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.
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.
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.
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.
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.