WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 -- Former CIA officials told United Press International that southern California's Disneyland and Seattle's Space Needle were targets of foiled 1999 millennium bombing, attack financed and advised by Saudi millionaire terrorist Osama bin Laden.
According to these sources, who asked not to be identified, the plot came to light when a 32-year old Algerian man, Ahmed Ressam, was stopped by U.S. Customs officials on Dec. 14, 1999 at Port Angeles, about 60 miles northwest of Seattle, after crossing the Canadian border.
When Customs officials began to search Ressam's car, he ran away but was caught several hours later hiding a few blocks away. But what U.S. officials found hidden in the tire well of Ressam's car was chilling: Ten 110-lb plastic bags of urea, a legal substance used in fertilizer that can also be used to make explosives.
There were also two plastic bags of the absorption agent sulfate, and four small black boxes containing timers.
"He had enough material to make four or more bombs," said one former U.S. intelligence official.
On Dec. 28, Seattle's Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the city's New Year's Eve celebration including music, dancing and other festivities scheduled under the 52-story-high Space Needle saying the threat of terrorism made it impossible to ensure citizens' safety. At least 50,000 people had been expected to attend.
Schell was widely jeered by city residents for being "paranoid," according to newspaper accounts at the time, especially since celebrations went forward in larger cities such as Washington, D.C. and New York.
Although federal officials had warned that major millennium celebrations worldwide could be terrorist targets, Schell told ABC News that the FBI told him they had "no information that Seattle was being targeted."
The FBI made other public statements that there was "no specific information" that the Space Needle was in danger.
But former U.S. intelligence officials flatly said Schell's statement was "rubbish," and that the FBI had "plenty of indications" that the Space Needle "was a bin Laden target."
Ressam had reservations under the name of Benni Antoine Norris at a hotel only five blocks away from the Space Needle. Most importantly, U.S. investigators discovered that "Ressam had a map with other targets circled on it." The Space Needle was one, but others were located in California. One of these was Disneyland, one former CIA source said.
Especially chilling to investigators were the timers Ressam was carrying. According to a U.S. government official, they were made from a Casio digital watch that had been transformed into a timing switch. Such timers were the trademark of Ramzi Youssef, the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing who had developed the Casio watch timer and a tiny "Mark II bomb" during his stay in the Philippines in 1994, sources said.
According to U.S. intelligence sources, several Arab Afghans, affiliated with bin Laden, arrived in the Philippines to set up terrorist cells, most of them in major cities. One such terrorist was Ramsi Youssef who visited several major Philippine cities and within a short time had a group of 23 followers.
According to a U.S. government official familiar with the transcripts of an interrogation of Youssef by Filipino security forces, Youssef was able to develop his own brand of liquid -- but stable -- nitroglycerin that he would put in a contact lens case with cotton wool as a stabilizer. Besides nitroglycerin, other ingredients of the bomb included minute parts of sulphuric acid, silver azide, acetone, nitrobenzene and nitrate, the U.S. official said.
Youssef would attach wiring to the arm of the watch using a tiny space under the calculator. The alteration was so minute that a courier or bomb-maker would still be able to wear the watch in a normal manner. The watch would then be connected to two 9 volt batteries connected to light filaments that would detonate the bomb. Youseff smuggled the batteries past airport metal detectors by carrying them in the hollowed out heels of his shoes.
Youssef made an early test of his bomb by breaking into a mall in Cebu City, the third largest city in the Philippines. The device detonated several hours later in a generator room, causing only minor damage but convincing Youssef that he had at his service a workable device.
Youssef left Manila for a few days, but on his return was met by several emissaries from bin Laden who had traveled from Sudan, according to U.S. government officials. "We know for a fact he had close contact with these people," one U.S. government counter-terrorist source said.
The bin Laden emissaries urged an attack on President Bill Clinton, who was due to arrive in the Philippines on Nov. 12, 1994 as part of a five-day Asian tour, the sources told UPI. The group went over options: place a bomb along the route of the motorcade or fire a Stinger missile at the presidential plane or as part of an attack on the presidential limo.
According to these sources, Youssef even toyed with the idea of trying to assassinate Clinton with a chemical weapon called Phosgene, but abandoned an attempt on the president's life because of tight security.
But Youssef saw another use for his Mark II bombs. On Dec. 9, he moved into the Don Josefa Apartments in Manila and began to work on a plot to smuggle his tiny nitro bombs onto airliners, causing the planes to explode in mid-air and killing thousands of people. The master plan was called "The Bojinka Plot," from a Serbo-Croat word meaning explosion.
Youssef tested his bomb in a Manila movie theater on Dec. 1, and on Dec. 11, with nine-volt batteries hidden in his shoes, Youssef boarded a Philippine Airlines Boeing 747 headed for Narita, Japan via Cebu. Flying on the leg to Cebu, Youssef assembled his bomb and left it under a seat. He got off the flight at Cebu and two hours later, at 11:43 p.m. as the plane was over Okinawa, the bomb went off, nearly blowing in half a male Japanese national, Haruki Ikegami, who was sitting above the explosion. The damaged plane was able to land.
The Bojinka Plot would later be foiled, but investigators saw in Ressam's timers a signature of bin Laden involvement.
Former CIA officials told UPI that Youssef had been receiving money from bin Laden and had been trained by bin Laden experts in camps in the Sudan in 1992.
Youssef also had been in contact with a key bin Laden aide during and after the World Trade Center attack, and when he went in hiding at a safe house in Quetta, Pakistan, the rent for the house was being paid by bin Laden. He also received help and financing from two senior bin Laden aides based there, former CIA officials said.
The bombs from materials provided by Ressam were "intended to be pretty big," a U.S. intelligence official said. The Space Needle is made of 3,700 tons of steel, but the right kind of bomb could have caused real damage. Asked about casualties, the official said simply "For the Space Needle alone, it would have been thousands, maybe more."
But what of the explosives experts, the real bombing team, that was working with Ressam?
Still at large, sources said.