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The day Seattle faced an Al Qaeda threat

Mayor Paul Schell in 1999 Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

If Mayor Greg Nickels does indeed not survive the August 18 primary, inevitable comparisons to Paul Schell’s similar election failure eight years ago, when Schell came in third behind Nickels and former City Attorney Mark Sidran, are bound to follow. (Schell had only served one term when he sought reelection, rather than Nickels’ two terms).

For all of Schell’s missteps and the bad fortune of being Mayor during the WTO riots of 1999, he is rarely credited for one important accomplishment: being the first American elected official to publicly deal with a very real terrorism threat from Al Qaeda before 9/11. As The Seattle Times reported on December 28, 1999, Mayor Schell cancelled 1999 New Year’s Eve festivities at Seattle Center in the wake of the arrest of Ahmed Ressam in Port Angeles, as Ressam entered the United States with car full of bomb-making materials, and a hotel reservation on Lower Queen Anne Hill.

While investigators later determined Ressam’s target to be LAX airport, multiple sources reported at the time he planned to attack the celebration at the Space Needle on December 31. For those who were here then, there was a palpable creepiness (along with a certain amount of disbelief — terrorists target Seattle?) in the air along with the jingle bells and peppermint lattes.

It’s true that the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, but that incident came without warning and did not take place during a large public gathering. It’s also true that Ressam’s arrest and Schell’s decision to cancel the Seattle Center event came in the weeks following the city’s disastrous handling of the WTO conference. Just about everybody was still pretty jumpy, and the “Y2K” doomsayers were still predicting technological mayhem come the end of 1999.

Still, given the information apparently available at the time, Seattle and Mayor Schell were the first to go head to head with the terrorists. And since nobody got hurt, I’d say Seattle won.

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