Bergen: Most Americans see the era of jihadist terrorism as beginning with 9/11
But many features of terrorism as we know it today actually have roots in the '90s
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s National Security Analyst. For CNN he produced Osama bin Laden’s first television interview. He is a vice president at New America and the author of “United States of Jihad: Who Are America’s Homegrown Terrorists and How Do We Stop Them?” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
In the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, CNN correspondent Peter Arnett asked Osama bin Laden, “What are your future plans?”
With the slightest smirk, bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.”
That interview took place in March 1997. It was bin Laden’s first television interview, and it was the first time the al-Qaeda leader declared war on the United States to a Western audience.
But there’s another reason why this interview still stands out two decades later. It shows how much the features of terrorism that we live with today – from jihadist acts to eruptions of violence from the far right to the concept of the “lone wolf” – all had their roots in the 1990s.
For most Americans, the era of jihadist terrorism aimed at the United States began on September 11, 2001. But, as seen in CNN’s Original Series “The Nineties,” this terrorist campaign was actually intensifying in the decade prior.
Jihadist acts of terror
Indeed, a group of jihadist terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. The aim of the attack, which involved driving a bomb-laden truck into the basement of the complex, was to bring down both towers of the Trade Center.
That mission wasn’t accomplished, but the explosion did kill six people.
The mastermind of that 1993 attack was Ramzi Yousef, whose uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, would go on to be the operational commander of the far more lethal terrorist attack at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
We would later learn that when bin Laden publicly announced his war against the US in 1997, four years after the first Trade Center bombing, he had already met with KSM to discuss large-scale terrorist plots designed to kill thousands of Americans.
It was in 1998, one year after the landmark CNN interview, that al-Qaeda suicide bombers drove truck bombs toward the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. More than two hundred people were killed in the simultaneous attacks.
This demonstrated that al-Qaeda could carry out gruesome acts of violence thousands of miles from its base in Afghanistan, and that it had no compunction in killing as many civilians as possible. Up until this point most terrorist groups had largely tried to avoid doing this, fearing that mass-casualty attacks might limit their appeal to their followers.
Al-Qaeda’s leaders simply didn’t care. In their minds, God was on their side so they could do no wrong.
The wave of far-right terrorism
Growing in parallel to this gathering storm of jihadist violence in the 1990s was the wave of far-right terrorism in the US.
Terrorism – which is commonly defined as politically motivated violence directed at civilians by entities other than a state – can and does come from all sides of the political spectrum. But in the decade before 9/11, it was violence motivated by right-wing ideologies that appeared to be the greatest threat to the American homeland.
The most well-known of the era’s far-right terror attacks is the Oklahoma City truck bombing on April, 19 1995, which destroyed the Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people. At the time, it was the deadliest terror attack ever on American soil.
Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran in his late 20s who subscribed to a number of conspiracist views about the federal government and hung around far-right militia groups, was the mastermind behind the attack. McVeigh was quickly arrested and later executed.
The year after the Oklahoma City bombing, another far-right terrorist, Eric Rudolph, detonated bombs at Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics. He also targeted an Atlanta gay nightclub and abortion clinics in the South. Rudolph, a survivalist, spent five years on the lam and was arrested in Murphy, North Carolina. He is serving multiple life sentences at the Supermax prison in Colorado.
While the 9/11 attacks made jihadist terrorism the top concern of the public and law enforcement, the far-right strain of terrorism in the United States hasn’t disappeared in the years since al-Qaeda’s targeting of New York and Washington. New America, a non-partisan think tank that has tracked terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, found that far-right terrorists have killed 67 people in the past decade and half.
The ‘lone wolf’
“The Nineties” also tells the story of “the Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, a hermit-like eccentric who lived in a small cabin in Montana. Between the late ‘70s and the mid ‘90s, Kaczynski, who subscribed to obscure neo-Luddite beliefs, mailed his targets more than a dozen bombs that killed three people and injured many others. Kaczynski did this entirely by himself without any help from an organization. He was a classic “lone wolf.”
Since Kaczynski we have seen more of these lone-actor terror attacks. One example is Omar Mateen’s attack at the gay nightclub in Orlando last year, in which he killed 49 people. Mateen was inspired by ISIS but had no formal connection to the group. He was killed by police who responded to the scene.
Similarly, Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, was inspired by al-Qaeda but was not part of the group, nor was he aided by it. Hasan was convicted in 2013 of 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder.
We in the 21st century are often deluged with headlines about the prominence and reach of terror attacks. But when we look back to the ‘90s, we realize it was really the last decade of the 20th century that saw the beginning of this wave.
For more on the 1990s, watch CNN’s Original Series on the decade Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT.