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Bust and Boom
Six years before the September 11 attacks, Philippine police took down an al Qaeda cell that had been plotting, among other things, to fly explosives-laden planes into the Pentagon

  In 1995, Aida Fariscal, a senior inspector for the Philippine police, took down an al Qaeda cell that had been plotting to fly explosives-laden planes into the Pentagon -- and possibly some skyscrapers. (Photo Illustration by Amy Guip)


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By Matthew Brzezinski
Sunday, December 30, 2001; Page W09

It was already evening, here on the other side of the international date line, when the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Aida Fariscal had gone to bed early on September 11, only to be awakened by a frantic colleague. "Quick," he instructed, "turn on your television."

The footage of the hijacked airliner bursting into flame made Fariscal bolt upright. "Oh my God," she gasped. "Bojinka."

For the retired Philippine policewoman, that word and the nightmare scenario it evoked had receded into distant memory these past six years. Sometimes weeks went by without her even thinking about the terrorist plot she had foiled so long ago. But there it was, after all this time, unfolding live on her small-screen television. "I thought, at first," she tells me, "that I was having a bad dream, or that I was watching a movie." But as the burning towers came crashing down under their own weight, disbelief turned to anger. "I still don't understand," she says over a club sandwich, "how it could have been allowed to happen."

We are having lunch at a chicken rotisserie in a busy Manila shopping center, not far from the Dona Josefa Apartments, where it all started, where she -- and the CIA and the FBI -- first heard the words "Operation Bojinka." Fariscal has insisted on a corner table, so she can keep an eye on the other patrons and the shoppers beyond the restaurant's greasy glass partition. Old habits, she explains, die hard, and, after a life of fighting crime, she always takes security precautions, especially now that she is off the force, a widowed grandmother living off a police pension in a small one-bedroom apartment. Her brother, in fact, is supposed to swing by the rotisserie -- just to make sure I am who I say I am.

As we speak, she seems bitter, and surprisingly fragile in her hoop earrings and bright pink lipstick. 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 says 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, some smoke spotted on the top floor of a six-story building just down the street from Manila Police Station No. 9. Fariscal, the watch commander, peered out of the precinct house window, but couldn't see any sign of a blaze on Quirino Avenue. Still, she 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. She hadn't earned her senior inspector stripes by sitting down on the job, and had risen in the male-dominated ranks of the Manila police force by trusting her "female intuition." And her instinct that night told her something was wrong.

"The pope was coming to the Philippines, we were worried about security, and on top of that we had just had a big typhoon," she recalls. The senior inspector decided to walk the 500 yards to the Dona Josefa Apartments to see for herself. She barely had time to change out of her civilian clothes, a flower-patterned dress and sandals, and she didn't think she needed her gun. But just in case, she ordered Patrolman Fernandez and another officer to tag along as backup while she picked her way past the uprooted trunks of palm trees.

The Dona Josefa apartment building was a well-kept but not luxurious residence, with an open lobby and an airy feel. It was often used for short-term rentals by Middle Eastern tourists, who came to Manila's neon-lit Malate nightclub district to get away from the strict mores back home. It was also a block away from the papal nunciature, where John Paul II would be staying.

"What's happening here, boss?" Fariscal asked the Dona Josefa doorman in Tagalog, a native tongue of the Philippines. 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."

Fariscal faced a quandary. She couldn't legally enter the apartment without a search warrant, now that there was no longer an imminent danger of fire. But she couldn't simply walk away, either. She was stubborn that way. It was one reason why in 1977, after 17 years as a homemaker raising four children, she had decided to enroll in the police academy. "Open it up," she instructed.

Suite 603 was a cluttered one-bedroom bachelor pad. The first thing Fariscal 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: green, yellow, blue and red.

Just then, the phone rang, causing Fariscal to jump with fright. "I'd just seen a movie with Sylvester Stallone where the telephone was booby-trapped," she recalls now. "Everybody out," she ordered. 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 twenties, Fariscal guessed, and handsome in a rakish sort of way. 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 any misunderstanding over 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. For a brief instant their eyes met. 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 had been wounded a few years back when a bullet ripped through her left arm and torso to lodge four centimeters from her spine, and the memory left her skittish. But she whirled around just in time to see Patrolman Fernandez aiming his service revolver at Saeed's fleeing back. As the cops gave chase, the fugitive suddenly lurched forward, sprawling on the pavement; he had tripped over the exposed roots of a tree toppled by the typhoon. Saeed was back in custody. But his accomplice had taken advantage of the confusion to melt into the gathering crowd of street peddlers and gawkers.

