MATTHEW BESHEER: It was a very, very important building to me.
That’s Matthew Besheer talking about the Twin Towers, once the tallest structures in the world.
NARRATOR: No sooner has one New York skyscraper risen above its neighbors, than another is on its way to reach a little higher.
MATTHEW BESHEER: Both of them were very important to me.
Matthew Besheer is a former detective with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- the government agency whose job is to build the big things that keep New York a global city. Bridges, tunnels, airports. And beginning in the 1960s, the Twin Towers.
NARRATOR: The purpose of the World Trade Center is to increase the flow of international trade.
MATTHEW BESHEER: As I was growing up, I watched them build the Trade Center. I would jump on the double R local from where I lived in Bay Ridge, and I would travel into Manhattan and I would actually go down to the site when I’d watch them digging the holes and dynamiting and it was quite astonishing.
To those of you not familiar with the New York subway system and the now-defunct double R local, that was a long trip. At least an hour each way. Which tells you, Matthew Besheer really loved that construction site -- and the buildings themselves when they opened in 1973.
NARRATOR: It brings together 130,000 people each day. People of business and government involved in processing international commerce.
MATTHEW BESHEER: I developed a certain affinity for the buildings because they stood out against the sky.
In 1975, Matthew Besheer joined the Port Authority police force.
MATTHEW BESHEER: I was a uniformed police officer.
One of his early posts was the Twin Towers. He rode the elevators a lot, responding to fire alarms -- nothing major -- and just keeping an eye on things.
MATTHEW BESHEER: Walk down the hallway, shaking doors, and checking to make sure everything was locked, and everything was secure.
His beat included the view from 110 stories up, a quarter mile in the sky.
MATTHEW BESHEER: I spent many days patrolling the roof, the observation deck of the World Trade Center.
Tourists flocked to the roof for its 45-mile views of this mega-metropolis and a harbor that seemed to spill past the curve of the earth. And some came for other reasons.
MATTHEW BESHEER: We had many people who felt that they wanted to parachute off the Trade Center.
The towers invited stunts. There was something about them: their fame ... and that they were as bland as blank canvases. It inspired publicity seekers and performance artists to project their visions onto them. Remember Philippe Petit?
NYPD OFFICER: I looked up, and I see this fella on a wire between the towers. I couldn’t believe it.
The Frenchman who strolled on a tightrope from one roof to the other -- no net between him and the pavement far below? The daredevil who entranced the world by dancing above the void? Yeah, well, Matthew Besheer arrested him.
NBC REPORTER ROBERT HAGER: Police took a humorless view of the act.
MATTHEW BESHEER: And even though he was arrested by us when he completed his walk, we did have him sign the side of the building. And when you were on the observation deck, if you went into that particular corner, and you look down, there was his signature in black magic marker.
Philippe Petit autographed the South Tower with a Sharpie. Because even Matthew Besheer thought the building would be improved by a little graffiti.
It’s an open secret: not everyone loved the aesthetics of the Twin Towers … or their purpose. They were the brainchild of David Rockefeller, a lord of finance intent on erecting a double-stuffed hub of global profiteering.
To some, the buildings were skyline hogs that threw deep shadows chilling the plazas at their feet. To me, as a New Yorker, they seemed out of scale, as if the weight of them might tip Lower Manhattan below the waterline, seesawing Upper Manhattan into the air. Other times ... they looked alright. Probably through sheer familiarity.
But to New York Times reporter James Glanz, who co-authored an essential book about the towers, they were brash and magnificent.
JAMES GLANZ: They were 2 gigantic office buildings. But there was something about the way they dominated lower Manhattan. You know, they became something that mattered to you.
And of course, they mattered deeply to Matthew Besheer.
MATTHEW BESHEER: There was nothing more beautiful than seeing the sun emblazoned upon the side of those buildings. So many people proposed to their wives on the roof of the Trade Center. So many people had pictures taken there.
Including El-Sayyid Nosair. He posed with his young family in front of the towers several years before he joined a terrorist cell that would set out to knock them down.
JAMES GLANZ: They were, in a way, our Pyramids. You know, there was something, I wouldn’t say holy about them, but they had that role of an object that was supposed to symbolize the whole.
The whole of Western civilization with all of its technological might.
But civilizations at the height of their dominance have a common problem: they breed resentment.
There's this essay I keep coming back to by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. It's called "The Spirit of Terrorism.” He wrote it a year after 9/11 and it still feels pretty daring. He describes the attackers not as nihilists or madmen but rational actors.
Baudrillard says human beings are “allergic” to systems that advance like armies, conquering cultures as they go. Like, for example, global capitalism. He also describes the impulse to rebel against a power that appears monopolistic. Like the United States after the Cold War. And if you experience such systems as oppressive, and you’re fanatically inclined, you might just try to vanquish them by force.
