Two months had passed since 9/11, and at the highest levels of government, officials were worrying about a second wave of attacks. CIA Director George Tenet was briefing Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the White House Situation Room on the agency’s latest concern: intelligence reports suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had met with a radical Pakistani nuclear scientist around a campfire in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Absorbing the possibility that al-Qaeda was trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Cheney remarked that America had to deal with a new type of threat—what he called a “low-probability, high-impact event”—and the U.S. had to do it “in a way we haven’t yet defined,” writes author Ron Suskind in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11. And then Cheney defined it: “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.” Suskind writes, “So, now spoken, it stood: a standard of action that would frame events and responses from the Administration for years to come.”
In the following excerpt, Suskind describes the government’s reaction to information about a different WMD threat: hydrogen cyanide gas. As in the rest of the book, he illuminates the constant interplay and occasional tension between the “invisibles,” the men and women in the intelligence and uniformed services actually fighting the war on terrorism, and the “notables,” high-level officials who “tell us that everything will be fine, or that we should be very afraid, or both.” Suskind, who won the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, wrote the 2004 best seller The Price of Loyalty, an inside look at the Bush Administration. In The One Percent Doctrine, Suskind finds that the notables and the invisibles have at least one thing in common: a “profound sense of urgency.” Time’s exclusive excerpt:
In late May 2002, the National Security Agency had a gift for the CIA, and NSA Director Mike Hayden was on the phone to deliver it. They had as precious a dispatch as any since 9/11.
It was a communication from a designee of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda chief had not used a cell phone or satellite phone since 1998. He was very careful. A ring of deputies, below the level of an Ayman al-Zawahiri or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, carried messages for him. The United States had determined who some of them were. They made calls, or sent e-mails, on bin Laden’s behalf.
One such communication was passed to a mysterious character in Saudi Arabia who—on the intercepted signals intelligence—went by several aliases, the most compelling of which, translated from Arabic, meant “Swift Sword.” Two things were clear. Bin Laden seemed to be alive and well and providing guidance from some location in the tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; and Swift Sword was al-Qaeda’s representative on the Arabian Peninsula. His hand seemed to be in several places at once in the kingdom, guiding several cells of angry opponents of the regime. The instructions from the top of al-Qaeda: Turn your operational focus toward the overthrow of the Saudi government.
The illegitimacy of the Saudi regime was a favorite subject for bin Laden. His dream was that it, along with regimes in Egypt, Jordan and countries across the region, would be overthrown, and that he would rule a restored Muslim empire, a caliphate, stretching from Tehran to Cairo, from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic. But this communication was not about grand designs and distant dreams. It was an action plan for whom to kill and what targets to hit. Specifically, kill members of the royal family, and destroy the oil fields.
The idea of sabotaging the Saudi oil fields—the world’s largest oil reserve—strikes directly at the heart of the uneasy co-dependency of the gulf’s oil-producing countries and their avid customers in the developed world. Fifteen percent of U.S. oil comes from Saudi Arabia. The strategic import of bin Laden’s dictate was immediately clear to U.S. policymakers. His goal was never the untenable idea of engaging in a lasting struggle with America. It was, rather, to prompt the United States to withdraw its support for various Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, leaving them vulnerable to uprisings. Tenet and his briefers informed Cheney and President Bush of the intercepted communications. Then they went to see Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar greeted the delegation arriving at his palatial home in northern Virginia, Tenet and his small band of deputies. They hugged. Tenet is a hugger. He and Bandar have passed countless hours together, trust building, a Tenet specialty. After brief cordialities, Tenet got down to business. He leaned forward. A concerned look crossed his wide mug. “Bad news,” Tenet said. “Bin Laden has changed his focus. Now it’s you. It’s Saudi Arabia.”
Bandar was grim. “Scotch?”
He got some. And they drank Johnnie Walker Blue Label as Tenet delivered the bad news. He described the intelligence.
“Can we see the cable?” Bandar asked.
