Author Ron Suskind has a whopper of a chapter from his new book The One Percent Doctrine in this week’s issue of Time Magazine which penetrates the inner sanctums of the war on terror and describes a terrorist plot to attack the New York subway system with the chemical hydrogen cyanide that was close to execution, before being called off by Al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri:
[Al-Qaeda mole ‘Ali’] said that al-Ayeri had come to tell al-Zawahiri of a plot that was well under way in the United States. It was a hydrogen cyanide attack planned for the New York City subways. The cell members had traveled to New York City through North Africa in the fall of 2002 and had thoroughly cased the locations for the attacks. The device would be the mubtakkar. There would be several placed in subway cars and other strategic locations and activated remotely. This was well past conception and early planning. The group was operational. They were 45 days from zero hour.
Then Ali told his handlers something that left intelligence officials speechless and vexed. Al-Zawahiri had called off the attacks. Ali did not know the precise explanation why. He just knew al-Zawahiri had called them off.
Assuming this story is accurate, it confirms what I’ve believed (and many other analysts have argued) for a while: that the core of al-Qaeda is focused on catastrophic attacks on the United States – probably using nuclear or biological weapons – and everything other type of attack is secondary from their perspective (or detrimental, to the extent that it would lead to increased protection and vigilance). This story offers a strong counterpoint to those who have argued that the WMD threat is overhyped, or that we aren’t doing enough to protect “soft” targets.
And even though al-Zawahiri evidently called off this plot, this story also raises questions about what we’re doing to protect the nation’s mass transit systems. Even if the “core” al-Qaeda isn’t interested in them, per this story, they are still at risk from loose al-Qaeda affiliates or other groups. Last year the Congress appropriated $150 million for rail and mass-transit grants for FY 2006, via the Transit Security Grant Program. We’re now nine months into FY 2006, and DHS hasn’t even begun to distribute a penny of this $150 million (or if they have, they haven’t advertised it). That’s unacceptable.
Overall, a fascinating story – definitely read the whole thing.