Bush details terror plot

Defending counterterrorism, the president told of a thwarted attack on L.A.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bush to US: It's still a dangerous world out there, but we're making progress in rounding up the bad guys.

In essence, that may be the message that President Bush and other administration officials are trying to convey this week as they defend White House actions in the war in terror.

Headlines about possibly illegal eavesdropping activity authorized by the president, plus more bombings in Iraq and revelations about the slow pace of Iraqi reconstruction, have put the Bush team on the defensive this week. In revealing details about an alleged Al Qaeda plot to fly an airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper, plus insisting that terrorists are weakened and on the run, Bush may be attempting to counter bad news.

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"The timing of this clearly has to do with politics ... but that doesn't mean the [L.A. plot] isn't true," says Lorenzo Vidino, a terrorism expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

In a speech Thursday at the National Guard Memorial Building in Washington, President Bush said that the US and its allies had thwarted a plot to use shoe bombs to blow open the cockpit door of an airliner, hijack it, and fly it into the tallest building on the US West coast.

Bush called this target the "Liberty Building," but its name in 2001 was the "Library Tower," and it has since been renamed the US Bank Tower.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was behind the L.A. plot, said Bush. The Al Qaeda operative began planning it in October 2001.

Mr. Mohammed's co-conspirator in this plot was Hambali, also known as Riduan Isamuddin, thought to be the operations chief of Southeast Asia's largest Al Qaeda-related group, Jemaah Islamiyah. Hambali's job was to recruit Asian hijackers, who were likely to attract less attention from law enforcement authorities than Arabs. He recruited four operatives for the cell, whose leader was personally trained by Mohammed in shoebombing, according to a Department of Homeland Security briefing given after the president's speech. The operatives met with Osama bin Laden before going back to Asia.

Bush said that the plan unravelled when a key Southeast Asian nation arrested one of the operatives. He did not say who this operative was, or which nation nabbed him.

"Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target and how Al Qaeda hoped to execute it," said Bush. "This critical intelligence helped other allies capture the ringleaders and other known operatives who'd been recruited for this effort."

Hambali was captured by Indonesian authorities in 2003. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan that same year.

Bush has referred to the Library Tower plot before, but only in vague terms. In an address last October, he said the US and its allies had foiled at least 10 serious Al Qaeda plots, including plans for a Sept. 11-like attack on both coasts.

Thursday's revelations provide a fuller picture and add details, says Mr. Vidino, author of the book "Al Qaeda in Europe."

The plot Bush outlined made sense, considering that Mohammed had long been interested in a second wave of attacks, and had previously cooperated with Southeast Asian Al Qaeda adherents. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the US on the West Coast, with help from Hambali, says Vidino.

Al Qaeda has also long wanted to attack California, as well as other targets scattered throughout the United States. Khalid Sheik Mohammed "wanted to scare the entire country," says Vidino.

The White House would not say whether the National Security Agency's controversial warrantless eavesdropping program played any role in uncovering the West Coast plot.

Bush's speech came as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, announced he is writing legislation intended to force the administration to defend the legality of the eavesdropping in court.

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