turtles were destroyed. Estimates of seabird deaths reached 30,000. Fishing is a major industry all along the shores of the Gulf. After oil it is the main source of income for thousands of people on both sides of the Gulf. All their fish stocks, including shrimp, barracuda, and mackerel were wiped out.

Forty times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska was released into the Gulf, adding to an earlier spill. In the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran were at war, Iraqi missiles hit offshore Iranian platforms and spilled two million barrels of oil into the ocean. Now, a decade later, the new flood of oil was being attacked with booms and skimmers, recovering one million barrels of oil from the ocean’s surface. That was a record for any spill and it was urged on by the unique demands of Saudi Arabia’s desalination plants.

Three of these plants are on the Gulf side of the country and they provide 40 percent of the nation’s drinking water. It was the top priority of the government of Saudi Arabia to prevent any oil reaching the intake pipes of these installations. One plant alone produces 220 million gallons of fresh water a day, meeting three-quarters of the water needed by the country’s capital, Riyadh. That same installation is also the source of water for a range of industrial enterprises in and around Riyadh. All the intake sites to these desalination plants were immediately surrounded with several lengths of boom as soon as news of the oil flood reached Riyadh. The booms were arranged in an inverted “V” formation to deflect oil away from the plants and to minimize the risk of oil splashing over the booms.

The final cost of all the cleanups was more than twelve billion dollars, including the value of lost oil, but unlike other spills there was little prospect of collecting these costs from the people responsible. Any national leader who could do what Iraqi’s president did in and around the Gulf Region is beyond all rules of law. Several international conventions exist for dealing with the Kuwaiti catastrophe. They extend from the Hague Convention of 1907, condemning warring nations for environmental destruction, to similar agreements in 1949 and 1977. Economic sanctions against Iraq were the only possible response by the international community in relation to these conventions and agreements, and they were imposed at once. Ten years later they were still in place with little likelihood of being lifted.


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New York City Terrorism – New York – February 26, 1993

A powerful bomb exploded in the parking area beneath the World Trade Center towers. This was the first and failed attempt by terrorists to take down the twin towers.

Just before noon on the morning of February 26, 1993, a bomb went off beneath one of the towers of the World Trade Center, New York. It was so powerful that a steel reinforced concrete floor collapsed, tons of debris came down, a fire was started, and power for the entire complex was cut off. Fifty thousand people were soon without lights, heat, or elevators, and smoke was rising into the towers.

The World Trade Center (WTC) consisted of twin towers with 110 floors in each, located on a sixteen-acre site near the southern tip of Manhattan Island. They rose to more than 1,350 feet above street level and in 1970, when they were first occupied, they were the world’s tallest buildings. The elevator system was a combination of express and local elevators and this arrangement increased the amount of floor space given to occupancy. In conventional systems only half the area on each floor is available for offices. In the WTC it was 75 percent. Economy of space was obtained by having three vertical zones, ground to forty-first, then to seventy-fourth, and from that point to the top. Express elevators served the three zones and four banks of local ones operate within each vertical zone.

The explosion occurred in an underground garage beneath the WTC, powerful enough to rock the towers and demolish the steel-and-concrete ceiling of the underground train station, a major transportation point for New Jersey commuters. A huge hole was ripped in the station wall and an even bigger cavity was created beneath. Thick black smoke from the smoldering fire created by the blast swept upward to the top of both buildings where as many as 100,000 people work or visit daily. On February 26, there were 50,000 people in the buildings, including two hundred kindergarten and elementary school children who were visitors. They had to be left for hours on the observation deck until injured people were attended to. Six had been killed by the blast and a thousand injured, mostly from smoke inhalation. To the thousands who were in the building it was a terrifying experience. There was darkness, no heat or light, no elevators working, and smoke everywhere.

Hundreds of people poured out of the towers into the streets, their faces black with soot, some of them having managed to find their way down from as high as the hundredth floor. Many others stayed on their floors waiting for assistance to arrive. They packed cloths against doors and vents where smoke was entering or used moistened cloths on their faces. The blast just so happened to be located at the point where it could do the most damage. It knocked out the power plant for the entire complex, plunging everyone in the Twin Towers into darkness. One newscaster, unfortunately, went on the air and advised people in the towers that if they were having trouble breathing, they should break out the glass window. This was the worst thing he could have said and his call was quickly refuted by others. There were over five hundred emergency personnel on the ground who could be hit with flying glass and, furthermore, the open window would allow smoke to enter the area.

Charles Maikish was the director of the whole WTC and as he felt the tower sway a little beyond the normal he knew that a major accident had taken place. He was on the thirty-fifth floor at the time so his first move was to check the elevators. They, in accordance with emergency procedures, had already moved back down to their starter floors. He made his way as best he could to the lobby and began to organize a command center there. Smoke was everywhere. A policeman on duty in the building made a hole with his bare hands at the top of an elevator and consoled a group of five-year olds who were stranded in it. A fireman broke down an elevator door and found it was full of partly conscious people lying on the floor. Down below in the parking area, those who were arriving at the time of the blast witnessed the smoke and fire and heard the screams of those who were closest to the bomb.

New York’s television stations are located on the top of the first tower and all but one were cut off. The one that remained was not dependent on the towers for its power so, where battery power and various radio outlets were available, the station provided information for people on their different floors. Everyone was urged to stay calm and to wait. The scale of the rescue effort must have been disheartening, having to reach and help people on 110 floors in each of the two towers, not knowing how many were stuck in elevators. It was impossible to say how long it would take to get everyone to safety and meanwhile anxious relatives and friends waited below. For two hours the fire and smoke persisted. A number of disabled people had to be rescued by helicopter from the roof. Close to midnight on the twenty-sixth the last elevator was reached. Several had been stuck in it for eleven hours. The terrorists had planned to send up a cloud of cyanide gas amid the smoke of the fire but the cyanide was burnt up in the heat of the explosion and did not vaporize.

The chief of New York’s fire department provided a summary of the events of February 26,1993. He pointed out that there had been numerous trips to the WTC since 1970 when it was first occupied. These related to minor fires, fire alarms, and one or two major fires but nothing in these experiences prepared the department for the events of February 26. It was the largest incident ever handled in the city’s one hundred and twenty-eight-year history. In fact, it was the equivalent of several major multi alarm fires combined into one. Many fire department units from other parts of the city had to be called in to help. The statistics tell the story well. Six people died and more than a thousand were injured, fifteen of the latter having received traumatic damage directly from the blast. Eighty-eight firefighters and thirty-five police officers were injured.

