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

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

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Ramzi Yousef plotted to release the gas into the ventilation system of the World Trade Center prior to bombing the place in 1993 and couldn't quite manage it. The famous chemical attack by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 — the release of sarin gas that killed 12 people and sent about 5,000 to area hospitals — was followed, two months later, by an attempted cyanide gas attack by cult members. A small fire, set in a Tokyo restroom that ventilated onto a subway platform, was designed to disperse the gas and was extinguished by alert subway guards.

Terrorism experts inside many governments have been on the lookout for reports of a solution to these engineering hurdles. Now, the CIA had found it. 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.

When the plans were discovered on Bokhowa's hard drive, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the CIA's operational chief for WMD and terrorism, and his counterpart, "Leon," who heads the analytical side of that same division, went into something just shy of a panic. Leon instantly pulled together a team to make a model of the device that he could eventually test.

At 5 p.m. in Tenet's conference room in early March, Leon waited until everyone was seated. He pulled from a bag a cylinder, about the size of a paint can, with two Mason jars in it. He placed it in the center of the large mahogany conference table, sat back down in his chair. People had heard various things about the recent discovery of a delivery system.

But seeing it was something else.

"Oh, s___," Tenet whispered after a moment.

John McLaughlin, Tenet's deputy, sat forward in his chair — thinking of how easily it might be transported in a backpack, a suitcase, a shopping bag, and how innocuous it looked.

The room fell silent.

"The man's got to see this," Tenet said, and called the White House to clear a few extra CIA briefers for the next morning's presidential briefing.

Tenet entered the Oval Office first, to prebrief Bush for four or five minutes. This was common practice: a short confidential primer from Tenet, so Bush could be authoritative and updated when others arrived.

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