“Can’t,” Tenet said. “But I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
It was the start of a secret shift in relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, getting the Saudis off the sidelines and on the field. Bush’s meeting with the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, a month earlier, hadn’t done it, nor had a stream of U.S. dignitaries arriving in Riyadh, exhorting the Saudis to allow the Americans to interview the families of the 9/11 terrorists or, at least, to provide access to bank accounts that might yield leads to terror financiers. It was fear that moved the Saudis. The oil fields, the function of every equation, were targeted. The House of Saud was under direct attack.
Bandar poured a second glass. “Where do we begin?”
The King Fahd Causeway, connecting the countries of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, is seen by many Saudis—both religious and not—as an illicit passage.
It is steel and concrete as metaphor—tied, on one shoreline, to a truce struck between the Saudi ruling family and religious traditionalists in the kingdom. The Sauds get virtually limitless wealth, a healthy chunk of which they share with their dour clerical partners and their Wahhabist accountants. In exchange, the royals receive a stamp of religious approval, as the true protectors of the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina, as well as an understanding that 25,000 or so members of the royal family can do, more or less, anything they please, while the country’s 27 million citizens live under strict religious laws mandating traditional dress, shrouding of women, prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol or premarital sex. Adultery carries a death sentence.
For such indulgences, and countless others, you cross the bridge to the island principality of Bahrain—a country of almost 700,000, with high-rise hotels, a playboy king, a base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and significant cash flow from its role as a discreet “service provider” for Saudi Arabia. The lives of Saudis, and Bahrainis, are thoroughly framed by this arrangement, and its attendant hypocrisies. And both suffer the presence of its by-product: groups of stealthy, violent religious purists, graced with many opportunities to feel self-righteous.
One such group was traveling across the King Fahd bridge toward Bahrain on Feb. 13, 2003, when they were picked up by Bahraini police. The United States, specifically the cia, was behind the arrest. The nsa had picked up calls and e-mails from a cluster of Bahrainis that were troubling—boastful talk of what should be done to infidels, and some problem phrases, such as picking up “honey pots.” “Honey” is often terrorist code for destructive items. The Bahraini group consisted of five men: two gunrunners of a traditional criminal stripe, and three men with strong jihadist credentials. All were put through the basics of law enforcement procedure that are not necessarily common in their part of the world. Their belongings—cars, cell phones, wallets—were held in a secure place, used to glean further leads, and their apartments were searched.
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.
At 5 p.m. in Tenet’s conference room in early March, Leon waited until everyone was seated. He pulled from a bag a cylinder, about the size of a paint can, with two Mason jars in it. He placed it in the center of the large mahogany conference table, sat back down in his chair. People had heard various things about the recent discovery of a delivery system.
But seeing it was something else.
“Oh, s___,” Tenet whispered after a moment.
John McLaughlin, Tenet’s deputy, sat forward in his chair—thinking of how easily it might be transported in a backpack, a suitcase, a shopping bag, and how innocuous it looked.
The room fell silent.
“The man’s got to see this,” Tenet said, and called the White House to clear a few extra cia briefers for the next morning’s presidential briefing.
Tenet entered the Oval Office first, to prebrief Bush for four or five minutes. This was common practice: a short confidential primer from Tenet, so Bush could be authoritative and updated when others arrived.
The CIA briefers were summoned from the waiting area. One of them placed the mubtakkar on a low table in the sitting area. Bush looked at it. Cheney and the others were seated. The President picked it up—felt its weight. “Thing’s a nightmare,” he said quietly, almost to himself, and put it down. A CIA briefer went through a dissertation on the device, the technical problems it solved, its probable uses and the long road of trial and error leading to this moment. Everyone just sat in the Oval Office, looking at it—thinking about the era and its challenges, and saying nothing.
After the Oval Office briefing, Bush ordered alerts sent through the U.S. government. Tenet held meetings with the intelligence chiefs. Rolf and Leon showed the device to the relevant people in law enforcement and other intelligence services. The word had to be spread. The device was unstoppable—for people walking onto subway cars, railroad trains or through crowded, enclosed areas of any kind. Selective awareness, under intense standards of secrecy, seemed to be the only response.
In the world of terrorist weaponry, this was the equivalent of splitting the atom. Obtain a few widely available chemicals, and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot and then kill everyone in the store.
