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
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
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
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
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
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.