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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As Bush dug deeper, Cheney moved to reframe the discussion. Did al-Zawahiri call off the attack because the United States was putting too much pressure on the al-Qaeda organization? "Or is it because he didn't feel this was sufficient for a 'second wave'?" Cheney asked. "Is that why he called it off? Because it wasn't enough?"

The destruction tape — still running, unexpressed, in everyone's head — turned toward calculation. Ten subway cars at rush hour — two hundred people in a car — another thousand trampled in the underground in rush-hour panic as the gas spreads through the station. As many dead as 9/11, with a WMD attack spreading a devastating, airborne fear?

Not enough of a second wave?

"I mean, this is bad enough. What does calling this off say about what else they're planning?" Bush blurted out. His eyes were wide, fist clenched. "What could be the bigger operation Zawahiri didn't want to mess up?"

In April 2003, while the world's many eyes were trained on Iraq, and vivid images of U.S. tanks settled along Baghdad streets, the CIA's analysts and operators were sending urgent messages to the Saudis: something was coming.

The kingdom, with a subpar system of telephone landlines, is the land of the cell phone. And not cell phones that were being judiciously discarded and replaced, a technique of the more skilled jihadist operative. Saudis love their "mobiles." That love meant that the sigint was strong.

And deafening. The United States started to discover proof of thousands of militants, sympathetic to al-Qaeda and maybe bent on violence, operating inside Saudi Arabia. Since the warning delivered to Prince Bandar the year before, cooperation between the CIA and Saudi intelligence had broadened. There was still a kernel of distrust — the United States would not show the Saudis its sigint cables — and actionable intelligence it passed along often vanished when it reached the salons of the royal family, whose interests were often inscrutably complex.

Tenet called Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who runs the country's interior department for his father — the imperious, religious Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the country's chief of interior and intelligence matters. Operators of the Middle East desk at NSC made calls to mid-rung Saudi officials. Bob Jordan, the U.S. ambassador, was asked by the State Department and White House to talk directly to contacts in Riyadh. The United States didn't know the time or the place — but al-Qaeda's Saudi army was gathering. There was another, companion message. A message of pressing U.S. interest: Find al-Ayeri.

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