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Filipino police uncover 1995 leads to Sept. 11 plot

Recent arrests are providing new clues linking Al Qaeda to other bombing plots.

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Philippines investigators are re-examining two terror plots they long ago foiled and placed in their "solved" file. Their findings? At various times over the past six years, investigators were tantalizingly close to exposing the Al Qaeda operatives that assisted in planning the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

Filipino police were close in January 1995, when they broke up a plan to assassinate the Pope on a visit to Manila, and bomb 11 US commercial airliners in Asia. They were even closer in January 2000, when a man called the police to take credit for a Manila bombing but carelessly used his cellphone.

Investigators say that those two incidents could have been used to hunt down the man who is now emerging as Al Qaeda's southeast Asian point man: Riduan Isamuddin. The round-faced Indonesian cleric, who is better known as "Hambali," is now the focus of an intense manhunt by Malaysian, Singaporean, and Filipino police.

Intelligence officials here say that during the past decade, Hambali and his associates have built a logistical support network for Al Qaeda - supplying housing, cash, and false documents to the men involved in some of the most damaging terrorist attacks ever launched on the US: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen; and the Sept. 11 attacks. For example, Hambali and his subordinates met with at least two of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers in Malaysia as far back as January 2000, officials here say.

They say that Hambali's organization provided money and documents identifying Zacarias Moussaoui as a consultant for a Malaysian company, Infocus Tech, which allowed him to enter the US. Mr. Moussaoui is a Sept. 11 suspect and is now in US custody.

Regional security analysts say the reasons Hambali wasn't pursued sooner is that the assumption was that there were few, if any, Al Qaeda operatives native to the region. Moreover, there was weak coordination by regional and US intelligence agencies.

"If you're serious about counterterrorism, you have to keep at it, all the time," says Rodolfo Mendoza, head of the Philippine National Police intelligence unit, who led the operation that uncovered the 1995 airliner bomb plot. "In hindsight, the regional terrorist network wasn't taken seriously enough."

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