Baudrillard says a successful act of terror combines “a kernel of real violence with the maximum possible echo.” The echo is amplified, greatly, by striking a symbol. And was there ever a more potent symbol of American wealth and power than the Twin Towers?
BERNARD HAYKEL: There was no greater symbol of America’s material prowess and dominance than those buildings.
That’s Bernard Haykel ...
BERNARD HAYKEL: I’m a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
And an accomplished scholar on the intersection of Islam and politics.
BERNARD HAYKEL: The World Trade Center in particular became an obsession for radical Islamists who believed that they could bring down the United States just as they had done the Soviets in Afghanistan. And so if you could bring the World Trade Center down, you could bring down symbols of capitalism and America as an economic power.
But how could anyone bring them down? They were colossal and seemed anchored in the center of the earth. And they’d already survived a serious bombing.
BERNARD HAYKEL: The Twin Towers remained a target because they had not been brought down in 1993. Kind of unfinished business.
After his arrest, Philippe Petit told a reporter: “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk.” The rest of this story is about a group of men driven by a murderous version of that impulse.
JAMES GLANZ: In that respect I think it’s entirely natural that somebody with a much more evil intent would see the towers as magnetic as well.
Of course intent is not enough. The men determined to bring them down needed an idea to make it happen. But what? And who could possibly conceive it?
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. The story of the long, strange wind-up to the attack that remade the world … and the chances we had to stop it. I’m Jim O’Grady.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He was the face of evil.
ALBERT FERRO: We need to find out whether there are threats.
STEVE SIMON: As they went through the apartment they concluded quickly that it was a bomb factory.
- ROMMEL BANLOI: Very tough guy.
MARY JO WHITE: Let’s turn the heat up as high as it possibly can be.
MATTHEW BESHEER: He made a break and ran.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He did kind of disappear.
Episode Five: The Idea
The origin story of the Twin Towers is rife with ironies.
The architect who designed the original World Trade Center complex, Minoru Yamasaki, had a fear of heights. It’s why he made all those windows so narrow. He thought it would be less scary for the people inside.
Yamasaki was inspired by the Great Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, with its seven maginificent minarets. You’ve probably seen pictures of it during the Muslim pilgrimage, you know the hajj, when hundreds of thousands of the faithful gather to pray. Now turn two of those minarets into skyscrapers … and there they are: the Twin Towers.
Yamasaki’s design was largely devoid of ornament, except for the base of the buildings, which he ringed with pointed arches, a prominent feature of Islamic architecture. He told an interviewer he’d first been inspired by the Islamic or Arabian style when he designed a major airport in Saudi Arabia.
MINORU YAMASAKI: The King and the principal leaders of Arabia were delighted with the fact that we had designed an Arabian-looking building.
Here’s what architect Laurie Kerr said about Yamasaki in a 2001 essay from shortly after the attacks. Quote: “Yamasaki ... clothed the World Trade Center, a monument of Western capitalism, in the raiment of Islamic spirituality.” End quote.
And how might that have looked to a particular Saudi who was not the king -- to Osama bin Laden? Kerr wrote that if bin Laden’s goal was to “purify Islam from commercialism, Yamasaki’s implicit Mosque to Commerce would be anathema. The World Trade Center probably struck bin Laden as a false idol.”
Minoru Yamasaki died at age 73 in 1986. He was spared the spectacle of his crowning achievement, which took seven years to build, destroyed in a couple of hours. He left the world optimistic. “World trade means world peace,” he had said at the towers’ opening ceremony. He had hoped they would become “a representation of man’s belief in humanity … his beliefs in the cooperation of men.”
Of course “cooperation” is a neutral term. Just because men are cooperating, doesn’t mean something good is going on.
BRAD GARRETT: He was arrogant, self-assured. He was just very proud about what he had done.
That’s FBI Special Agent Brad Garrett describing World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. When we last saw Yousef, he was staring at the towers from the Jersey City waterfront … and he was pissed off because his truck bomb had not leveled them.
Unlike the 9/11 hijackers, Yousef didn’t come to the United States to die, to give up his life as a religious sacrifice. He came to carry out a mission and escape. His agenda was pragmatic and political.
BRAD GARRETT: Every person I’ve interviewed that’s committed some violent atrocity, particularly if it was terrorism, it was all about really our policies and treatments of Muslims. And I will tell you this is a fairly common theme in terrorists “Get out of Muslim countries. U.S. encroachment is their justification to commit an act.”
U.S. encroachment in the Middle East, in particular.
BRAD GARRETT: It had nothing to do with this whole thing about, you know, “We spend too much money. We don’t dress right.” I mean there are factions of people that think that, but that isn’t the big picture that I’ve found.
In other words, Yousef’s beef has a lot to do with American foreign policy and only a little with cultural decadence.
And speaking of clothes, Yousef slipped into a designer suit to make his getaway. That’s what he was wearing in a first-class lounge at JFK Airport while waiting to board a flight to Pakistan. A TV was playing and a news report came on. It said investigators had a suspect in the bombing of the World Trade Center earlier that day ... a group from Serbia that was part of the war in Yugoslavia.
