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Filipino police uncover 1995 leads to Sept. 11 plot

Recent arrests are providing new clues linking Al Qaeda to other bombing plots.

By Special to the Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 2002


Philippines investigators are re-examining two terror plots they long ago foiled and placed in their "solved" file. Their findings? At various times over the past six years, investigators were tantalizingly close to exposing the Al Qaeda operatives that assisted in planning the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

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Filipino police were close in January 1995, when they broke up a plan to assassinate the Pope on a visit to Manila, and bomb 11 US commercial airliners in Asia. They were even closer in January 2000, when a man called the police to take credit for a Manila bombing but carelessly used his cellphone.

Investigators say that those two incidents could have been used to hunt down the man who is now emerging as Al Qaeda's southeast Asian point man: Riduan Isamuddin. The round-faced Indonesian cleric, who is better known as "Hambali," is now the focus of an intense manhunt by Malaysian, Singaporean, and Filipino police.

Intelligence officials here say that during the past decade, Hambali and his associates have built a logistical support network for Al Qaeda - supplying housing, cash, and false documents to the men involved in some of the most damaging terrorist attacks ever launched on the US: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen; and the Sept. 11 attacks. For example, Hambali and his subordinates met with at least two of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers in Malaysia as far back as January 2000, officials here say.

They say that Hambali's organization provided money and documents identifying Zacarias Moussaoui as a consultant for a Malaysian company, Infocus Tech, which allowed him to enter the US. Mr. Moussaoui is a Sept. 11 suspect and is now in US custody.

Regional security analysts say the reasons Hambali wasn't pursued sooner is that the assumption was that there were few, if any, Al Qaeda operatives native to the region. Moreover, there was weak coordination by regional and US intelligence agencies.

"If you're serious about counterterrorism, you have to keep at it, all the time," says Rodolfo Mendoza, head of the Philippine National Police intelligence unit, who led the operation that uncovered the 1995 airliner bomb plot. "In hindsight, the regional terrorist network wasn't taken seriously enough."

US investigators crisscrossing the region are now focusing on the terror cells exposed in Singapore and Malaysia this past December. Those cells, officials say, were planning to truck bomb the US Embassy and other targets in Singapore with Al Qaeda assistance.

Trajectory of an Al Qaeda operative

Hambali left his native Indonesia in the mid 1980s, when he was in his early 20s, intelligence officials say. He allegedly left in disgust because of the government's repressive measures against the proponents of political Islam. And like thousands of others, Hambali was responding to the call to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When he returned to the region in 1991, he started building his organization.

But Filipino investigators say that their first clue to Hambali's terrorist activities didn't emerge until January 1995, after a small fire broke out in the Dona Josefa apartment building in Manila's Bohemian Malate district. When police arrived to check it out, one of the men who had rented the apartment, a Pakistani named Abdul Murad, bolted.

They chased him down, and entered the apartment. The investigators say the fire had been caused by chemicals Murad and an associate, Kuwaiti Ramzi Yousef were mixing to make pipe bombs. They found maps of the Pope's route, flight schedules, and a laptop with details of a plan to simultaneously blow up 11 United, Delta, and Northwest airplanes. They had nicknamed their plan "Bojinka," which means explosion in Serbo-Croatian.

The discovery led to the eventual arrests of not only Murad, but an Afghan as well, Wali Khan Amin Shah. Mr. Shah fled to Malaysia, and Mr. Yousef fled to Pakistan. But this wasn't Yousef and Murad's first bomb plot.

They were later captured, and convicted in New York for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Shah, too, was was convicted in the US for conspiring to attack US targets.

But there were other connections in that case that weren't pursued. Officials now say that there was sufficient evidence uncovered to link Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network with a then unknown regional network of Islamic radicals that Hambali was secretly helping to build.