Approximately 25,000 people were evacuated from each tower. Most of the victims were trapped on the upper floors and hence the large amount of time needed to rescue them. Search and rescue work was finally completed shortly before midnight on the same day. The bomb weighed more than a thousand pounds and did comprehensive damage on seven floors, six of them below street level. The crater it made measured 130 by 150 feet and was located beneath the Vista Hotel. While the emergency work was concentrated in one day the Fire Department staff maintained a presence at the WTC for a further month. The bomb was located where it could do the most damage. Later it was discovered that the total destruction of the entire World Trade Center’s two towers was planned. Fortunately, the terrorists underestimated the strength of the buildings.

Arrests of four of the six terrorists, those who were still in the United States, came quickly because the FBI had an informant who taped conversations with them two months after the bombing. Their trials were held in New York and they obviously had no trouble finding enough money to hire the best and probably the most expensive lawyers they could find. William Kunsler, the well-known defense attorney, represented at least one of them. For six months the trial proceeded. The jury had to be together all of that time with protective security throughout. All of the rights of the accused were safeguarded as fully as they would be for any American.

The judge handling the court cases knew that he was dealing with extremists for whom neither justice nor life had much value. They had their own view of Islam and felt that to die in the name of Allah was a holy act. They certainly had no respect for the American rule of law so the courthouse had to be made secure for the entire period of the six-month trial. The jury found all four guilty—Mohammed Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Mahmond Abouhalima, and Ahmad Ajaj. Pandemonium broke out as soon as the verdicts were given with Allah’s name being shouted and anger vented at what they called injustice. Salameh, who for some unknown reason thought he had won the case against him, lunged at the members of the jury and had to be restrained by marshals. There was screaming and abusive language before they were handcuffed and dragged away to serve their 240 years.

Before the leader of the terrorist unit, Ramzi Yousef, was finally caught and imprisoned he had worked out plans for additional attacks. He came to the United States prior to the events of February 26, 1993, on an Iraqi passport and left very soon after the bombing. Then in Manila, Philippines, in January of 1995, while mixing some bomb material, a fire broke out and he was forced to run away to avoid detection. He knew that U.S. authorities were on his trail. When investigators examined the place that had caught fire they found evidence that led to his arrest in Pakistan a month later. They also found details of a plan to blow up eleven U.S. commercial planes on one day. He hoped to use a new liquid explosive that could pass metal detectors at airports. Most sinister of all was a note among his belongings saying he could use chemicals and poison gas against whole populations.

Ramzi Yousef’s plots were the most ambitious terrorist conspiracies ever attempted against the United States, that is, until the devastating events of nine eleven, all bearing a frightening resemblance to the plans found in the Philippines. Now the whole nation knows that terrorism demands eternal vigilance. The last of Yousef’s five, Eyad Ismail, a twenty-six-year-old Palestinian, the youngest of the six, was the one who drove the lethal truck to the WTC, then escaped after lighting the fuse and fled to Jordan where he was captured in 1995. No one among the six is ever likely to be released. They each received 240 years imprisonment. In the event that any one tries to make money by publishing a book on the bombing, the judge levied a fine of ten million dollars on each to pay for restitution. Yousef was levied a bit more, 250 million damages for restitution. Actual cost of the damage to the WTC was half a billion dollars.


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Oklahoma City Terrorism – Oklahoma – April 19, 1995

The P. Murrah Federal building was targeted by one or two U.S. terrorists who had a grudge against the Federal government.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, a gigantic bomb went off at the entrance to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A red and orange fireball shot upward, a deep crater appeared beneath the entrance, and all over the building slabs of glass and concrete crashed down. Ten buildings within a three-block radius almost collapsed and hundreds of others were damaged. The blast was felt forty miles away. One hundred and sixty-eight were killed and five hundred injured.

On the April 17, 1993, a man who had earlier booked a truck by telephone, picked up the Ryder truck that could carry five thousand pounds. He made a $150 deposit on the car, gave a false name, provided a wrong home address, and gave another person’s driver’s license, then left with the truck. The bomb materials were assembled and placed on the truck next day. Early on the morning of the nineteenth, the same day of the same month as the Waco conflagration, he drove the truck into Oklahoma. He had previously left his Mercury car a short distance from the scene of the crime. He lit the fuse before parking outside the Murrah Building and then, having locked the truck door, ran to his Mercury.

The explosion hurled everything nearby into the air. In the Murrah Building there was double destruction, floors being thrust upward by the force of the blast and higher floors collapsing as the building’s foundations were cut away. On the seventh floor, fifty people were instantly crushed to death while another twenty met a similar fate on the fourth floor. It was a comparable story on all the other floors. Saddest of all was the instant destruction of a day-care center on the second floor where there were fifteen children and three teachers. That floor took the full force of the bomb. Human remains from it were found a block away.

Twenty-four bystanders near the building were killed instantly. Survivors staggered from the ruins of the Murrah Building, some half-naked because shoes and clothing had been ripped off. Their wounds were evident and they were bleeding either because of cuts or through walking over broken glass. Blood, dust, plaster, and concrete littered the ground and filled the cavity below ground created by the bomb. Hundreds of people were running around outside, screaming as they burned to death or tried to cope with the pieces of glass embedded in their faces and hands.

Relief efforts came together in large numbers. Everyone who could get near the scene of destruction helped. More than five hundred had been injured and the number dead would not be known for a few days because of the amount and weight of rubble. Family members brought dental and other records to help with identification. Often the shattered state of their children’s bodies made visual recognition impossible. Every doctor in Oklahoma City was on hand to do whatever could be done. Blood was in short supply because so many had been pierced with glass and were bleeding badly. One man had more than a hundred deep cuts from glass.

Cranes and bulldozers were busy moving concrete slabs out of the way in order to rescue whoever might still be alive below. Sophisticated listening devices also assisted in finding people. There were dogs specially trained to sniff out victims, some of them specially trained to sniff out babies who have a scent that is different from that of adults. This special dog resource had a poignant appeal here because of the large number of infants and young children who had been in the building. The search went on through the night and on into the next day. When a final death count was reached it was 168 and it included 19 very young children. Five hundred others were injured.

Suspicion universally focused on Islamic extremists. The World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was still fresh in people’s minds (see New York City, New York, terrorism) as well as earlier acts of violence by the same people. Every media outlet and all comments from political leaders declared that the criminals must have come from abroad. Violence at this scale in heartland America could not happen, it was said, unless it was inspired by the same mindset that blew Pam Am 103 out of the sky in 1988 (see Munich, Germany, terrorism). One congressman went so far as to say that there was clear evidence that fundamentalist Islamic terrorists were involved. People from the Middle East who happened to be in the United States or who had come from there but were now U.S. citizens were under suspicion and some were taken in for questioning. In spite of vehement denials from Muslim groups all over the world, there persisted the sad spectacle of a whole ethnic group being held suspect without a single bit of supporting evidence.