Neither Fariscal nor the two officers with her had any handcuffs, so they improvised with rope from a clothesline and hauled Saeed to his feet. "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. Concerned that the suspect would try to bolt again, she radioed the precinct for a squad car. As usual, none was available. One of the cops tried to hail down a passing "jeepney," the converted World War II-vintage U.S. Army Jeeps pressed into service as cheap -- if not always reliable -- public transportation in Manila. Finally, Fariscal commandeered a minivan taxi and conscripted two burly pedestrians to help watch Saeed during the short ride to the precinct station.

By now, the senior inspector had an inkling that she had stumbled onto something big. She couldn't know, however, just how big her discovery would turn out to be; that amid the clutter of the chemicals and cotton at the Dona 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 September 11 attack on America.

All Fariscal knew for the moment was that she had just nabbed some sort of a terrorist -- and, in the Philippines, that could mean anything.

At the precinct Saeed signed a handwritten statement, in which -- according to police records -- he again proclaimed his innocence and claimed to be a simple 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 brass pipe bombs; and a phone message from a tailor saying that the cassock Saeed had ordered was ready for a final fitting.

By 4 in the morning the situation was deemed serious enough that the first generals had started showing up on the scene, and a judge was soon rousted out of bed to sign a belated search warrant.

"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, possibly even more ambitious, targets. The four new hot plates needed to cook the concoctions made it clear the extremists were gearing up for mass production.

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 and a box of Rough Rider lubricated condoms rounded out the home laboratory, which included chemistry reference manuals and a recipe written in Arabic on how to build powerful liquid bombs.

The formula, 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 One: "Put 0.5g of sodium hydroxide with 30 ml of warm water. Add to them 3g of picric acid . . ." Step Six: "By using an eye dropper, very slowly add sulfuric acid to the liquid until its color is changed to orange, then to brown . . ." Step Eleven: "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 finished bomb with a Casio wristwatch timer.

"The guys in the bomb squad had never seen an explosive like this before," says Fariscal. 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.

But what were the targets? And who were the conspirators? A clue to the identity of the suspects emerged when Fariscal found dozens of passports in different names hidden in a wall divider. Saeed, apparently, had many aliases, including Abdul Hakim, student, age 26, Pakistani passport No. C665334, issued in Kuwait. 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 after completing the required 275 hours of flight time, he received a commercial pilot's license from Coastal Aviation Inc. on June 8, 1992.

Philippine investigators called in their American counterparts for help. This was standard operating procedure. According to U.S. and Philippine officials interviewed for this article, both the CIA Manila station chief and the resident FBI legal attache were notified. A team of intelligence agents flew in from Washington.

Murad, as Senior Inspector Fariscal now thought of Saeed, was a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. So, it turned out, was his accomplice at the Dona 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. Sometimes he passed himself off as Paul Vijay, or Adam Sali or even Dr. Richard Smith. 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. He had learned his deadly skills, Philippine officials said, in Afghanistan, at a training camp for Osama bin Laden's followers, and in turn had taught Murad the art of bomb making in Lahore, Pakistan.

Apparently Murad had not learned his lessons well, for it was his mistake that set off the fire in the kitchen sink that alerted Manila police. In his haste to flee Suite 603, Yousef had left behind many clues. Some, like contact lens solution and a receipt from a pharmacy, seemed innocuous. But others would give the FBI and the CIA a chilling preview of what the terrorists had in store for the United States.

The most damning information was gleaned from Yousef's notebook computer, and four accompanying diskettes. The data were encrypted and in Arabic, but Philippine technicians eventually deciphered the code and translated the texts. One of Yousef's translated documents -- stamped SECRET by Philippine intelligence -- 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 terminates ominously.

Already, intelligence officials had gleaned an almost unparalleled treasure-trove of information on the inner workings of bin Laden's international terrorist network. Cell members did not appear to even know one another's real names. Duties were divided and compartmentalized, and none of the conspirators stayed in the same place for any length of time. But there were still more frightening revelations to come.

