Twenty-five years ago, members of the al-Qaeda organisation planned and plotted the destruction of 11 airliners over the Pacific Ocean. The plot served as the basis for the attacks of 11 September 2001. The plan, entitled Oplan Bojinka, still resonates to this day in terms of aviation security and the global impact of the al-Qaeda terrorist group. John Hatzadony examines the plot and its legacy 25 years on.
The fact that Haruki Ikegami probably died immediately was of little consolation. The explosion from under his seat on Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Cebu to Tokyo also injured another ten passengers. That the device did not detonate the main fuel tank was a slight stroke of luck due to a minor modification to the Boeing 747-283B. Investigators later determined the device, planted by Ramzi Yousef, was only one-tenth of the size of the devices he later planned to place on 11 US-bound airliners throughout the Pacific region. The al-Qaeda organisation was preparing a strike against civil aviation, the likes of which had not been seen before.
Research and development of the improvised explosive device that killed Ikegami began in 1994. Earlier in that year, Yousef and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the purported mastermind behind the eventual 11 September attacks, began testing airport security throughout the region. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had begun moving up the ranks of al-Qaeda, working closely with Osama Bin Laden and later moving to the Philippines to assist the Abu Sayyaf Group with technical details of bomb-design. The two plotters began flying between Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong and Manila, collecting intelligence on the security procedures at the airports.
“…disguising the main explosive charge in contact lens cleaner bottles with cotton-balls serving as a stabilising agent…”
Ramzi Yousef was well on his way to becoming the next ‘Carlos the Jackal’. Born in Kuwait of a Palestinian mother (the purported sister of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed) and a Pakistani father, he studied electrical engineering in the United Kingdom and later went to Pakistan where he trained in bomb making. Yousef designed and built the urea-nitrate truck bomb used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Upon his return to Pakistan he took a job to assassinate then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. His attempt failed and he went into hiding ending up in the Philippines with his maternal uncle, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.
Nitroglycerine was readily available in the Philippines and Yousef and his uncle soon settled on the idea of disguising the main explosive charge in contact lens cleaner bottles with cotton-balls serving as a stabilising agent. The timer was a Casio digital watch and two nine-volt batteries were used as the power supply. The batteries were connected to lightbulb filaments controlled through a silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR) that would serve as a trigger for the devices. Their surveillance and testing of the security procedures throughout the region made them confident that the liquid explosives would be able to bypass the airport security procedures in place.
“…seat 29K should have been situated over the centre fuel tank. However, the Boeing 747-238B was an ex-Scandinavian Airlines plane which had been slightly modified…”
The device tested by Ramzi Yousef was a second-generation improvised explosive device (IED) first tested by Yousef in the generator room of a mall in Cebu City. Later, a comrade, Wali Khan Amin Shah, a financial facilitator for al-Qaeda, planted a similar device under a Manila movie theatre seat to evaluate the device’s impact under similar conditions on an airliner. The resulting detonation injured ten movie patrons.
Ten days later, on 11 December, Ramzi Yousef boarded Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Manila to Tokyo-Narita under an assumed name and with a fake Italian passport. The flight made a scheduled stop in Cebu, where Yousef got off, but not before secreting the IED beneath the seat of the unsuspecting Haruki Ikegami. The timer was set for four hours later when the airliner would presumably be over the Philippine Sea.
Technically, Ramzi Yousef had planned well, as seat 29K should have been situated over the centre fuel tank. However, the Boeing 747-238B was an ex-Scandinavian Airlines plane which had been slightly modified, with seat 29K now just forward of the centre fuel tank.
When the IED detonated it created a large hole in the floor, severing Ikegami at the waist. The resulting blast separated several control cables to the right aileron and both pilot and flight officer control columns. The flight crew were able to gain control of the aircraft to make an emergency landing in Okinawa.
Oplan Bojinka was envisioned in three-parts. Part I was an assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II by a suicide-bomb attack during his, then, upcoming visit to the Philippines. Part II would have had five operatives, including Yousef and Shah, plant IEDs on 11 US airliners on trans-Pacific and South China Sea routes over the period 21-22 January 1995; investigators later estimated that the plot could have killed an estimated 4000 persons. The Pacific flights were targeted to limit recoverable debris and likely suspend international air travel. Part III involved a plan to obtain a small light aircraft, such as a Cessna, load it with explosives and crash it into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
It was during the planning phase for Part II that the plot was discovered. On the evening of 6 January 1995, a small fire broke out in the Dona Josefa Apartments in Manila. The resulting blaze and investigation ultimately allowed investigators to uncover bomb-making material and planning documents on a laptop that exposed the plot.
