(7 of 11)
This brought elation a mystery solved, a case cracked and then screams of pain. Al-Ayeri was in the Saudi group that had been released. They had had him. The Saudis let him go.
But what Ali would next tell his American handlers would shape American policy and launch years of debate inside the White House. He 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.
Ali then offered insights into the emerging structure of Islamic terrorist networks. The Saudi group in the United States was only loosely managed by al-Ayeri or al-Qaeda. They were part of a wider array of self-activated cells across Europe and the gulf, linked by an ideology of radicalism and violence, and by affection for bin Laden. They were affiliates, not tightly tied to a broader al-Qaeda structure, but still attentive to the wishes of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. Al-Ayeri passed al-Zawahiri's message to the terror cell in the U.S. They backed off.
Over the next days, teams of CIA briefers, analysts and operatives were in the Oval Office. The President and the Vice President sat in the two wing chairs, each with his back to the fireplace.
"We need to figure this out," Bush said, "as long as it takes. We need to get our arms around this thing."
First, a nightmare delivery system portable, easy to construct, deadly.
And now, this evidence of a truly operational attack on American soil, the first since 9/11. Mubtakkars in the New York subways? As the questions rose and swirled, in the back of each person's mind ran disaster scenarios, continuous play, of panic underground in New York.
The Vice President was intense. "The question is why would Zawahiri have called them off? What does it indicate about al-Qaeda's strategy?"
Bush cut him off. He was more interested in Ali.
"Why is this guy cooperating with us? That I don't understand."
The CIA analysts attempted answers. Many of the questions were simply unanswerable.
Bush became focused on the players. Now that the United States finally knew the identity of Swift Sword, how did he fit? CIA analysts explained a triangle of relationships and that al-Ayeri had been captured and then released: "The Saudis didn't know what they had." But having al-Ayeri's identity confirmed helped CIA establish links between al-Qaeda's Saudi chief and the Saudi group that was still in custody. The U.S. cell, whereabouts unknown, was linked to them both.
Bush, in tactical mode, pressed them. "Who came to New York?" and "Are they still here, somewhere?"
The answer from the CIA briefers: "We don't know."