Some reflection on recent events, even the date of the disaster, might have alerted authorities to another possibility. Several had been disturbed by the tragedies at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993 and felt they should avenge what they considered to be indefensible violence on the part of the U.S. government. These were people who do not subscribe to the democratic ethic of majority rule. They are few in number but in an age that gives enormous power to the individual they can be very dangerous. The terrorist and mass murderer who was responsible for this worst terrorist act in American history was one of them. He was an American and his name was Timothy McVeigh.

The media usually take note of people like McVeigh only when some- thing bad happens. There are people like him who are violently opposed to the law of the land because it gives rights to homosexuals and permits abortions. Others have racist views, hating blacks and Jews, while yet another group feels justified in taking violent action against established authority on the basis of some kind of Christian faith, or just because they disagree with a particular action. Warnings about the dangers posed by these extremist groups and individuals have largely been ignored, partly because the victims were few and partly because their terrorist actions had not caused extensive damage.

The bombing of the Murrah Building changed all that. If one individual could do this much damage, then the potential for major destruction lay within the reach of a small number of extremists. For many years federal authorities were fully aware of the existence of these outlaws, but they only made contact with them when they had to. For their part, these extremists were largely inactive. They lived away from the main centers of population and trained their people in the use of firearms.

In searching for the perpetrators of major disasters, FBI officials know that their acts usually leave a trail. Everyone and everything at the scene of the bombing was scrutinized. Within a day these officials had identified the identification number and place of origin of the truck that carried the more than 1,000 gallons of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. They went to the place where the truck had been rented. Other details followed quickly. In small-town Oklahoma, outside the main cities, everyone knows everyone else and unusual behaviors or new visitors are noted. One of the first discoveries came at an army and navy store where the clerk, recognizing the police sketch that was by now being circulated, told about selling the book, Improvised Munitions Handbook, to a young man who looked just like the one in the police sketch.

As already noted, Timothy McVeigh quickly left the Murrah Building after lighting the fuse and drove away in his car. Racing northwards in his Mercury, McVeigh was stopped by a highway patrolman who noticed that a license plate was missing. This had nothing to do with the bomb because no news of the tragedy had yet been circulated but, as the patrolman examined the inside of the car, he saw several guns and a knife. He checked via his cell phone and found that the statements he was given about car ownership were false. McVeigh was booked into jail at Perry, about fifty miles north of Oklahoma City, awaiting the hearing of his case. By the time he came before a judge the FBI had tracked him down and found out where he was.

Timothy McVeigh was born in Lockport, New York, in 1968 and spent his early years, including graduation from high school, in or near that city. After he left school friends noticed that he was becoming more and more of a loner. He dropped out of a business college where he had been taking a course on computers, he seemed unable to befriend girls, and he was upset over his parents’ divorce. An interest in guns developed and this interest remained strong as McVeigh grew older. At the age of twenty, on the spur of the moment, he decided to join the U.S. Army. He drove to Buffalo and signed up for a three-year stint.

At Fort Benning, Georgia, during basic training, McVeigh met Terry Nichols, a man who was ten years older and was, like McVeigh a loner who had joined the army because he had nothing else to do. They became very good friends and both moved to Fort Riley, Kansas, after training, to await their next assignment. McVeigh was ecstatic about army life. He was now part of a mechanized infantry unit which had Bradley armored tanks. He signed on for another three years and was promoted to sergeant shortly afterward. In the six months of basic training and then at Fort Riley, McVeigh also acquired through Nichols, a copy of a book, The Turner Diaries, which carried a strong condemnation of the Federal government for advocating gun control.

December of 1990 saw McVeigh off to Operation Desert Storm with his unit. Two months later McVeigh was sitting in the gunner’s seat of his Bradley tank as the unit made one of the first drives into Kuwait. The attack involved rolling over trenches in which thousands of Iraqis had taken up positions, suffocating the soldiers in the process and shooting up the artillery bunkers behind them. McVeigh’s accuracy was already well known and he excelled in this environment. He destroyed an Iraqi vehicle a hundred yards away, killed individual soldiers at half a mile range and, with one blast, smashed an Iraqi gun nest that was more than a mile away from him. For that action he was later awarded a Bronze Star for valor. He also received other decorations.

As he returned home with all the others after the brief war, McVeigh was surprised to find his name listed as a candidate for the army’s elite Special Forces, the Green Berets. He had dreamed of this for years but was afraid his physical condition was too poor for him to go into training right away. He was right. He failed the course within a couple of days and was once more back with the other losers at Fort Riley. A post-war hangover set in, not unlike that experienced by other soldiers. In McVeigh’s case, his memories of the Turner Diaries and other publications hardened into a paranoia about guns. He attacked the National Rifle Association for softening its stand against gun control and copied on to a sweatshirt some words from a magazine: “Freedom’s Last Stand—Are you willing to fight for your guns.”

At the end of 1991 McVeigh left the army and went back to Lockport where he got a job with a security company. He wrote letters to his hometown paper, all with the common theme of national evil. The following three sentences were typical of his letters: America is in serious decline. Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that but it might. McVeigh became increasingly reclusive and his letters eventually stopped. In the succeeding two years there were two events that dominated the news and focused his thinking about what he should do. These were the events at Ruby Ridge and David Koresh’s compound in Waco. For the second time in his life McVeigh had found something to which he felt he could completely give himself.

The conflict at Ruby Ridge on August 22,1992, on a remote site in northern Idaho was a week-long standoff between white supremacist Randy Weaver and federal agents. It ended in a shootout in which an FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicky. Earlier, when federal marshals tried to arrest Weaver for failing to appear in court on weapons charges a gun battle erupted between marshals and Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son, resulting in two deaths—Weaver’s son and a marshal. There followed some severe criticism by the Attorney-General’s Department of the way the marshals behaved, concluding that they had overreacted to the threat of violence. The Department felt that the four deaths need not have happened.

The fiery ending to David Koresh’s complex in Waco on April 19, 1993, was the other event. McVeigh was convinced that injustice had been done and he was determined to do something about it. He knew that there had been criticism of government action in both events and he conveniently magnified the criticism into outright condemnation. The ending of the complex at Waco happened on April 19, 1993. The Oklahoma City devastation took place on April 19, 1995. That was no coincidence.

For the two years following the Waco event, McVeigh’s mind was focused on one thing only, finding a suitable target to bomb and planning its destruction. He traveled a lot hoping to find support for his plan but, as was the case during his army stint, he was too much of a loner to develop strong friendships. Terry Nichols was the only contact he retained from the days of the Gulf War. One old newspaper article from an extremist group came into his hands. It recommended bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and this idea stuck with him. Another old extremist publication clinched the idea when it outlined the value, for public impact, of careful timing any reprisal. It suggested choosing a date exactly two years after the tragedy you want to revenge. The issues of what to do and when to act were now crystal clear in McVeigh’s twisted mind.

