On 6 January 1995, Philippine authorities responded to a fire that had started in room 603 of the Dona Josefa apartment complex in downtown Manila. Although firefighters quickly contained the blaze, which they first attributed to a simple cooking fire, they soon realized that they had stumbled upon something far more sinister. The fire, later investigations revealed, was started by one of the residents, who had mistakenly mixed water with chemicals being prepared for bombs. The incident's timing--coming just one week before the Pope's visit to the Philippines--immediately set off alarm bells within the Philippine security establishment. More alarming was the apartment's location, just minutes away from one of the Pontiff's intended destinations, and the discovery of Roman Catholic vestments that would provide cover for a suicide bomber.
But the most disturbing revelation was found in a laptop computer left in the apartment when the residents fled. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, one of the residents of the apartment, had reportedly told his roommate, Abdul Hakim Murad, to retrieve the laptop. Murad returned to the apartment but was intercepted by Philippine police. Murad attempted to flee, but he stumbled and was apprehended. Murad then offered large sums of money to the police in an effort to bribe his way out of his predicament, but to no avail. Later, Murad would be subjected to a grueling inquisition--according to reports--about the contents of the computer and his role in the scheme that was code-named "Oplan Bojinka."
Oplan Bojinka, it was later learned, was a complex plan to bomb 11 US airliners over the Pacific Ocean as they traveled from Asia back to the United States. The plot would involve a team of five bombers who would travel on planes for a particular leg of their journey, plant the bomb, and then exit the plane at the next stop. Most of the bombers would later travel on separate routes back to Pakistan, where they would meet. The airplanes, however, would have a very different fate. As the planes journeyed to their next stops--in most cases the United States--the bombs would detonate, destroying the planes in mid-air. More than 4,000 people likely would have died had Oplan Bojinka been completed.
In later trial testimony, it was revealed that the bombing of Philippine Airlines flight 434 from Cebu to Japan on 11 December 1994, in which a Japanese businessman was killed, was a trial run for the larger Bojinka plan. Oplan Bojinka also included airborne suicide attacks with passenger airplanes onto key US targets, including CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. When Murad revealed this detail during interrogation, he also admitted attending flying schools in the United States and elsewhere. Subsequent FBI investigations confirmed Murad's attendance in at least two American schools, one in New York and the other in North Carolina.
On 11 September 2001, an analogue of Oplan Bojinka--and some would argue Bojinka itself--was actualized when 19 young men, mostly Saudi Arabian nationals, commandeered four passenger airplanes and rammed three of them into critical US targets, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The resulting social and economic impact--some 3,000 lives lost and billions of dollars in economic damage--catapulted terrorism onto an entirely new level of strategic importance. Catastrophic, or mass-casualty terrorism, once a theory, had now become a reality. (1) But the larger issue revolved around the nature of terrorism itself and its emerging modus operandi. Whether the 11 September attacks in the United States were the delayed manifestation of Oplan Bojinka, as some believe, or whether they were an isolated plan, it is clear that terrorism--and particularly that form of terrorism practiced by al Qaeda--has fundamentally changed. (2)
The 11 September attacks on the United States were a bold, calculated transnational attack by an organization that has established and maintained a multinational presence in more than 50 countries, directed by a base located--at least until recently--in Afghanistan. Like many multinational corporations, al Qaeda is both the product and beneficiary of globalization. The organization took advantage of the fruits of globalization and modernization--including satellite technology, accessible air travel, fax machines, the internet, and other modern conveniences--to advance its political agenda. No longer geographically constrained within a particular territory, or financially tied to a particular state, al Qaeda emerged as the ultimate transnational terror organization, relying on an array of legitimate and illicit sources of cash, including international charities that were often based in the West.
In the weeks following the attacks, many politicians, journalists, and pundits pointed to a "massive intelligence failure" that facilitated or allowed the attacks. (3) Some attributed this failure to the lack of human intelligence operations within Afghanistan. However, some experts have argued that the greatest intelligence failure of the 11 September attacks was the inability on the part of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to grasp and understand that al Qaeda represented a different type of terrorism, one less anchored to specific geographic locations or political constituencies and one capable of achieving transglobal strategic reach in its operations. (4)
The 11 September attacks also exposed fundamental weaknesses of modem Western states, including vulnerable borders, inadequate immigration controls, and insufficient internal antiterrorism surveillance. Indeed, investigations conducted following the US terror attacks would reveal an uncomfortable truth about al Qaeda and its affiliate groups. Probably their most important bases of operation--from a financial and logistical perspective--were located not in Afghanistan or Sudan, but rather in Western Europe and North America, including in the United States itself. (5)
The al Qaeda Multi-Cellular Terror Model
Al Qaeda (Arabic for "The Base") traces its roots to Afghanistan and the pan-Islamic resistance to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979. In 1982, Osama bin Laden, then a young Saudi Arabian national, joined the anti-Soviet jihad. He traveled to Afghanistan where, after just a few years, he established his own military camps from which anti-Soviet assaults could be launched. In 1988, bin Laden and others established al Qaeda, not as a terrorist organization, but rather as a reporting infrastructure so that relatives of foreign soldiers who had come to Afghanistan to join the resistance could be properly tracked. (6) Al Qaeda reportedly had the additional function of funneling money to the Afghan resistance. (7) In 1989, the year the Soviets withdrew their last troops from Afghanistan, bin Laden …