Al-Qaeda terrorists came within 45 days of attacking the New York subway system with a lethal gas similar to that used in Nazi death camps. They were stopped not by any intelligence breakthrough, but by an order from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. And the U.S. learned of the plot from a CIA mole inside al-Qaeda.
While that alone is disturbing, it was this that concerned me the most:
U.S. intelligence got its first inkling of the plot from the contents of a laptop computer belonging to a Bahraini jihadist captured in Saudi Arabia early in 2003. It contained plans for a gas-dispersal system dubbed "the mubtakkar" (Arabic for inventive). Fearing that al-Qaeda's engineers had achieved the holy grail of terror R&D — a device to effectively distribute hydrogen-cyanide gas, which is deadly when inhaled — the CIA immediately set about building a prototype based on the captured design, which comprised two separate chambers for sodium cyanide and a stable source of hydrogen, such as hydrochloric acid. A seal between the two could be broken by a remote trigger, producing the gas for dispersal. The prototype confirmed their worst fears: "In the world of terrorist weaponry," writes Suskind, "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."Now, I want to hear more. (Which is why you are only hearing about this now. There's books to sell.)
The device was shown to President Bush and Vice President Cheney the following morning, prompting the President to order that alerts be sent through all levels of the U.S. government. Easily constructed and concealed, the device ensured that mass casualties would be inevitable if it could be triggered in any enclosed public space.
But let me explain why this matters: with chemical weapons, dispersal is the key to effectiveness. You often hear how "one drop of Agent X on the skin" could kill you. What you don't hear is how difficult that can be to attain - getting fine drops of a liquid airborne without destroying them in the process.
From a counterterrorism perspective, that is the one thing we have going for us. Producing an effective weapon of mass destruction is hard.
But an ineffective WMD can still kill a lot of people. You may remember the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway back in the mid-1990s. This attack was carried out by a savvy (if completely insane) doomsday cult. The grand attack failed, because they could not adequately disperse the gas.
They still managed to kill 12, and send 5,000 to the hospital.