A Malaysian recruited by al-Qaida to pilot a plane in a second wave of Sept. 11-style attacks on the United States pulled out after observing the carnage of the 2001 assaults, Southeast Asian officials said Friday.
President Bush on Thursday outlined details of an alleged plot to hijack an airliner and fly it into a skyscraper in Los Angeles. He said cooperation between Washington and several Asian countries helped expose it.
The plan never appeared close to the stage where it could be put into execution. Scores of arrests in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks severely curtailed al-Qaida and its Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah.
Security officials and terrorism experts in Southeast Asia on Friday said Malaysian engineer Zaini Zakaria was among three men al-Qaida was preparing to take part in an attack on the U.S. West Coast.
Zaini, 38, has been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act in Malaysia since he surrendered in December 2002.
One suspect still at large
The other two men implicated in the attack plans were Zacarias Moussaoui, who is in U.S. custody, and Abderraouf Jdey, who remains at large with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Two Malaysian security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media, said Zaini was the only suspect in the alleged plot known to be in Malaysian custody.
Zaini traveled to al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan in 1999, where he met senior figures in the terrorist group, including Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, one of the Malaysian security officials told The Associated Press.
After returning to Malaysia the same year, Zaini enrolled in a flight school and obtained a license to fly a small plane. He then began making inquiries in Australia about getting a license to fly a jet, the official said.
But Zaini was never told what his mission for al-Qaida would be. When he saw media coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, he severed his ties with the militants.
Zaini told Malaysian interrogators that he “didn’t want that kind of jihad,” the official said.
A second Malaysian security official said Zaini told his Malaysian interrogators “he was not prepared to die as a martyr, so he backed out.”
Second attack mentioned
The possible “second wave” attack was mentioned briefly in the June 2004 U.S. National Commission report on the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It quoted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the reputed Sept. 11 mastermind who was captured in 2003, as saying “three potential pilots were recruited for the alleged second wave.” It identified them as Moussaoui, Jdey and Zaini.
However, Mohammed told his U.S. interrogators that “he was too busy with the 9/11 plot to plan the second wave of attacks,” the report said.
Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to conspiring to fly planes into buildings, and a jury is being selected to decide whether he is put to death or sentenced to life in prison.
The State Department is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture and conviction of Jdey, who was born in Tunisia but is a naturalized Canadian citizen.
Surrendered in 2002
Zaini, a native of the northeastern state of Kelantan, was doing some odd jobs before he surrendered to Malaysian authorities in Kelantan in December 2002, apparently because he was worried about an ill relative, said his former lawyer Saiful Izham Ramli.
Saiful said Zaini never told his lawyers about taking flight classes, and his arrest records do not describe him as a pilot or being a suspect in a “second wave” attacks.
He said Zaini was principally wanted by authorities for his links with Jemaah Islamiyah, a common charge for which scores of suspects are being held in a high-security prison in Kamunting under a law that allows indefinite detention without trial.
In 2003, the United States ordered a freeze on Zaini’s financial assets and those several other suspects. His family is now so poor that they cannot even afford to travel to Kamunting in central Malaysia to visit him, Saiful said.
Zaini’s wife hails from the southern Johor state’s Ulu Tiram district, the site of a school where Hambali and other Indonesian terror leaders allegedly were based for some years.
Plot involved shoe bombs
Bush said terrorists intended to use shoe bombs to hijack an airliner and crash it into downtown’s 73-story US Bank Tower.
His disclosure strained relations between the White House and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who said in an interview with The Associated Press that he got word of the new details like everyone else — by watching Bush’s speech on TV Thursday.
As it turns out, the White House did notify City Hall, if indirectly. A spokesman for Matt Bettenhausen, California’s homeland security chief, said he personally contacted a deputy mayor Wednesday afternoon with advance notice of the president’s comments.
Michelle Petrovich, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the agency notified the Los Angeles Police Department, along with state officials, that the 2002 plot would be mentioned during the president’s speech.
Villaraigosa later confirmed that City Hall was notified Wednesday. But that information was only general, city officials said, and the mayor was never informed. They said they had no warning that numerous new details of the plot would be disclosed.