Yousef was incensed. No one was going to steal his credit. So he got up, went to a pay phone, and called the NYPD tip line: without leaving his name, he said: No. It was me. I did it.
A month later, The New York Times published a letter from Yousef. He took full credit for the bombing and explained it was in response to -quote- “the American political, economical and military support to Israel ... and to the rest of the dictator countries in the region.” He made no religious argument and didn’t mention Islam even once. These were political demands, reinforced by the threat of more attacks.
Like FBI Special Agent Brad Garrett says:
BRAD GARRETT: Ramzi Yousef believed the United States manipulates governments. They control their economy. They control who’s in power. You’ve now overstepped yourself, and we’re going to do something about it.
Reporter John Miller:
JOHN MILLER: You know, after the bombing of the World Trade Center, he didn’t just go on the run. He went on the run and went back to work.
Thanks to Ramzi Yousef, Port Authority officer Matthew Besheer got a promotion. He was made a detective with the Joint Terrorism Task Force and joined the international manhunt for Public Enemy # 1.
MATTHEW BESHEER: We were doggedly determined to track down and arrest Ramzi Yousef.
Besheer’s partner was FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: You know, at this point, he was a significant person that everybody was looking for. He was the face of evil.
Frank Pellegrino and Matthew Besheer. Our second pair of buddy cops in this podcast.
MATTHEW BESHEER: Frank was the alpha on the team; um many, many people in the office would refer to us as Batman and Robin. And I had no problem being Robin.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He was a better cop than I will ever be. He’s, uh, very open, very easy. Very few people who meet him – I don’t know anybody who’s ever met him who didn’t like him.
On the other hand, Pellegrino cared not a whole lot about what people thought of him. He was a tough guy. In the hackneyed TV movie about the search for Ramzi Yousef, an exasperated character would at some point have to sigh and say, “That’s just Pellegrino -- rough around the edges.”
Their boss was U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White.
MARY JO WHITE: I considered Yousef to be one of the most dangerous people on the planet. Let’s turn the heat up as high as it possibly can be turned up to try to capture him.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He was a smart guy when it came to, you know, how to mix it. And he wasn’t afraid to do it.
Mixing the volatile chemicals for a bomb takes skill, a lot of nerve, and a bit of luck. Yousef had mishaps that had left him with facial scars and a partially severed finger but nothing worse than that. Besheer says, in the beginning, the JTTF underestimated how hard he would be to catch.
MATTHEW BESHEER: I don’t think anybody realized the length of time and the depth of the investigation that was going to need to be done, in order to get the job done.
Frank Pellegrino says, pretty much all they knew about Yousef was he’d grown up in Kuwait … but his parents were from Pakistan and had recently moved back there.
FRANK PELLIGRINO: After he left New York we assumed that he either went home to somewhere in Baluchistan or back to Pakistan somewhere.
Baluchistan is a province in Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. So the U.S. State Department printed up 37,000 matchbooks with Yousef’s passport photo. The photo would become iconic from its use on news reports and even the TV show, America’s Most Wanted. It shows Yousef with thick dark hair, a hard stare and a broken nose. His chin is raised, as if daring you to say something that would make him take offense. The matchbooks advertised a hefty reward for information leading to his capture. Agent Pellegrino says there was some haggling within the FBI about the size of it.
FRANK PELLIGRINO: We ended up getting a $2 million reward for him.
They took the matchbooks and air-dropped them on Baluchistan, where $2 million bought a lot of motivation. The bounty unleashed a flood of tips, more than they could handle, all of them dead ends.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: It’s just a big crowded place.
Where it's easy to hide out from American agents based in New York. And where the jihadist cause had sympathizers in high places.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: We had a bunch of meetings with authorities in Pakistan but unfortunately, uh, nothing ever came of that. And whether it was an inability to help or a – a desire not to help, I’m not sure. I think maybe it was a combination of both.
Yousef was in the country but moving around. He’d end up at a guest house owned by Osama bin Laden.
There’s no evidence that Yousef and bin Laden ever met in person. But Yousef had been associated with Al Qaeda since its founding in 1988. It was at a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan where Yousef received his first high-level training in remote-controlled explosives. At the time, the U.S. and the jihadists were on the same side in the war against the Soviets. Yousef’s early bombs deployed timing devices and plastic explosives supplied by the CIA.
Think about that: the U.S. intelligence community was now searching for a man they’d indirectly weaponized. And the trail had gone cold.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: So you get bits and pieces but, you know, never anything for sure. He did kind of disappear.
But then, a surprise.
On the night of January 6th, 1995, a fire breaks out in a dingy, one-bedroom apartment in Manila, the Philippines. Acrid black smoke billows from the windows and rises against a moonlit sky. As a fire truck pulls up, a man talking on a cell phone is seen walking away. Another man, familiar to neighbors, hops in a cab and speeds off. Firefighters enter the apartment. There’s no one in it … and it reeks of chemicals.
The police come and look around. They find a laptop computer. But without a search warrant, they can’t remove it or even open it. So they leave to go get one. The scene is pretty odd … but for now the police are treating it as a routine fire. They assume that information on the laptop will help them explain it.
They’re right about that. The laptop will explain it … and so much more.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
The Philippines is a largely Catholic country. And in 1995, Pope John Paul II is rock star popular. So a papal visit to Manila is a major event. It’s also a massive security headache. Remember, the pope has already survived an assassination attempt. In 1981, a Turkish man who had called the pope “a Crusader Commander,” shot him four times in Saint Peter’s Square.
Now it’s January 7th, 1995, a week before the 74-year-old pope’s visit to the Philippines. There’s been a fire in an apartment overlooking the popemobile’s main route in Manila, and only a few hundred yards away from where John Paul II will be staying.
The cops are sifting through what’s left of the charred apartment. Albert Ferro, who was with the Philippine National Police, describes what they were thinking.
ALBERT FERRO: They were thinking that it was just an accident, but there’s a lot of things that are suspicious. So, the police conducted investigation.
Steve Simon was with the U.S. National Security Council at the time.
STEVE SIMON: As they went through the apartment they concluded quickly that it was a bomb factory.
In the kitchen, officers discover bottles of acid and a cauldron by the sink.
STEVE SIMON: That looked pretty suspicious.
And then in the bedroom...
STEVEN SIMON: They saw all this Catholic stuff, vestments, things.
Two Bibles, crucifixes … and a glossy photo of John Paul II.
Rommel Banloi studies terrorism at a Fillipino think tank. He says there were signs that more than one man had been using the apartment … and of what they were up to.
- ROMMEL BANLAOI: They were planning to assassinate the pope using improvised explosive device.
The plan seems to have been to dress up operatives as priests, who would then plant pipe bombs at a papal location. The bombs’ timers were modified Casio watches. The detonators were made from light bulb filaments and cotton soaked in flammable liquid. Curiously, they were similar to those used in the World Trade Center bombing, but these were expertly miniaturized ... And investigators who examined them were horrified by their ingenuity.
After the police leave the apartment to get their search warrant, a man returns to find it unguarded. He slips inside and grabs what he’s come for: the laptop. But as he’s leaving, the police return.
MATTHEW BESHEER: When Philipino authorities responded back to the apartment, there was Hakeem Murad.
Abdul Hakim Murad. Pakistani. 27 years old.
MATTHEW BESHEER: In questioning him, he made a break and ran. But he tripped on the sidewalk and fell and they quickly captured him.
Murad is arrested. What happens to him next brings up a terrible subject: torture.
Some commentators and analysts say, torture gets suspects to talk. On the other side are religious leaders, human rights groups, elected officials, and intelligence officers who say it doesn’t work ... and is immoral. And then there’s the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture. It’s 6,700 pages with 38,000 footnotes. I’m going to boil it down to a pair of key findings from the official summary. One: Torture does not produce intelligence that can be gained in other ways. Two: Torture does not stop terrorist plots or lead to the arrest of additional suspects.
After 9/11, The CIA would continue torturing suspects. But in 1995, as far as we know, they did not torture Abdul Hakim Murad. That was a job for the Philippine National Police. They beat Murad and they waterboarded him. They burned his penis and testicles with cigarettes. But according to Rommel Banloi, he didn’t break.
- ROMMEL BANLOI: Very tough guy. Murad was a tough guy.
And a true believer. Murad told Philippine investigators that, “Killing Americans was my best thing. I enjoy it.” So the investigators are stuck. Meanwhile, the pope has arrived. Officer Albert Ferro feels the clock ticking.
ALBERT FERRO: The visit of the pope was underway, and we need to find out whether there are threats. And we are facing a blank wall. Almost zero, zero information about these people.
Because, according to Rommel Banloi, torture wasn’t working.
- ROMMEL BANLOI: So they said, let us turn to a young colonel at the time, who was known for his great expertise in interrogating communist rebels. He was very, very good at that, Colonel Boogie Mendoza.
Colonel Rodolfo “Boogie” Mendoza. Round-shouldered, blunt featured. One of his colleagues described him as a “hardcore” expert in psychological warfare. The Philippine press called him a methodical sleuth and a “bull-headed strategist.” So don’t be fooled by the cutesy nickname.
BOOGIE MENDOZA: I got the name, uh, “Boogie” while I was studying at the Philippine Military Academy. One of my classmates baptized me that name because it was taken from my hometown named Bugallon.
