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Worst Terrorist Acts on American Soil

Updated on March 25, 2016
Jaynie2000 profile image

With a degree in Sociology & concentrations in English & Religion, Jaynie has a keen interest in politics, social norms & mental health.

Twin Towers Attack
Twin Towers Attack

Many acts of violence have been committed on American soil since the birth of our nation. Many have been committed in the name of religion or politics. Many have been committed simply because the perpetrators were mentally ill. It can be difficult to define an act of terrorism, but for the purposes of this article, it includes acts committed on a large scale that were religiously or politically motivated or fueled by anti-government sentiments.

Attack on Pearl Harbor
Attack on Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor Attack, December 7, 1941

The United States entry into WWII was instigated by the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941. Fighter planes, torpedo planes and bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy, aimed the attacks at the US Naval Base in Pearl Harbor just before 8:00 am, as unsuspecting naval men and civilians were beginning their morning routines. Four of the eight US Naval battleships in the harbor that morning were hit and four of them sank.The most famous of these ships, the Arizona, remains largely underwater and is a major tourist attraction in Hawaii to this day. Until September 11, 2001, the attacks on Pearl Harbor had claimed the largest number of American lives with 2,403 killed and another 1,178 wounded.

Firefighter with the body of Baylee Almon.
Firefighter with the body of Baylee Almon.

Bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, OK

A Ryder truck loaded with homemade explosives was parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, just prior to 9:00 am. The bombing was planned by militia movement sympathizer, Timothy McVeigh, who had previously served less than one year in the army during the Gulf War, and his accomplice, Terry Nichols. The two had met during basic training at Fort Benning and bonded over their dissatisfaction with how the FBI had handled incidents involving religious cults at Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas. Original plans to destroy a building were scrapped in favor of killing as many people as possible in order to send a stronger message. As a result, 168 people were killed in the bombing, which obliterated a ground level day care center shortly after parents had dropped off their young children. 15 of those children died in the blast. 99 of the dead were federal employees. McVeigh went on trial for this act of domestic terrorism on April 24, 1997 and was eventually sentenced to death. His execution was the first federal execution in 38 years. Nichols went on trial twice and was ultimately sentenced to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. There were two other accomplices, married couple Michael and Lori Fortier. Michael had been another Army acquaintance. The two were charged with failing to notify federal authorities of the impending crime and of providing various forms of support during the bombing’s planning phases. Michael testified against McVeigh and Nichols in exchange for a reduced sentence and immunity for his wife. After serving 10 years of a 12 year sentence and paying a $75,000 fine, Michael was released from prison, given a new identity and placed into witness protection.

Ted Kaczynski
Ted Kaczynski

Unabomber - Ted Kaczynski

Famous recluse and Harvard trained mathematician, Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, terrorized America by sending homemade bombs via US Mail to targets that offended his anti-industrialization and anti-technology sensibilities. Over a 17-year period he mailed 16 bombs that ultimately killed 3 people and injured over 20 others. He was difficult to identify and apprehend because he had been living off the grid in a remote cabin the woods of Montana without electricity or running water for several years. In 1995 he sent his famous Unabomber Manifesto to The New York Times, promising to cease terrorist activities in exchange for publication of the manifesto in the New York Times or the Washington Post. After publication, Kaczynski’s brother, David, recognized the rambling writing and points of view as those of his brother and made the difficult decision to turn him in, after receiving assurances that he could remain anonymous (that obviously didn’t work out) and that his brother would receive the psychological counseling he needed.

Eric Robert Rudolph
Eric Robert Rudolph

Centennial Park Bombing - 1996 Summer Olympics

A pipe bomb exploded at the Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, killing one person and injuring 111 others. The bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, would go on to commit three other bombings before being caught five years later, in 1993. He managed to elude authorities for so long after disappearing into the Appalachian Mountains. Initially, they had mistakenly identified a different suspect, Richard Jewell, the man who found the bombs and helped to evacuate the area prior to their detonation.

Rudolph stated that the bombings were his response to outrage over the government’s position on abortion, which he believed were “sanctioned on demand.” He hoped that the Olympics would be cancelled as a means of devaluing the “vast amounts of money invested” in them and killing the country’s ability to “celebrate the ideals of global socialism.”

