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Post Magazine
This Week:
Operation Bojinka

With Matthew Brzezinski
Special to The Washington Post

Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2002; 1 p.m. EST

Six years before the Sept. 11 attacks, Philippine police took down an al Qaeda cell in Manila that, among other things, had been plotting to fly explosives-laden planes into the Pentagon -- and possibly some skyscrapers. The CIA knew about the plot, known as Operation Bojinka. So did the FBI. "We told the Americans about the plans to turn planes into flying bombs as far back as 1995," a Philippine inspector says. "Why didn't they pay attention?"

Matthew Brzezinski -- whose article about Bojinka, "Bust and Boom," appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine -- was online Wednesday, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. EST, to field questions and comments.

Brzezinski, the author of "Moscow Casino," lives in Northwest Washington.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Alexandria, Va.: Was Ramzi Yousef an Iraqi agent? Is the botched operation in Manila the missing link between Iraq and Al Qaeda?

Matthew Brzezinski: There is no clear evidence linking him to Iraq, nor anything to indicate that Iraqi intelligence had anything to do with Bojinka.

Reston, Va.: Since the government knew about the risks of jets used as weapons of mass destruction but took no action to prevent the attacks, isn't it partially liable for the damage? Would locked cockpit doors have created enough uncertainty to make a coordinated suicide attack unfeasible?

Matthew Brzezinski: Locked and re-inforced cockpit doors such as Israel's national carrier has used for years would certainly have helped prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, but it's not entirely fair to say that the FAA or any other government agency should be held responsible for failing to install such protective measures. No one imagined something like this possible, and there was no US precedent to justify heightened security. Bojinka was about blowing planes up not hijacking them.

Sacramento, Calif.: I would like to know what you think we will do with these Al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners we are holding. They have already revolted twice at least resulting in the death of a CIA officer and Pakistani guards. I think we need very swift justice, like execution, to prevent another revolt. I hope we don't just send them to prison for a while and then let them out so they can be thrown back into circulation and fight again. Thank you

Matthew Brzezinski: I think we need to learn as much as possible from these characters so that we have a better understanding of the mentality and operating methods of the people we are up against. We would be better served interrogating the life out them rather than carrying out any sort of "swift justice" that might deprive us of valuable information leading to capture of bigger al Qaeda fish. Once we get everything we need to know,however, I'd agree that the last thing we want is having these guys back in circulation.

Arlington, Va.: Do Muslims in the Philippines share the sympathies of many Arabs in the Middle East that the Sept. 11 attacks were a result of "U.S. policies" in the Middle East, or are they more given to reason?

Matthew Brzezinski: Most Muslims in the Philippines don't have a gripe with US foreign policy. Rather their beef is with the philippine government, which won't let them form their own state in the south. However, the most die-hard rebels trained in Afghanistan, where they were brain-washed along with the rest of al Qaeda followers. So these terrorists will target US assets. Fortunately they are a minority and the Philippine army is currently rounding many of them up.

Alexandria, Va.: The Israelis found Eichmann the Nazi mass-murderer leading a normal life in Buenos Aires 15 years after the Holocaust.

Do Al Qaeda terrorists ever retire and get out of the Jihad business? Any possibility that former leaders of Al Qaeda will be found driving cabs in Belgium or Egypt 20 years from now?

Matthew Brzezinski: Good question. Never met a "retired" terrorist. I suspect that yes, indeed, we will be catching these guys periodically for years to come. The real question is just how much of a danger will they pose individually once their networks are disrupted and they feel hunted.

Detroit, Mich.: What has the Philippine government done to scout out and eliminate further terrorist cells? More broadly, what should be stated at the next world summit for other countries to scout out, enforce against and eliminate these potential threats? Please share your opinion.