In 1995, Boogie Mendoza is in a Philippine counterintelligence unit … and on a task force to protect the pope on his visit. Mendoza has seen a report on Murad. It says abusive interrogation has yielded no useful information. None. So Mendoza says he went with a different approach.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: When I meet him, he was in handcuffs. Those handcuffs must be removed immediately. He told me thank you. As I’m asking him, “Who are you?”, “Why are you here?”, “What is the content of the laptop?” because we cannot open it, he refused to talk. So I- I changed my tactics: “I noticed, Mister Murad, that you are hungry. Maybe you would like to eat.” “Yes, I’m very hungry.”
Mendoza is using a tactic called “rapport-building.” He’s establishing a relationship that allows a conversation to occur -- and from there, a sliver of trust. However, the approach is not limited to sympathetic treatment. At times, Mendoza will resort to other means, like manipulation and deception.
- ROMMEL BANLAOI: Colonel Boogie Mendoza offered something. He offered a burger, a burger to Murad. And he said “This beef is not McDonalds. This is not American burger. This is a Philippine-made burger.” And Murad was delighted that it was not an American burger.
After a while, Mendoza makes Murad an offer. If he’ll name his partners in the assassination plot, Mendoza will let him speak to a humanitarian organization.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: Because of my generosity, I’ll turn you over to the Red Cross.
To make the offer credible, Mendoza has one of his aides pretend to be a Red Cross worker and speak to Murad on the phone. The aide says he’ll let Murad’s family know he’s alive. Murad is relieved. His hopes are raised. So when he hangs up, Mendoza asks him again, who were you working with? Murad clams up again.
So Mendoza threatens him. He tells Murad what will happen if he continues to hold out.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: I’ll turn over you to the Mossad or the FBI. It’s your choice.
The Mossad is an Israeli intelligence service and Murad did not want to fall into their hands. Mendoza’s aide then starts up a truck outside the window to suggest to Murad that he can be taken at any moment.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: It is a combination of sweet and sour promises. I told him, “I think you’ll be handed over to the FBI because you’re a suspected terrorist, you might be an international terrorist.”
Then Mendoza goes for the jugular.
BOOGIE MENDOZA: I ask him, “Do you want to see your children? What will be their future if you will be jailed?” Then he started to crumble. He’s about to cry.
Mendoza has another question.
BOOGIE MENDOZA: Are you prepared to die?
Meaning, die for jihad. Murad says:
BOOGIE MENDOZA (SPEAKING AS MURAD): “No, no, no. I love my family,I love my family. I’ll tell you something. “Do you know the World Trade Center?“
The World Trade Center. Mendoza plays dumb.
BOOGIE MENDOZA: “What’s that?” I asked. He said, “The Bombing there!” Then he admitted the name, “Ramzi Yousef."
Ramzi Yousef. Jackpot. Law enforcement now knows who they’re chasing … and that he was recently in Manila.
It’s a major break in the case and, according to Boogie Mendoza, it was not produced by torture.
FBI Agent Frank Pellegrino is in New York when he gets word of the revelation. He’s been looking for Yousef for two years.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: We spent a lot of time chasing down a lot of phantom leads in the beginning. We were completely surprised when he showed up in the Philippines.
Pellegrino and his partner, Matthew Besheer, hop a plane for Manila. But by the time they get there, Yousef has melted away again. On the bright side, with Yousef out of the picture, the pope’s visit comes off safely.
And now Pellegrino and Besheer feel like, at least we have a trail to follow … but there’s a lot more work to do. They start by knocking on doors in the neighborhood of Manila Bay, where Yousef rented the apartment on a one-month lease.
The neighbors tell Besheer that they hadn’t taken Yousef and Murad for devout Muslims. They were more like Western-dressing party guys.
MATTHEW BESHEER: They were very involved with the bar scene, and with the sex trade within the Philippines. It was kind of a strange side to the investigation.
Pellegrino and Besheer head to a nearby commercial strip.
MATTHEW BESHEER: We actually had to go the bars and find the girls and ask them, “Please step off the bar and come speak with us.”
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Fortunately they all watch movies over there. “The FBI is great.” [LAUGHS] So, when you told them you were FBI, they all got a thrill out of it.
MATTHEW BESHEER: They described them as being very engaging, a lot of fun, and great guys to hang out with.
But Rommel Banloi says there was more to it than fun for Yousef and Murad.
- ROMMEL BANLAOI: They used these bar girls to launder money because they requested these girls to open bank accounts.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Some of the connections that from the Philippines went all the way back to bin Laden. So, we quickly realized that Ramzi wasn't just hiding, that he was there planning.
And that money signalled he was up to something ambitious. Something beyond assassinating a pope, which, incredibly, seems to have been a side project. You know, for a lot of terrorists, killing Pope John Paul II would’ve tied them up for the entire month. Not Ramzi. As Frank Pellegrino says:
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Boy, he had to be in it. He couldn’t help himself but to be involved in something new, you know, to be doing something different, to start the next project.
Yousef had money in amounts that needed to be laundered. And some of it came from Osama bin Laden. By 1995, bin Laden was known to the CIA as an “extremist financier.” And the State Department had put him on its watch list for having moved operations from Afghanistan to Sudan, a country the U.S. had labelled a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
So the urgent question was: What did Yousef plan to do with bin Laden’s money? Surely the laptop held clues. Ramzi Yousef had ordered Murad to return to the apartment to retrieve it -- that’s how important it was.
MATTHEW BESHEER: Ramzi never wanted to be caught with anything. He was a very sly individual.
The laptop was encrypted. But computer experts, after several tries, found a way in and cracked the files. One folder was especially alarming: it had lists of airlines, flight numbers, timer settings … and a curious word: Bojinka.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Bojinka- What does Bojinka mean? And you hear all kinds of stories – It means something in Croatian, it means … It was just a nonsense word that he made up.
Time for Boogie Mendoza to have another conversation with Yousef’s former roommate, Abdul Hakim Murad.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: I ask him, “What is ‘Bojinka’?”
“Uh, well uh, it’s a codename,” he told me.
“What? Codename for what?”
Then he trembled. “Bojinka,” he told me, “is an explosion.”
OK, but what kind of explosion? That’s when Steve Simon of the National Security Council got called in.
STEVE SIMON: I went to Manila to talk to Philippine authorities about the plot and … it was chilling.
Boeing 747s full of people … blown out of the sky.
STEVE SIMON: It talked about, this...elaborately and intricately planned attack on as many as twelve aircraft from major American carriers, crisscrossing the Pacific. And of course when you saw the data, you were able to brush aside the dramatic implausibility of the whole thing, you realized … this could work!
Not only could it work, Simon and others realized, Yousef had already done a test run.
NEWS ANCHOR: Boeing 747…
A month before the apartment fire, Philippines Airline Flight 434, en route to Tokyo, made an emergency landing.
NEWS ANCHOR: After a bomb blew a two-foot hole in the cabin floor, killing one man and injuring six others.
Yousef had mastered the extremely risky skill of creating liquid nitroglycerin -- the explosive component of dynamite. He mixed it in the restroom of the plane -- it took him a few minutes -- and then added it to a device that was powered by batteries he’d smuggled onboard in the hollowed-out heels of his shoes. He returned to his seat, reached under it, and wedged the bomb in with the life preserver. It stayed hidden there as Yousef left the plane at a stopover.
When Yousef had attacked The World Trade Center, he’d deployed a bomb that filled every inch of a Ford Econoline van. But Steve Simon says the components in this test bomb were small enough to fit into Yousef’s carry-on luggage.
STEVE SIMON: He’d been very busy creating a kind of tailored, boutique explosive to use, which would escape detection.
Officer Albert Ferro.
ALBERT FERRO: He used a small amount of uh nitroglycerin placed in a small container that cannot be suspected as a bomb.
- ROMMEL BANLOI: He pretended to be using it for his contact lenses.
That’s all it took to blow a two-foot-wide hole in a plane; to kill an innocent passenger and injure ten others: a few ounces of nitro in a bottle of contact lens solution.
STEVE SIMON: I don’t wanna use the word panic but the sudden chilling feeling you get that a devastating plot might well be under way and possibly irreversible
A plot involving 12 different planes.
MATTEW BESHEER: You’re talking about the possibility of over five thousand people being murdered.
STEVE SIMON: You know it’s stupefying, really, and you have to rouse yourself to action.
At this point, investigators knew two things: The laptop with the Bojinka plot belonged to Ramzi Yousef ... and Yousef was still out there. That meant the simultaneous destruction of a dozen planes was still on the table. Oh, and they also knew that a man had called the Associated Press in Manila to take credit for the Flight 434 bombing … but he didn’t leave his name.
The news went straight to the White House and President Bill Clinton. Leon Panetta was Chief of Staff at the time, later to become director of the CIA.
LEON PANETTA: The question you always ask in the intelligence business is, “What’s the credibility?” ‘cause you get all kinds of threats. And the credibility of the sources was pretty good.
Richard Clarke was the president’s chief counter-terrorism adviser.
RICHARD CLARKE: We had to act quickly, because we didn’t know if the bombs had already been placed. We went in emergency mode to the FAA and said, “We need to ground aircraft.”
For the first time in its history, the FAA grounded all flights by US-owned airlines coming from the Pacific. Flights in the air were turned around.
RICHARD CLARKE: All those aircraft in the air we need to do inspections, have the crew go in and check where we think the bombs are gonna be planted.
STEVE SIMON: It was probably the most frightening moment of those 6 years I was at the NSC. I mean, that put the fear of God into me.
Flights eventually resumed but with temporary security measures: no passenger could bring liquid on board, and all carry-on bags had to be searched by hand. The kind of intrusive rules that are second nature to us now.
The Bojinka plot was foiled and in the nick of time. Except it wasn’t -- not completely. There was a Bojinka Part 2 -- Boogie Mendoza heard about it from Abdul Hakim Murad. Murad, himself a pilot, said Part 2 involved terrorists trained to fly commercial planes in the U.S.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: He used the word ‘nose-diving’ ... I remembered it. Nose-diving. Diving the plane into several targets. He mentioned the Pentagon. He mentioned a nuclear facility. He mentioned Langley.