Bahraini police found a phone number in Bokhowa’s records that led to an address in Saudi Arabia. Three men were arrested in Riyadh. They were part of a diffuse community of radical Islamic activists in the kingdom. Beyond their connection to the Bahrainis, the Saudi trio was connected to another threesome of jihadists in the kingdom. They were arrested as well. All of these actions were handled under the supervision and encouragement of the cia, which had large stations in both countries. This investigation was now a priority. Finding the mubtakkar designs in Bokhowa’s computer had ensured that.
But getting action from the Saudis, even now, nine months after Tenet had delivered his warnings to Prince Bandar, was anything but easy. Interrogations commenced. cia operatives could only stand on the sidelines. The questions posed to the prisoners—both the Bahraini group and the two sets of captives in Saudi Arabia—were pointed. Yet compared with what was happening to captured al-Qaeda men Abu Zubaydah or Ramzi Binalshibh at “black sites,” these interrogations were polite, respectful. The captives were all religious men. Day after day, they praised Allah and talked about their bonds of religious commitment to one another. This is a problem, said one cia operative on the case. “Some of these guys are looked at almost like clergy. It’s hard to interrogate clergy.”
Bokhowa was especially savvy. He was too old to be a courier; he was more an analyst than an operator. He had highly placed friends in the country’s community of Islamic activists. If there was a wider plot here, it remained out of sight. The Bahraini trio and the two Saudi trios were clearly tied to one another, but where they fit in a broader array of the region’s jihadists was unclear. They did not seem to be tightly connected to several other Saudi cells that were being tracked by the U.S.-Saudi intelligence teams. Nor did they seem connected to the mysterious Swift Sword, who had appeared numerous times on cables picked up by the nsa and seemed to be running matters on the peninsula.
The President, each morning, would ask Tenet, “What’ve you got on the mubtakkar?”
Tenet would reply, “Not much more, but we’re doing anything we can to pin down who these guys are.”
In the middle of March, as the invasion of Iraq directed the energies and focus of the Administration, cia chiefs huddled in Langley. They simply had no context for either the trio in Bahrain or the ones in Saudi Arabia. The White House and cia pressed officials in both countries with a single message. We’re on the case. Just don’t let these men go free.
It has been generally acknowledged that the United States has never had any significant human sources—or, in intelligese, humint assets—inside al-Qaeda.
That is not true.
It was, in fact, not true by early 2003. There was a source from within Pakistan who was tied tightly into al-Qaeda management.
Call him Ali.
Ali was, not surprisingly, a complex character. He believed that bin Laden might have made a mistake in attacking America. This was not an uncommon sentiment among senior officials in the organization. It is, in fact, periodically a point of internal debate, according to sigint—signals intelligence—picked up in this period. Bin Laden’s initial calculation was that either America wouldn’t respond to the attacks or that its response would mean the U.S. Army would soon be sinking in an Afghan quagmire. That, of course, did not occur. U.S. forces—despite the mishap of letting bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and most of the organization’s management escape—had managed to overthrow the Taliban and flush al-Qaeda from its refuge. The group was now dispersed. A few of its leaders and many foot soldiers were captured or dead. As with any organization, time passed and second-guessing began.
That provided an opening. The disgruntlement was enough to begin working a few potential informants. It was an operation of relationship building that reflected traditional European spycraft. Build common bonds. Show sympathy to the sources’ concerns. Develop trust. While al-Qaeda recruits were ready for martyrdom, that was something its more senior officials seemed to have little taste for. As one cia manager said, “Masterminds are too valuable for martyrdom.” Whatever Ali’s motivations, his reports—over the preceding six months—had been almost always correct, including information that led to several captures.
Now, in late March 2003, the CIA was in a jam. The Saudis were complaining that they couldn’t hold prisoners without some evidence of wrongdoing. The trio directly connected to the Bahrainis, they could hold for only a few more weeks. The other trio, they had already released. They had nothing on them.
It was time to call on Ali.
His handler contacted him through an elaborate set of signals, and a meeting was set up. cia operatives mentioned to him the names of the captives in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the existence of the mubtakkar designs.
