The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, have obscured the memory of the previous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993. That bombing may have killed a vastly smaller number of people (six), but the explosion also injured more than 1,000, did massive damage to the infrastructure and came incredibly close to bringing down the building.
"Operation: Tradebom" is a new Apple Original podcast that revisits what should be remembered as one of the most lethal terror attacks on American soil, investigating the story in the true-crime style that makes for compelling podcast listening. Apple has released a trailer for the series.
"Operation: Tradebom" incorporates extensive interviews with survivors of the explosion, the law enforcement officials from the Joint Terrorism Task Force who investigated the crime and the son of El Sayyid Nossair, who assassinated Radical Rabbi Meir Kahane three years before the attack.
The first two episodes will be available via Apple Podcasts on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, and a new episode will be released every Monday until the final episode drops on Feb. 27, one day after the 30th anniversary of the bombing.
"Operation: Tradebom" is hosted by Marc Smerling, a producer with a history of making compelling documentary podcasts and movies. Smerling was behind the excellent "Crimetown" podcast, which examined the organized crime histories of Providence, Rhode Island, and Detroit. He was Oscar-nominated for his documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" and won an Emmy for the HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst."
Smerling spoke with Military.com about the new podcast series. He's a man who knows how to tell a story and agrees that this bombing is, at its heart, a crime story. "We've been fed this idea that it was a global conspiracy by rogue states and blah, blah, blah," said Smerling. "But it was very much a crime by a handful of guys who had a beef with the United States. And this is how they worked it out. There are certainly bigger actors in it later on. But back then in 1993, it was kind of the 'gang that couldn't shoot straight' until Ramzi Yousef showed up.
"Yousef tries to bring down some planes, and then he's on the run. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is over in Qatar, but they're plotting these things together," he continued. "Ramzi Yousef received money before the 1993 bombing from KSM. Not a lot, like 900 bucks, but they built a whole bomb for under $3,000.
"It was so bad that when Ramzi Yousef told Mohammed Salameh to get out of the country, he had no money. So he went back to the Ryder truck place to get his deposit back. How stupid can you be? But he needed that money to upgrade a child's ticket he had to an adult ticket. They were doing it on a shoestring. Later on, KSM got together with Osama bin Laden and did 9/11."
Like a lot of Americans, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was on my radar for a couple of weeks after the news broke, and then I mostly forgot about it until I listened to this podcast. Smerling says I'm not alone. "I Googled in the archives of The New York Times to see how many articles have been written, because I have spoken a lot with Richard Bernstein, who wrote about all this for the Times. And they haven't written anything about it since 1993.
"This was a big deal for a moment, and then it vanished. We forgot about it almost instantly, except for the JTF guys who were trying to track Ramsey down," he continued. "I guess that's understandable, because even though the damage was severe, it didn't bring the towers down. It could have if he parked the truck in a different place"
"The plan was to bring the towers down. When you put it into that perspective, and then you know, about 9/11, know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, you see a clear, straight line. That was the reason I made the podcast, because I never really fully understood it. Then Jon Liebman, who is a former U.S. attorney, pitched me the idea and told me that the 9/11 conspiracy goes back all the way to '93. And then I started looking at it, and I realized it's just a crime story. And it's a familial crime story at some level. If you track it with two feet on the ground and follow these investigators, you'll see very clearly how simple it was at some level. It wasn't that complicated."
Most of Smerling's previous work has been notable for its excellent narration. His team took a different approach with "Operation: Tradebom," and the episodes mostly just feature individuals telling their stories with brief introductions from Smerling. "That was my initial instinct," he said. "Because this is such a fraught story. These people have been so damaged long term by these events. I really wanted to give space for them to tell their stories without weaving myself into them. Sometimes you need a little helping hand to move the story forward through time or compress it, but it just felt like that, if I sat with them long enough, I could get them to tell it from their perspective, and it would feel much more personal to them. And the result is much more like a television show or a movie."
Based on the five episodes available for review, Smerling made the right decision. Even though each episode is only around 30 minutes long, it feels like the people involved in the story have plenty of space to share their experiences, and you'll likely want to roll into the next episode right away when you finish one.
As we continue to live with the fallout from 9/11 after two decades, it's worth revisiting the history of the events that led up to the attacks. "Operation: Tradebom" is a valuable addition to that historical record.
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