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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.

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Mr. Mendoza's Philippines investigators found that the Bojinka plotters were receiving money from two sources: Local foundations run by Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, one of bin Laden's brothers-in-law; and a Malaysian trading company, Konsojaya.

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Konsojaya was no just supplying money. It also coordinating the Bojinka plotters. "It was sort of their nerve center," Mendoza says. Investigators found that Mr. Shah (the Afghan at the accidental Manila apartment explosion) was a director of the company, and evidence about it was even introduced at his trial. Yet the company's links to Al Qaeda - and Hambali - were not pursued. Had they been, Mendoza says, investigators would discovered that Hambali was also on the Konsojaya board of directors.

The arrests from the 1995 airline bombing plot also provided the first foreshadowing of the Sept. 11 attacks. During the Filipino interrogation - Murad later alleged he was severely tortured - Murad said he and Yousef had toyed with the idea of hijacking a plane and flying it into the Pentagon or the CIA. Murad had even studied at a US flight school in 1992. "My sense is when we reported this to the USA they didn't believe us very well,'' says Jose Almonte, who was the National Security Adviser at that time. "Frankly, I was thinking they were just dreaming also. It was a failure of imagination on our parts."

Almonte says that, at the time, officials assumed that with the arrests of Yousef, Murad, and Shah, the Al Qaeda presence here had been rolled up, so some of the leads turned up by Mendoza's team were not pursued. Philippines intelligence officials also say they were frustrated with the apparent disinterest of Kuala Lumpur in pursuing things further. The trail went cold.

But new links to Hambali emerged after a December 30, 2000 bomb at a train station in Manila left 22 dead. An anonymous caller to the police said the bomb had been placed in retaliation for a government attack on the main camp of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the island of Mindanao.

The Filipino police caller-ID system captured the caller's cellphone number. Investigators later found that the phone belonged to Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi, an Indonesian explosives expert now in Philippines custody. He had place calls to Indonesia and Malaysia prior to and after the attack. Phone records showed that two of the people called were Hambali and the Malaysian Faiz bin Abu Bakar Bafana, who was arrested in Singapore in December.

Singaporean officials say that Mr. Bafana has been a leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah's regional shura, or council, and that he answered directly to Hambali. Philippines army intelligence had the man who called about the Manila train station bombing (Mr. Al-Ghozi) under surveillance for most of last year. That work led them to conclude that the bomb was planted by the MILF, and that the controlling member of the operation was Mukhlis Yunos, who Philippines investigators say runs an MILF special operations group. But officials didn't know if they should arrest Al-Ghozi at that point, because they were still unsure of his identity. "We had no idea how important he was,'' says one investigator.

Acting on information from Singapore authorities, Ghozi was finally arrested on January 15 and identified. His arrest has led to the seizure of one ton of TNT and detonating equipment, and Philippines police say Al-Ghozi has admitted responsibility for the December 2000 attack in Manila.

They also say he's told interrogators that the explosives were bound for Singapore, and that he'd been given instructions and money by Bafana.

With Bafana, Al-Ghozi, and about two- dozen other associates of Hambali in custody, regional authorities are hopeful that they'll soon close in on their elusive target.

But as yet, they have no idea where he is, though investigators suspect that he may have fled to his homeland of Indonesia. It's a sprawling country with porous boarders and chaotic law-and-order situation.

And the Indonesian government seems reluctant to pursue the alleged members of the Al Qaeda network. Another Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir - whose dream is to form an Islamic state out of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Muslim portions of the Philippines - has been identified as a leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah and continues to live openly in Central Java.