Ali said he might be able to help. He told his cia handlers that a Saudi radical had visited bin Laden’s partner al-Zawahiri, in January 2003. The man ran the Arabian Peninsula for al-Qaeda, and one of his aliases was Swift Sword. Ali said the man’s name was Yusef al-Ayeri. Finally, the United States had a name for Swift Sword.
This brought elation—a mystery solved, a case cracked—and then screams of pain. Al-Ayeri was in the Saudi group that had been released. They had had him. The Saudis let him go. But what Ali would next tell his American handlers would shape American policy and launch years of debate inside the White House. He said that al-Ayeri had come to tell al-Zawahiri of a plot that was well under way in the United States. It was a hydrogen cyanide attack planned for the New York City subways. The cell members had traveled to New York City through North Africa in the fall of 2002 and had thoroughly cased the locations for the attacks. The device would be the mubtakkar. There would be several placed in subway cars and other strategic locations and activated remotely. This was well past conception and early planning. The group was operational. They were 45 days from zero hour.
Then Ali told his handlers something that left intelligence officials speechless and vexed. Al-Zawahiri had called off the attacks. Ali did not know the precise explanation why. He just knew al-Zawahiri had called them off.
Ali then offered insights into the emerging structure of Islamic terrorist networks. The Saudi group in the United States was only loosely managed by al-Ayeri or al-Qaeda. They were part of a wider array of self-activated cells across Europe and the gulf, linked by an ideology of radicalism and violence, and by affection for bin Laden. They were affiliates, not tightly tied to a broader al-Qaeda structure, but still attentive to the wishes of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. Al-Ayeri passed al-Zawahiri’s message to the terror cell in the U.S. They backed off.
Over the next days, teams of cia briefers, analysts and operatives were in the Oval Office. The President and the Vice President sat in the two wing chairs, each with his back to the fireplace. “We need to figure this out,” Bush said, “as long as it takes. We need to get our arms around this thing.”
First, a nightmare delivery system—portable, easy to construct, deadly.
And now, this—evidence of a truly operational attack on American soil, the first since 9/11. Mubtakkars in the New York subways? As the questions rose and swirled, in the back of each person’s mind ran disaster scenarios, continuous play, of panic underground in New York.
The Vice President was intense. “The question is why would Zawahiri have called them off? What does it indicate about al-Qaeda’s strategy?”
Bush cut him off. He was more interested in Ali.
“Why is this guy cooperating with us? That I don’t understand.”
The CIA analysts attempted answers. Many of the questions were simply unanswerable.
Bush became focused on the players. Now that the United States finally knew the identity of Swift Sword, how did he fit? cia analysts explained a triangle of relationships—and that al-Ayeri had been captured and then released: “The Saudis didn’t know what they had.” But having al-Ayeri’s identity confirmed helped cia establish links between al-Qaeda’s Saudi chief and the Saudi group that was still in custody. The U.S. cell, whereabouts unknown, was linked to them both.
Bush, in tactical mode, pressed them. “Who came to New York?” and “Are they still here, somewhere?”
The answer from the cia briefers: “We don’t know.”
As Bush dug deeper, Cheney moved to reframe the discussion. Did al-Zawahiri call off the attack because the United States was putting too much pressure on the al-Qaeda organization? “Or is it because he didn’t feel this was sufficient for a ‘second wave’?” Cheney asked. “Is that why he called it off? Because it wasn’t enough?” The destruction tape—still running, unexpressed, in everyone’s head—turned toward calculation. Ten subway cars at rush hour—two hundred people in a car—another thousand trampled in the underground in rush-hour panic as the gas spreads through the station. As many dead as 9/11, with a wmd attack spreading a devastating, airborne fear?
Not enough of a second wave?
“I mean, this is bad enough. What does calling this off say about what else they’re planning?” Bush blurted out. His eyes were wide, fist clenched. “What could be the bigger operation Zawahiri didn’t want to mess up?”
In April 2003, while the world’s many eyes were trained on Iraq, and vivid images of U.S. tanks settled along Baghdad streets, the cia’s analysts and operators were sending urgent messages to the Saudis: something was coming.
The kingdom, with a subpar system of telephone landlines, is the land of the cell phone. And not cell phones that were being judiciously discarded and replaced, a technique of the more skilled jihadist operative. Saudis love their “mobiles.” That love meant that the sigint was strong.
