Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
“Firecracker – do not worry, we were just playing with firecracker.”
“But New Years was last week, what are you doing playing with firecrackers now?”
“Just come in, nothing happened, I will show you – firecracker is all.” It was just after 11pm when Patrolman Ariel Fernandez stepped into the acrid cloud of smoke occupying the cramped sixth-floor room. Fernandez had come to Manila’s Dona Josefa Apartments after his senior superintendent, Aida Fariscal, received a call reporting a fire in the building.
As the night-duty officer, it was Fernandez’s job to check it out.
After arriving at the apartments, Fernandez and the firemen who’d responded to the alarm rode the elevator up to Room 603, where they found salt-white granules festooning the suspiciously smokey room. The apartment’s inhabitants were a man named Ramzi Yousef and one of his buddies from home, Abdul Murad, and neither one of the unassuming albeit nervous men gave Fernandez too much pause.
Wringing their hands, Yousef and his friend haltingly explained in accented English that they’d spilled some of their supposed firecracker-fuel in the sink, lit it, and then been unable to contain the cloud that came billowing out from the reaction that followed. So they opened a window, and the smoke pouring from their sixth-floor window into the musky Philippine night made it seem from the outside as if their room was on fire.
But, the occupants claimed, it was all just a miscalculated attempt at constructing some homemade firecrackers
However, unbeknownst to Patrolman Fernandez, at the time Ramzi Yousef was one of the most accomplished terrorists in the world: he’d managed to detonate a bomb equivalent to 1,500 pounds of TNT beneath the World Trade Center’s north tower the prior year , he’d trained extensively in terrorist camps ranging from Baluchistan to Indonesia, he held an advanced degree in electrical engineering from the Swansea Institute in Wales, and he was in the final stages of coordinating an attack that was poised to be the deadliest terrorist strike in history.
All of this would have come as a surprise to Patrolman Fernandez, because for whatever reason he hadn’t noticed the various items scattered around the one-bedroom apartment that to the casual observer might seem more than a little superfluous for constructing homemade firecrackers.
The four portable gas stoves all still new in their boxes, enough industrial-size cotton balls to satisfy the needs of the entire Manila red-light district for a weekend, the bottles of sulfuric and chloric acid, the chemical glassware, the multicolored loops of electrical wire with accompanying timers, and manuals on chemistry and bomb-building. All in all, there was so much volatile combustible material that a single spark of static electricity could’ve set off the explosives in the room and demolished the entire Don Josefa apartment complex.1 And yet, not sensing that anything was awry, Fernandez returned to file an informal report of a non-event back at headquarters.
As it turned out, the men in the apartment were in the process of constructing the bombs they planned to use for Operation Bojinka, Yousef’s terrorist piece de resistance: simultaneously blowing up twelve trans-Pacific jumbo-jets. “Bojinka,” appropriately enough, is Chechnyan for “Kaboom.” So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with your typical terrorist’s erudition that this plot was codenamed: “Operation Kaboom.”
But it was here in the Philippines that this plot would begin to unravel at the hands of Fernandez’s senior superintendent, Aida Fariscal. Hands that were often lacquered in whatever bright pink shade matched that day’s lipstick, hands that in only a few years would hold her first grandchild. Fariscal – clad at the time in a flowered muumuu, rubber slippers, and hoop earrings – didn’t fit the picture of your typical counterterrorism agent about to pull off a well-planned textbook sting against a man who at the time was considered the most dangerous terrorist operative in the world. Which makes sense, as given the events that followed, it becomes obvious that Fariscal was far from a well-trained counterterrorism agent.
And yet what Fariscal lacked in formal training, she made up for in instinct.
Following her hunch, Fariscal, Fernandez, and another officer made their way back to the apartment complex and entered the sixth-floor room sans search warrant. After taking a keener look than Fernandez and realizing, given all the suspicious materiel laying around, that there was more than firecracker-making going on, the three of them descended to the lobby of the building hoping that one of the inhabitants of Room 603 would return. And return one did, as Yousef’s disregard for operational security and disdain for his cronies would prove to be his undoing.
Yousef had sent his buddy, Abdul Murad, back to the apartment to retrieve their laptop. After the arrival of the police Yousef had enough sense to abandon their room, but in the rush to leave he forgot their laptop, which held information that tied the entire Bojinka Plot together and which vividly incriminated them both. So he sent Murad back to get it. After being identified by Fernandez, Murad was confronted by Aida Fariscal in the lobby of the Don Josefa apartment building. He stuck with his story of firecracker-construction until Fariscal, remembering she would in fact need a search warrant, turned to make the phone call to request it.
As soon as she turned her back, Murad bolted across the airy apartment lobby.
Fernandez shot at Murad but missed, and since Fariscal had neglected to set up a containment perimeter it looked as if Murad would be able to outrun the pursuit and escape into the hazy early-morning hours. However some arboreal assistance thwarted Murad a few blocks from the building, as he tripped on the exposed roots of a tree. Tripping slowed him down enough for the pursuing officers to close the seemingly insurmountable lead he’d opened on them.
Pouncing on Murad, the officers quickly restrained him, but not with handcuffs. With nearby clothesline – they’d all forgotten their cuffs back at the station.
