Bush: al-Qa'ida planned to fly plane into Los Angeles tower

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President Bush claimed yesterday that the US and its allies had foiled an al-Qa'ida bid to follow up the attacks of 11 September 2001 by hijacking a commercial jet with the threat of shoe bombs and flying it into the tallest building in Los Angeles.

According to the President, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed - captured in Pakistan in March 2003 and one of the masterminds of 11 September - was plotting the new operation as early as October 2001.

This time it would be carried out not by Arabs, but by south-east Asians, recruited by al-Qa'ida from the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah, which is active in Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries in the region.

The plot allegedly involved hijackers, armed with shoe bombs, breaking into the plane's cockpit and seizing control. Their target, Mr Bush said, was the former Library Tower - since renamed the US Bank Tower - a 1,017ft, 73-storey skyscraper dominating LA's downtown. The recruits had met Osama Bin Laden and started detailed preparations, he said. But the scheme was disrupted when an unspecified south-east Asian country captured an important al-Qa'ida operative in early 2002. It unravelled the following year, Mr Bush claimed, when an Indonesian known as Hambali, the presumed head of Jemaah Islamiyah, was arrested in Thailand.

The account, given in a speech to National Guard units, was not the President's first public reference to the failed plot. But it is by far the most detailed, and clearly designed to convince Americans that real headway is being made in the war on terror. It was also an implicit defence of the National Security Agency's controversial domestic eavesdropping programme, conducted without warrants.

Last October Mr Bush briefly mentioned the failed west coast attack when he claimed that, since 11 September 2001, Washington and its allies had foiled 10 important al-Qa'ida plots, including three aimed at targets inside the US. One was the Los Angeles operation; the second was an attack on the east coast, apparently planned for 2003, and the third involved Jose Padilla, who was arrested in May 2002 at a Chicago airport. He was said to be planning a radioactive "dirty bomb" attack on a US city.

The use of shoe bombs was pioneered by the British citizen Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an American Airlines plane from Paris to Miami in December 2001 before passengers overpowered him. In January 2003, Reid was sentenced by a US court to life imprisonment.

But the paucity of details meant that the other claims were met with scepticism - doubts that only increased in November 2005 when the US authorities, after holding Mr Padilla incommunicado for more than three years, abruptly abandoned the "dirty bomb" accusations. He now faces relatively minor terrorism charges at a trial in Miami this autumn.

With yesterday's speech, the White House was also seeking to focus the country's attention on the administration's success in preventing further attacks on US oil since 9/11 itself.

With Republicans facing tricky mid-term elections in November, poll after poll shows that the party's strongest card is its perceived ability to "keep America safe". This support has allowed Mr Bush to mount a vigorous defence against charges that the NSA wiretaps are illegal. A majority believe the administration can do whatever it deems necessary to protect the country.

* The Pentagon has been accused of using inhumane methods to break a hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison, including strapping inmates to "restraint chairs" for hours. A military spokesman said the number of hunger strikers had dropped from 84 in December to just four. Lawyers for the detainees said the way prisoners had been treated was "a disgrace".