US President George Bush said today the US-led global war on terror has “weakened and fractured” al-Qaida and allied groups, outlining as proof new details about the multinational cooperation that foiled terrorist plans to fly a commercial aeroplane into the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast of the US.
“The terrorists are living under constraint pressure and this adds to our security,” Bush said.
“When terrorists spend their days working to avoid death or capture, it’s harder for them to plan and execute new attacks on our country. By striking the terrorists where they live, we’re protecting the American homeland.”
But the president said the anti-terror battle is far from over.
“The terrorists are weakened and fractured, yet they’re still lethal,” the president said in a speech at the National Guard Memorial Building.
“We cannot let the fact that America hasn’t been attacked in 4 1/2 years since September 11 lull us into the illusion that the threats to our nation have disappeared. They have not.”
Bush has referred to the 2002 plot before. In an address last October, he said the United States and its allies had foiled at least 10 serious plots by the al-Qaida terror network in the last four years, including plans for September 11-like attacks on both US coasts.
The White House initially would not give details of the plots but later released a fact sheet with a brief, and vague, description of each.
The president filled in details today.
He said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks who was captured in 2003, had already begun planning the West Coast operation in October, just after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
One of Mohammed’s key planners was Hambali, the alleged operations chief of the al-Qaida related terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
Instead of recruiting Arab hijackers, Hambali found Southeast Asian men who would be less likely to arouse suspicion and who were sent to meet with Osama bin Laden. Bush said.
Under the plot, the hijackers were to use shoebombs to blow open the cockpit door of a commercial jetliner, take control of the plane and crash it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, since renamed the US Bank Tower, Bush said.
The president said the plot was derailed when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al-Qaida operative. Bush did not name the country or the operative.
Bush has been on a campaign to defend his controversial domestic monitoring programme. But the White House would not say whether the 2002 thwarted was stopped as a result of the National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on the international emails and phone calls of people inside the United States with suspected ties to terrorists.
Bush only said that “subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations” after the arrest of the unnamed operative led to information about the plot, and to the capture of other ringleaders and operatives involved in it.
Hambali, for instance, was captured in Thailand in 2003 and handed over to the United States.
“It took the combined efforts of several countries to break up this plot,” the president said.
“By working together, we took dangerous terrorists off the streets. By working together, we stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland.”
Bush’s speech in October cited two other attacks inside the United States that were foiled, including one to use hijacked planes to attack the East Coast in mid-2003.
The third was the case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and allegedly plotted with top al-Qaida commanders to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a US city.
Padilla, whose plot never materialised, now is being held without bail in civilian custody on charges that he was part of a secret network that supported Muslim terrorists.
He was arrested in May 2002 and had been held as an enemy combatant without criminal charge at a Navy brig in South Carolina until last month.