Activity speeded up on April 14, 1995. McVeigh rented a motel some distance north of Oklahoma City and pressured Terry Nichols, who lived nearby, to allow the bomb materials to be stored in his basement, threatening to harm his family if he did not cooperate. Over the following two or three days, McVeigh purchased large quantities of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate from different locations. He had purchased a large quantity of these same materials on a previous occasion and left them in a nearby storage locker. These were now brought to the Nichols home. Then, on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth of April, as already recounted, the bomb-loaded truck was taken to Oklahoma City and detonated.

McVeigh was found guilty and executed on June 11, 2001. Before his death he gave an extensive interview to two news reporters from The Buffalo News who subsequently wrote a book on the crime, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. In the interview he expressed no regrets for what he had done. He felt no sympathy for the people of Oklahoma City and his only disappointment over the deaths of children was that they became a public relations nightmare which undercut his cause. The huge loss of life and many injuries were to him just collateral damage. He spoke at length about his anger over the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Terry Nichols was later imprisoned as an accomplice but was not given the death penalty.

The bombing of the Murrah Building goes beyond just remembering and reflecting on the past. It is an illustration of the enormous power for harm that is now available to individuals and of the different ways in which they can use this power to paralyze a society. No longer can the few extremists within our society be ignored. Not everyone agrees that McVeigh was a terrorist. Gore Vidal and others, while not condoning what was done, insist that we must give more thought to individual rights. The rest of the Murrah Building was demolished after the bombing and national services were held to commemorate the tragedy. Today a huge memorial stands where the building once stood, a silent reminder of the nation’s worst ever domestic terrorist attack. People from all over the country visit the site daily.

On February 28, 1993, heavily-armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tried to serve a search-and-arrest warrant on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas. A serious gunfight erupted, several were killed, and the agents had to withdraw. A siege ensued which went on for fifty-one days and ended in a conflagration which killed eighty.

David Koresh was the leader of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect that had broken away from the main Seventh Day Adventists organization. There had been three other leaders of this sect before him and they too had exhibited apocalyptic views like those of Koresh, in one case expecting the world to come to an end in 1959. These views were in keeping with some aspects of the parent church, the Seventh Day Adventists, which was embedded in Old Testament ideas. Their name, for example, was derived from the Old Testament Jewish Sabbath, present-day Saturday, which this sect felt was the correct day of rest and not Sunday, the one commonly accepted by most Christian churches.

Koresh’s birth name was Vernon Howell and at the age of twenty-five he joined the Branch Davidian sect. Before long he found himself engaged in a power struggle with Benjamin Roden, the then leader, a conflict that ended with Howell and some of his friends killing the leader in a shoot out. They were convicted of murder but later acquitted. As he took control, Howell changed his name to David Koresh, again because of some significance in Jewish history. From that moment on there was a big change. The religious sect became a cult; that is, a group of people totally controlled by one person. He traveled to different countries, recruiting members as he went, and expanding the size of the compound at Waco, Texas.

At the same time he built up through constant teaching his apocalyptic views that there would inevitably be a colossal confrontation between the true people, his followers, and all the rest, the outside unbelievers. According to Koresh, he alone knew the truth. He was the one prophet appointed by God to teach the truth and prepare his followers for the end catastrophe and to this end he stocked the compound with guns and food reserves. Cult leaders like Koresh usually have attractive personalities with the ability to persuade others that they have unique knowledge and status. They succeed in securing absolute control over the lives of their followers, making them do things that most people would immediately recognize as absurd. The following examples will illustrate the nature of Koresh’s power over the hundred or more of his followers in Waco.

Each member willingly gave up all personal wealth and possessions and these resources supported the place. All decisions of any consequence were made by Koresh alone and these included rationing food for all from time to time either as a tool of control or of discipline. Food was vegetarian except for the leader who was entitled to meat and some other things. No one, again except the leader, had access to television, and no birthdays were ever celebrated. Perhaps the most bizarre of all the community’s mores were the sexual rules. Only Koresh could father children because he alone had the pure line of descent. He freely engaged sexually with any and all of the women and girls in the compound, fathering numerous children. Some of the girls with whom he had intercourse were as young as eleven. He had the sexual rights of women who were married while their husbands along with all the other males lived a life of celibacy.

As long as the Waco compound carried on its religious activities without offending the laws of the land, the government did not interfere. Early in February of 1993 reports reached the federal government that Koresh’s people were in possession of illegal firearms and that they were modifying automatic rifles, turning them into machine guns. Koresh was now thirty-four years old. A search and arrest warrant was issued and on February 28 members of the ATF attempted to serve it. What happened next is not clear. Gunfire broke out as the ATF men approached the building. Four were killed and fourteen others wounded and the whole event ended in a standoff.

It was clear that, whoever was responsible for the shooting, Koresh’s followers were quite prepared to use deadly force to oppose uninvited intruders. The FBI was brought in and a siege was initiated. For the following fifty-one days the siege went on but with little progress on the business of the search warrant. Throughout this time there was no gunfire of any kind from the FBI side and only occasional shots from inside the compound. A team of negotiators was brought in and discussions began with representatives of Koresh. Initially, the negotiations seemed to be very promising.

Within the first few days a plan was agreed upon. If the FBI would arrange to have one of Koresh’s sermons broadcast on a particular radio station he would release two children on the following day. The tape was duly broadcast and two children were released on the following day. Their mother brought them out, then she retreated back into the compound. The same routine was repeated on the following day and again two children were released. This was repeated about ten times in all, ensuring freedom for some twenty children. There followed a pause in these cycles of broadcast and release.

All through this initial period of time it was clear to the negotiators that Koresh’s interest was the conversion of those he dealt with. Those who spoke with his representatives were often subjected to long harangues on his theory of religion. Perhaps he felt he was having some success because on one day he offered to surrender if one more of his tapes were broadcast. The day following, instead of surrendering, he told those outside that he had to wait before making a decision. The surrender offer was never repeated. Instead, he showed intense interest in news of a very bright star that had been seen, but afterward concluded that it was not the right sign.

Specialists who examined the letters he sent out from time to time concluded that he was a religious fanatic with delusions of grandeur, imaging himself as the third person of the trinity along with Jesus and God, he being the prophet through whom God speaks. Koresh was charismatic and manipulative, able to hold people within the compound even if they had opportunity to leave. His statements contradicted what was heard from many in the compound, namely that a suicide pact was in place. If violence came from outside and they were unable to repel it, they would blow everything up as a demonstration of Koresh’s apocalyptic theology, the inevitable clash between the good ones within and the devils without.

The compound was stocked with a year’s supply of food and any requests for additional things like milk were met. The problem confronting the federal authorities was how to end the standoff. After fifty days of recurring episodes of cat and mouse operations, concessions followed by withdrawals, the basic situation was unchanged. Koresh was defying a federal arrest warrant and he had to be taken into custody. How could it be done without causing a repeat of the deaths that accompanied the visit of the ATF men? An indefinite siege was just not realistic. It would make a mockery of law and order and it would give Koresh exactly what he wanted, extended national publicity.

