The attack on New York City’s World Trade Center (WTC) in 2001 has cast a long shadow over the start of the 21st century. So much of our understanding of the modern world – from how we travel to how people come together in the aftermath of tragedy to the notion of living under constant threat of attack – can be traced back to that terrible event.
So large does 9/11 loom that it’s easy to forget terrorism as we know it today was shaped by a series of incidents that occurred in the decade before the Twin Towers came down. The latest episode of The Nineties looks back at some of those attacks and how they redefined the concept of terrorism.
1993’s WTC bombing hit home in the US
Eight years before both its towers were hit by hijacked aeroplanes, the WTC was the site of another terrorist attack. A truck bomb detonated underneath the North Tower, killing six and injuring over 1000. Although the explosion was not as destructive as the Al Qaeda-associated group responsible had intended – the aim was to topple both towers – the incident sent a clear message that acts of Islamist extremism could and would occur on American soil.
Anti-government sentiment inspired 1995’s Oklahoma bombing
The ’90s witnessed a dramatic rise in the radical right who were fuelled by their distrust of the government and incensed by the handling of sieges in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas. Timothy McVeigh was motivated to take action, resulting in the single greatest act of domestic terrorism in American history. The Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 and injured hundreds more, was all the more shocking to Americans as it was undertaken by one of “their own”. It wouldn’t be the last time an American citizen took matters into their own hands.
1996’s Centennial Olympic Park bombing was part of a spree by a lone wolf
Just as long-running serial terrorist Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski was arrested in early 1996, another lone wolf terrorist, Eric Rudolph, commenced a series of nail bombings with an attack during that year’s Olympic Games in Atlanta. Motivated by an anti-abortion and anti-gay agenda, Rudolph made it clear that the days of terrorists being aligned to a clearly identifiable group were long gone.
Simultaneous attacks at two US embassies in 1998 indicated a new level of terrorism
On 7 August, 1998, truck bombs exploded at the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Keyna. Orchestrated by Al Qaeda, the twin attacks were part of a new, coordinated terrorist effort that crossed international borders and was run in a business-like manner by educated men like Osama bin Laden. This new far-reaching, intricately planned form of terrorism is something we’re very familiar with now.
Non-politically motivated terrorism emerged in 1999’s Columbine High School massacre
The decade ended with a school shooting that established not all acts of terror are politically motivated – or committed by people you’d typically describe as terrorists. The exact motivation for the attack by teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on fellow students and staff at Columbine High School is unclear. Given their initial aim was to kill and injure hundreds by planting homemade pipe bombs (that failed to explode) in the school cafeteria, however, it is clear that terrorists is a fitting description for the pair, who committed suicide at the scene. Today, the definition of terrorism has widened to include seemingly non-political acts of mass-murder.
Watch the terrorism episode of The Nineties at SBS On Demand: