“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.