Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Nothing They Can Do
The Terrorist Threat to the World Bank

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 3, 2004 --  

It was "business as usual" on Monday at the World Bank. Not 24 hours earlier, Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge revealed that an al Qaeda operative had been captured along with files detailing the floor plans, security procedures, and vulnerabilities of this and several other "iconic" financial institutions in the United States.

But other than the television trucks parked out front, there were few indications that anything was different from any other Monday. Streets remained open to rush-hour traffic, with anonymous delivery trucks and busses passing freely by the sides of the building. Employees largely ignored the television cameras as they hurried into work, passing through the non-functional metal detectors in the lobby, and carrying their bags unchecked as they have each day before.

But the absence of security changes did not mean that the World Bank's management was unaware of the threat. Waves of employees packed an auditorium beyond capacity to hear a 3 p.m. address by World Bank president James Wolfensohn, and stragglers had to watch on video monitors in the cafeteria. Fresh back from an aborted vacation in the Galapagos1, it half seemed that Wolfensohn's mind was still in the tropics as he continued to downplay the danger. He stressed that there was nothing to suggest an attack had been planned for the near future, and employees simply needed to stick together as before.

His security chief, Pete Gallant, was far more candid, both about the nature of the crisis and the limitations of what he could do. The main threat is from suicide car and truck bombs, he said, so restrictions on street parking are of little deterrent to those willing to give their lives. He said all delivery vehicles would be pre-screened at another location, and employee vehicles entering the parking garage would be matched against a vehicle registration database.

And while visitors will soon be screened in outdoor tents, Gallant said, employees will not be subjected to any new scrutiny. Both Gallant and Wolfensohn insisted that employees had to be trusted -- a seemingly ludicrous position in light of a New York Times report that federal officials told Wolfensohn that al Qaeda must have had inside help casing the building.2

But Gallant is correct that vehicles pose the greatest threat to the building. The building's east side is separated from traffic by only 26 feet of unobstructed sidewalk. As of today, a bomb-filled truck could dive on the sidewalk directly to the edge of the glass-sided building. This will change, Gallant said, when concrete barriers are placed curbside. There is little chance, however, of closing streets to either trucks or general traffic, he said, given that the one-way streets on the east and west sides of the building are the only cross-town arteries west of the White House. And although the police will be doing "random" searches of passing trucks, it is not possible to inspect them all, he said.

These hard realities, straight from the mouth of the World Bank's security chief, mean that the building is terribly vulnerable. Even when concrete barriers are in place at street's edge, a passing bus packed with explosives could be detonated less than 30 feet from the facade. While this is much further than the 10-foot distance from the Ryder truck to the Oklahoma City federal building3, it is still close enough to result in catastrophic damage. The Khobar Towers apartment building, for example, was destroyed by a tanker bomb over 85 feet away. 4 And a much smaller truck bomb, like the one that hit the Tanzanian Embassy in 1998, was behind a perimeter wall and still managed to internally destroy the chancery building 35 feet away.5

It is precisely this reason that U.S. embassies, sadly, are now built as virtual fortresses with setbacks of at least 100 feet from surrounding streets.6 But the location of the World Bank's new glass-walled headquarters, in the dense office district west of the White House, offers no chance for such setbacks. And the idea of abandoning the World Bank's gleaming headquarters, completed just 8 years ago at a cost of $160 million7, is simply unspeakable. For good or bad, the World Bank is there to stay.

Despite these hard realities, most employees showed up for work as usual on Monday, exhibiting a varied reaction to the danger -- obliviousness, denial, defiance, and most often resignation. This resignation is particularly widespread among the many international employees, whose work visas are dependent upon their employment. For these workers, quitting the World Bank would mean losing the ability to live and work in the United States -- hardly an option at all. The only course for these employees, as well as the Bank's management, is to simply resign themselves to the risk. There is nothing else they can do.

David G. Young works, for now, as an on-site consultant to the World Bank. His desk is in the headquarters building.


1. New York Times, Inside Help Suspected in Terror Plans at World Bank and Monetary Fund, August 3, 2004

2. Ibid.

3. Hinman Consulting Engineers, A Structural Analysis of the Oklahoma City Bombing, April 1995

4. House National Security Committee, The Khobar Towers Bombing Incident, August 14, 1996

5. Department of State, Report on the Accountability Review Boards on the Embassy Bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998, January 1999

6. The New York Times, Envoy's Requests for Safer Buildings Had Been Denied for Budget Reasons, August 13, 1998

7. Weidlinger Associates, Showcase Projects, August 2004