NEW York's World Trade Center is a symbol of the wealth and global reach of the United States. It is the world's largest building and houses financial exchanges, investment banks, and government offices.
The 110-story twin towers were an ambitious target for what now may be the first major act of terrorism in years inside the United States.
Although the New York police received 19 calls taking responsibility for a suspected bomb, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said none of the calls were delivered prior to the blast, which took place on Feb. 26. The first call came over one hour after the explosion, which had already been widely covered by the news media. As a result, officials remain cautious as to the cause and motivation behind the blast.
Given the large scale of the target and the bomb, which smashed through six floors in the lower part of the building, the serious casualties were few. But the challenge now is to prevent similar attacks in the US by imitators.
Terrorism experts are trying to fathom who could have set off the blast, which killed five people, hospitalized at least a thousand, and led to the forced evacuation of the 50,000 workers.
Although officials have not ruled out a crazed individual, experts doubted one person could be responsible.
"Something like this takes a proficiency with explosives and someone who knows what they are doing," says Clifton Bryant, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University and founder of the Scientific Journal of Deviant Behavior. Mr. Bryant says it would not be surprising if this blast were followed up by another attempt.
Terrorism experts warn against a complacency in the US that terrorism occurs only abroad.
"The main message is that we are not immune," says Yonah Alexander, director of the Institute for Studies in International Terrorism at the State University of New York.
While the Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York City police are still trying to piece together the details of the criminal act, terrorism experts believe the US now must increase its defenses against future acts.
"My main concern is that this could be the beginning of a trend," says Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology and a terrorism expert at George Washington University, adding that in the past terrorist groups have tried to emulate other acts of violence. A terrorist act, he says, both "emboldens" and arouses envy among other groups.
This fact has not been lost on government officials. At a press conference on Saturday, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said, "You will have heightened security in every way it can be heightened."
Jim Fox, the FBI's New York director, said the agency would alert the mayors of other cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles. And Mr. Kelly, New York's police chief, said the city would be working with the private sector to beef up security as was done during operation Desert Storm.
GOVERNOR Cuomo told New Yorkers that the best answer to the bombers "is to find out who did it, apprehend the people who did it, and then punish them as your law allows you to. It is essential that we discover the person or persons who did it ... to let people know you cannot do this with impunity in this place."
Many experts believe the bomb originated overseas.
"The US has enough enemies abroad," says Mr. Alexander, who is also a professor at George Washington University.
In fact, terrorism experts calculate that between 25 and 40 percent of all terrorist incidents in recent years have been aimed at American targets.
Terrorism experts say the violence could have been committed by any number of groups who have a long-running resentment of the US. Alexander, for example, says the blast could have had Middle East origins. The explosion took place only a week after the anniversary of the Iranian revolution and close to the anniversary of the start of the land war against Iraq.
Post says the timing of the blast could also point toward a Balkan origin. Peace talks on Bosnia-Herzegovina are due to resume at the United Nations this week. Neither the Bosnian Serbs nor the Muslim-led government in Bosnia like the map that is currently up for discussion at the UN. Also, the Clinton administration plans to begin airdrops of relief supplies to isolated parts of Bosnia.
"Modern terrorism was invented in the Balkans," says Paris-based terrorism expert Xavier Raufer, author of a new book, "The Balkan Chaos." He notes that the Croatians formed the Ustasha, a right-wing independence movement which formed links with the Fascist regimes in Italy and Hungary and developed a reputation for extreme ruthlessness in the 1920s and '30s, and Macedonians formed the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Party.
"All the terrorist methods used in the Middle East were created at that time," says Mr. Raufer. He also notes that Balkan groups have a history of "dirty tricks," such as planting bombs, so it appears that a different group was responsible. However, an official at the US State Department's Counter-Terrorism desk says, "We have not seen any international activity by groups in the former Yugoslavia."
The official reaction in Washington was muted. President Clinton, in his weekly radio address to the nation, vowed to spare no effort to catch the culprits, and he called Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins, who was in Tokyo when the blast took place.
But Raufer says the explosion may have been designed as a test for the new president. "No one knows if the new president will be a Jimmy Carter or a Ronald Reagan - they may view this as a good opportunity to test his reactions and see if his new director of intelligence is good," says Raufer.
Terrorist acts, in fact, have helped to bring on the low points of two of the last three presidents - Carter and the Iran hostages and Reagan and the arms-for-hostages deal. George Bush faced his first crisis over American hostages held in the Middle East, including the murder of Col. William Higgins. Mr. Bush, however, had studied the mistakes of both Reagan and Carter.
Carter had dedicated himself to resolving the hostage crisis in a way that made him a virtual captive himself. Reagan showed he was willing to barter for the possible freedom of hostages. Bush, however, held firm against the terrorists and eventually all the American hostages were released and that form of terror has fallen away.
Now experts are advising the new president to follow the Bush example. "It's very bad for the chief executive to be impacted by a terrorists act," says Post.
This is not the first time terrorists have struck in the financial district. In 1974, Puerto Rican extremists set off a bomb at historic Fraunces Tavern. This blast killed four people. And in 1916, a "horse and wagon" bomb was set at 23 Wall Street in front of the offices of J. P. Morgan. This bomb killed 40 people and caused $200 million in property damage. No one was ever caught, and it was rumored to be the work of anarchists.
"There are a lot of parallels between this most recent act and that one," says Bryant.