Matthew Brzezinski: The Philippine government has been very active on the terrorist front. US military advisers are currently fighting alongside Philippine Rangers in the southern islands around Mindanoa, and have scored several big victories against the Abbu Sayyef and the Moro National Liberation Front, two of the biggest groups.
Clearly the biggest weapon in the international struggle against terrorism is the free-flow of information between intelligence agencies. We should consider creating a type of INTERPOL specifically targeting terrorists. But intelligence agencies are notoriously secretive and it's a tall order to have this sort of international cooperation.

Fairfax, Va.: Is there any hope of reducing the shocking incompetence of our defense, intelligence and the those outlined in your article as well as the NYFD foolishly sending hundreds of fire fighters to their deaths (when demolitions experts know within minutes of the attacks the buildings are going down, don’t tell people to return to there desks, call them on there cell phones and tell them to evacuate along with the fire fighters) and the FAA and DoD being clueless enough about Flight 77’s ominous potential as to not virtually ignore it until it flew back over Dulles Airport on its way to the hit the Pentagon 35 minutes after the second New York attack. Aren’t the problems related to poor knowledge management and a lack of good scenario-based planning and not simply too much bar hopping among young intelligence analysis?

Matthew Brzezinski: We had no experience with domestic terror on such a destructive scale, so it's not surprising we were not prepared. But I think every relevant government body has drawn critical lessons from what happened on Sept 11 and that in the future prevention, response and reaction will be a different story.

Washington, D.C.: Are you related to Zbigniew Brzezinski?

Matthew Brzezinski: yes, he's my uncle, though i grew up in the Canadian branch of the family and only recently moved to DC

Silver Spring, Md.: Greetings Mr. Brzezinski,
Would you say that the infamous Carlos, now sitting in prison in France, was a retired terrorist? Do you think he had any contact with Bin Laden and his group? Thank you

Matthew Brzezinski: Carlos is in forced retirement. Let him loose and I bet he'd be back in business. As to any links to bin Laden, my feeling is that he has none.

Arlington, Va.: Are you related to the former NSC adviser and does he know bin Laden? What does he think?

Matthew Brzezinski: No he does not know bin Laden. You would have to ask him what he thinks since it's not my place to put words in his mouth.

Providence, R.I.: I've been furious from the first day (when I was supposed to fly over New York City) at the incredible failures of intelligence and imagination that allowed this to happen. Author Tom Clancy details a deliberate 747 crash into the Capitol by a pilot whose son and brother have been killed in a war with the U.S. in "Without Remorse". Apart from his dubious nationality (Japanese), the question was only "when," not "if." This horror was predictable, indeed almost inevitable, since Sharon strode on the Temple Mount with an army of security men; and Bin Laden bragged about his next terrorist spectacular. Palestinian rage and frustration was obviously building to a crescendo -- in our July 14th political newsletter (at end) (http://mikehammer.tripod.com) we predicted a terrorist attack on NYC or D.C., which we were afraid might be nuclear. Actor James Woods, claimed on ET and Leno that he reported suspicious behavior (whispering and not eating) by 3-5 Arabs in first class to attendants on a Boston-L.A. flight a month before 9/11, which presumably were the terrorists making their many test flights. He said he thought they were about to hijack the plane, with which attendants concurred, but nothing was done. The fact that we had warnings of suicide pilot training in the Bojinka plot and didn't question Arab and Muslim U.S. flight trainees is outrageous. Now, though the war has gone well, Bush has been savagely negligent towards airline security: I've been expecting several planes to be brought done by bombs in unscreened baggage for the last few weeks. An excellent and important article.

Michael Hammerschlag

Matthew Brzezinski: You are right. This was an intelligence failure, and there were ominous warning signals that were missed. But to be fair, the entire intelligence community has been drastically scaled down since the end of the cold war, with bugdet, personnel, and powers cut to point that it has affected preparedness.
The entire country shares part of the blame for turning its back on the outside world and being blissfully pre-occupied with celebrities and internet billionaires. We ignored the changing world at our peril, and only now realize that what happens in distant countries can and does affect us. That, to me, is the most important lesson of Sept 11.

Sterling, Va.: Matthew, how much of the evidence that was documented in the Philippines (regarding the Pope assassination attempt) could have been fabricated?

