NEW YORK — It had to be an accident.
Though hard to imagine now, that was the prevailing theory moments after an explosion rocked the World Trade Center around noon on a chilly Feb. 26, 1993.
The truth – that a cell of Islamic extremists had engineered a car-bomb attack that killed six people, injured more than 1,000 and caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage – “was incomprehensible at the time,” recalled FBI agent John Anticev.
On the eve of the 20-year anniversary of the bombing, Anticev and other current and former law enforcement officials involved in the case reflected on an event that taught them tough lessons about a dire threat from jihadists. That threat, now seared into the city’s psyche because of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, felt vague and remote two decades ago.
“In those days, terrorism wasn’t the first reaction,” said former federal prosecutor David Kelley.
The scale of the attack was the first dramatic demonstration that “terrorism is theater and New York is the biggest stage,” said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
A two-time commissioner, Kelly was serving his first stint when the initial report came in to police that there was an apparent transformer explosion at the trade center.
Kelly raced to the scene, where the bomb planted in a parked Ryder van had left a crater half the size of a football field in the trade center garage. For the first time since it opened in 1973, the trade center stood in the darkness that night.
In hindsight, Anticev believes agents were “too Western” in their attempts to neutralize the budding terrorists before they struck.
He described using tough interrogation tactics that would have spooked ordinary criminals – obtaining subpoenas and bringing them in for questioning in rooms where they purposely displayed surveillance photos of them on the wall.
“We thought they would be chilled by that experience,” he said. “But it was like water off a duck’s back. That did not scare them at all. They just did it anyway. ... That was a big lesson.”
Kelly believes because the suspects were quickly rounded up, in some circles they “were written off as this inept group of zealots,” Kelly said. “It was not seen as the global conspiracy it turned out to be.”