The precise details of the fire are still unclear, particularly as to how the accident began and the extent to which Ramzi Yousef was careless. In addition, there are conflicting stories as to the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) reaction and the ultimate apprehension of Hakim Murad. However, he was apprehended by the PNP with a laptop and the evidence found in the hotel room ultimately filled three police vans, providing intelligence and law enforcement officials with reams of information on the organisation and the plot.
Ramzi Yousef was finally arrested by Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and special agents of the US Diplomatic Security Service in Islamabad, Pakistan in February 1995. Upon his capture, investigators found flight schedules and bomb making equipment.
Lessons and Implications w25 Years Later
The downstream effects of Oplan Bojinka, in hindsight, have many lessons for the aviation security community. Al-Qaeda has been an effective and adaptive organisation that has always aimed to effect massive attacks with bold strokes. Despite the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda has persisted, not least because of its lack of formal organisation and structure.
The Bojinka Plot demonstrates al-Qaeda at its most audacious; the select high-value targets, breadth and vision were beyond what had been seen previously. It is unknown to what level Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was involved in planning the attack. However, the desire to attack the passenger airline system, and understanding the effects such a broad attack could have globally, was beyond the vision of other terrorist groups operating at the time. Multiple practice runs and refinement of the IED also demonstrated the advanced operational capabilities of the terrorist group.
The use of liquid explosives as a means to circumvent civil aviation security measures remained a key tool of al-Qaeda. In 2006, Al-Qaeda revisited the liquid explosive threat when Pakistani plotters were discovered developing tri-acetone tri-peroxide (TATP) liquid explosive-based IEDs with a solid stabilising agent, reminiscent of that in Oplan Bojinka. However, liquid explosives had been previously utilised as far back as 1933 when a United Airlines Boeing 247 exploded in mid-air, likely, investigators believed, due to a nitroglycerine-based IED.
The Bojinka plotters also planned their attack in two stages, intending to board at various origination points in east Asia and deplaning during stopovers, secreting their IED onboard for the continuing flights. This plan allowed them to avoid applying for US visas by never having to actually transit the United States as well as avoiding the post-Lockerbie Positive Passenger Bag Match process.
Threats originating in weaker links in the global aviation security chain remain a persistent threat. The 2010 attempt to send parcel bombs from Yemen to the US attempted to tap into a weak link, much like the Bojinka plot. In 2016, a Daallo Airlines flight was attacked by al-Shabaab terrorists by suborning two airport workers that were able to place an IED armed laptop aboard with a third accomplice who died in the attack.
“…liquid explosives had been previously utilised as far back as 1933 when a United Airlines Boeing 247 exploded in mid-air, likely, investigators believed, due to a nitroglycerine-based IED…”
US Intelligence officials, despite the reams of information seized and interrogation of Abdul Hakim Murad, failed to connect Khaled Sheikh Mohammed to al-Qaeda. It was not until after the attacks of 9/11 that his role and guidance in both operations was uncovered. Khaled Sheik Mohammed refined the Bojinka operation into the 9/11 attacks by concluding that improvised explosive devices were not reliable enough. Ultimately, the Bojinka plot evolved into the 11 September attacks with multiple, simultaneously hijacked aircraft targeting the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon, and, it is thought, the CIA Headquarters.
Al-Qaeda has proven to be a persistent threat both as an organisation and due to its consistent desire to return to previous targets. The World Trade Center, CIA Headquarters, airliners, liquid explosives and multiple simultaneous attacks (Bojinka, East African embassy attacks, 9/11) exemplify a consistent operational pattern. It is entirely possible that a reformed and reorganised al-Qaeda could return to previous methods and broad target set.
Al-Qaeda’s continued targeting of the international civil aviation system has kept them in the global eye for far longer than many other terrorist groups. They have also had a far larger impact in what the Homeland Security Advisory Council defined as a ‘Weapon of Mass Effect’ (WME) – “weapons capable of inflicting grave destruction, psychological and/or economic damage.”
The 2006 security limitations on liquids aboard civil aircraft was ultimately meant to be a temporary ban and broad consensus assumed that a technological or administrative solution would shortly be implemented. The ban was eased slightly to allow liquids less than 100ml in passenger carry-on items, but overall the majority of limitations persist today throughout the world and have cost billions of dollars in added security practices and technologies.
Explosive trace detection technology has advanced to include a broad range of nitrogen- and peroxide-based explosives. However, a layered security programme and actionable intelligence is the key to preventing future terrorist attacks on the global civil aviation system.
Advances in aviation security have far exceeded many of the threats of the Oplan Bojinka plotters. However, al-Qaeda continues to fight in Yemen and Syria and remains an adaptive, persistent threat to the aviation community.
Dr. John Hatzadony is a former intelligence and law enforcement analyst with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) working in aviation, maritime and surface transport security. He currently serves as Program Chair of Homeland Security and Director of the Master of Science in Intelligence Analysis for Rabdan Academy in the United Arab Emirates. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.