Returning Murad back to the precinct headquarters capped off the most comical counterterrorism operation of all time in appropriate fashion. Being that they were without a squad car, and since it was just before 3am, the streets were nearly empty. So Fariscal ran out into the road in an attempt to commandeer a vehicle to bring them back to the precinct. She went for the first automobile that passed by, a World War II-era jeep that’d long ago been converted into a taxi. The driver of the clunky sixty year-old machine refused to stop and rattled on by into the dark haze of the Philippine night. But after a few minutes, they were finally able to get a ride.
The man who would eventually lead authorities to Ramzi Yousef – mastermind of the massive 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, chief explosives instructor of the Abu Sayyaf group, and the man who in less than a week planned on being responsible for the incineration of four-thousand travelers on their way across the Pacific to America – was brought into police custody with markedly little fanfare.
His arresting officers were sitting politely next to him, paying customers of a worn but respectable minivan taxicab calmly puttering its way across the quiet, well-maintained Manila streets.
To understand how the terrorist cell behind the first attack on the World Trade Center Towers in 1993 could be so hilariously harebrained and yet still create the perception that lethal and highly-trained operatives who embodied a threat to America’s very existence were on the loose – we must return to the past.
Back across the footsteps of the world’s most ancient revolutionaries and the first true Assassin to the banks of the Jordan River, where the history of violence has flowed in unison with time. To the deepest canopied rainforests, over the bloodied sands of Africa, and into pedagogical explosions muffled at the turn of the century by weary Russian snow. Muffled, yet still echoing across the media every time we are gathered by horror in front of our televisions.
Because it is only in the stories of our past that we can begin to find the answers to what is happening to us now.
In the broadest sense, one thing that “sets terrorism apart from other acts of violence is that terrorism is carried out in a very dramatic way to attract attention and create an atmosphere of fear that goes far beyond the actual victims of the violence.”2
But there is much more to it than that.
“Terrorist” has been the label used for insurgents, rebels, ideologues, guerrillas, militants, extremists, heads of state, commandos, and anyone else who uses violence that is novel or unexpected and who is inspired by an idea that he holds more dear than his own life – or the lives of strangers. The word “terrorist” alone is a troublesome over-application, and so categorizing a terrorist’s actions both by the context they occurs in and by the perceptions they create is imperative both to understanding and to defusing the threat they pose – increasingly important steps to be able to take.
Because the emergence of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other modern Islamic terrorists onto the world stage is symptomatic of a larger disorder: the metastasis of hopelessness across millions and millions of lives. And although this disease has primarily been spreading overseas for the past few generations, if you live in America or anywhere else in the West it’s becoming more and more apparent that it may only be a matter of time until it arrives on our shores.
Modern Islamic fundamentalists aren’t on to anything new. They are simply manifesting a zeitgeist that’s always summoned into existence by war and violence, by hopelessness and inequity. By placing this zeitgeist into modern circumstances it gains a sheen of novelty. It shouldn’t. When forgotten precedents are brought into the present, the sinister mystery of what’s occurring now fades back into the past.
Our societies have always progressed cyclically, periods of stability and order inevitably lead to the formative anarchy of the masses. Communal human expression at its awful finest. Sometimes those involved in an uprising are described as revolutionaries or insurgents, at other times they’re called terrorists – but that distinction isn’t a matter of absolute truth so much as context and perception. Like the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake forever consuming its own tail, we are inextricably caught in the same gyre of destruction and renewal as our ancestors.
However figuring out exactly how the proverbial shit will go down next isn’t just a matter of identifying the forces and concepts that were at work as past societies spiraled horribly towards entropy, we must also come to terms with our own shortcomings and mistakes. The bloody road we will travel on is one that has been well-taken before us, the road is not what’s different this time.
What’s different this time is us, the traveler.
And so it’s by tracing Ramzi Yousef’s path that we can begin to unravel the complexity, depth, and interwoven nature of a threat that is as misunderstood as it is sinister. Terrorism, today most noticeable as Islamic fundamentalism targeted at the West, at times threatens to consume the fabric of our society with an insatiable explosive fury. This threat is far from new or unprecedented. It is nothing more than the continuation of an ancient war by modern means, nothing more than the inevitable manifestations of those who can’t see hope without violence’s awful flame.
But be warned that the path of just one man isn’t enough to lead you to a complete understanding of this phenomenon. It’s simply a good place to start. He will lead you down a rabbit hole that’s strewn with the bodies of innocents, the blood of prophets, and the timeless hatreds that have so often set human societies against their neighbors’ throats.
His tale can provide the beginning of a trail that stretches across epochs and empires, and leads to each of our doorsteps. Understanding what we’ve come to know as terrorism requires following all the twists and jumps in the narration of his story, and accepting temporary confusion at unexpected leaps in narration.
Like the most effective acts of terrorism, patience is required – it’ll all be tied together in the end.
Just one man’s life can tell a story which can be linked to almost all of the myriad and seemingly disparate forces now being leveled against the West by an implacable enemy. And the holes his story leaves empty will be filled with the help of both those who came after him and those who came before. By examining their stories, and our own, some of the shadows cast by terrorism become illuminated to reveal truly insidious monsters. And, just as often.
Only our own skittish imagination.