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Sunday, January 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Agonized hindsight over early terror plot

Special to The Washington Post

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The footage of the hijacked airliner striking the World Trade Center made Aida Fariscal bolt.

"Oh my God," she gasped. "Bojinka."

For the retired Filipina policewoman, the nightmare that word evoked had receded into distant memory. Sometimes weeks went by without her even thinking about the terrorist plot she had foiled some six years ago. But there it was, after all this time, unfolding live on television.

"I thought at first that I was having a bad dream," Fariscal said. But as the towers came crashing down, her disbelief turned to anger. "I still don't understand how it could have been allowed to happen."

She is bitter that the generals in the Philippine high command hogged all the credit for Bojinka, while all she received was $700 and a free trip to Taiwan. She is bitter that the Americans apparently didn't take the foiled plot seriously enough. But most of all, she is angry that, in the end, her hunch didn't save thousands of lives after all. "I can't get those images," she said of the World Trade Center wreckage, "out of my mind."

The call came in shortly after 11 on a Friday night back in January 1995: a routine fire alarm, smoke on the top floor of the six-story Doña Josefa apartment building just down the street from Manila Police Station No. 9. Fariscal, the watch commander, dispatched Patrolman Ariel Fernandez to check it out. "Nothing to worry about," he reported when he returned a few minutes later. "Just some Pakistanis playing with firecrackers."

Fariscal wasn't so sure. Her instinct that night told her something was wrong.

"The pope was coming to the Philippines, we were worried about security.... " she recalled.

She, Fernandez and another officer walked past the uprooted palm trees back to the apartments.

"What's happening here, boss?" Fariscal asked the Doña Josefa doorman. Two men, he said, had fled their sixth-floor apartment, pulling on their pants as they ran in the smoky corridor. "They told me everything was under control, just some fireworks that accidentally went off."

In Suite 603, Fariscal found a cluttered one-bedroom bachelor pad. The first thing she noticed was four hot plates, still in their packing crates. Bundles of cotton lay scattered around the room, soaked in some sort of pungent beige solution, next to clear plastic containers of various sizes and shapes bearing the stamp of German and Pakistani chemical manufacturers. And loops of electrical wiring.

They scrambled back downstairs, where the doorman appeared to be in a high state of agitation. "That's one of them," he whispered. "He's coming back."

Patrolman Fernandez grabbed the suspect. He was young, in his mid-to-late 20s, Fariscal guessed. He said his name was Ahmed Saeed, that he was a commercial pilot, and that he was just on his way to the precinct house to explain the firecracker smoke.

"There's the other one," interrupted the doorman, pointing to a thin, bearded individual standing outside. Fariscal set off in his direction. He was calmly talking on his cell phone, smoking a pipe and watching her. Fariscal had no idea she was looking at Ramzi Yousef, the man who had tried to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993.

The sound of gunfire froze Fariscal in her tracks. She whirled around to see Patrolman Fernandez aiming his service revolver at Saeed's fleeing back. As the policemen gave chase, Saeed suddenly sprawled on the pavement — he had tripped over the exposed roots of a tree toppled by the typhoon. Saeed was back in custody, but in the confusion, his accomplice had fled.

Saeed offered a bribe. "I'll give you $2,000 to let me go," he pleaded. Most Manila police officers don't make that in a year. But Fariscal refused.

By now, the senior inspector had an inkling that she had stumbled onto something big. She couldn't know, however, just how big — that amid the clutter of the chemicals and cotton at the Doña Josefa apartment, investigators would unearth a plan that, with the benefit of hindsight, career CIA officers today admit looks alarmingly like an early blueprint for the Sept. 11 attack on America.

At the precinct, Saeed signed a handwritten statement claiming that he was simply a tourist visiting a friend in the chemicals import-export business. But, perhaps sensing that the game was up, he complained to Fariscal that there are "two Satans that must be destroyed: the pope and America."