He is currently serving several life sentences without parole at a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

World Trade Center Collapsing
World Trade Center Collapsing

World Trade Center, Pentagon Attacks: September 11, 2001

On what many will remember as the worst act of terrorism ever perpetrated on American soil, terrorists hijacked four planes out of Boston’s Logan Airport and Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., and flew them into both World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. The fourth plane was believed headed toward Washington D.C., but crashed into a field in Shanksville, PA after passengers who had learned of the earlier attacks over-powered the terrorists and foiled their plan. In all, 19 terrorists participated in these attacks, and each of them was killed.

The first plane to strike hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am. It was an unbelievable sight and as the world was getting the first reports and trying to determine how it could have happened, the south tower was hit by the second plane at 9:03 am. By this time there could be no doubt. This was an act of terrorism.

Loved ones reeled in disbelief and anxiety mounted as family and friends tried to reach their loved ones in the towers or on the planes. Within a half hour of the attacks on the World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles International Airport crashed into the Pentagon between corridors 4 and 5. America was at war. But with whom?

By this time, loved ones had made contact with passengers on US Airlines Flight 93 and informed them of news on the ground. Passengers knew they had been hijacked and were determined to prevent further loss of life on the ground. In an attempt to wrest control of the plane from hijackers, the plane crash landed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing 44 persons on board, including the four terrorists. Passengers were hailed as martyred heros for preventing a probable attack on either the White House or the Nation’s Capitol building.

Soon after the attacks it was determined that they had been planned and orchestrated by a group of terrorists from the Al-Qaeda organization that was led by terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden. US Officials hunted for bin Laden for years before he was finally killed in a compound raid in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

Parking garage beneath the north tower
Parking garage beneath the north tower
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

World Trade Center Bombing, 1993

While the attacks of September 11, 2001 may be the most famous attacks on the World Trade Center, they are not the first. On February 26, 1993, a truck loaded with explosives pulled into a parking garage beneath the north tower. While six people tragically died in this attack, the goal had been far more sinister. Terrorists had planned to kill tens of thousands of people and destroy both the north and south tower using a device made of urea nitrate hydrogen gas. In addition to the six killed, over 1000 were injured. Five men were responsible for planning and organizing the bombing, Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Ahmed Ajaj, Nidal Ayyad, and Mohammad Salameh. The latter four were convicted in March 1994. Yousef and the driver of the truck, Eyad Ismoil were convicted two years later. The terrorists had been financed by Yousef’s uncle, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed who was also responsible for the Bali nightclub bombing in Indonesia, and the famous beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl on February 1, 2002.

Letters to U.S. Senators containing anthrax
Letters to U.S. Senators containing anthrax
Bruce Edward Ivins
Bruce Edward Ivins

Anthrax Attacks, September - November 2001

One week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, letters containing deadly anthrax spores were received by news media outlets and the offices of two Democratic U.S. Senators. Five people died as a result of exposure and 17 others were infected. The FBI scrambled to determine the letters’ origins and the focus on bio-terrorism reached fever pitch. After intensive investigation in several suspects, the FBI settled on Bruce Edwards Ivins who was a government scientist at a biodefense lab in Maryland. Ivins committed suicide by overdosing on acetaminophen in 2008 and no other suspect was ever identified or pursued. No additional attacks ensued, leading the case to be closed with Ivins as the only viable suspect.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Boston Marathon Bombing, April 15, 2013

Three people were killed and nearly 300 injured when two pressure cooker bombs exploded only yards from the finish line at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Two suspects were caught on surveillance videos and soon identified as Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. After fleeing the scene, the brothers killed an MIT officer and stole and SUV. A gunfight with local police ensued and Tamerlan was killed. Dzhokhar escaped but was found soon afterward hiding in a boat nearby and arrested. While in custody, he stated that he and his brother were self-radicalized Muslims reacting to their outrage over the ongoing wars in Iraq in Afganistan. He denied affiliation with any organized terrorist organization. While he was hospitalized for a gunshot wound, he was indicted on 30 charges of domestic terrorism and in April 2015 he was found guilty on all counts. He has since been sentenced to death and only recently expressed remorse for his actions and the lives that were lost as a result of his and his brother’s actions.

Which act of terrorism was the worst in US history?

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