And deafening. The United States started to discover proof of thousands of militants, sympathetic to al-Qaeda and maybe bent on violence, operating inside Saudi Arabia. Since the warning delivered to Prince Bandar the year before, cooperation between the cia and Saudi intelligence had broadened. There was still a kernel of distrust—the United States would not show the Saudis its sigint cables—and actionable intelligence it passed along often vanished when it reached the salons of the royal family, whose interests were often inscrutably complex.
Tenet called Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who runs the country’s interior department for his father—the imperious, religious Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the country’s chief of interior and intelligence matters. Operators of the Middle East desk at nsc made calls to mid-rung Saudi officials. Bob Jordan, the U.S. ambassador, was asked by the State Department and White House to talk directly to contacts in Riyadh. The United States didn’t know the time or the place—but al-Qaeda’s Saudi army was gathering. There was another, companion message. A message of pressing U.S. interest: Find al-Ayeri.
Since the Americans had identified the elusive Swift Sword in March as Yusef al-Ayeri, the status of the al-Qaeda operative had risen swiftly. A name will do that. It helps fix identity. First, it was discovered that this al-Ayeri was behind a website, al-Nida, that U.S. investigators had long felt carried some of the most specialized analysis and coded directives about al-Qaeda’s motives and plans. He was also the anonymous author of two extraordinary pieces of writing—short books, really, that had recently moved through cyberspace, about al-Qaeda’s underlying strategies. The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, written as the United States prepared its attack, said that an American invasion of Iraq would be the best possible outcome for al-Qaeda, stoking extremism throughout the Persian Gulf and South Asia and achieving precisely the radicalizing quagmire that bin Laden had hoped would occur in Afghanistan. A second book, Crusaders’ War, outlined a tactical model for fighting the American forces in Iraq, including “assassination and poisoning the enemy’s food and drink,” remotely triggered explosives, suicide bombings and lightning-strike ambushes. It was the playbook.
Once it became clear that the writer wasn’t some enthusiast looking to curry favor with al-Qaeda but the organization’s chief for the Arabian Peninsula, the writings took on predictive import. Al-Ayeri was conducting a kind of cyberspace conversation with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
And more specific conversations, as well. Tucked inside the sigint chatter in April 2003 of possible upcoming attacks inside the kingdom was evidence of a tense dialogue between al-Ayeri and another, less senior operative in the gulf, Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, over whether the Saudi al-Qaeda operation had enough men, weapons and organization to truly challenge and overthrow the Saudi regime. Al-Ayeri said no, it was too soon, the organization had not yet matured, while al-Ghamdi strongly recommended pushing forward. Al-Zawahiri, who managed the discourse, sided with al-Ghamdi. On May 6, the first inkling of trouble surfaced: a gun battle in Riyadh between well-armed terrorists and Saudi security forces. The Saudi government issued a most-wanted list—citing 19 insurgents, including al-Ayeri and al-Ghamdi, and adding photographs. Six days later, explosions ripped through an apartment complex on the outskirts of Riyadh, killing 35—including nine Americans—and injuring more than 300. War broke out in the streets of Riyadh, as Saudi forces clashed with well-armed al-Qaeda soldiers.
Events were being monitored by the hour inside the CIA. “Owning Iraq,” a country in confusion, with its oil wells shut down, was one matter. The overthrow of Saudi Arabia—the true nexus of oil and Allah, producer of 25% of the world’s exported petroleum and, by some U.S. estimates, nearly all of the world’s most far-reaching terrorism—was entirely another. At a 5 p.m. meeting in mid-May, the cia’s top management huddled. Tenet, that morning, had been grilled by Cheney about the status of the cia’s investigation of the reputed mubtakkar cell in the United States.
“What do we know?” Cheney pressed CIA operatives. “This could be another 9/11. This one we can’t miss.”
Tenet’s response was dispiriting. He told Bush and Cheney that interrogations of both the Bahraini trio and the Saudi trio still in custody had, thus far, yielded nothing. Saudi intelligence said it was keeping track of the whereabouts of the trio that recently had been let go. Short of al-Zawahiri, the only person who could potentially identify the U.S. mubtakkar cell was al-Ayeri.
