WASHINGTON – Al Qaeda planned to hijack a commercial airplane with shoe bombs and fly it into Library Tower in Los Angeles, President Bush said Thursday, describing just one of many foiled terror attacks on the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
The plan, similar to the successful hijacking and flying of planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people over four years ago, was stopped with the help of coalition partners who arrested key operatives, Bush said.
"We now know that in October 2001, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks, had already set in motion a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door and fly the plane into the tallest building on the West Coast," Bush said in a speech to National Guardsmen in Washington, D.C.
Library Tower is now known as U.S. Bank Tower. In his speech, Bush mistakenly referred to it as Liberty Tower. The plot involved Malaysian militant Hambali, who was one of the leaders of Jemaah Islamiya, an Al Qaeda-related group that is responsible for bombings in the Philippines and other nations in Southeast Asia. Bush said Hambali recruited key operatives in Afghanistan, who met with Usama bin Laden to develop the plan.
"The plot was derailed in early 2002 when a southeast Asian nation arrested a key al Qaeda operative," Bush said, without naming the country.
Bush has referred to the plot before, but provided previously classified specifics in his Thursday speech.
After his comments, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that Bush's announcement caught him by surprise and described communications with the White House as "nonexistent."
"I'm amazed that the president would make this [announcement] on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels," the mayor, who was not in office at the time of the plot, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I don't expect a call from the president -- but somebody."
But Chris Bertelli, assistant deputy director at the California Office of Homeland Security, told FOX News that "Matt Bettenhausen, our director, communicated directly via phone and e-mail with the mayor's staff yesterday afternoon about the president's speech."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan added that the White House did let the appropriate people in California know that the speech was coming.
"My understanding was that we did reach out to officials in California and Los Angeles to let them know, I think it was yesterday, that the president would be talking about this. And the word I heard was there is great appreciation for the notification that we provided. That's very important," McClellan said.
In an afternoon press conference, Villaraigosa said that terror funding should be threat based since Los Angeles remains a target.
"This attack was foiled three years ago and the city of Los Angeles has implemented considerable security measures. ... At this time, we're doing all we can to prevent and mitigate" any future attack.
In an address last October, Bush said the United States and its allies had foiled at least 10 serious plots by the Al Qaeda terror network in the last four years, including plans for Sept. 11-like attacks on both U.S. coasts.
The White House initially would not give details of the plots but later released a fact sheet with a brief, and vague, description of some of the foiled plots. White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend also briefed reporters on the West Coast attack. She said Mohammed and Hambali recruited four members of the terrorist cell in Asia, who all then went to Afghanistan to swear their loyalty to bin Laden. All four members of the cell have been apprehended, but said she could not release their names or where they were caught.
Townsend would not say whether the attack was interrupted with the help of warrantless wiretapping of terrorists abroad communicating with individuals in the United States, but neither did she rule it out.
"We use all available sources and methods in the intelligence community, but we have to protect them. And so I'm not going to talk about what ones we did or didn't use in this particular case," Townsend said.
Three targets cited were in the United States, including plans to use hijacked airplanes to attack the West Coast in mid-2002 and the East Coast in mid-2003. The White House said at least one planner of the West Coast attack was a key figure behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
The third was the case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and allegedly plotted with top Al Qaeda commanders to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a U.S. city. Padilla, whose plot never materialized, was arrested in May 2002 and had been held as an enemy combatant without criminal charge at a Navy brig in South Carolina until last month, when he was released.
Bush said through the help of coalition partners in the War on Terror, several terrorists have been captured or killed.
"In the summer of 2003, our partners in Southeast Asia conducted another successful manhunt that led to the capture of the terrorist Hambali," Bush said. "In November 2001, our coalition forces killed Mohammed Atef with an airstrike in Afghanistan. March 2003, his replacement, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was captured in Pakistan. May 2005, the man who took over for him, a terrorist named al-Libbi, was captured in South Asia."
The details of the West Coast plot were part of a speech in which the president updated the nation on the international efforts to stem global terror. Bush said people who once worried that an aggressive strategy would alienate nations must now recognize that it has done the opposite.
"More than 90 nations, nearly half the world, are now cooperating in the global campaign to dry up terrorist financing, hunt down terrorist operatives and bring terrorist leaders to justice," Bush said, singling out Pakistan for its current efforts to root out Al Qaeda.
"This West Coast plot shows, in the War on Terror, we face a relentless and determined enemy. ... It took the combined efforts of several countries to break up this plot. By working together, we took dangerous terrorists off the streets. By working together, we stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland," he said.
The president said the efforts of the world community have "weakened and fractured" Al Qaeda, but terror threats still lurk, and bin Laden is still out there.
That fact stirred Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to criticize the president on national security, telling a meeting of United Auto Workers on Wednesday that the Bush administration is failing in its efforts.
"You cannot explain to me why we have not captured or killed the tallest man in Afghanistan," Clinton said, referring to the Al Qaeda leader.
But Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who was vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, countered that Clinton is perhaps positioning herself for higher office.
"Obviously she's running for something or running for re-election, perhaps something else, in '08, but she'll have to speak for herself. But, I'll tell you, it's very difficult because of the area where Usama bin Laden is hiding out, or we think he's hiding out," he said. "But I believe we're going to get him. We've been on the trail a long time and we've been real close to getting him and others. And we're not stopping. We won't stop at all."
Shelby added those who doubt the successes in the War on Terror should pay attention to the foiled attack described by the president.
"This was good work that foiled that, basically, a number of years ago. The president should talk about the details as much as he wants to, but this was something that probably saved a lot of lives," he told FOX News.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.