I'm not questioning the veracity of your reporting. I'm just wondering if the Philippine government is seeking for a handout to "combat terrorism" when in reality they might use it for other operations against indigenous peoples or Muslims that have been fighting for a separate state long before Sept. 11.

Matthew Brzezinski: I got the material from a disgruntled former cop (Fariscal)so I tend to believe its authenticity since her interests and those of the Philippine government don't necessarily coincide. Besides US intelligence sources have not disputed any of its validity, even though the material is clearly embarrassing to them.
But yes, the Philippines would not be above using the coup to get money -- and in fact partly has.

Fairfax, Va.: Even if we are able to destroy the al Qaeda command structure as we know it, do you believe that al Qaeda is organized enough to have plans in position to still be committing terrorist attacks in years to come?

Matthew Brzezinski: Your guess is as good as mine. But to carry out operations they will need continued sources of funding. If the money flow is cut -- and I suspect it largely has -- it will be much more difficult to carry out even the best laid plans.

Maryland: I wonder how you can fight terrorism in the U.S. without discrimination? Most countries have one race and one homogeneous population. Not in the U.S.

Matthew Brzezinski: That's an excellent point. We are already seeing examples of "racial profiling" such as one of President Bush's secret service detail being hauled off a commercial flight because of his Middle Eastern background.
But which would you rather be: Politically correct or safe? Civil liberties are a luxury that in some situations countries in a state of emergency simply can't afford. I would be willing to give up some of mine in extraordinary cases such as the prevention of another Sept 11. What about you?

New York: Do you think Saudi Arabia will be our enemy later? They financed the PLO with petrodollars with the 1970s and never experienced a terrorism attacks until the Khobar Towers.

Matthew Brzezinski: Saudi Arabia lies at the very heart of this tragedy. They have financed and exported holy war for years in order to deflect domestic frustration with corruption and repression in the royal family. In ultimately facilitating those that target the US, the Saudis have truly bitten the hand that feeds them, and I think we should seriously re-think our policy toward that nation, which has gotten away with far too much for too long because of its oil

New York, N.Y.: Matthew,
You avoid placing culpability on anyone, yet it has to be placed somewhere. Could treason be more correctly applied to the right wing fanatics who obsessed on removing Clinton from office and, no doubt, lessened the focus of his administration throughout these critical years? I mean, isn't that a more treasonous act then what Johnny Walker may have committed?

Matthew Brzezinski: Eventually there will be an accounting for the intelligence failure. Right now though the CIA and FBI are the frontline troops in the war against terror so it would be counterproductive to further demoralize them. But, when all this is over, I think heads will roll in both agencies.

Bethesda, Md.: Excellent and thought-provoking story, Mr. Brzezinski. Had a few quick questions: How long did it take for you to report the story? How did you come across the story? Did someone tip you off?

Also, for the Arlington chatter regarding Muslims in the Philippines: While they are very vocal, they are a tiny minority in a country that is over 95 percent Catholic. With all the news reports linking the Philippine muslims to possible terrorist cells, I think that's worth noting. Thank you.

Matthew Brzezinski: you are absolutely right. Muslims are a tiny minority clustered around remote regions of the Philippines. Far more troubling is the Muslim majority next door in Indonesia, which I worry will be the next hot spot in south asia.
The story didn't take that long to report mainly because of the treasure trove of information in the intelligence documents. It was just a question of formulating a compelling narrative to put it all together in an accessible way.

U.S.: How do you translate "al Qaeda" in English?

Matthew Brzezinski: I believe it just means "the organization."

Carlisle, Pa.: Based on your insights, what's next from the international terror establishment?