Cheney was grim. The priorities were clear, he intoned.
Al-Ayeri—writing shrewd assessments of Iraq’s future, going head-to-head with al-Zawahiri, managing al-Qaeda affairs in Saudi Arabia and, possibly, guiding the only operational wmd attack in America—might be the most important active member of al-Qaeda. He must be found. As things heated up in the kingdom, calls from the White House and the cia to the top of the Saudi hierarchy were urgent and clear: Make sure al-Ayeri is captured, alive.
On May 31, a carful of young men ran a Saudi roadblock near Mecca. As they passed, the driver threw a grenade at the guards. Saudi security forces gave chase and cornered the men in a building. A standoff took shape. The Saudis called in reinforcements. Overwhelming force was applied to the situation. All the terrorists were killed, including a man easily identified from pictures plastered across the kingdom: Yusef al-Ayeri.
In the breast pocket of the bullet-riddled body was a letter from bin Laden. It was an affectionate, personal letter, six months old, congratulating the young man on his good work and on a successful celebration of ‘Id al-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan. The letter was now covered in al-Ayeri’s blood.
The Saudis put out no press reports in the days following the gunfight. It took several days before they notified the United States. They never bothered to collect al-Ayeri’s personal effects—his cell phone, his address book, the registry of his car, or trace such clues back to an apartment that might be searched. The news hit hard at cia. It soon became a metaphor, a Chinese box displaying the dilemmas of the “war on terror.” The Saudis—like the Pakistanis, the Yemenis, the Sudanese and so many “dark side” states allied with the United States in the battle—had a way of often disappointing America. Beneath the warm handshakes and affectionate words, there was always that nugget of distrust. Were our interests truly aligned? What were they telling us; what were they withholding? All were ruled by dictators, who, necessarily, view power and their own self-preservation in ways that differ from a democracy.
The U.S., of course, had told the Saudis about the mubtakkar discovery, and about the report of an operational Saudi cell with chemical weapons in America. We hadn’t told them exactly how we knew. We never told them about Ali, the al-Qaeda inside source in Pakistan, who fingered al-Ayeri. We couldn’t because, deep down, we don’t trust our friends from Riyadh. As they do not trust us.
But in the urgent days of May, the cia let on to the Saudis that al-Ayeri might know about the mubtakkar cell—and that he might be the only one. In postmortems that roiled through Langley, that last part was seen, maybe, as a misstep. 9/11, with 15 of the 19 hijackers from the kingdom, created the greatest fissure in the long, dime-a-dance waltz between Saudi Arabia and America. The effect of a second disaster—with chemical weapons and a clear link to Saudi Arabia—would be unfathomable.
“It was a bad day. We wondered, Was it an accident that they killed him, or not? The Saudis just shrugged. They said their people got a little overzealous,” said one of the top CIA operatives who was fixated on al-Ayeri, hoping he might lead investigators along a Saudi trail to the wmd attack cell in America. “The bottom line: the missing link was dead, and his personal effects, which can be pretty important, were gone. Like so much else when you’re dealing with these countries, you’re never sure—Was it an issue of will or capability? Just try to sort those two things out.”
Tenet brought the bad news to Bush and Cheney at the next morning briefing. Bush was angry. At the very least, he told Tenet, tersely, someone should be sent to Riyadh to get the Saudis to rearrest the trio that had recently been released. A few days later, Mowatt-Larssen entered the chambers of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, at the Royal Palace in Riyadh. He knew not to expect much. Meetings with Nayef were often short and nonproductive.
Mowatt-Larssen dispensed with pleasantries. “With al-Ayeri dead, we want you to rearrest the others and hold them for as long as possible,” he said, referring to the other trio.
Nayef nodded. “Fine.”
“But,” he added, “we cannot hold people indefinitely when there is no hard evidence against them and no charges.” After a few more minutes of the lecture—about how important due process and civil rights are to the Saudis—Nayef said they would hold the men for only a few more months. “We’re doing this because you are asking us. But if you have any evidence against them, you better show it.”
The meeting lasted five minutes. Mowatt-Larssen smiled, a tight, tense smile, then thanked the Prince for his extremely valuable time and cooperation.