Buildings reduced to crumbled concrete; debris and carnage scattered over city blocks. These scenes from last week's terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were a terrifying replay of bombings in cities as disparate as New York, Dhahran, Oklahoma City and Buenos Aires.
In all of those cities, the damage was wrought by a relatively new weapon, the truck bomb, which has vastly escalated the danger posed by terrorists. Indeed, the threat from these explosives is forcing a radical change in how agencies steel their employees against attack.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Clinton administration is putting together a multi-billion-dollar package of legislation to repair African embassies damaged by truck bombs and to upgrade security at other federal facilities around the world. Administration officials initially put the price tag of the upgrades at $1 billion, but congressional sources now say the figure could be as much as $5 billion or $6 billion.
"One of the phenomena of our time is the growing capacity of a small number of individuals to inflict ever-greater harm, and the delivery system of choice for many of these terrorists has become the Ryder truck," said William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and the CIA. As a member of a special 1995 task force, Webster recommended the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to guard against truck-bomb attacks.
"None of us wanted to take that step, and a lot of people argued that we shouldn't give in to terrorists or adopt a bunker mentality. The experts told us, however, that if a truck bomb was detonated outside the White House gates, there was a high risk that the roof would cave in, and you'd have the implosion and commensurate destruction that we've seen in these other attacks." The former intelligence chief said that members of the task force had no alternative but to recommend that large vehicles be kept away from the White House.
The fact that truck bombs have increasingly become the terrorist's weapon of choice goes a long way toward explaining why State Department statistics show that despite a drop in recent years in the number of terrorist attacks, the death toll from such incidents has risen precipitously. The bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, killed 247 (including 12 Americans) and injured nearly 5,000. In 1996, terrorists used a truck bomb to attack a U.S. military housing complex at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen and injuring more than 200 others. The Oklahoma City truck bombing killed 168 Americans and left more than 500 injured. In 1992, a truck bomb leveled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 and injuring more than 200. The 1993 terrorist truck bombing of the World Trade Center in New York killed six and injured more than 1,000.
"The truck bomb is a new phenomenon that is rapidly becoming a distinguishing characteristic of modern terrorism," said John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "Already we're at the point where nothing less than a heroic security perimeter can protect structures."
Experts agree that 1983 marked a critical turning point in terrorist attacks. Suicide bombers driving a pickup truck laden with explosives destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April of that year. The terrorists were thought to be associated with the Islamic Jihad, a radical Shia group in Lebanon with strong ties to Iran.
Even that tragedy, however, did not adequately prepare U.S. officials for Oct. 23, 1983. Driving a large delivery truck, suicide bombers rammed their way past sentries at a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, detonating thousands of pounds of TNT boosted by gas canisters. The barracks collapsed into a pile of rubble. The force of the explosion left steel reinforcing rods twisted like grotesque sculptures, and trees glistening like blown-glass figures after the blast vaporized the building's windows.
The truck bomb that destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut and killed 241 Marines was thought to be the largest non-nuclear explosion ever. Similar suicide truck-bomb attacks killed scores more French and Israeli soldiers in Lebanon in the following weeks.
U.S. forces were unprepared for the devastating power of the truck bombs. "Our field engineers and security people had designed our fortifications and defenses against car and light-vehicle bombs. Suddenly you have a massive truck carrying the equivalent of between 12,000 [and] 18,000 pounds of TNT, and driven by kamikazes," Gen. P.X. Kelley, commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, said in an interview. "We found out large trucks are good ways to bust through barriers, and that no one had anticipated the level of destruction these truck bombs could wreak. ... And they are very difficult to protect against."
With the Marine barracks bombing and the other truck-bomb attacks of 1983, the U.S. government spun into action. After a smaller bombing at the U.S. Capitol, Congress that year took the painful step of sealing off much of the Capitol grounds to vehicle traffic. It recently approved an additional $20 million to further improve perimeter security around the Capitol.
Largely as a result of the bombing of the Marine barracks and the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait in 1983, the United States launched a study of embassy security in 1985. Headed by retired Adm. Bobby R. Inman, the panel recommended establishing a 75-foot secure perimeter and 9-foot walls around all embassy buildings worldwide. It also suggested moving many embassies located in busy downtown areas out to more easily defended suburbs.
According to State Department sources, the 27 embassies built since the Inman panel released its report all meet its standards; another 34 embassies have been upgraded to meet those standards. Congressional sources concede, however, that the State Department has received less than $1 billion of the estimated $3 billion required to bring all embassies into compliance with the panel's recommended standards.
"Our information is that the administration will likely request emergency funding to rebuild the two embassies recently damaged in Africa, as well as money to urgently enhance selective diplomatic posts around the world," said an aide to Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D-Del., who has publicly called for a "redoubling of efforts" to protect U.S. diplomats overseas. "Eventually, we expect the State Department to request the additional funds needed to upgrade the rest of the embassies worldwide, which could cost well in excess of $1 billion," the aide, who asked not to be identified, said.
A number of experts point out that as each new embassy is hardened against truck-bomb attacks, however, terrorists will inevitably search for softer targets, which very likely accounts for the targeting of the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Both were on the State Department's list of embassies in "low-threat" areas, and neither had been upgraded to Inman panel standards.
U.S. officials are also concerned that the threat posed by truck bombs is evolving faster than the government's ability to improve security and protect potential targets. "We're trying to develop a kind of computerized `cheat sheet' of the lethal range and destructive power of different-sized truck bombs," said Jeffrey R. Roehm, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is testing the potency of various truck bombs. According to those tests, a compact sedan carrying 500 pounds of dynamite produces an airblast that can kill up to 100 feet away, and has a shrapnel range of up to 1,500 feet. A semi-trailer carrying 60,000 pounds of explosives, on the other hand, produced a lethal shrapnel cloud that extended nearly 1.5 miles.
And the know-how and chemical ingredients to make these powerful bombs are relatively easy to acquire. The fundamental building block for the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombs, for instance, was ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer. (Recently the ATF reported that 50,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate was stolen from a chemical company in West Virginia.)
Oklahoma City perpetrator Timothy McVeigh apparently acquired his bomb-making skills from militia group literature and his experience in the U.S. Army. World Trade Center mastermind Ramzi Yousef, meanwhile, was found with intricate bomb-making manuals and videos (complete with a segment showing a truck bomber destroying a U.S. embassy).
Finally, the truck bombs of McVeigh and Yousef were indicative of another ominous trend in modern terrorism: the marriage of those willing and indeed eager to inflict maximum casualties on innocent people with the means to do so.
"You know, Ramzi Yousef confessed that his goal was to topple one of the World Trade Towers into the other, taking out both skyscrapers and probably others nearby," said J. Gilmore Childers, the former lead prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office who secured the conviction of Yousef and a number of his accomplices. And Yousef's truck bomb nearly led to the collapse of the nearby Vista Hotel. "Given that 250,000 people pass through the World Trade Center complex each day, I shudder to think of the potential loss of life had he been successful."