A Blast From the Past: Decoding Bojinka
(Reproducing here for archive purposes.)
By Rafael M. Garcia - November 15, 2001
THE NIGHTMARE of many years ago was reliving itself that Black Tuesday. I was on a business trip in Minneapolis. As I was driving, two radio program hosts went hysterical about a fire in one of the towers of the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, they became even more hysterical as a plane had crashed into the second tower.
Project Bojinka! This was one of the plans I had discovered on the computer of Ramzi Yousef in 1995 at the Josefa Apartments in Manila when a fire, accidentally triggered by Abdul Karim Murad and Yousef, attracted the attention of security personnel who called the police. Murad was apprehended while Yousef was able to escape to Pakistan where he was ultimately caught.
I've been working with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) as an unofficial computer resource person since 1977. I am usually called in when they have computer files that need to be decoded. Some cases are exciting, like the computers confiscated from drug lords containing records of transactions as well as their contacts. Others are more mundane, like computers suspected of having pirated software installed on them.
So, you can imagine my reaction when I was approached for this case by then NBI senior investigating agent Federico Opinion. He said they had to decode a computer that had been discovered in an investigation being conducted by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the NBI on some Arab terrorists. Because the computer is usually material evidence, I asked them to just copy the files onto another computer so that I could work on the copy. This was our SOP.
Decoding Yousef's computer was not difficult. I bypassed the passwords and immediately accessed the files. The principal job was reading the files and summarizing them. This was done using a text search program.
This was how we found out about the various plots being hatched by the cell of Ramzi Yousef. First, there was the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II. We learned that a suicide bomber would approach the Pope and detonate a bomb that he would be carrying, killing the bomber, the Pope, and the people around both of them. Because the Pope was coming to Manila, we thought this was the principal plot and prime reason for the group to be in Manila.
Then, we discovered a second, even more sinister plot: Project Bojinka, or a Yugoslav term for loud bang. This was a plot to blow up 11 airlines over the Pacific Ocean, all in a 48-hour period. The planes would have come from Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, and Manila. Even the airlines and the specific flight numbers had been chosen. There was a document where calculations had been made on how to set the timers on the bomb to be placed on each flight so that they would explode within a set time.
Then we found another document that discussed a second alternative to crash the 11 planes into selected targets in the United States instead of just blowing them up in the air. These included the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia; the World Trade Center in New York; the Sears Tower in Chicago; the TransAmerica Tower in San Francisco; and the White House in Washington, DC. Murad himself was to fly the plane that would be crashed into the CIA headquarters.
I submitted my findings to NBI officials, who most certainly turned over the report (and the computer) either to then Senior Superintendent Avelino Razon of the PNP or to Bob Heafner of the FBI.
As more news of the plane crashes came in, the horror of Bojinka came back to me. I decided to tell my Ateneo high school classmates, Batch 1965, what I knew about Bojinka through our private e-group address. One of my classmates posted the e-mail on a list-serve that was accessed by reporters. I was deluged by calls from journalists and comments from the curious.
I have since had meetings with certain US authorities and they have confirmed to me that indeed, many things were done in response to my report. Unfortunately, Bojinka may have been sidelined as investigators pursued other leads. In the meantime, cohorts of Ramzi Yousef went ahead with a more sinister alternative to the original Bojinka plan, resulting in the infamous 9-11 crashes.
I think it is wrong to blame the Manila-based FBI agents who received the information in 1995 for the failure of the US to prepare for this type of a terrorist attack, especially after information about the possibility had been discovered and reported on so early. Sept. 11 was a massive failure in the security systems of the entire US.
It showed how lax security was at its airports. It wasn't the circa-1995 FBI agents in Manila who dropped the ball. It was the airport controllers who noticed that four major airliners were diverting from their original flight plans and did not scramble. It was the Air National Guard pilot who did not race to his target aircraft, thinking it was just another prank.
For many more years from now, the word Bojinka will continue to bring back memories of horror as many more acts of terrorism are committed by unreasonable men against unsuspecting innocents.
(The author is chair and CEO of Mega Group of Computer Companies.)