The senior inspector had already surmised that Pope John Paul II was a target of assassination, a suspicion that was borne out when she returned with the bomb squad to Suite 603 at 2:30 a.m. and found a photograph of the pontiff tucked into the corner of a bedside mirror, near a new crucifix, rosary and Bible.

There were street maps of Manila, plotting the papal motorcade's route; two remote-control pipe bombs; and a phone message from a tailor saying that the cassock Saeed had ordered was ready for a final fitting.

"It was obvious they had planned to dress someone up as a priest, and smuggle the bomb past the Holy Father's security detail," Fariscal recalls. But the sheer magnitude of the chemical arsenal Fariscal found in Suite 603 also made it clear that the conspirators had other targets.

It took days for the bomb squad to draw up a complete inventory of the apartment's contents, which included a cornucopia of explosive ingredients: sulfuric, picric and nitric acid, pure glycerin, acetone, sodium trichlorate, nitrobenzoyl, ammonia, silver nitrates, methanamine and ANFO binary explosive, among others.

Funnels, thermometers, graduated cylinders and beakers, mortars and pestles, various electronic fusing systems, timers, circuit breakers, batteries, chemistry reference manuals, a bomb recipe and a box of Rough Rider lubricated condoms rounded out the home laboratory.

The recipe, written in Arabic, on how to build powerful liquid bombs and part of more than 200 pages of classified Philippine and U.S. intelligence documents obtained by The Washington Post Magazine, was chilling in its simplicity. Step 1: "Put 0.5g of sodium hydroxide with 30 ml of warm water. Add to them 3g of picric acid ... " Step 6: "By using an eye dropper, very slowly add sulfuric acid to the liquid until its color is changed to orange, then to brown ... " Step 11: "Leave the mixture for 12 to 14 hours to allow the acetone peroxide to precipitate, then wash on filter paper until pH level 7 ... " Final step: "Put them in a dark place to dry."

That dark place turned out to be the cupboard under the apartment's kitchen sink, where technicians found a foot-long bomb with a Casio wristwatch timer.

"The guys in the bomb squad had never seen an explosive like this before," Fariscal says. Neither had many U.S. investigators.

"The particularly evil genius of this device was that it was virtually undetectable by airport-security measures," says Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center.

Fariscal found dozens of passports in different names hidden in a wall divider. Saeed, apparently, had many aliases. His real name, investigators would eventually discover, was Abdul Hakim Murad.

According to transcripts from his interrogation, he was the Pakistani-born son of a crane operator for a Kuwait petroleum company. He had graduated from high school in Al-Jery, Kuwait, before attending the Emirates Flying School in Dubai and moving on to flight schools in Texas, upstate New York and North Carolina, where he received a commercial pilot's license from Coastal Aviation Inc. on June 8, 1992.

Murad was a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. So, it turned out, was his accomplice at the Doña Josefa Apartments, the thin, bearded man who had given Fariscal the slip. He had registered under the name Najy Awaita Haddad, purporting to be a Moroccan national. But the United States already had a thick file on him, and that was just one of his 21 known aliases. He was in fact Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a fugitive with a $2 million bounty placed on his head by the U.S. government.

Fingerprints lifted at the apartment helped give Yousef away; a life spent assembling bombs had left his fingers burnt and distinctively deformed from mishaps mixing tricky chemical concoctions.

The most damning information found in the apartment was gleaned from Yousef's notebook computer, and four diskettes.

One of Yousef's translated documents spells out the terrorist cell's broad objectives.

"All people who support the U.S. government are our targets in our future plans and that is because all those people are responsible for their government's actions and they support the U.S. foreign policy and are satisfied with it," it declared.

"We will hit all U.S. nuclear targets," the manifesto continued. "If the U.S. government keeps supporting Israel, then we will continue to carry out operations inside and outside the United States to include — " here the text ends.

