NEW YORK — THE investigation into the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center is still at an early stage. The search for suspects and motives goes on. Yet experts say progress so far already sends a strong message to potential terrorists.
"The important thing was that the various branches of government - local, state, and federal - show that the United States was going to treat this incident as seriously as an act of war, and they have," says Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University. "The level of investigation has been about as high as it could be."
Robert Turner, associate director of the center for national security law at the University of Virginia, agrees that the US faced a clear need to respond quickly and firmly.
"I think it's important to send the message that the people who did it [planted the bomb] will not benefit from the experience," says Professor Turner, a past chairman of the American Bar Association's committee on law and national security. "This could have been the worst terrorist incident in modern history ... and if people believe the US is a sitting duck for terrorism, and can't do anything about it or is unwilling to use its resources to deal effectively with it, then I don't think this would be th e end of it."
So far Mohammed Salameh and Nidal Ayyad, both Palestinians who live in New Jersey, are being held without bail on charges of "aiding and abetting". Another man, Ibrahim Elgabrawny of Brooklyn, was recently arrested for allegedly attacking law enforcement officials when they searched his apartment and is also suspected of involvement in the bombing. Authorities say an indictment against him is expected to be returned Wednesday.
Mr. Elgabrawny is a cousin of El Sayyid Nosair, the Muslim fundamentalist from Egypt who was acquitted of the 1990 murder of radical Rabbi Meir Kahane, but who is serving time in Attica state prison on lesser weapons charges. False Nicaraguan passports and birth certificates in Mr. Nosair's name were found in the search of Mr. Elgabrowny's apartment. Nosair was told last week that he is to be charged in a disciplinary hearing with plotting an escape.
AUTHORITIES decided last week to reopen the investigation into the Kahane assassination. Officials want to determine if a larger Muslim terrorist group was involved in the Kahane murder and hope to pick up some new leads in the bomb probe.
Law enforcement officials continue to hunt for more suspects who may be tied to the bombing. US officials are working with their German counterparts to try to pin down who transferred as much as $8,000 in funds from Germany to a New Jersey bank account jointly held by Salameh and Ayyad and for what reason. Terrorism experts consider the bombing a relatively unsophisticated and low-budget operation. The wired funds may not even have a connection, they say.
"A lot of Middle East terrorism is not based on making a buck," says Virginia's Turner. Instead, many incidents are committed by fanatics, he says.
Much about the bombing remains unknown. Most of the evidence so far disclosed, except for the metal vehicle identification tag of the van carrying the bomb, is circumstantial.
"Terrorism by its very nature is warfare in the dark - you don't always have the smoking gun," says Yonah Alexander, a visiting expert on terrorism at George Washington University and director of the Institute for the Study of International Terrorism at the State University of New York. "It can be very difficult to identify all the perpetrators." He recalls that it took almost two years to pin down Libya's involvement in the Pan Am aircraft explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Professor Gillers says that law enforcement officials may have other evidence not yet known to the public, but says he doubts that any trial linked to the bombing will get under way before next year. "You want to move quickly," Turner agrees, "but when you start going to court you have to make a lot of information public. You might scare off some people you might otherwise get, so there's a certain logic in moving carefully."