Another file found on Yousef's computer 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 like 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. Under the flight plan, Yousef had written: "SETTING: 9:30 PM to 10:30 PM. TIMER: 23HR. BOJINKA: 20:30-21:30 NRT Date 5."

Zyed, on the other hand, would take Northwest Airlines Flight 30 from Manila to Seoul, with continued service to Los Angeles. "SETTING: 8:30-9:00. TIMER: 10HR. BOJINKA: 19:30-20:00 NRT Date 4," the accompanying instruction read.

The repeated use of the word "TIMER" concerned investigators, who by then 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.

Philippine intelligence put the screws to Murad. In Camp Crame, a military installation on the outskirts of Manila, he 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 confessed, had indeed 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 enormity of Bojinka also frightened U.S. officials. "We had never seen anything that complicated or ambitious before. It was unparalleled," recalls Vincent Cannistraro, the former CIA counterterrorism head.

But, Philippine and U.S intelligence officials said, 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 buy, rent, or steal -- that part of the plan had not yet been worked out -- a small plane, preferably a Cessna, fill it 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 complained, was that they needed more trained pilots to carry out the plot.

"It's so chilling," says Fariscal, as our meal at the chicken rotisserie winds down. "Those kamikaze pilots trained in America, just like Murad." We have talked for four hours and the food has long grown cold. As she speaks, Fariscal often grows emotional, and at times when her frustration reaches a fever pitch she lapses into Tagalog, and I ask her to slow down and translate.

"The FBI knew all about Yousef's plans," she says. "They'd seen the files, been inside 603. The CIA had access to everything, too. Look," she adds, fishing in a plastic shopping bag for one of her most prized possessions, a laminated certificate of merit bearing the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency. "Awarded to Senior Inspector Aida D. Fariscal," it reads. "In recognition of your personal outstanding efforts and cooperation."

"This should have never, ever been allowed to happen," she repeats angrily. "All those poor people dead."

In her outrage at the biggest U.S. intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, Fariscal is not alone in the Manila law enforcement community. Gen. Avelino "Sonny" Razon, one of the lead investigators in the Bojinka case, was so shocked at what he saw on September 11 that he jumped on a plane in Cebu, where he was now police chief, and flew to Manila to convene a hasty press conference. "We told the Americans about the plans to turn planes into flying bombs as far back as 1995," he complained to reporters. "Why didn't they pay attention?"

U.S. officials counter that they did pay attention. FBI spokesman John E. 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 27-year intelligence veteran who ran the CIA's counterterrorism division until 1990. "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, says Cannistraro. (One indication of just how politically sensitive this issue has become occurred the day after Gen. Razon's impromptu Manila press conference. His candid remarks earned him an official rebuke from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has been anxious not to embarrass Washington, the Philippines' staunchest ally and patron. "I'm sorry," Razon says, when I call him in Cebu. "I would like to talk to you, and there is much to say. But the president has forbidden me to speak publicly on the subject of Bojinka.")

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 in order to find ways to thwart them. And it is unclear what became of the information gleaned from Operation Bojinka.

"We didn't file it and forget about it," a CIA spokeswoman assures me. 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," recalls 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 Qaeda 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 who regularly attended briefings on bin Laden at Langley, "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," explains the former NSC staffer. "Where the rubber hits the pavement is with the 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 September 11 attacks, authorities in Manila following Suite 603's money trail found that the deeper they dug, the closer they came to Osama 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 -- Norwegian, Saudi, Afghan and four Pakistani, all filled with travel visas and entry stamps from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Shah 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 unlikely finance officer. To launder incoming funds, Shah used bank accounts belonging to his live-in Filipino girlfriend and a number of other Manila women, one of whom was an employee at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, and others who were described as bar hostesses. 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 September 11 hijackers were hatching plans to enroll in flight schools around the country.

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

In 1998, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the first World Trade Center bombing, Dale Watson, the FBI's top expert on international terror, reported to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that "although we should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security . . . I believe it is important to note that in the five years since the Trade Center bombing, no significant act of foreign-directed terrorism has occurred on American soil."

Three years later, September 11, 2001, the suicide attacks coincided almost to the day, with another fifth anniversary: the 1996 conviction, in a Manhattan court, of Bojinka's original plotters.

Matthew Brzezinski is the author of Casino Moscow. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Wednesday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company