It was decided to pump tear gas into the building and force people out whether or not they felt free to leave. At the same time, bulldozers were to approach the building and create escape holes in several places. Immediately after the federal action began, fires erupted in a few places within the building, leading quickly to a massive conflagration. A few were able to run out. Most of the people remained inside. When the premises were searched next day a substantial number of bodies were found to have bullet wounds. Many of them were children. Koresh had been shot through his forehead. The FBI concluded that the fires that destroyed the building had been set by persons within the compound.

Not everyone was satisfied with the federal conclusions about the conflagration. There were claims that the high level of military force present intimidated those in the compound and inhibited negotiations. Later, in 1993, some of the survivors sued the federal government for $700 million but lost. The case was held in a Texas court near Waco and the jury found the U.S. government not liable for the deaths. Criticism persisted in spite of that verdict and Senator Danforth of the U.S. Senate was asked to conduct a thorough review of all the actions taken. In his report he concurred with the Texas court.

As is now well known the government actions at Waco were not quickly forgotten. Terrorist behavior in Oklahoma City two years later to the day was one of the tragic outcomes. It seems there is common ground between the radical right, the armed militia who claim that their freedom is being destroyed by the requirements of the law, and the religious fanatics. These latter are the ones who claim that they do not have to obey the law because they have an alternative law in the one they call God. The answer to this kind of social unrest demands a continuing assessment both of these extremists and the government responses to their behavior.


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9-11 Terrorism – New York City – New York – September 11, 2001

The two planes that hit the World Trade Center were accompanied by two other planes that sought to destroy two major centers in Washington, D.C.

A second and much more deadly terrorist attack than the attack on New York City in 1993 occurred on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001, combined as it was with a simultaneous assault on the Pentagon. It created an altogether new situation for the U.S. government. The 1993 bombing of the WTC, while it was deadly and enormously destructive of American life, was a single event organized by a small group of terrorists who were in the country. The events of September 11 were at a new scale of violence. They were multiple attacks at the heart of the nation’s economic and military power and, had it developed as the hijackers intended, also at the center of political power. Furthermore, it was organized from abroad by well-known enemies of the United States and probably planned in detail soon after the 1993 failed attempt.

American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles on the morning of September 11, 2001, with ninety-two passengers and crew aboard. Sometime shortly afterward it was taken over by five passengers who were hijackers. Just before 9 A.M. it crashed into the upper floors of the North WTC Tower. Fifteen minutes later a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, also bound from Boston to Los Angeles, hit the upper part of the South Tower. It too had been taken over by hijackers. The planes were flown into the buildings at full speed in what can only be compared to the kamikaze tactics used by Japan in World War II when young pilots crashed their bomb-laden planes into American ships. Flames engulfed the upper floors of both towers within moments and every branch of New York’s fire and rescue organizations sprang into action. It was a chaotic situation and they knew they faced a daunting task. The places where they were needed most were above floor eighty and they knew that both electricity and elevators would soon be cut off there.

Fortunately, there were only 14,000 people in both towers at the time of the explosions, far fewer than in the 1993 attack. Later in the day there would have been three times that number. Those inside first experienced a gigantic blast and felt the towers swaying backwards and forwards. Sprinklers came on as electricity and lights went off. For a time, the elevators below the eightieth floor continued to operate and many were able to get into them. Fires started in different places, many of them triggered by aviation fuel, then sustained by the flammable materials in the offices. Thousands of pieces of glass, papers, debris, soot and ash, even clothing and body parts from the passengers who were in the planes, rained down on the streets below. Temperatures reached thousands of degrees in parts of the towers as 10,000 gallons of aviation fuel ignited, levels of heat that even the central steel pillars could not withstand.

For about an hour the main supports of the towers held firm, allowing many to escape. Fires, sustained by chairs, desks, and other flammables, raced up from the level at which the planes struck to the twenty or more floors above, steadily weakening the main steel supports. At these heights steel is thinner as the total weight to be supported is much less than at lower levels. Finally there came a general collapse as the upper floors buckled and sides caved in. Like battering rams in ancient warfare, successive masses of thousands of tons of steel stomped on the floors below until they could no longer absorb the pressure. Both towers gave way in a cloud of dust. The noise of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel crashing down could be heard all over southern New York City as people ran from the scene as fast as they could. All public transportation had stopped. Among the most horrific of all the things that had to be endured was the sight of people jumping to their deaths from the top floors rather than be incinerated.

The scale of destruction and the reckless indifference to civilian life rightly identified the event as war, a new kind of war, and subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere were in keeping with that analysis. First response by the U.S. government was to stop all flights at U.S. airports in case further attacks might be in process. Incoming planes from other countries were routed to neighboring countries. Canada, because of its proximity to the United States received most of these flights and for a time its airports were filled to overflowing. The pilots were not informed of the changes and were only told where to go. It was felt that unnecessary panic would be avoided by maintaining silence until the planes were on the ground.

The towers had been designed to withstand an impact from a modern jet plane but not an impact that involved maximum speed and maximum amount of fuel. The flights that were hijacked were meant to fly to Los Angeles so they were fully loaded with fuel. Modern steel skyscrapers had never previously collapsed because none had ever been subjected to the levels of stress imposed on the WTC. It was feared at first that as many as 6,000 might have died within the towers. Later it became clear that the count was close to 3,000. Among them were 350 firemen who had climbed up into the towers to help. This was thirty times the greatest single loss of life ever previously experienced by the city’s fire departments. The fires raged on week after week for more than three months because of the large amount of flammable material available to sustain them.

Recovery operations, including assessments of neighboring high-rises, were launched immediately. Four high-rises next door to the towers collapsed and four partially collapsed. Major structural damage occurred to a dozen others. More than a million tons of debris had to be removed at a rate of 10,000 tons a day, so it took several months just to clear the site. Some of the individual pieces of steel that had to be moved weighed twenty-five tons. Excavators with a reach of one hundred feet and cranes that could pick up as much as 1,000 tons were needed for the work. All of this debris had to be hauled by barge or truck to a landfill location on Staten Island. Nothing at this scale had ever previously been tackled and costs for the whole project soared beyond a billion dollars.

In 1993, following the bomb attack, it took six hours to get most of the people out of the towers. Those who worked above floor seventy found it was slow and difficult to make their way down to ground level. Exit stairways were pitch black and they kept bumping into walls or one another on the way down. Subsequently batteries were added to every light fixture in stairways for times when power would not be available. A public address system was added to enable those at fire command stations to address tenants. Fire drills, which previously had often been ignored, were faithfully attended after 1993. Because of these improvements, people were able to evacuate the buildings in 2001 at a faster pace than before. The total time for exiting was cut by a third, from six to two hours, and many lives accordingly saved.

