fallibilist

"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

New York subway plot revealed

Former Pulitzer prize winner Ron Suskind has writen a new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11*. It contains a startling revelation. According to the June 26th edition of Time magazine, al-Qaeda planned to attack the New York subway in early 2003. The plot involved hydrogen cyanide gas, a substance similar to that used by the Nazis during World War II in their concentration camps. And, strangely, al-Qaeda called off the attack. It wasn't intercepted: The U.S. administration didn't learn about it until after the planned date. Why al-Qaeda called off the attack remains unknown; speculation suggests that the plan lacked sufficient visual and psychological impact, since each wave of assault on America should be greater than the last.

The plot was intercepted due to collaboration between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. From the Time piece:
One of the jihadists, Bassam Bokhowa, an educated fiftyish professional, with computer skills, had visited an apartment in Saudi Arabia. And there, a joint Saudi-U.S. counterterrorist unit, formed after the meeting with Bandar in his study, found a computer. The contents were dumped onto a separate hard drive, which was sent to the United States for imaging--a way to suck out digitalia, encrypted or not.
That's where they found it: plans for construction of a device called a mubtakkar. It is a fearful thing, and quite real. Precisely, the mubtakkar is a delivery system for a widely available combination of
chemicals--sodium cyanide, which is used as rat poison and metal cleanser, and hydrogen, which is everywhere. The combination of the two creates hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, highly volatile liquid that is soluble and stable in water. It has a faint odor, like peach kernels or bitter almonds. When it is turned into gas and inhaled, it is lethal. For years, figuring out how to deliver this combination of chemicals as a gas has been something of a holy grail for terrorists.
...
Mubtakkar means "invention" in Arabic, "the initiative" in Farsi. The device is a bit of both. It's a canister with two interior containers: sodium cyanide is in one; a hydrogen product, like hydrochloric acid, in the other; and a fuse breaks the seal between them. The fuse can be activated remotely--as bombs are triggered by cell phones--breaking
the seal, creating the gas, which is then released. Hydrogen cyanide gas is a blood agent, which means it poisons cells by preventing them from being able to utilize oxygen carried in the blood. Exposure leads to dizziness, nausea, weakness, loss of consciousness and convulsions. Breathing stops and death follows. (Since blood agents are carried through the respiratory system, a gas mask is the only protection needed. If one is exposed to blood agents, amyl nitrite provides an antidote, if administered quickly enough.)
In a confined environment, such as an office building's ventilation system or a subway car, hydrogen cyanide would cause many deaths. The most chilling illustration of what happens in a closed space comes from a 20th century monstrosity. The Nazis used a form of hydrogen cyanide called Zyklon B in the gas chambers of their concentration camps.
In fact, the context for the men and the mubtakkar only became clear several months later in 2003, when an al-Qaeda informant in Pakistan (see Time online piece, page 7) told the CIA that the plan had been to attack the New York subway. But then the informer ("Ali") left "intelligence officials speechless and vexed": Al-Zawahiri had called off the attack, even though the operatives were in New York and the plan was well past conception stage.

Ali also offered insights into the nature of the Islamist terrorist network:
The Saudi group in the United States was only loosely managed by al-Ayeri or al-Qaeda. They were part of a wider array of self-activated cells across Europe and the gulf, linked by an ideology of radicalism and violence, and by affection for bin Laden. They were affiliates, not tightly tied to a broader al-Qaeda structure, but still attentive to the wishes of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.

Another interesting point to emerge from the Time piece is the crucial role played by NSA communications surveillance in the operations surrounding the subway plot. The members of the mubtakkar cell were in New York, all but ready to strike. With thta in mind, who then could argue against domestic surveillance in principle (although its legal basis should be clearer)? Other questions arise: Why did Ali co-operate with the Americans? Why did al-Zawahiri call off the operation? (Bush is quoted as saying the following: "I mean, this is bad enough. What does calling this off say about what else they're planning? What could be the bigger operation Zawahiri didn't want to mess up?")

In the context of revelations such as this, the Irish Times' editorial the other day, continuing to speak of the "so-called" war on terror, and freely admitting that Europeans don't consider themselves at war at all, looks rather naive, doesn't it?


*The name of the One Percent Doctrine comes from a quote Suskind attributes to Dick Cheney: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response."
The entire Time article is well worth reading.

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