Langley being CIA headquarters in Virginia.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: So I was shocked.
Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, says Yousef was already sketching out a prototype of the 9/11 attacks.
STEVE COLL: Why did they come up with these ideas? Well, Ramzi Yousef had tried to blow up a very big building and bring it down. He had failed. Truck bomb in the parking garage didn’t get it done. So you can easily imagine in the frustration but in the freedom of exile, now back overseas, hanging out in Manila, entering into conversations saying, “Well how can we do better?” And out of that, comes an interest in aviation, an interest in turning airplanes into missiles.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: May I add … I am not a – like Nostradamus, who can predict, uh, future incident. But I was able to file a report.
Mendoza says his report included a description of Yousef’s plan to use planes as missiles. He filed that report with Philippine authorities, he says, who then shared it with their U.S. counterparts.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: Unfortunately, something went wrong. Perhaps they did not take it seriously.
According to Mendoza, his supervisors threatened to fire him for writing this report at all. His intelligence was unwelcome.
RODOLFO BOOGIE MENDOZA: They ignored my information. The part of the interrogation that they don’t want to believe is the targeting structures in the – in the US.
Targeting structures in the U.S. And now think back to the 47 boxes that police recovered from the attic of Sayyid Nosair’s house. Boxes with plans for attacks against -quote- “tall buildings” in New York. Boxes lost for years in a bureaucratic shuffle.
It was NYPD Detective Louis Napoli, who worked the Nosair case, who essentially said, So what? New York is full of tall buildings. You need more information than that to prevent an attack. Well, that’s what FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino says about Phase 2 of Bojinka.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: When we spoke to Murad after he was arrested and we were bringing him back on the plane, he talked about the fact that he and Ramzi Yousef had spoken about hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. This is not something that we didn’t know about. What, were we going to do, shut down the airlines? What were we going to do? Throw out every Middle Eastern guy who’s taking a flight lesson in 1995? You know, what are you going to do about it? What can you do about it?
Here again is the dilemma of the novel threat -- especially threats that seem both grotesque and far-fetched. Like training suicide pilots to fly planes into buildings. How do you find the will to confront a disaster that hasn’t happened? Even The 9/11 Commission Report, with all of it’s can-do spirit and 67 pages of recommendations, concedes the problem. It says,''Historically, decisive security action took place only after a disaster had occurred or a specific plot had been discovered.”
And yet hindsight, being 20/20, would like to raise its hand and ask some questions. Why didn’t analysts take the information from Yousef’s laptop and the Mendoza report and the Murad interrogation and conclude that, taken all together, they’re speaking to us like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They’re standing onstage and addressing us directly, This is real, we need to do something. Maybe we reinforce cockpit doors, monitor flight schools, take a long hard look at Yousef’s sponsors. The kind of analysis that might require a change in approach. And resources. And time.
But you can probably guess what came next. Law enforcement buckled down and chased the threat they knew: Ramzi Yousef.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: I remember an old supervisor telling me, “You’re never going to get this guy. You know, you’re wasting your time. “ We were determined to try to see it through and to keep pursuing it. I knew that when the State Department is offering two million dollars, you know, there is potential there for somebody to actually do the right thing.
Pellegrino was right. Eventually, the two-million-dollar reward pulled a credible lead. It came from an operative whom Yousef had dispatched to place a bomb on a passenger flight.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: After he left the Philippines, Ramzi tried to put some bombs on airplanes leaving from Bangkok. So, I mean, it was kind of a constant thing with this guy.
The operative gets cold feet, and rings up the US Embassy in Pakistan.
BRAD GARRETT: Headquarters calls me and said “We think we’ve located Ramzi Yousef in a guest house in Islamabad, You’re cleared to go.”
FBI Agent Brad Garrett.
BRAD GARRETT: State Department agents met me at the airport, took me to the embassy, had another quick debrief, threw me in a vehicle, and an hour later I’m on my way to this guest house ...
… on the outskirts of the city. Former NBC reporter John Miller.
JOHN MILLER: He’s there right now. They don’t know if he’s gonna be there tomorrow.
The tipster, slightly built and skittish, is waiting for them outside the guest house. He sees them and steps inside. Several minutes pass. He comes back out, removes his hat, and runs his fingers through his hair. That’s the signal: Yousef is here ...
JOHN MILLER: So with this thrown together team of- mixed bag of American federal law enforcement and a Pakistani raiding team they hit this guest house and boom the door, and there’s Ramzi Yousef.
Barefoot, lying on his bed.
BRAD GARRETT: We come in behind them. They had taken a sheet and thrown it over him, so he looked like Casper the ghost. And they said, “We got him.”
In his room, agents find airline schedules and bomb components stuffed into children’s toys.
