Day By Day

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Al Qaeda Plot Against NY Subways: This is Really, Really Scary Kids

Time reports:
Al-Qaeda terrorists came within 45 days of attacking the New York subway system with a lethal gas similar to that used in Nazi death camps. They were stopped not by any intelligence breakthrough, but by an order from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. And the U.S. learned of the plot from a CIA mole inside al-Qaeda....

U.S. intelligence got its first inkling of the plot from the contents of a laptop computer belonging to a Bahraini jihadist captured in Saudi Arabia early in 2003. It contained plans for a gas-dispersal system dubbed "the mubtakkar" (Arabic for inventive). Fearing that al-Qaeda's engineers had achieved the holy grail of terror R&D — a device to effectively distribute hydrogen-cyanide gas, which is deadly when inhaled — the CIA immediately set about building a prototype based on the captured design, which comprised two separate chambers for sodium cyanide and a stable source of hydrogen, such as hydrochloric acid. A seal between the two could be broken by a remote trigger, producing the gas for dispersal. The prototype confirmed their worst fears: "In the world of terrorist weaponry," writes Suskind, "this was the equivalent of splitting the atom. Obtain a few widely available chemicals, and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot – and then kill everyone in the store."

[A US informant inside al Qaeda] identified the key man as Bin Laden's top operative on the Arabian Peninsula, Yusuf al Ayeri, a.k.a. "Swift Sword," who had been released days earlier by Saudi authorities, unaware that al-Ayeri was bin Laden's point man in the kingdom.
Read it here.

For Newsweek's take on the same story go here.

And here's the AP version.

The story is being reported uncritically by the MSM because it comes from a respected source -- Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. The Bloggy masses are not so trusting.

James Joyner writes:
I can’t help being a bit dubious of this level of detailed intelligence being in the hands of a reporter, kept secret long enough for him to write a book, combined with the lack of an attack in the subsequent three years. [here]
Good point.

Allahpundit is also suspicious, noting that the main figure in the whole matter was first released by the Saudis and then killed by them and cannot be questioned on the matter. [here]

He closes writing:
The point to take away: Al Qaeda has crude WMD capabilities. Have a great evening!
These guys are right to be suspicious. There's a lot here that doesn't add up. I don't doubt that Suskind has been true to his sources, but those sources, obviously, are rising up from the fever swamp that is the intelligence community where people, relying on insufficient information and rumor, are connecting dots that may or may not exist in all sorts of fantastic ways.

I remember a conversation I had once with a high ranking member of that community who said that the constant stream of alarming information, both hard and dubious, crossing your desk does affect your perception of the world in unhealthy ways. That could be the problem here -- professional paranoia being broadcast through the MSM.

Blue Crab Boulevard writes:
From Time magazine comes a handy little guide on how to kill lots of people. Oh, and a signed death warrant for an informant. They explain what ingredients are needed and give a hint on the device you need to make it work. Gee, thanks, Time.
Read it here.

Powerline notes:
If nothing else, the story highlights the fecklessness of the Democrats, who have just published their plan for "A New Direction for America" that never mentions al Qaeda, terrorism, or any aspect of national security.
Read him here. He also raises the question of whether Suskind is publishing classified information that compromised the al Qaeda mole and can be prosecuted for doing so. My sense is that the mole is old news and has long been out of play or possibly dead.

What strikes me about all of this is that Suskind's story represents the unhealthy conjunction of two bizarre fantasy worlds -- the apocalyptic imaginations of the intelligence professionals who make their livings speculating about doomsday scenarios; and the determined refusal of the MSM to actually accept the idea that this is not 1970, that Bush is not Nixon, and that the exigencies of wartime might in any way require them to act in a responsible manner. The result -- sensational scare stories that, upon close examination, don't quite add up.

Formula for the new binary weapon: wild-eyed intelligence insiders plus criminally irresponsible journalists equals catastrophe.

One important point to note: This information is three years old and in those years there have been no successful attacks. So, either the Bushies have been playing spectacular defense, or the original story is more than a little flawed. Probably both.

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