Suspect’s Role in ’95 Plot Detailed
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, identified as a pivotal figure in the Sept. 11 attacks, was a financial conduit in a foiled scheme to blow up 12 U.S. airliners in 1995, posing at times as a wealthy Saudi sheik and holding meetings in luxury Manila hotels, the chief Philippines police investigator of the plot said Thursday.
Col. Rodolfo Mendoza said that after the plot was foiled, he warned U.S. authorities that Mohammed and others who escaped also had a plan to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
U.S. authorities looked into his tip but did not sustain their effort, Mendoza said. “It was not taken seriously.”
U.S. authorities would not specifically discuss Mendoza’s claims Thursday. But they said they had been aggressively searching for Mohammed long before the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that he managed to escape capture at least once.
They also confirmed that Mohammed attended a North Carolina university in the mid-1980s, and that they were investigating whether he had extensive movements in the United States since then. FBI officials would not disclose the name of the college. Associated Press reported that Mohammed had attended Chowan College in Murfreesboro, N.C. Calls to the school were not returned.
A former senior Justice Department official said U.S. authorities have been searching for Mohammed since the late 1990s. In addition to his alleged role in the airliner plot, for which he was indicted in 1996, he was also believed to be growing in importance in the Al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.
The former official said Mohammed was “serving in the government” of an Arab nation in 1996 and that someone within that government tipped the suspect off to a plan to seize him. Other officials identified the country as Qatar.
FBI agents were near where they believed Mohammed was hiding. “We were en route, but someone ratted us out and he went missing,” the former official said, adding that at least one other attempt to locate and capture Mohammed failed.
The FBI was working in tandem with Pakistani authorities to find Mohammed, who is believed to be hiding in that country or neighboring Afghanistan, an FBI official said.
“A lot of things are going on in Pakistan,” said the FBI official. “We are working very closely with the authorities there.”
Much of Mohammed’s background and activities remain a mystery, but U.S. intelligence officials disclosed this week that they now believe he played a key role in initiating and organizing the Sept. 11 attacks.
A U.S. intelligence official said Thursday that Mohammed made numerous visits to Hamburg, Germany, in 1999 when the Sept. 11 hijackers were there. But he said the purpose of the trips remains unclear and no conclusive evidence has surfaced showing Mohammed met with Mohamed Atta, the apparent head of the hijacking teams. Other U.S. officials had said Wednesday that Mohammed apparently met with the hijackers in Hamburg in 1999 and had visited an apartment they used.
Mendoza, the Philippines police official, said Mohammed appears to have played a key role in the 1995 bomb plot known as Bojinka. The plan was to place bombs simultaneously on 12 U.S. airliners flying from Asia to the West Coast and to assassinate Pope John Paul II as a distraction.
The new information about Mohammed reinforces the view that the Sept. 11 plot “is an old plot with some modifications,” Mendoza said in a telephone interview.
Convicted in the 1995 plot were Ramzi Yousef, later found guilty in the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center; Wali Khan Amin Shah, an Afghan; and Abdul Hakim Murad, a Pakistani.
The Bojinka plot was uncovered when the Manila apartment the cell was using to make bombs caught fire. Mendoza said Mohammed was a regular visitor to the apartment, and may also have been an occupant. Plans were discovered in a laptop computer Yousef left behind when he fled the fire.
The computer contained files indicating that Mohammed was a financial conduit for the plot. One file was a letter Yousef had written to Mohammed asking for money. It also contained a letter Mohammed wrote to a man prosecutors later described as a potential financial backer of the plot.
“To: Brother Mohammad Alsiddiqi,” stated the letter, which was introduced as evidence in the trial of Yousef and the two other plotters. “We are facing a lot of problems because of you. Fear Allah, Mr. Siddiqi, there is a day of judgment. You will be asked, if you are very busy with something more important, don’t give promises to other people. See you on the day of judgment.”
“Still waiting,” the letter ended. It was signed, “Khalid Shaikh, and Bojenka.”
The plot to hijack a plane and crash it into CIA headquarters was revealed separately by Murad during interrogation. He was reluctant to divulge anything about Mohammed.
Other witnesses said Mohammed met with Yousef and Khan at various hotels in Manila. Playing the role of a Saudi Arabian sheik and businessman, he always had money, Mendoza said. Philippine police concluded at the time that the terrorists were linked to Bin Laden.
“It is a collaboration between top Al Qaeda operatives and the regional network of Al Qaeda from the 1995 event to the 9/11 attack,” Mendoza said. “It is a continuing plan.”
After the plot was foiled and three of the conspirators were arrested, intelligence agencies found indications that Mohammed was still in the city. “My gut feeling is he didn’t leave Manila during this period,” Mendoza said.
Mohammed probably used a passport with a different name when traveling in and out of the country. A search of immigration records turned up no record of a Khalid Shaikh Mohammed entering or leaving the Philippines, Mendoza said.
Police have said that the Bojinka plot was financed through a Malaysia-based company whose directors included Khan and Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali. Hambali was never caught. Since 1995, he has allegedly organized a series of deadly bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia and a plot to blow up embassies and commercial buildings in Singapore.
Paddock reported from Jakarta and Meyer from Washington. Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Mark Fineman in Washington contributed to this report.