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Evil Genius

With the capture of the mastermind of an aborted 9-11 operation, intelligence agencies have a powerful tool in their fight against Al Qaeda
/ Source: Newsweek Web Exclusive

“Box cutters.” When talk of terrorist nukes and germs and chemicals gets absolutely out of control, I repeat those two words to myself: “box cutters.”

THEY’RE A REMINDER that the greatest weapon of mass destruction used by Al Qaeda so far had nothing to do with fissile material from renegade Russians or toxic spores from Iraq. Qaeda’s September 11 operation relied entirely on much more dangerous binary components: imagination and tradecraft. If you mix those together effectively, you can use box cutters to turn four airliners into enormous flying bombs and hit the world’s only superpower on its home turf.

Fortunately for all of us, you have to be a genius (yes, an evil genius) to get that mix of conception and execution just right. And while Al Qaeda has a few brilliant minds, its ranks are full of dim-witted losers with thousand-mile stares. “Happily, these geniuses, themselves, they don’t take the lead,” an Arab intelligence chief told me a few weeks ago. “They send out the imbeciles.”

The classic case of an operation that failed because the plan was too grand and the challenges of execution too complicated was the fifth attack scheduled for September 11. That’s right: as if the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a fourth potential target in the Washington area was not enough, there was supposed to be another attack half a world away, in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It was supposed to show the true global reach of Al Qaeda.

As described to NEWSWEEK for the first time by foreign officials who work closely with the CIA, the aim was to sink a U.S. warship with everyone aboard, and the scenario was every bit as grand and complicated as something out of an old James Bond movie. Through a front company, Al Qaeda actually bought a large freighter equipped with a heavy-duty crane. It also bought several small speedboats from a manufacturer in the United Arab Emirates. The plan was to carry the smaller craft on the mother ship, fill them with explosives, lower them into the water and send them on their way toward the warship as, in effect, suicide torpedoes. If those failed—and they would have been vulnerable to defensive fire if the ship’s crew was alert—the freighter itself was filled with explosives, making it the biggest conventional bomb ever built. It wouldn’t have to ram the warship to sink it, just explode nearby. According to these officials, most of the crew on the Al Qaeda freighter didn’t even know what was going on. Some were from Pakistan, others from India. A few were Christians.

The head of this operation was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who played a key operational role in putting together the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and blowing an enormous hole in the side of the American destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, killing 17 American sailors. “Nashiri does his job very patiently,” says an Arab intelligence officer with intimate knowledge of the case. “Nairobi was three years in the planning.”

So what happened? By one account, Nashiri had trouble getting the enormous quantity of explosives needed for the Hormuz plot. But this intelligence officer says no: “It was all to do with the timing and the moving of the elements. The problem was security procedures.” The more grandiose a plan, the more people who are involved, the greater the chance it will be compromised and some or all of the plotters caught. Nashiri knew he was already being hunted by the CIA. Jordan’s intelligence service had been tracking him since 1997. Rather than risk giving away the whole game—possibly the whole 9-11 plot—the operation was called off.

Even after Al Qaeda’s Afghan base was broken up by the U.S. invasion in 2001, Nashiri—also known as Mullah Bilal—kept plotting seaborne operations, training frogmen for underwater demolition and pilots for small kamikaze aircraft. A group of Saudis was dispatched to Morocco to prepare the logistics for an attack on U.S. warships in the Strait of Gibraltar. Their mission was to rent a safe house and acquire Zodiac rubberized speedboats to use in a hit similar to the one against the Cole. But a tip from one of the Moroccans held at Guantanamo in early 2002 led to the arrest of the plotters by the Moroccan security services.

Nashiri tried to change his strategy. Like other Al Qaeda planners, he scaled back the grand plans and focused on what he thought would be easier targets: attacks on American compounds in the northwest of Saudi Arabia and in Jeddah. But those plots were foiled. Too many people knew about him. Too many of the Arab services, as well as the Americans, were on his trail.

Late last year, Nashiri was spotted in Yemen, but the Yemenis didn’t arrest him. He went to Dubai and was picked up there. Ever since, Nashiri has been in one of the secret CIA interrogation centers outside the United States, beyond the reach of American law or mercy. According to intelligence sources familiar with his dossier, he’s been quite talkative. By combining what Nashiri has told them with details from other captured masterminds like Abu Zubaydah (none of whose whereabouts are a matter of public record) the CIA can cross-check information, spot inconsistencies, and expand its web of coverage.

So we’re all a lot safer? Yes, in fact.

Safer. But not safe.

“The elements who worked with Nashiri, they have the same expertise,” says the counterterror chief of a friendly country. “When Nashiri was arrested they became more determined than ever to take his place.” They are also more determined than ever to get weapons of mass destruction. The acquisition is very risky from an operational point of view. The terrorists have to go outside their closed and secure networks if they want nukes, plutonium or sophisticated chemical and biological weapons, and that exposes them to capture. But there’s this great advantage: once you’ve got the Bomb or its bio-chem equivalent, you don’t have to be a genius to use it. You just have to be evil.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.