Al-Qaeda Planned Chemical Attack on NYC Subway

Al-Qaeda was ready to launch a chemical weapons attack on the New York City subway system in 2003 but it was called off by Osama bin Laden’s deputy for unknown reasons.

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. These are some of the more startling revelations by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose new book The One Percent Doctrine is excerpted in the forthcoming issue of TIME.

Several commenters, including John Little, are understandably confused as to why the attack–using what TIME dubs the “holy grail of terror R&D” –was called off and hasn’t been reinstated. (I would insert a Pancho and Lefty reference here but have already used my quota for the week.) I believe C.S. Scott is right, though, that the news of a “CIA mole inside al-Qaeda” is actually even bigger news.

Patrick Frey is just glad that TIME published this rather than al Qaeda favorite Newsweek. Alas, they’re on the trail, too.

UPDATE: The excerpt is here.

One Percent Doctrine Ron Suskind Cover One of the jihadists, Bassam Bokhowa, an educated fiftyish professional, with computer skills, had visited an apartment in Saudi Arabia. And there, a joint Saudi-U.S. counterterrorist unit, formed after the meeting with Bandar in his study, found a computer. The contents were dumped onto a separate hard drive, which was sent to the United States for imaging—a way to suck out digitalia, encrypted or not.

That’s where they found it: plans for construction of a device called a mubtakkar. It is a fearful thing, and quite real.

Precisely, the mubtakkar is a delivery system for a widely available combination of chemicals—sodium cyanide, which is used as rat poison and metal cleanser, and hydrogen, which is everywhere. The combination of the two creates hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, highly volatile liquid that is soluble and stable in water. It has a faint odor, like peach kernels or bitter almonds. When it is turned into gas and inhaled, it is lethal. For years, figuring out how to deliver this combination of chemicals as a gas has been something of a holy grail for terrorists.

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.

TIME Magazine India Inc. Cover It’s interesting and, as AllahPundit notes, rather chilly. Still, I can’t help being a bit dubious of this level of detailed intelligence being in the hands of a reporter, kept secret long enough for him to write a book, combined with the lack of an attack in the subsequent three years.

Oh–and this doesn’t make TIME’s cover. . . .

UPDATE: AP adds credence to the account and simultaneously downplays it:

The FBI declined to confirm the details of Suskind’s account. Spokesman Bill Carter in Washington said Saturday the bureau would have no comment on the excerpted material. A New York Police Department spokesman said authorities had known of the planned attack. “We were aware of the plot and took appropriate precaution,” Paul Browne said. New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Tom Kelly declined comment.

According to the report, President Bush was shown a model of the weapon in March 2003 and ordered alerts sent through the U.S. government. When intelligence arrived that al-Zawahri had called off the attack, Bush worried that something worse was in the works, Suskind writes. At least two of Suskind’s sources remembered Bush saying, “This is bad enough. What does calling this off say about what else they’re planning? … What could be the bigger operation Zawahri didn’t want to mess up?” the author said. “What has been concluded for the most part is this: al-Qaida’s thinking is that a second-wave attack should be more destructive and more disruptive than 9/11,” Suskind told the magazine in an interview. [emphasis added]

The informant, who had become disgruntled with al-Qaida’s leadership, linked the organization’s top operative on the Arabian peninsula to the plot, Suskind writes. The operative was later killed in a standoff with Saudi authorities.

Interesting. There was a tightening of security at Penn Station last October but it turned out to be a false alarm–a soda can. I don’t recall any news from 2003 on a similar event and can’t find any via a quick Google search.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Environment, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    Whatever we do, let’s not “Mistreat” those we have in custody at GITMO, and let’s be very careful not to humiliate those who would do us harm. (Sarcasm)

    What will it take to get the “goody to shoes” anti American, cowards and those who want to release every terrorist we have in jail, to see a little light ?

  2. Steve says:

    This story strikes me as a bit odd.

    The concept of a binary chemical weapon is old news. So old I don’t even know who first theorized about developing one. I do know that we began manufacturing rocket delivered binary chemical munitions in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

    The odd part is the technical challenge. US engineers had to develop binary seals that could withstand the force of instantaneous rocket acceleration. A terrorist merely has to identify and manufacture a seal that can withstand the likely corrosive effects of the chemicals for hours or days. A seal that can be breached by some sort of detonator. Does not seem to me to be a big challenge.

    And surely a couple of CIA engineers could probably knock something like this out over a weekend, given a sufficient supply of beer.

    I imagine it would be smart to replicate the terrorist’s design. But I can’t help wondering how effective such a device would actually be.

    What concentration of the gas is necessary to have a fatal effect? Unlike Nazi death chambers, most buildings are not air tight. Maybe the subways would be a more deadly location, gases would tend to drift downward. It seems to me that (using the Tokyo attack as a yardstick) weapons of these types would have to be very large. The weapon would need to create a large volume of gas over an extended period of time (scenes from 24 not withstanding) in order to threaten more than 50 or 100 people.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Iraq–and arguably Iran–had binary artillery shells during their 1980s war. That technology, as noted, is old-hat.

    There’s a corollary to “has to be large,” however: “have a lot of them.” If these devices can be as small as a soft-drink can, then it wouldn’t take major efforts to disperse them in the tens, if not hundreds. It’d probably be more effective that way, anyway.

    Body counts, by the way, aren’t the only measure of success. A few of these devices, if set off in widely dispersed areas–say, for instance, shopping malls or cinemas in a dozen Mid Western cities–would do the job of sowing terror just perfectly…

  4. I think a reasonable guesstimate on the impact of the attack could look at the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo 1995. 500+ injured, 5 dead (if I remember correctly). Yes we are dealing with different chemicals, multiple vs single point attacks, different loading and cultural patterns. From my riding the Tokyo subway system, 1% of the riders would literally sleep through the attack.

    Either AQ never really planned this or they did. If they didn’t we may have given them an idea. If they have, we either reminded them (not likely to have been forgotten) or there was a serious flaw (like more people would get hurt announcing a shoe sale at Macy’s).

    Or this could just be a way to get AQ to bite their own tail going after a mole. If so, they would need to have baited it with accurate information about the attack.

  5. lily says:

    There shouldn’t be anybody in custody at Gitmo. In this country we are supposed to believe in the rule of law and the Gitmo people should either be charged and tried or released.
    At this point there isn’t much basis for assuming that they are all terrorists. Some might be but, since there has been plenty of time for investigation and no charges, it is quite likely that many are there simply because no one wants to admit that they were innocent.

  6. Herb says:


    Be sure and let the terrorist know that you wanted them to be released from GITMO just before they cut your head off with a knife.

    What part of “You are the enemy” don’t you comprehend ?

  7. anjin-san says:

    Sure is good to know the Bush admin is cutting anti-terror funds to NYC & San Francisco…

  8. CorkyMoo says:

    It is literally impossible for the government to protect its citizens to any significant degree from terrorists. There is probably an unlimited number of ways the terrorists could use to strike. Government’s punishments are free food, housing and medical for the rest of their lives. Do you see any thing wrong here????