Al Qaeda plotted gassing subways
Al Qaeda terrorists hoped to kill hundreds of city subway riders with deadly cyanide gas in early 2003 - until Osama Bin Laden's top deputy called off the plot, a chilling new book claims.
The CIA had a mole deep within Al Qaeda, but still couldn't explain why Ayman al-Zawahiri scuttled the plan just 45 days short of completion, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind writes in "The One Percent Doctrine," which is excerpted in this week's edition of Time magazine.
Law enforcement sources in Washington and New York yesterday confirmed to the Daily News the underlying facts of the threat, which would have placed several crude but functional chemical weapons in the subways just before the start of the Iraq war.
Time and Newsweek also confirmed much of Suskind's account.
New York City hospitals were placed on high alert Feb. 12, 2003, when the city Health Department urged medics to stockpile sodium thiosulfate, the antidote to cyanide, after the government warned of a potential cyanide gas terror attack.
The NYPD increased the number of officers devoted to counterterrorism to 1,200 that week based on the threat, an increase of 200 officers, and deployed most of the force at transportation hubs.
"We were aware of the plot and took appropriate precautions," Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said yesterday. He declined to comment on details of the threat.
Senior counterterrorism officials in Washington and New York told The News they doubted the 45-day timetable laid out in Suskind's book.
And several sources were skeptical of whether Al Qaeda had the ability to turn such a threat into reality.
"We have had thousands of such allegations, some well-intentioned, but mostly cranks," one U.S. official with a top security clearance told The News. "I don't recall anything about Al Qaeda getting serious with cyanide."
Yet in New York the risk was considered real enough that the NYPD had sought, but apparently failed, to get the Justice Department to request a surveillance warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Although Newsweek's sources claimed the Al Qaeda cell that ran the plot had left the U.S., Suskind said they may still be in the country.
The small devices - "put together with beer cans and soda bottles," Newsweek said - would quickly mix two chemicals to fill subway cars with choking clouds of hydrogen cyanide gas.
"Obtain a few widely available chemicals and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot - and then kill everyone in the store," Suskind writes.
The CIA was said to have found plans for the bomb on the laptop of a Bahraini terrorist nabbed in Saudi Arabia.
Agents built a working prototype based on the plans, then showed it to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who ordered security ratcheted up.
Suskind said the Al Qaeda informant, whom he calls "Ali," told the CIA the cyanide plot was managed by Bin Laden's top man on the Arabian Peninsula, Yusuf al Ayeri. But when al Ayeri told Zawahiri about the plan in January 2003, less than two months before the attack, Zawahiri pulled the plug for reasons still unknown.