Across most of America, the shock passed in a New York minute. Reports that police had arrested eight Muslims accused of plotting to bomb several Manhattan landmarks were swiftly overtaken by the unrelated but even more lurid capture of a Long Island, N.Y., serial killer still in possession of the body of his latest victim. But not even the gruesome exploits of Joel Rifkin—dubbed “Joel the Ripper” after he claimed to have murdered 17 prostitutes— could stop New Yorkers from contemplating the horror of what might happen if terrorists ever succeeded in detonating bombs across the city. The prospect of a bomb going off in one of the tunnels linking Manhattan to New Jersey particularly unnerved Tom Allen, a 45-year-old speech writer for a New York City investment house. ‘There would be a huge fireball, going in both directions, levelling everything in sight with no escape, and no air and no way out,” he said. “That’s what is on everyone’s mind.” Such nightmare scenarios prompted the U.S. state department to take the unusual step of alerting Americans to be wary of terrorist attacks on targets in their own country, not just while travelling in unstable foreign lands. The department later retreated from that advisory, with a spokesman saying: “As far as we know, there is no specific or credible threat against Americans travelling in the United States.” But even without such evidence, many experts warned that attacks were indeed possible. “It’s open season,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst for the U.S. government. ‘They think they can get away with things.”
Some experts were predicting retaliatory strikes against American targets after the June 26 U.S. missile attack on the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Six of the eight arrested men | worshipped at the Jersey City, N.J., mosque | of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind, beard| ed imam with roots in Egypt. And he is just £ one of several rival Islamic leaders who are 1 using militant rhetoric against the West that is long on jihad, or holy war.
As details emerged about the June 24 arrest of the eight men, the case clearly took on broader worldwide dimensions. They were charged with an alleged plot to set off bombs during the Fourth of July weekend at the United Nations building on Manhattan’s east side, in two tunnels under the Hudson River and at the FBI’s New York City headquarters building. Police said that one accused conspirator, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali,
played a role in the February bombing at the 110-storey World Trade Center, which killed six people, injured more than 1,000 others and seriously damaged the basement levels of the world’s second-tallest building. Another suspect, U.S.-born Clement Rodney Hampton-El, allegedly plotted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, according to police. And five of the men, including Saddig Ali, were from Sudan, where, analysts
said, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have established as many as 20 terrorist training camps.
Sheik Rahman also moved to the United States from Sudan in 1990. That African nation is nominally ruled by a military junta. But its members receive financial support from Tehran, and most analysts say that another fundamentalist Islamic leader, Sheik Hassan Turabi, holds effective power in the
capital, Khartoum. Egyptian officials accuse Turabi and Rahman’s Sudanese followers of plotting Mubarak’s overthrow. U.S. investigators were careful to say that they did not have evidence linking the New York City plotters to any Middle East regime. But Robert Kupperman, who researches terrorism for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, speculated that eventually “we are going to find a government is involved.”
A more immediate question last week was the criminal involvement of Rahman, 55, who was not arrested in the initial wave, but was detained for questioning on July 2. Several of the men accused of the World Trade Center bombing worshipped with Rahman, as well. Rahman has denounced the attack on the World Trade Center. But the key informant whose evidence kept police abreast of the latest conspiracy, Emad Salem, served as Rahman’s interpreter and occasional body-
guard. (Salem disappeared into protective custody with his wife and child after the arrests.) When Rahman finally surrendered to federal officials late in the week, however, it was on a charge of breaking immigration laws, not for any role in a terrorist plot.
That prompted another state department warning of possible “strong reactions” in the Islamic world to Rahman’s arrest. But emerging evidence of an active, dangerous
and internationally well-connected terrorist ring operating in their midst failed to rattle many New Yorkers, accustomed as they are to the daily brutality of an average of five murders and a steady pounding of lesser mayhem. James Rutenberg, a 23-year-old editor who commutes daily from New Jersey to Manhattan, cited a drive-by shooting he witnessed last month as explanation for his lack of concern. “I was sitting in a bar and a guy gets shot,” he recalled. “And we all go out to look and a few minutes later we’re all back drinking. There are so many things to worry about here that
you learn not to worry about anything.”
That was true even for some workers at the World Trade Center. The damaged office tower is mostly back in operation, although repair work continues in the basement area. Said speech writer Allen, who works on the 70th floor of the tower: “Nobody here has said word one about this latest incident. Folks here figure that we’ve had our bout with these guys and they’re on to somewhere else.”
But if many American experts are right, that somewhere else may still be unpleasantly close to home. Analyst Katzman, author of
Warriors of Islam, a recently published book on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, says that America is a target for Islamic terrorists inspired by rival fundamentalist leaders. “The audience is the Islamic world,” Katzman says, adding, in reference to Iranian revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini: “Rahman sees himself stepping into Khomeini’s shoes. He is trying to demonstrate that he has a mystical hold on radical Islam, just as Khomeini did.”
The analysts agree that the United States presents terrorists with an abundance of vulnerable targets—and note that future attacks could do far greater damage. Co-ordinated strikes at a handful of poorly protected electrical distribution centres in New England, said Kupperman, “could shut down the northeast for months.” Also worrisome were the humble explosive ingredients that those accused of plotting to bomb the New York City targets were mixing at the time of their arrests: fuel oil and fertilizer. The concoction, says Kupperman, “is excellent for blowing down buildings.” And had the trade centre terrorists used two truckloads parked in the right places, he added, “they could have sheared off a tower. Then, you’d have had 70,000 to 80,000 casualties.” Such scenarios gave neither police nor the most jaded New Yorker any room for complacency.
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