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

(5 of 11)

The CIA briefers were summoned from the waiting area. One of them placed the mubtakkar on a low table in the sitting area. Bush looked at it. Cheney and the others were seated. The President picked it up — felt its weight. "Thing's a nightmare," he said quietly, almost to himself, and put it down. A CIA briefer went through a dissertation on the device, the technical problems it solved, its probable uses and the long road of trial and error leading to this moment. Everyone just sat in the Oval Office, looking at it — thinking about the era and its challenges, and saying nothing.

After the Oval Office briefing, Bush ordered alerts sent through the U.S. government. Tenet held meetings with the intelligence chiefs. Rolf and Leon showed the device to the relevant people in law enforcement and other intelligence services. The word had to be spread. The device was unstoppable — for people walking onto subway cars, railroad trains or through crowded, enclosed areas of any kind. Selective awareness, under intense standards of secrecy, seemed to be the only response.

In the world of terrorist weaponry, 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.

Bahraini police found a phone number in Bokhowa's records that led to an address in Saudi Arabia. Three men were arrested in Riyadh. They were part of a diffuse community of radical Islamic activists in the kingdom. Beyond their connection to the Bahrainis, the Saudi trio was connected to another threesome of jihadists in the kingdom. They were arrested as well. All of these actions were handled under the supervision and encouragement of the CIA, which had large stations in both countries. This investigation was now a priority. Finding the mubtakkar designs in Bokhowa's computer had ensured that.

But getting action from the Saudis, even now, nine months after Tenet had delivered his warnings to Prince Bandar, was anything but easy. Interrogations commenced. CIA operatives could only stand on the sidelines. The questions posed to the prisoners — both the Bahraini group and the two sets of captives in Saudi Arabia — were pointed. Yet compared with what was happening to captured al-Qaeda men Abu Zubaydah or Ramzi Binalshibh at "black sites," these interrogations were polite, respectful. The captives were all religious men. Day after day, they praised Allah and talked about their bonds of religious commitment to one another. This is a problem, said one CIA operative on the case. "Some of these guys are looked at almost like clergy. It's hard to interrogate clergy."

Bokhowa was especially savvy. He was too old to be a courier; he was more an analyst than an operator. He had highly placed friends in the country's community of Islamic activists. If there was a wider plot here, it remained out of sight. The Bahraini trio and the two Saudi trios were clearly tied to one another, but where they fit in a broader array of the region's jihadists was unclear. They did not seem to be tightly connected to several other Saudi cells that were being tracked by the U.S.-Saudi intelligence teams. Nor did they seem connected to the mysterious Swift Sword, who had appeared numerous times on cables picked up by the NSA and seemed to be running matters on the peninsula.

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