The dangers from toxic materials at the time of the attack were largely ignored because more urgent matters commanded attention. All who were near the towers as they came down were covered with dust that came from fibrous glass, computer screens, asbestos, and a host of products that had been made from different chemicals. Spills of mercury, dioxin, and lead were all around. Some initial testing was done after a week and it showed levels of toxic chemicals as being below danger standards. Few of the local residents were satisfied with these results. They continued to wear masks and protective clothing and pressed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publish precise data on its measurements. Six months after September 11, the EPA had not responded to their requests and there was persistent concern over what they thought were remnants of carcinogenic materials.

Before the full impact of the destruction of the Twin Towers had been registered across the country a third plane had hit the Pentagon in Washington D.C.; and a fourth that many believe was headed for the White House, crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers, at the cost of their lives, fought the hijackers but were unable to take control of the plane. The plane that hit the Pentagon began as American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport bound for Los Angeles. It left at 8 A.M. with sixty-four passengers and crew aboard, including five hijackers. Soon after departure it stopped responding to air control messages and was observed to turn around and head back to Washington, D.C. Shortly before 10 A.M. it slammed into the lower floors of the Pentagon, clipping trees and lamp posts as it descended, plowing through floors one and two, as far as the third concentric circle.

The Pentagon, as its name suggests, is a five-sided building, constructed in five concentric rings of offices around an open center. Each ring is five stories high. On any given day 24,000 people work here. It was built in the 1940s during World War II and more recently was being renovated to provide protection against terrorist attacks. Shatter-reducing mylar had already been installed in one renovated wing to absorb some of the shocks from an explosion. Blast-resistant windows were also in place. By September 11, 2001, this was the only part of the Pentagon that had been renovated and workers had not yet moved into it. By good fortune it happened to be the part of the building that was hit by the terrorists, so casualties were few. About fifteen minutes after the plane crashed into it, the whole of the renovated segment collapsed.

The Pentagon shook violently as it was hit. Workers within heard the roar of the impact and almost immediately saw the outburst of fire and smoke. Lights went out as electricity was cut off. Even if lights had remained on it was almost impossible to see for any distance since black smoke smothered everything. Flames threatened people as they made their way along corridors seeking an escape route. Pools of aviation fuel ignited from time to time, adding to the general confusion. Vehicles posted nearby also caught fire. Emergency procedures immediately came into operation and every effort was made to get people out of the building. Arlington County police and fire departments were on the scene in less than an hour, tackling the fires and establishing order. Helicopters and ambulances took the injured to hospitals.

Special care was taken to safeguard classified documents. The National Military Command Center, which is located in the Pentagon, had not been unaffected. Despite problems with smoke, it continued its work with officers monitoring military operations worldwide. An early casualty was an overloaded cell phone network so those who were fortunate enough to get through took names and phone numbers from the others and relayed them to their contacts with the request that they follow up with calls from their own phones. By 8 P.M. on September 11, fires were still burning strongly and spreading to new sections of the building. Core materials in the layered roof that had caught fire were particularly difficult to extinguish.

Six months after the attack all traces of the original damage were gone and much of the reconstruction had been completed and one-third of the workers displaced by the events of September 11, were back at work. The renovations that were in progress at the time of the attack were included as they repaired the damaged segment and a time capsule was placed in the outer wall of the building at the point where the terrorists had struck. The capsule contained the names of all who were killed in the attack and a collection of things that represented the time and place of the attack. No date was suggested for its opening in the future. The planned improvements were also accelerated in other parts of the building. Total costs of the whole tragedy were $740 million. Altogether 126 lives were lost on the ground and sixty-four in the plane.

As for the Twin Towers, in March of 2002, the American Society of Civil Engineers published their report on the fall of the towers. Its members had spent many days investigating the steel supports at the dumpsite and, while they concluded that no changes should be made to building codes as a result of the tragedy, they did make recommendations for the future. They felt that the connectors holding trusses to walls ought to be tested as rigorously as the main walls. This was not done during construction of the WTC towers. They also felt that fire-resistant material could have been used on many internal areas instead of drywall. Their most significant recommendation was that skyscraper height be limited to sixty floors instead of the 110 of the towers. They were sure that such a change would be as efficient financially and functionally as taller buildings.


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United States Anthrax Terrorism – October 15, 2001

As anthrax powder arrived at different places on the United States East Coast, via regular mail, the entire postal system was closed down for a time.

The events of nine eleven were a terrible shock to all in the United States, yet from many points of view that should not have been the case. The litany of mayhem, all of it directed toward removing U.S. influence in the Middle East, includes the truck bombing of a military base in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 U.S. servicemen. A similar truck-bomb killed nineteen U.S. servicemen at their base in Saudi Arabia thirteen years later, and in 2000 the Navy Vessel USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers in the harbor of Yemen, killing seventeen sailors.

These assaults on U.S. people and U.S. interests abroad were not limited to installations within Middle East countries. Murderous action was taken against U.S. citizens and American interests anywhere. In August of 1998 the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blasted by car bombs on the same day, killing 230 people, including twelve Americans, and injuring 5,000 others. Damage amounted to $38 million.

In several of these events, the United States response was to step back from the areas in which terrorism occurred, exactly the kind of response that the perpetrators of violence hoped for. Is it, therefore, likely that the assaults of nine eleven were based on a similar hope? The long history of terrorism suggests that this may well be the case. While acts of terror date back to the beginning of human history it was in 1795 that the word “terrorism” was first used.

It had its roots in the phrase “Reign of Terror,” a term associated with the French Revolution, particularly with regard to the use of the guillotine by the French revolutionaries. Later the word was employed to describe the behavior of states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and it even came to be used by political activists who claimed to be seeking freedom but had sought it by the most barbarous methods imaginable.

Much of modern terrorism stems from the Arab–Israeli Six Day War of 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization began to adopt terrorist tactics. They claimed to be freedom fighters and their supporters in other countries adopted similar tactics. Airliners were frequently hijacked and Israeli civilians murdered through bomb attacks. The United States was attacked on more than one occasion because it was seen to be supporting Israel. Since the 1980s, these attacks against the United States have become more and more violent, not now by terrorists fighting for Palestinians, but rather by religious extremists who were determined to force America out of the Middle East. Osama Bin Laden and his associates organized the ultimate terrorist attack in the nine eleven assault.

The aftermath of that attack, Anthrax terrorism that arrived in the U.S. a month after nine eleven, was an even more frightening act because it introduced everyone to the potential of chemical terrorism. Anthrax infection is a disease that mainly affects grazing animals like sheep, cattle, and goats. It was known 2,000 years ago, and in the nineteenth century there were vaccines developed to prevent its development. Throughout the twentieth century various governments conducted research on anthrax because of its potential use as a weapon and fortunately it was never used in warfare. An accidental release from a research facility in the former Soviet Union killed seventy people and, in 1993, there was an attempt by a secret society in Japan to release anthrax spores in downtown Tokyo. That was the first time that the dangerous bacillus was directed against a civilian population.

