Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S.: A Look At Past Terrorist Attacks Targeting Americans

It will be weeks before the final death toll and damages are tallied from yesterday's attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. But one thing is clear: It was the worst terrorist attack ever committed on U.S. soil. But it certainly is not the first such attack on Americans at home or abroad. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks back at past terrorist attacks on Americans.

Prague, 12 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Just before lunchtime on Wednesday, 16 September 1920, a horse-drawn wagon rode up to the Morgan Bank in lower Manhattan. Without warning, it blew up.

The wagon was loaded with dynamite and shrapnel that blasted into the crowd, leaving 30 dead and hundreds of others injured. All that remained of the horses were four hooves found near a neighborhood church. The fatal blast caused $2 million in damage and shattered windows as far as half a mile away.

Police went to 5,000 horse stables to try to trace the bombers, without any luck. Though police believed anarchists or "Bolsheviks" were behind the attack, no one was ever convicted.

Today, the limestone exterior of the Morgan building is still etched with the marks of that explosion more than 80 years ago.

It may have been one of the first major attacks in New York City, but it would not be the last. Fifty-five years later, in 1975, the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN bombed the historic Fraunces Tavern on Wall Street, again in the heart of America's financial district. Four people died in that attack and 53 were injured.

New York was again the scene of another devastating bombing in 1993. Like yesterday's attack, the target was the World Trade Center. This time, a truck loaded with 1,200 pounds of explosives and parked in the garage beneath the twin, 110-story skyscrapers exploded, killing six and leaving more than 1,000 injured. At that time, it was the worst terrorist act ever committed on American soil and left most Americans stunned and shocked.

In 1996, nine Islamic fundamentalists, including the mastermind of the plot, Ramzi Yousef, were convicted in a federal court and later received life sentences.

Just two years later, in 1995, another truck loaded with explosives wreaked havoc in another part of America. This time, the target was the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, in the southern U.S. state of Oklahoma. One hundred and sixty-eight people -- including 19 children -- died in the explosion on 19 April, shortly after nine in the morning.

With the 1993 World Trade Center attack still fresh in most Americans' minds, many first pointed the finger of blame for the Oklahoma bombing at Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. But the man responsible for what had then become the worst terrorist attack on Americans was himself an American: Timothy McVeigh.

Decorated a few years earlier for his military service in the Persian Gulf War, McVeigh had become disillusioned and felt bitter toward the federal government. Oklahoma City was his revenge.

While Americans have been targeted at home, they have found themselves the targets of terrorists more often abroad. The Lebanese capital, Beirut, was the site of three terrorist attacks aimed at Americans in the early 1980s.

In April 1983, Islamic radicals launched a suicide car bombing on the U.S. embassy there, killing 63 people and wounding a hundred more. A few months later, in October 1983, Islamic militants attacked the U.S. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Two hundred and forty-one U.S. servicemen died in that attack. A similar raid on the French base in Beirut on the same day left 58 dead.

In 1984, Islamic fundamentalists struck at the U.S. embassy in Beirut again, driving a truck loaded with explosives in front of the building. Sixteen people died in this attack and 96 were wounded, including U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew.

The 1990s also witnessed a series of terrorist attacks on American targets abroad. One of the most devastating came in June 1996 when a tanker truck, loaded with fuel, exploded at a U.S. military complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American soldiers and wounding 400.

On 7 August 1998, two American embassies in Africa were targeted. Two hundred and thirteen people died and more than 5,000 were injured when an explosives-laden vehicle exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. A few minutes later, another blast hit the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. That blast killed 11 and wounded 70.

The man widely suspected of orchestrating the African embassy bombings is an eccentric Saudi Arabian millionaire named Osama bin Laden. After four Islamic fundamentalists were found guilty of the embassy bombings in Africa in a U.S. federal court this past May, the prosecuting U.S. attorney, Mary Jo White, told reporters the U.S. would continue its hunt for all of the perpetrators:

"We remain permanently and unrelentingly committed to tracking down, apprehending and bringing to justice every single participant in these crimes."

Last year, terrorists attacked the U.S. warship the USS Cole. Seventeen American servicemen died and nearly 400 were wounded when a rubber raft loaded with explosives detonated beside the vessel, which had been moored in the Yemeni port of Aden.

Following the 18 October attack, then-U.S. president Bill Clinton vowed to track down the perpetrators.

"To those who attacked them, we say, 'You will not find a safe harbor. We will find you and justice will prevail.' "

In an eerie reminder that history tends to repeat itself, U.S. President George W. Bush found himself issuing much the same pledge yesterday.

  • 16x9 Image

    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.