Another file consisted of a printout of U.S. airline schedules, which initially baffled investigators. The file, named Bojinka, listed the travel itineraries of 11 long-haul flights between Asia and the United States, mostly on United and American airlines. All the flights had several legs, and were grouped under five headings bearing code names of accomplices such as Zyed, Majbos or Obaid. Each accomplice would leave the bombs on the first leg of the flight, and then eventually return to locations such as Lahore, Pakistan. Obaid, for instance, would fly from Singapore to Hong Kong on United Flight 80, which continued as United Flight 806 to San Francisco.

Zyed, on the other hand, would take Northwest Airlines Flight 30 from Manila to Seoul, with continued service to Los Angeles.

Investigators had made the connection between the dozens of Casio wristwatches found in Suite 603 and one discovered a few weeks earlier on a Philippine Airlines flight from the Philippine town of Cebu to Tokyo's Narita International Airport. The watch had served to detonate a blast that ripped through the Boeing 747, killing a Japanese passenger and forcing the plane to make an emergency landing.

In Camp Crame, a military installation on the outskirts of Manila, Murad was subjected for 67 days to what Philippine intelligence reports delicately refer to as TI, or tactical interrogation. By the time he was handed over to the Americans, interrogators had extracted everything they thought they needed to know.

Yousef, Murad said, had been responsible for the blast aboard the Philippine airliner, which was actually a dry run to test the terrorists' new generation of nitroglycerin explosive, known as a "Mark II" bomb.

Yousef had deposited his device — lethal liquid concealed in a contact-lens-solution bottle with cotton-ball stabilizing agents and a harmless-looking wristwatch wrapped around it — under seat 27F on the Manila-to-Cebu leg of the flight to Tokyo. He had gotten off in Cebu after setting the watch's timer for four hours later.

The same plan, code-named Operation Bojinka (which is pronounced Bo-GIN-ka and means "loud bang" in Serbo-Croatian), was to be repeated on the 11 American commercial jetliners, with the timing devices synchronized to go off as the planes reached mid-ocean.

U.S. federal prosecutors later estimated that 4,000 passengers would have died had the plot been successful.

The Bojinka operation called for a second, perhaps even more ambitious phase, as interrogators discovered when they pressed Murad about his pilot's license.

All those years in flight school, he confessed, had been in preparation for a suicide mission. He was to load a small plane, preferably a Cessna, with explosives and crash it into CIA headquarters.

There were secondary targets the terrorist cell wanted hit: Congress, the White House, the Pentagon and possibly some skyscrapers. The only problem, Murad said, was that they needed more trained pilots to carry out the plot.

"It's so chilling," Fariscal says. "Those kamikaze pilots trained in America, just like Murad." The FBI knew all about Yousef's plans. They'd seen the files, been inside 603. The CIA had access to everything, too. ...

"This should have never, ever been allowed to happen," she repeated angrily.

U.S. officials say that they did pay attention. FBI spokesman John Collingwood denies that the bureau had advance knowledge of a plot to turn airliners into flying bombs.

"The FBI had no warnings about any hijack plots. There was a widely publicized 1995 conspiracy in Manila to remotely blow up 11 U.S. airliners over the Pacific," Collingwood said in a letter to the editor to The Post in October, "but that was disrupted. And, as is the practice, what was learned in that investigation was widely disseminated, even internationally, and thoroughly analyzed by multiple agencies. It does not connect to the current case."

Not everyone in the American intelligence community, however, is of the same mind. "There certainly were enough precursors that should have led analysts to suspect that the U.S could come under domestic attack," says Cannistraro, the former CIA counterterrorism chief. "There's no question about it. We knew about the pilots and suicide plots. Just didn't put two and two together."

That failure to connect the dots — or at the very least, monitor Middle Eastern students at U.S. flight schools — lies at the heart of the intelligence breakdown, Cannistraro says.

To be fair, it's a big leap from stealing a Cessna to commandeering a Boeing 767. "It's the imagination that failed us," says a former senior CIA agent, "not the system." He dismissed the connection to Bojinka as a "hindsight is cheap" theory.

