Mastermind of 9/11 Plotted to Kill Pope

by Nick Fielding
The London Times
November 10, 2002

The Al-Qaeda terrorist chief who masterminded the September 11 attacks on the United States also orchestrated two plots to assassinate the Pope in the Philippines.

Intelligence documents reveal that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 38, travelled twice to the country to oversee the execution of the plans using either bombs or a high-powered sniper's rifle.

Mohammed, one of Osama Bin Laden's most senior lieutenants, confessed in a taped interview published in The Sunday Times in September that he was proud of the devastation he had inflicted on America. He is still on the loose with a $ 25m bounty on his head. The new documents, produced by Philippines intelligence services after an extensive inquiry, show that Mohammed used one of his 27 known aliases to enter the country.

He spent the time building a network of fighters and devising a series of bold terrorist operations including blowing up 11 US-bound passenger jets. Al-Qaeda - which has been implicated in last month's bombing on the island of Bali in neighbouring Indonesia which killed almost 200 - wanted to turn the Philippines into a staging ground for its holy war against the West.

Until now it had been thought that the first plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II in January 1995 was the work of a local terrorist group while the second, in 1999, has never been publicly revealed.

According to the documents, Mohammed, who is now head of Al-Qaeda's military committee, devised alternative tactics for the assassination. One involved a pipe bomb that was to be placed in a park where the Pope was due to speak. The terrorist team also had high-velocity rifles with laser scopes.

The team spent months planning the attack as well as using some of their time to train Islamic guerrillas from the Abu Sayyaf Group. Mohammed lived lavishly, according to the documents, often spending his days scuba-diving or womanising. On one occasion he even hired a helicopter to impress a female dentist whom he had met the previous night by overflying her clinic as he spoke to her on his mobile phone.

The first plot to kill the Pope failed when one of the bombs made by his co-conspirator Ramzi Yousef exploded prematurely in his Manila apartment. Yousef, Mohammed's nephew, was forced to flee but was subsequently tracked to Pakistan where he was arrested before being extradited for trial in America for his part in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. He was convicted and is serving life.

Mohammed evaded capture but returned to the Philippines four years later, months before the Pope was due to visit Manila for a canonisation. Although the Pope's visit was called off, the documents suggest that Mohammed planned a second attempt.

"One thing you should remember about Al-Qaeda - and Khalid in particular - is that they often return to complete unfinished business," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert. "When they didn't destroy the World Trade Center first time round, they came back to finish it off. That is how it was with the Pope in the Philippines."

According to the documents, Mohammed might be in Pakistan but they warn that "he may attempt to leave the country to elude arrest as well as conduct terrorist activities".

The intelligence findings were disclosed as Ronald Noble, the Interpol chief, said he believed Bin Laden was still alive and Al-Qaeda planning a large-scale attack. British sources say the level of Al-Qaeda electronic "chatter" picked up by spy satellites was very high, comparable to that just before last year's attacks on America. Last week David Blunkett, the home secretary, warned of a possible "dirty bomb" or poison attack on Britain, although the warning was withdrawn after a "clerical error".


Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Limited

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