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The Plot

How terrorists hatched a simple plan to use planes as bombs


A decade ago, a cadre of freelance terrorists planned an improbable day of horror in which they would blow up a dozen U.S. airliners, killing, if the men were lucky and good, several thousand people.

This plan was foiled and most of the men caught, but one key figure escaped, and the idea went with him. He was something of a ghost, eluding investigators for years, just beyond vision and reach, forever a step ahead. He fled to Afghanistan, where he became a key Al Qaeda agent.

He brought with him the idea of using airplanes as weapons. The leaders of Al Qaeda liked the idea and made it their own.

A small group of men spread across the globe was assigned the task, and last September they killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. In the first weeks following the attacks, authorities loudly and frequently blamed Osama bin Laden and his organization, Al Qaeda. Since then, however, authorities have been reluctant to say much of anything about the details, in large part because they do not know them.

Enough is known, however, to describe how the plan to fly airplanes into buildings came into being, how it was elaborated upon and how it succeeded.

The story begins in Manila, Christmastime, 1994.

For most of a month, the men with the chemical burns and the misshapen fingers carted boxes and bottles through the terrazzo lobby of the Josefa, up six flights and down the hall to the shut door of Apartment 603, a furnished studio with kitchenette, dark parquet floors, off-white walls and a shuttered window overlooking President Quirino Avenue.

It was the window that worried the cops.

In normal years, Christmas in Manila is a prolonged celebration. That December, though, arrived in a meaner season. A typhoon had barreled through mid-month, ripping out trees and power lines and, for the authorities, sharpening the edge on an already anxious time.

Pope John Paul II had announced a five-day January visit. There were substantial fears within the country's intelligence community that increasingly violent Islamic activists would try to kill him.

The national police had just completed a 182-page catalog of terrorist activity throughout the island nation. It had been a horrible year: More than 50 incidents and 101 deaths, with Roman Catholic priests among the frequent targets. The terrorists were based on the southern island of Mindanao, but bombs had already exploded in Manila on Metro trains, at a Wendy's hamburger stand and a local movie theater. Another had blown a hole in an airliner.

The pope was a complication the cops didn't need. They increased surveillance and put local officials on high alert. That's where the window on the sixth floor of the Josefa came in. The apartment is but a quarter-mile from the Vatican ambassador's residence, where the pope would stay. The window looks directly down onto a busy street that the papal entourage would use.

The story has been told for years that on the night of Jan. 6, a week before the pope's arrival, the men in 603 accidentally started a fire in the kitchenette, and fled as it set off alarms. Firefighters and police rushed to the scene. They discovered the fire had subsided without assistance and prepared to call it a night until one suspicious police officer insisted on taking a look in the room. Inside, she found the place littered with beakers, funnels, cotton batting, cans of gasoline and a pair of king-size Welch's grape juice bottles filled with what turned out to be liquid nitroglycerin.

The truth about that night and the fire, officials say now, is a bit more complicated.

Manila is a sprawling mess of a metropolis, divided into districts called baranguays. Local politics operate like a turn-of-the-century American patronage machine: Each baranguay has a chief who delivers neighborhood complaints up the line and municipal favors down it. They keep their eyes open.

The Josefa is in the Malate baranguay. Apolinario Medenilla was the machine's man in Malate. He came around to have a look.

The Josefa is a drab, water-stained stucco, half-hotel, half-apartment house, with groaning air conditioners and a transient clientele. It rents rooms by the day, week or month. Next to it is a ragtag slum of tin-can squatter shacks, dusty pawnshops and two-stool cafes. Manila Bay is half a mile west, and cargo ship crewing agencies have offices in the slum, making it a place of constant movement.

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