NEW YORK – U.S. officials received intelligence that Al Qaeda operatives had been 45 days away from releasing a deadly gas into the city's subways when the plan was called off by Usama bin Laden's deputy in 2003, according to a book excerpt released Sunday on Time magazine's Web site.
According to the investigative report by Ron Suskind, an informant close to Al Qaeda leaders told U.S. officials that Ayman al-Zawahiri had canceled the plan in January 2003, despite the likelihood that the strike would have killed as many people as the Sept. 11 attacks.
The informant said the operatives had planned to use a small, easily concealed device to release hydrogen cyanide into multiple subway cars. U.S. officials had already discovered plans for the device on the hard drive of a computer of a Bahraini jihadist arrested in February 2003, and they had been able to construct a working model from the plans.
The easy-to-make device, called "the mubtakkar," meaning "invention" in Arabic or "initiative" in Farsi, represented a breakthrough in weapons technology that "was the equivalent of splitting the atom," Suskind writes in his book. All previous attempts to use the deadly gas, similar to that used in Holocaust-era gas chambers, in mass attacks had failed.
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 Qaeda'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.
The informant, who had become disgruntled with Al Qaeda'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.
The excerpt of Suskind's book, "The One Percent Doctrine," was to appear in Time's issue hitting newsstands Monday. Suskind is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal.