Tower Terror

A murderous explosion in the heart of New York City raises the specter of terrorism in America and sets off a feverish hunt for the bomber

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AMERICANS WERE NOT ACCUSTOMED to what so much of the world had already grown weary of: the sudden, deafening explosion of a car bomb, a hail of glass and debris, the screams of innocent victims followed by the wailing sirens of ambulances. Terrorism seemed like something that happened somewhere else -- and somewhere else a safe distance over the horizon.

And then last week, in an instant, the World Trade Center in New York City became ground zero.

At 12:18 on a snowy Friday afternoon, a massive explosion rocked the foundation of the Twin Towers of the Trade Center in lower Manhattan -- the second tallest buildings in the world and a magnet for 100,000 workers and visitors each day. The bomb was positioned to wreak maximum damage to the infrastructure of the building and the commuter networks below. And the landmark target near Wall Street seemed chosen with a fine sense for the symbols of the late 20th century. If the explosion, which killed five people and injured more than 1,000, turns out to be the work of terrorists, it will be a sharp reminder that the world is still a dangerous place. And that the dangers can come home.

Against that threat, the relevant intelligence agencies mobilized quickly. The news from New York sent the FBI and other federal agencies to Code Red, their highest state of readiness. The FBI activated its Joint Terrorist Task Force, and the CIA turned up the heat at its Counterterrorist Center in Langley, Virginia, a conglomerate of psychiatrists, explosives experts and hostage negotiators. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency responsible for investigating the loss and theft of explosives, mobilized its 13-member National Response Team held on 24-hour call in the New York area. They were joined by bureau chemists from headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

Until it is firmly concluded that a terrorist was responsible, the New York City police department is in charge, and it was the N.Y.P.D. that took the lead in sifting through the 19 telephoned claims of "credit" that were received in the first 24 hours. Though none came in before the blast -- the earliest followed it by an hour, well after the first news reports -- a few were intriguing. Many of the calls were made by people claiming to be affiliated with Balkan groups, including one made by a caller in Europe who said he represented the Black Hand, a Serbian extremist organization last active about 10 years ago. According to terrorism expert Xavier Raufer, Serbian nationalists have threatened terrorist reprisals against West European countries for interference in the region.

There were immediate suspicions that Bill Clinton's decision last week to air-drop relief supplies over Bosnia -- a step that had seemed like a low-risk humanitarian gesture -- might have been answered in thunder by the Serbs. Still, the Bosnian hypothesis was by no means the only one. A caller from the West Coast credited the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; an anonymous tipster blamed Jewish extremist groups.

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