The anthrax bacillus is a tiny organism. Hundreds of them if laid end to end would take up less than a millimeter. When exposed to air, anthrax forms spores and these can reproduce in the body of the host that receives them. It is not a contagious disease. Skin anthrax can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics but the danger is far greater if the spores are inhaled. Very few ever survive inhalation unless antibiotic treatment is given within a day or two. In the vast majority of cases the victims are dead within a few weeks. Anthrax is found in soil all over the world in most countries and instances of human infection are frequently reported in Middle Eastern countries and in Africa. During the Gulf War of 1990–91 U.S. soldiers were inoculated with a vaccine to prevent them catching the disease. There was some fear that Iraq might use anthrax as a weapon.

In mid-October, a few weeks after the devastation of nine eleven when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed and the Pentagon hit, letters containing anthrax spores began to arrive at various U.S. media centers and government offices in Washington, D.C. A photo editor in a Florida news agency was the first to be affected. He opened an envelope that arrived on October 15 and unknowingly inhaled some of the anthrax that fell out. Several days passed before the contents of the envelope were tested and identified. By then it was too late to do anything for the photo editor. He died two weeks later. Five days after the delivery in Florida the next anthrax envelope arrived. This time it was the office of Senate Leader Tom Daschle. Over the following two weeks several more anthrax letters arrived at both media centers and different offices in Washington. There were also hoax letters that looked like the lethal ones. Most of the attacks occurred between October 15 and 31. Places in at least nine states became involved.

As long as each instance only affected the person to whom the letter was addressed there was limited concern since care in handling mail and immediate use of antibiotics could cope with the dangers. Before long, however, it became clear that the trail from sender to recipient could itself be a source of contamination. In Indiana, on October 31, a postal machine sent to Indianapolis had traces of anthrax. At the same time, in Missouri, anthrax spores were discovered in empty mailbags. There developed a general fear that the mail service might be infecting people and places everywhere it operated, both at home and abroad. Confirmation came from new infections in people who did not work in any of the affected places.

By the end of October 2001, five people were dead from anthrax, including two postal workers and a journalist, and thirteen others were ill. As a result, much of the postal system as well as several government offices had to be closed down temporarily in order to cope with ways of preventing additional infections. Thirty congressional workers had tested positive with anthrax and the Hart Senate Office Building, the House of Representatives, and even the Library of Congress all had to be evacuated at times because of the presence of anthrax spores. The mail facility in Fairfax, Virginia, which handles all the mail for Washington, was found to be contaminated with anthrax spores.

Interim measures were taken in all government offices and in various places across the country. Many school and public libraries were closed. Several affected postal stations were also closed. The White House mail was quarantined and several government offices locked in order to check for spores while their staffs met elsewhere. For the first time in its history, the Supreme Court convened away from its own chambers. The State Department cut off all mail to its 240 embassies and consulates worldwide. One expert in government administration said that nothing since the days of the Civil War had as seriously disrupted the business of government as this anthrax attack. He added that the economic losses would probably amount to billions of dollars.

As intense investigations into the source of the scourge continued, the post office began the process of irradiating all mail. At the same time, extensive tests were conducted on the anthrax powder to find out how it was made and what type of powder was used. It was known that identical material had been employed in all the attacks, proving that the campaign originated from a single source and possibly from a single terrorist. Over the following six months it was established that the kind of powder used was quite different from that used by government biological defense programs, in both the United States and other countries. This seemed to confirm FBI suspicions from the beginning that the whole enterprise was a U.S. plan, not the work of terrorists from overseas. Research workers also discovered that the anthrax had been coated with a chemical substance that would prevent the tiny spores from clumping together. Thus they would float freely into the air once a letter was opened and inhalation would be likely.

Evidence of these kinds suggested that the person behind the attack was well acquainted with the chemistry and technology of using anthrax as a weapon. Perhaps he may have worked in the U.S. government’s biological defense program at some time and was now a disgruntled person seeking revenge or notoriety. Regarding the latter, he certainly gained the reputation of causing the worst acts of biological terrorism ever known in the U.S. FBI investigations are continuing, seeking data on the genetic signatures that might help them localize the specific site where the anthrax originated. FBI’s earlier conviction that the culprit was a U.S. scientist with special training and skills has been strengthened by all the findings to date but, like so many other acts of terror, the culprits are still at large.


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Air Terrorism – June 23, 1985

These terrorists had been fighting for an independent state within their home country of India but they decided it would be easier to carry out terrorist acts in Canada.

Sikh terrorists who had moved to Canada and were now Canadian citizens were inflamed by the actions of the Indian government in their homeland where, in 1984, Indian soldiers, acting against local militants, destroyed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a sacred site for the Sikh religion. The Canadian Sikhs, in revenge, on June 23, 1985, placed bombs on two Air India flights out of Vancouver. It was Canada’s first experience of terrorism and it led to the involvement of five nations and the deaths of 331 innocent people before it was all over. The worst features of all were the incompetence of Canada’s security services and the successful cover up latterly by the perpetrators of the crimes.

In spite of warnings from the government of India, Canadian security services failed to maintain a close watch on those members of the Sikh community who had already engaged in violent action against India’s offices in Vancouver and who went on to plan their terrorism. After the tragedy, those same Sikhs made sure that they would not be caught by carrying out assassinations of two known witnesses and ensuring that other potential witnesses would not testify against them by using threats and assaults, behaviors that were more akin to the tactics of criminal gangs than to anything in everyday Canadian life.

The whole disaster became a wake-up call to Canada. Terrorism was no longer an event somewhere else. The nation’s security service was well aware of all the violent acts that had occurred around the world since the murder of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, but somehow it assumed that similar violence would not happen in Canada. Even the actions of Quebec terrorists in 1971 failed to alert the nation. For example, early in 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was due to visit New York and a Sikh friend in Germany used an ordinary telephone line to call one of the Vancouver terrorists, offering to go to New York and assassinate the Indian prime minister. Canadian security services monitored that call but took no action to alert the New York Police for a whole month.

Finally, they did send a warning to New York two days before Gandhi arrived but no action was taken to monitor the movements of the person who had received the message from Germany. Thus, it was very easy for one particular Sikh to book seats by telephone on two Air India flights that were due to leave Vancouver on June 23, 1985, then to arrive on the day of the flights with cash to pay for the flights and to check two pieces of advance luggage. At that time the rule of passengers having to accompany their luggage was not in effect. You could check baggage and later fail to turn up for the flight as happened with this man.