Yet it is precisely the responsibility of the agency's thousands of planners and analysts to dream up what may appear as crazy scenarios to find ways to thwart them. And it is unclear what became of the information taken from Operation Bojinka.

"We didn't file it and forget about it," a CIA spokeswoman said. Indeed, shortly after Yousef's liquid bombs were discovered, the Federal Aviation Administration did begin installing "sniffer" devices, which can detect explosive chemicals, at major airports throughout America. But beyond that, there is no evidence of any other clear response by the intelligence community to the information gleaned from the foiled plot in the Philippines.

The terrorists, on the other hand, appear to have drawn a number of invaluable conclusions from their 1995 setback. "Under interrogation Murad told us several things that should have been of interest to analysts on the deterrence side," recalled retired Gen. Renato De Villa, who served as Philippines defense minister at the time of the raid on Suite 603.

First, the extremists saw the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as a failure and still considered the twin towers a viable target. And more importantly, the cell seemed to be growing frustrated with explosives. They were too expensive, unstable and could give them away.

Though nothing in Murad's confession gave investigators any warning of hijackings, somewhere along the line, his brothers at arms in al-Qaida did make the intellectual leap from explosives to jet fuel and box cutters.

One reason U.S counterterrorism officials may not have been able to outwit the terrorists, critics charged, is because the entire intelligence community has become too reliant on technology rather than human resources.

"Where the system breaks down," says a former staff member of President Clinton's National Security Council, "is not at the hunting and gathering stage" — the ability to electronically intercept information.

"We are probably tapped into every hotel room in Pakistan. We can listen in to just about every phone call in Afghanistan," he said. But the problems is with analysts.

"They are a bunch of 24-year-old recent grads from Middlebury or Dartmouth who have never been to Pakistan or Afghanistan, don't speak any of the relevant languages, and seem more knowledgeable about the bar scene in Georgetown. They just don't compare to the Soviet specialists we used to have. I'm not surprised they missed it."

With the benefit of hindsight, Murad's confession today sounds almost prophetic, and as U.S investigators backtrack, piecing together bits of the puzzle left behind by the hijackers, the specter of Bojinka looms large. As in the case of the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities in Manila following Suite 603's money trail found that the deeper they dug, the closer they came to bin Laden.

The critical clue was in Ramzi Yousef's notebook computer. A list of cell-phone numbers on its hard drive led authorities to stake out another apartment in Manila, this one on Singalong Street. There they apprehended a third conspirator in Yousef's terrorist cell, a stocky Afghan by the name of Wali Khan Amin Shah.

Like Yousef, Shah carried many passports under various aliases. He also had mangled hands, and was missing two fingers. Both his legs were heavily scarred with shrapnel, and he had a large surgical scar on his stomach.

Shah turned out to be Bojinka's finance officer. To launder incoming funds, Shah used bank accounts belonging to his live-in Filipino girlfriend and a number of other Manila women.

Most of the transfers were surprisingly small — $500 or $1,000 handed over at a Wendy's or a karaoke bar late at night. Under "tactical interrogation" at Camp Crame, Shah admitted that most of the funds were channeled to Adam Sali, an alias used by Ramzi Yousef, through a Philippine bank account belonging to Omar Abu Omar, a Syrian-born man working at a local Islamic organization known as the International Relations and Information Center — run by one Mohammed Jalal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law.

Shah's and Murad's confessions led to Yousef's arrest in Pakistan, and the three suspects were extradited to New York to stand trial. All three were sentenced to life in prison at a maximum-security facility in Colorado, and Bojinka was filed in the "win" column, even as Mohamed Atta and fellow Sept. 11 hijackers were hatching plans to enroll in flight schools around the country.

That no one seemed to notice the connection, Cannistraro says, is the great failure.

Matthew Brzezinski is the author of "Casino Moscow."

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