JOHN MILLER: And they find a TIME magazine, on the bed in this room where they flip open the pages and, you it’s a picture of the World Trade Center bombing. It’s the story of the hunt for Ramzi Yousef.
All press is good press, even if you’re notorious. The team hustles Yousef to a safe house, where Agent Garrett questions him.
BRAD GARRETT: I go in, and they have him in a room and there’s a guard on each side of him. His arms are restrained.
Garrett says, “What’s your name?” Yousef smiles and says, “Well, I have many,” referring to his long trail of aliases. So Garrett holds up Yousef's Most Wanted poster and asks, “Is Ramzi Yousef one of them?” Still smiling, Yousef answers, “Oh yeah, that’s me.”
BRAD GARRETT: So we have a little bit of small talk, talked a little about explosives because he had part of finger missing and he said those were bad attempts at building bombs. I said to myself at this point, I just might as well just drive right through the front door. And I said, “Well, did you blow up the World Trade Center?” And he pauses and he says, “No, I masterminded blowing up the World Trade Center.” I said “Ok, can we talk about that?”
Once again, Ramzi Yousef gives no religious reason for his actions. Islam is neither his animating force nor his justification.
BRAD GARRETT: He was just very proud about what he had done and knew that it needed to be done because of our involvement in Muslim countries and in particular our relationship with Israel. And those two things just have to stop. And so, he decided with his group of people to take action to basically try to quote, unquote force us to change our policies.
At this point, Yousef knows his time as an underground, globe-trotting terrorist has come to an end. He’s going to stand trial and he’ll have to appear in public.
BRAD GARRETT: He said, “Guarantee me one thing.” And I said, “What is that?” “That I look presentable in professional clothes in front of the media.” He wanted to make a positive, I guess, impression or appearance that he was a guy who had it together.
Ramzi Yousef is loaded onto a military plane that will fly him to the U.S. On the long flight, an agent asks about Mohammed Salameh. You remember Mohammed Salameh -- Yousef’s co-conspirator in the World Trade Center Bombing. Why, the agent wants to know, did he go back to Ryder Rental in Jersey City to get the $400 deposit on the van? Yousef gives a one-word answer: “Stupid.”
When the plane lands at Stewart Air Force Base north of New York City, Agent Matthew Besheer is there to greet it.
MATTHEW BESHEER: I took the Port Authority chopper from New York up to Stewart along with several individuals from the New York office, and we waited for the flight to arrive.
With him is Lewis Schiliro Assistant Director with the FBI’s New York office.
LEWIS SCHILIRO: When Ramzi came off the plane he was blindfolded and he was shackled, and they literally carried him up the helicopter. So the helicopter takes off, and I was seated directly across from him. He did not offer any apology. He did not offer any really sorrow over what happened. To me it was just incredible that you wouldn’t even have any degree of being contrite. The defining moment with Ramzi was bringing him into lower Manhattan.
That blindfold was off by now.
MATTHEW BESHEER: There was not a cloud in the sky. And all the lights of the Trade Center was just twinkling. And we looked at Ramzi and said, “See Ramzi, they’re still standing,” And he took the time to look everyone of us in the eye on the helicopter. He just didn’t blurt out the statement. He looked everyone of us in the eye, and he said, “If we had more money, we would have brought them down.”
Next time on Blindspot…
ABDULLAH ANAS: Strange things happening when this Zawahiri came to Peshawar.
KHALED BATARFI: Of course we knew bin Laden very well.
ABDULLAH ANAS: One day we are sitting with Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and saying “Look, Osama bin Laden, even he is not saying hello to us”
ARTURO MUNOZ: you can’t do this peacefully, it has to be done violently.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: They said, “We, by our experience, you with your funds and support, we will build a new party.” That was the beginning of Al Qaeda.
“Blind Spot: The Road to 9/11” is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Our team includes Jenny Lawton, Ursula Sommer, Joe Plourde, David Lewis, Michelle Harris, and Isaac Jones.
This podcast is based on the TV documentary “Road to 9/11” produced by Left/Right for HISTORY, and was made possible by executive producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. Special thanks to Eli Lehrer, Jessie Katz, Bill Moss, Celia Muller, and Jennifer Goren. Additional footage was from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
[sound of knocking on door]
JIM: Who is it?
YAROSH: It’s me. Can I come in?
JIM: Yeah, come on in Yarosh.
[sound of door opening]
YAROSH: Want to play Otrea?
JIM: What is Otrea?
YAROSH: You don’t know?
JIM: I don’t know.
YAROSH: I’ll show you.
YAROSH: Look, you have to work like this and this is how you want it. Like this, like this, or like this, or like this,
YAROSH: Or like this.
JIM: That’s okay?
JIM: No, I can’t do that. I have to do … this.
YAROSH: I won!
JIM: Oh my God! [laughs] But dude I was about to win! Wow, you’re a magician.
YAROSH: I am.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.