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McCaul Op-Ed: The lessons of the World Trade Center bombing (New York Daily News)

The lessons of the World Trade Center bombing

In many ways, the war on Al Qaeda began 20 years ago on this day

New York Daily News — By Chairman Michael McCaul

Twenty years ago today, at about 17 minutes past noon, a massive truck bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center. Six Americans were murdered and more than 1,000 were injured in the first attempt by Islamist extremists to blow up the buildings. Radical terrorism once largely limited to the Middle East had come to America.

While devastating, the damage that day was only a fraction of what Al Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef and his co-conspirators intended. Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, finished the job when hijackers flew jetliners into the twin towers on 9/11.

But the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, coming a few weeks after President Clinton’s swearing-in, was a tipping point in what would become a new type of war against the evolving threat of terrorism.

The core lesson that our intelligence community learned that day is that the United States must never underestimate those bent on destroying our freedom, no matter how remote or obscure an enemy may seem. At the time, Omar Abdel-Rahman, “the blind sheikh,” was seen as a local religious leader. Today we know he was influential in some of Al Qaeda’s highest profile plots against the United States. He was linked to but not indicted in the 1993 bombing, and he remains a symbol of jihad throughout the extremist world.

Before the attack in 1993, the name Al Qaeda was not a part of the American lexicon. The government’s initial response to the World Trade Center bombing was from a law enforcement approach. Our intelligence community and military were not fully engaged until years later — when President George W. Bush elevated our fight against extremism to a multi-pronged war.

While largely unknown by U.S. intelligence two decades ago, Al Qaeda’s efforts to attack Americans both on U.S. soil and abroad were increasing. Months after the first World Trade Center attack, in October 1993, Al Qaeda helped Somali warlords attack the U.S. in the “Black Hawk Down” battle. However, our government still was not focused on the terror group, and the news media never published or broadcast its name that year, even though it had been established since 1989.

In 1995, Yousef unsuccessfully tried to orchestrate the simultaneous explosions of 11 U.S. airliners over the Pacific en route to the United States. Only that year did a small group of officials begin to hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Between that time and Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist groups were largely left alone in lawless safe havens in Afghanistan to recruit, train, raise funds and build logistical networks to conduct attacks against the United States. In Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, he stated that after terror attacks killed U.S. troops in Beirut and Mogadishu, “You left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you.”

Today, the threat landscape has changed. Though our military efforts have scattered and decimated the core of Al Qaeda’s operations and leadership, franchises such as those that attacked the BP gas facility in Algeria share its mission and have reach inside the United States.

Al Qaeda’s North African affiliates have become emboldened by our timid response to Benghazi, Libya, have gained significant wealth by ratcheting up multi-million dollar kidnappings for ransom and they use this wealth to fund operations against the West. Today, North Africa is the next theater of operations in the war on terror.

As the administration draws down troops abroad, it must maintain a comprehensive strategy for combating the increasingly decentralized nature of the Al Qaeda movement. Just as we have expanded our counterterrorism efforts into Pakistan, whether through the use of drones, special forces or additional intelligence gathering, our efforts in North Africa must address the reality that Al Qaeda in the region is spreading and building as a threat to our homeland. These sons of Al Qaeda are committed to finishing the task they started on U.S. soil 20 years ago.

Today, as we mourn those who have been lost, we also must recognize that security now requires more than speeches and sanctions. With each new day should come a resilient ambition to find and root out those who will use any means necessary to destroy our freedom and way of life.

McCaul, a congressman, is the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security