One flight was to Lester Pearson Airport, Toronto, and from Mirabel Airport, Montreal, on Air India 182, for ongoing travel via London to India. The other flight went to Narita Airport, Tokyo, on a Canadian Airlines flight and L. Singh’s luggage was to be transferred at Narita to an Air India flight. M. Singh was booked on the Toronto flight and L. Singh on the flight headed to Tokyo. Their suitcases went on to Toronto and Tokyo, each carrying a bomb that was timed to go off on the Air India flights somewhere over the ocean. M. Singh who was going to Toronto was on a wait list for the Air India flight but he asked that his luggage be sent on to India even though he did not have a ticket for that flight at the time. The agent at the airport refused to do this. After many protests from M. Singh, and with a long line-up of passengers waiting, the clerk relented and allowed his baggage to be checked through to India. It was quite a different story on the flight to Tokyo. Something went wrong for the terrorists. The bomb went off at Narita Airport during transfers from Canadian to Air India planes. Two workers were killed. Had this not happened, the terrorist plot would have been an even greater tragedy. Many more lives would have been lost.

There are large numbers of Sikhs living in Canada, many of them recent immigrants. They come from the Punjab in Northwest India, part of which is in Pakistan and part in India. Ever since these two countries were freed from British rule in 1947, Sikhs have been clamoring for an independent state of their own. Because of their religion they did not want to join either Moslem Pakistan or Hindu India. Over the years many hundreds died in the fighting that ensued. In 1984, Indian soldiers went to this part of the country to quell local violence.

The Golden Temple of Amritsar, a place sacred to all Sikhs, was destroyed and some Sikh leaders killed. As one result of this action, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated later in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards. In retaliation, Hindus killed thousands of Sikhs. This was the violent background of many Sikh immigrants who came to Canada and it is not surprising that some of them brought with them a hatred of India. The freedom they enjoyed in Canada made it easier than would be the case in India for them to engage in acts of terrorism. Sikh revolutionaries who live in India feel that their opportunities to hurt the state government there are limited so they encouraged their friends in Canada to act for them.

Indian government authorities repeatedly warned their Canadian counterparts of this danger but sadly the warnings were not taken very seriously. From time to time local newspapers reported acts of violence from the suburban area where large numbers of Sikhs live. Some related to disputes over religious rituals, fundamentalists against modernists, but on occasion there was violence. Once, Ujjal Dosanjh, a Sikh lawyer, was seriously injured when fellow Sikhs assaulted him because he advocated nonviolence as the proper way to settle quarrels. Even after the Air India flight reached Toronto normal precautionary procedures failed, including one that might well have saved the flight from destruction had it been followed. While loading baggage on to Flight 182 at Toronto, a scanning machine broke down, leaving a quarter of the luggage, including M. Singh’s, unchecked. A hand-held detector was used on this section of luggage but it could not detect explosives. On the next leg of the flight, at Mirabel, three bags gave rise to suspicion among handlers so they were put to one side for further examination. Later they were considered to be harmless. Nothing further was done and Flight 182 was allowed to take off despite an official regulation that in all such circumstances every bit of luggage on a plane must be taken off and thoroughly examined.

Air India 182 flew on through the night and as it approached the Irish coast around 8:00 A.M. next day began the descent from 31,000 feet in anticipation of a landing at London’s Heathrow Airport. The air controller at Ireland’s Shannon Airport established contact with the plane and talked with the pilot for a short time. Suddenly voice communication stopped and a few moments later, as he looked at his radar screen, the controller was startled by the sudden disappearance of the plane. There had not been any emergency signal or any other indication of trouble, just silence.

Later when the black box was recovered from the ocean depths, there was evidence that the pilot tried to send out a distress call before all power failed and the aircraft plunged helplessly into the sea. The only other signals captured by the black box were a thud, a muffled bang, and a faint shriek before loss of power cut off the recording. The plane’s position at the moment of disappearance was recorded at Shannon’s Airport and this was used in locating bodies and debris when recovery work began. From these two bits of information the plane’s speed as it hit the water was calculated, nine hundred miles an hour. Had there not been two hours’ delay leaving Canada the explosion would have occurred over London and casualties and destruction might have been even worse.

Within minutes of the plane vanishing, the Irish Marine Rescue Coordination Center was notified and all available planes and ships were sent to the crash site. By 9:00 A.M. it was known that 182 had crashed. An emergency message was picked up from an Air India locator, the kind that operates automatically as soon as it hits salt water. First hopes were that the plane had been forced to ditch and that survivors would be found. That expectation faded when the first rescue ship reached the scene at 11:00 A.M. and found a vast floating mass of debris, broken airplane parts, and more than a hundred bodies.

The rescuers had to work fast. They knew that bodies float for only a short time and that wreckage drifts farther and farther away as they work. Fortunately, the morning of the twenty-third was calm and sunny. By sunset eighty-eight bodies had been taken from the sea. More were taken from the sea later. The process was slow at first: a helicopter hovers over a spot in the sea while a man is winched down to the water where he puts a sling on the water-logged body so that both can be winched back up. Around 3:00 P.M. rescuers heard the dreaded news that sharks, six-foot blues, were racing toward them. Three-man inflatable lifeboats were introduced to speed up the recovery. Men had to jump into the water among the sharks and sometimes fight for possession of the bodies. When they came back to the site next day all they could find were dead sharks, victims of the feeding frenzy.

The total salvage effort to recover bodies and plane parts was the most extensive ever attempted. In all, 131 bodies were recovered and their postmortems conducted at Cork Regional Hospital to establish cause of death and help with identification. The damage done to bodies was extensive, consistent with decompression at the higher elevations when pressure was lost, and the swinging and turning from the long free fall. Some survived the crash although unconscious but then drowned. Of the 329 who were lost most were Hindus, many of them Canadian citizens.

On the southwestern shore of Ireland a monument was erected by representatives of the three nations affected—India, Canada, and Ireland. An Irish artist designed the monument which looked like a compass pointing out to sea in the direction of the crash. The time, date, and location of the tragedy are marked on it along with the words “Time Flies. Suns Rise and Shadows Fall. Let it Pass By. Love Reigns Forever Over All.” The names of the 329 who lost their lives are inscribed in three languages—English, French, and Hindi.

Air terrorism had become a new social problem for Canada, challenging all the norms of civilized behavior. Many of today’s procedures at airports were initiated after the 1985 disaster. Criminal investigations on the perpetrators of Air India 182 were immediately launched but the long and difficult process of securing convictions took years and involved investigations in five countries. Finally, sixteen years after the Air India tragedy, only one or two were charged. One of them is serving time in prison in British Columbia for the deaths at Narita Airport.

Overall, at the end, there was consensus among Canadian security experts that the main causes of the tragedy were poor surveillance by authorities over individuals who were known to be dangerous and persistent insensitivity to the warnings that had come from India. Immediate corrective measures were taken after the event, upgrading all procedures and installing new security measures.