It Was Terrorism, But Whose?

March 06, 1993

One thing is certain about matters relating to the Middle East: First impressions are often misleading. This needs to be borne in mind as the investigation into the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York moves forward from the arrests of several apparent Muslim fundamentalists. There are tenuous links -- perhaps circumstantial, perhaps incriminatory -- between some of the suspects and atrocities here and abroad and to an organization whose history of terrorism reaches back before World War II.

The arrests of Mohammed Salameh and one suspected accomplice narrows the focus of the investigation into the massive bomb blast a week ago. The combination of Muslim fundamentalist suspects, explosion on a significant anniversary in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a radical Islamic cleric and apparent ties to sensational terrorist murders all suggest Middle Eastern links. But the apparent choice of explosive and some of Mr. Salameh's startlingly amateurish mistakes leave room for doubts about the complicity of foreign intelligence agencies or professional terrorists. Well-trained terrorists don't rent vehicles in their own names, leave behind their telephone numbers or obligingly expose themselves to arrest for a $200 refund.

Mr. Salameh's clumsy behavior before and after the explosion has revealed some intriguing links to the past. He attends a mosque in Jersey City where Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, suspected of complicity in the murder of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, frequently preaches. He shared an address with the man acquitted of the murder of the militant Rabbi Meir Kahane but jailed for related crimes. Sheik Abdul-Rahman is accused by Egyptian authorities of violence against Coptic Christians, foreign tourists and moderate Muslims. His sect is an offshoot of the long-bloody Muslim Brotherhood, which is now trying to be respectable.

The upshot of all this is that federal and New York investigators can discard a lot of possible motives for the explosion. They can concentrate their efforts on Mr. Salameh and his associations. But they are properly cautious about making tempting leaps to sensational conclusions that would make great headlines or juicy sound bites.

It is highly unlikely the investigation will stop with the suspects already in custody. But how far the conspiracy reaches -- whether to Sheik Abdul-Rahman's followers in this country, to his adherents in Egypt, to vengeful Iraqis -- remains a tantalizing question. Answers are a lot closer than investigators expected just a few days ago, but not all are in yet.

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