Matthew Brzezinski: That's the biggest and most important question of them all: What's next?! Honestly I don't know, but I bet you it's something CIA analysts are now devoting a great deal of energy and resources in trying to guess

Silver Spring, Md.: If Mr. Walker was able to enter the Taliban/al Qaeda mainstream from the simple starting point of a Mosque in California, and apparently endear himself well enough to eventually meet bin Laden do you think that would be a possible way to introduce our own "sleeper" spy into this close knit terrorist network over a short period of time, I mean Walker went from Mosque to frontlines in less than two years. Thanks

Matthew Brzezinski: very difficult. first i suspect Walker was never truly trusted or privy to inside info. second he was a fanatic. that's hard to fake, even for veteran cia operatives, who are better suited to work under the cover of travelling businessmen or employees of international relief organizations

London, Ontario: Have just read your article in the Toronto Star and found it gripping reading. Question: Is Aida Fariscal a pseudonym or is she real and more importantly -- is her life in danger now?

Matthew Brzezinski: she is real and yes was thought to be in enough danger that the philippine police assigned her two bodyguards for over five years after the bojinka bust. ironically, her bodyguards were finally reassigned to other duties at the end of August -- two weeks before Sept 11

Washington, D.C.: The CIA and FBI could not do anything because Secretary of State Albright mentioned that countries regarded as enemy of the U.S. under President Reagan and Bush were our friend thus (state of concerns).

Matthew Brzezinski: diplomacy and intelligence operations often have divergent goals, and are not mutually exclusive. my experience from spending seven years as a journalist in the former soviet block was that spying increased after declarations of friendship because its easier to recruit and pay-off informants in "friendly" governments

Silver Spring, Md.: Under Ferdinand Marcos was there a violent Muslim insurgency like we see on CNN these days? It seems to me that was a much more stable place under his leadership, at least until he was ousted, I know that must sound ridiculous, but I don't recall all these kidnapping, terrorist plots and beheadings under him.

Matthew Brzezinski: the insurgency started in the late eighties, early nineties after the marcos regime. let's face it police states have their advantages

Virginia: What's the point of your article? From 1992 to 2000, Clinton and his appointees were pro-terrorism (pardoning PR terrorists) and that anti-terrorism is not part of the liberal human rights policy.

Matthew Brzezinski: That's pretty inflammatory.if i was clinton and you called me "pro-terrorist" I'd seriously think about suing you. As you obviously have forgotten, Clinton ordered bin Laden's capture and there was a CIA operation to get him in Afghanistan that was scrapped at the last second because of the military coup in Pakistan.
The Clinton adminstration's focus on bin Laden, in fact, is partly what made him such a hero among the disaffected in the Near East

Silver Spring, Md.: Several years ago the CIA itself was attacked by a Pakistani man with an AK-47, he killed or wounded several people. After he was caught and put on trial, as a matter of fact, the very day his death sentence was passed down three American businessmen in Pakistan were murdered. From the reaction of Pakistani men rushing to help the Taliban and Al Qaeda and scenes of school children there being taught to hate the U.S. and celebrate the Sept. 11 attacks as a "victory" my impression is that the rank and file Pakistani citizen hates America, is my impression flawed or is Pakistan really a foe in the wings? Thank you

Matthew Brzezinski: From what I have heard from colleagues who have spent a good deal of time in places like Pakistan, support for bin Laden is far less mainstream than we think. Those demonstrations we see on TV typically draw a few thousand lunatics -- hardly representative of the whole country

Washington, D.C.: Where do you think Bin Laden is right now? And do you think he will ever be apprehended?

Matthew Brzezinski: I don't know where he is. But I do think he will be caught, though probably he won't let himself be taken alive and unfortunately will go down as a martyr and inspiration to the next generation of terrorists.

wiredog: "Why didn't they pay attention?"

It wasn't just the FBI and CIA who ignored it. How many in depth stories on the Year 2000 bombing plot were there? Last summer a former administration official (Sec. Def. Cohen, IIRC) had an op-ed about the threat of terrorism. I don't recall any letters to the editor about it. Or any follow up to testimony to that effect to the House and Senate.

Matthew Brzezinski: Because no one was paying attention. I don't want to sound flip, but we were all too busy watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire and government agencies often reflect the priorities of the prevailing culture.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company


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