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Early Scheme to Turn Jets Into Weapons

Philippines: Police say Khalid Shaikh Mohammed led a cell aiming to blow up planes in '95.

June 24, 2002|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda agent believed to have been a key organizer of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, spent a year here in the mid-1990s. From the way he behaved, it's little wonder no one suspected him of being dangerous to anything but his bank account.

Evidence collected by Philippine investigators describes a man far different from the usually abstemious Al Qaeda agent. In Manila, where police say he used the name Abdul Majid, he met associates in karaoke bars and giant go-go clubs filled with mirrors, flashing lights and bikini-clad dancers. He held meetings at four-star hotels. He took scuba-diving lessons at a coastal resort.

When he wasn't engaged with the go-go dancers, he courted a Philippine dentist. Once, to impress her, he rented a helicopter and flew it over her office, then called her on his cell phone and told her to look up and wave.

Other members of the terrorist cell Mohammed led had local girlfriends as well, and the whole group had a drinking party to celebrate the anniversary of the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Until recently, little was known about Mohammed's time here--almost a full year beginning in early 1994. He was known to have played some role in a failed 1995 effort to blow up a dozen U.S.-bound airliners over the Pacific. Now, in re-evaluating that conspiracy in light of new information about Mohammed's prominence within Al Qaeda, Philippine police have concluded that he was the principal planner of the plot.

A confidential report by the Philippine national police officers who led the original investigation concludes that the airliner plot, code-named Bojinka, was the first step in a sustained effort by Mohammed to refine the use of aircraft as weapons of terrorism.

That effort culminated in the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, according to the report, a copy of which was provided to The Times.

"It was a strong network continuously hatching plots. After seven years, they were able to do what they started here. That's the story," said Col. Rodolfo Mendoza, who led the original investigation.

As evidence that Bojinka was more than just a coincidental foreshadowing of Sept. 11, Mendoza cited the testimony of Abdul Hakim Murad, a licensed commercial pilot and one of the men recruited by Mohammed for the plot. Murad told interrogators that the first two times he was brought to meet Mohammed in Pakistan in 1993, all Mohammed wanted to talk about were aircraft and pilot training.

The Bojinka plot was previously regarded as the creation of Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti explosives expert. The Philippine investigators now believe that Yousef was working directly for Mohammed.

Investigators consider it significant in retrospect that Murad, whose arrest exposed the conspiracy, virtually pleaded with them to listen to information he had about Yousef, but was reluctant to speak of Mohammed at all. Mendoza said it was almost as if Murad was trying to mislead them.

"It's now clear Khalid was calling the shots," Mendoza said.

Mohammed, a Kuwaiti national of Pakistani ancestry, is under indictment in the U.S. for his alleged role in Bojinka, which means "big bang." The U.S. government has offered a $25-million reward for information leading to his capture.

Mohammed, who is believed to be 37, spent most of the 1990s in Pakistan. "He certainly wasn't a known figure" at that time, said Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistani intelligence.

Pakistani leadership through the 1990s sympathized with Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist rhetoric. Mohammad Aftab, then head of Pakistan's domestic news agency, put it this way: "There were so many of these people around and they were all 'on our side,' so no one paid a lot of attention to them."

This sympathy allowed Mohammed to operate as he pleased in Pakistan, and it was there that he began assembling the members of what would become his Manila cell, according to police. These included Yousef, already a veteran of the 1993 truck-bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000; Murad, a school-boy friend of Yousef's; and Wali Khan Amin Shah, an Afghan.

According to what investigators learned through interrogations, the men seemed to be almost indiscriminate when discussing whom or what they might attack. Among targets they proposed were Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan; the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; U.S. nuclear power plants; and a variety of U.S. government buildings, including CIA headquarters and the Pentagon.

Murad, a Pakistani, told investigators that he was the first to suggest using aircraft to attack buildings after Yousef preached to him about the need for suicide missions.

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