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May 1, 2011 — a date to remember for two major global events. For the millions of Catholics worldwide, it was the day their Blessed John Paul II was beatified, only six years following his death. For citizens of the United States, it was the day US special forces killed the mastermind of the terror attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City nearly ten years earlier. But May 1, 2011 wasn’t the only time these two global icons were linked by plots hatched in the Philippines.
On two separate occasions, Osama bin Laden’s international terrorist network, al Qaeda, was linked to plots to assassinate the late Pope John Paul II, hatched in the Philippines no less. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of Bin Laden's lieutenants, had planned to kill the late pope during the pontiff’s 1995 World Youth Day visit to Manila. The plon called for planting a pipe bomb at the altar in Luneta Park, where the Pope was set to celebrate Mass, and have al Qaeda snipers deployed around the area to “shoot randomly at those fleeing the carnage." The 1995 plot, however, was foiled after a fire gutted the Josefa Apartments along Quirino Avenue in Manila, where he and nephew Ramzi Youssef had taken quarters. Their next plot was an extraordinary and historic success. Mohammed and Youssef were instrumental in carrying out the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, as they hatched the idea of using aircraft and flying them into the twin towers of New York City. Mohammed’s conspiracy of a second attempt at assassinating the pope, meanwhile, was hatched in 1999 but was also thwarted following the cancellation of the pontiff’s trip to Manila for health reasons. “Documents found in a block of flats in Karachi, Pakistan, used as a hideout by Mohammed show that he visited the Philippines on a number of occasions to finalize details for the assassination attempt," the paper said. The block of flats referred to in The Times article was a row of apartments. Terrorist training The Pope’s assassination was just one in a long list of terrorist activities planned by Bin Laden’s men in the Philippines. While in the country, Youssef reportedly trained members of Abu Sayyaf — the most notorious Philippines-based terrorist group — in bomb-making in 1995, and plotted to destroy 12 US passenger airlines that year in a plot now known as “Operation Bojinka." In her book “Osama bin Laden: A War against the West," author Elaine Landau noted how al Qaeda had “planned to have two US airplanes heading for Hong Kong from different directions simultaneously blow up in midair." These “synchronized, choreographed strikes" would later become Bin Laden's trademark, Landau said, evident in the way the September 11 attacks were likewise carried out. Although Operation Bojinka did not push through, a “test mission" leading to it did claim the life of a Japanese national on board a Philippine Airlines Boeing 747 flight to Tokyo, who was killed by a nitroglycerin bomb planted by Bin Laden’s men. Aside from al Qaeda officials visiting the Philippines, reports also point to Islamist rebels flying off to Afghanistan and receiving training from there. At least 20 trained religious extremists — claiming to be mujahedeen or jihad warriors — went back to the country in 2001 after being trained by Bin Laden's men at a camp outside Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan. al Qaeda funded Abu Sayyaf Aside from plotting terrorist attacks, al Qaeda was purportedly instrumental in funneling funds to Abu Sayyaf, which ensured the group’s survival. A Manila Times article in 2001 reported that both the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were receiving funding from Bin Laden, but the MILF said most of the money went to “building mosques, clinics and schools in many poor Muslim provinces." This was later confirmed by then Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Gen. Diomedio Villanueva who said he was certain that the Abu Sayyaf could not have operated for so long without the help of Bin Laden's al Qaeda network. The one who had allegedly channeled al Qaeda money toward various terrorist efforts in the southern Philippines was Mohamed Jamal Khalifa, who was married to Bin Laden’s half-sister, Shaikha al-Attas. Bin Laden's brother-in-law used as conduits for al Qaeda money two organizations he (Khalifa) had organized in 2008 — the International Islamic Relief Organization and the Benevolence International Foundation. Acting as charitable organizations, these groups allegedly took money meant for charity and purportedly redirected the cash to terrorist initiatives in the Philippines, including the Bojinka plot. “There is certainly evidence that bin Laden's money is floating around Asia. His past associates say he used banks in Hong Kong and Malaysia, while his brother-in-law spent years in the Philippines and has been linked to the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf," according to a Far Eastern Economic Review report in 2001. — With additional research by Marlon Anthony Tonson/PE/VS/HS, GMA News
Vatican Statement on Osama bin Laden’s death
Following the killing of Bin Laden, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, P. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement to reporters: “Osama bin Laden – as we all know – was gravely responsible for promoting division and hatred between peoples, causing the end of countless innocent lives, and of exploiting religions to this end. “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace."