The Untold Story of al-Qaeda's Plot to Attack the Subway

In an exclusive excerpt of The One Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind reveals how officials learned about an al-Qaeda cell that came within weeks of striking the New York City subway system with poison gas

  • Share
  • Read Later

Public Eye: Signs on the New York City subway urge riders to report any suspicious activity

(3 of 11)

It is steel and concrete as metaphor — tied, on one shoreline, to a truce struck between the Saudi ruling family and religious traditionalists in the kingdom. The Sauds get virtually limitless wealth, a healthy chunk of which they share with their dour clerical partners and their Wahhabist accountants. In exchange, the royals receive a stamp of religious approval, as the true protectors of the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina, as well as an understanding that 25,000 or so members of the royal family can do, more or less, anything they please, while the country's 27 million citizens live under strict religious laws mandating traditional dress, shrouding of women, prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol or premarital sex. Adultery carries a death sentence.

For such indulgences, and countless others, you cross the bridge to the island principality of Bahrain — a country of almost 700,000, with high-rise hotels, a playboy king, a base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and significant cash flow from its role as a discreet "service provider" for Saudi Arabia. The lives of Saudis, and Bahrainis, are thoroughly framed by this arrangement, and its attendant hypocrisies. And both suffer the presence of its by-product: groups of stealthy, violent religious purists, graced with many opportunities to feel self-righteous.

One such group was traveling across the King Fahd bridge toward Bahrain on Feb. 13, 2003, when they were picked up by Bahraini police. The United States, specifically the CIA, was behind the arrest. The NSA had picked up calls and e-mails from a cluster of Bahrainis that were troubling — boastful talk of what should be done to infidels, and some problem phrases, such as picking up "honey pots." "Honey" is often terrorist code for destructive items.

The Bahraini group consisted of five men: two gunrunners of a traditional criminal stripe, and three men with strong jihadist credentials. All were put through the basics of law enforcement procedure that are not necessarily common in their part of the world. Their belongings — cars, cell phones, wallets — were held in a secure place, used to glean further leads, and their apartments were searched.

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.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11