June 18, 2006

The mubtakkar.

Time Magazine reports:
Al-Qaeda terrorists came within 45 days of attacking the New York subway system with a lethal gas similar to that used in Nazi death camps. They were stopped not by any intelligence breakthrough, but by an order from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. And the U.S. learned of the plot from a CIA mole inside al-Qaeda. These are some of the more startling revelations by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose new book The One Percent Doctrine is excerpted in the forthcoming issue of TIME....

U.S. intelligence got its first inkling of the plot from the contents of a laptop computer belonging to a Bahraini jihadist captured in Saudi Arabia early in 2003. It contained plans for a gas-dispersal system dubbed "the mubtakkar" (Arabic for inventive). Fearing that al-Qaeda's engineers had achieved the holy grail of terror R&D — a device to effectively distribute hydrogen-cyanide gas, which is deadly when inhaled — the CIA immediately set about building a prototype based on the captured design, which comprised two separate chambers for sodium cyanide and a stable source of hydrogen, such as hydrochloric acid. A seal between the two could be broken by a remote trigger, producing the gas for dispersal. The prototype confirmed their worst fears: "In the world of terrorist weaponry," writes Suskind, "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."
Why are Suskind (and Time) revealing that we have a source in al Qaeda? If al Qaeda breaks into chaos at the news, maybe they'll start killing each other -- or just every guy named "Ali" -- but I don't see how it's Suskind's call. Did the government approve of this disclosure? Is it even true? It might be good disinformation. What am I missing?

"The equivalent of splitting the atom"? "The holy grail of terror R&D"? But "you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot"? Is it easy or hard? What's so amazing about a container with two compartments? It can't be the potential for a remote switch. There's no genius involved in thinking of the two chemicals, is there? That's basically how they set up the gas chamber they used to use in California, isn't it?

The CIA tested the design and was impressed by how... mubtakkar it was? Is that a trick to get them to build it and off themselves, Weatherman-style?

11 comments:

PatCA said...

"Why are Suskind (and Time) revealing that we have a source in al Qaeda?"

Same old, same old. Mary McCarthy is a hero; Scooter is a horrible criminal. Do the math.

Mr. Magoo said...

Dear Constitutional Law Professor:

Time Magazine does not need the government's permission to print its articles.

Check the, uh, *First* Amendment.

Ann Althouse said...

Dear number: This post isn't about whether something is legal or not. The law is not the beginning and end of the question whether something is wrong.

Tibore said...

Before I comment on the post itself...:

"The law is not the beginning and end of the question whether something is wrong."

Bravo! I'm glad someone's saying that. That this statement comes from a law prof really lends weight to the statement. I know that sentiment should be an obvious one, but too many times people fall back on arguments of authority and hold the law as also being the final moral judgement. That's not always the case.

---------

At first, I was shocked at the identification of an intelligence source too. But if the author's source for that info was in the CIA itself (the article seems to imply that), isn't it possible that the source is now beyond harm? Either that the mole is now somewhere safe, or conversely is now dead? I find it a little unlikely that an intelligence organization would be so free with information unless they knew there would be no ill effects from it.

Then again, history has shown that mistakes happen. Anyway... the point is that we don't know, but it's possible that this wasn't an intelligence compromise, that Suskind's source knows there are no problems with releasing the info. I know I hope that's the case, because if it's not, then some serious damage has been done to America's intelligence gathering capacities.

chuck b. said...

I had the same problem being underwhelmed by the Mubtakkar's technical advances despite Suskind's (patronizing) breathlessness.

Also, when I read the article this morning it had CIA, NSA and WMD all written in lowercase letters--even at the beginnings of sentences. That's been fixed now, but how does that happen in the first place? You're Time freakin' Magazine for crying out loud!

somefeller said...

While it's possible that this information was released accidentally or via an irresponsible leak, I'm perfectly willing to assume that the information was intentionally released, absent any evidence to the contrary.

Presumably the source is dead or otherwise in a place where he isn't at risk, or in the alternative, this may be a bluff. One of the most self-destructive things a secretive organization can do is go on a big internal witch hunt for moles. It isn't hard to imagine that our government would want Al-Qaeda to undergo that sort of internal turmoil, and stories like this would help in that process, if the story about the intelligence source is a bluff. In any case, there's plenty of non-harmful explanations for the release of this information, so there's no need for people to assume the worst about the motives of the Ron Suskind or Time Magazine.

RogerA said...

I think somefeller has it--irrespective of the source of the story, a reasonably prudent terrorist would have to assume they, in fact, have an informant. Ask the Z-man about internal sources. I dont see anything but plus sides to the story.

If you are really thinking conspiracy, perhaps it could be an effort by the Bloomberg administration in NYC to recapture some anti-terrorism funding that was recently cut. :)

dick said...

I could not disagree more. There is a difference between assuming you have an informant and knowing you have an informant. In the one case you MIGHT take precautions. In the other case you definitely WOULD take precautions. I want them not knowing for sure that they are being watched. That way they might be more likely to make a mistake and we could catch them. That is why I would really like the leakers of this information to be nailed for breaking the laws that they have in releasing this stuff. When we have that many troops over there fighting to keep the people responsible for the WTC, the Cole, the embassies, the London bombing, the Madrid bombing, Klinghoffer in their own territory rather than causing problems here, these low-life b**tards who leak this classified stuff should be shot.

Jacques Cuze said...

They were stopped not by any intelligence breakthrough

Earth to Althouse, this burns you up the most doesn't it. I mean all that torture you have approved of, and it doesn't do squat.

Why are Suskind (and Time) revealing that we have a source in al Qaeda?

Who is this Al Qaeda that you think doesn't know there phone calls are tapped and that they have to worry about moles? Who are these guys that read American papers, but never read or watched a spy movie? Who are these guys that don't worry about tapped phones and moles until we disclose it BUT THAT ORGANIZE THEMSELVES IN CELLS?

Ann, you're making all of this up as you go, right? You ain't this dumb?

I don't see how it's Suskind's call. Did the government approve of this disclosure?


So who's call is it then? Are you calling for prior restraint laws? Is wisc.edu some sort of bizarro world onionesque hoax site?

"The equivalent of splitting the atom"? "The holy grail of terror R&D"? But "you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot"? Is it easy or hard? What's so amazing about a container with two compartments? It can't be the potential for a remote switch. There's no genius involved in thinking of the two chemicals, is there? That's basically how they set up the gas chamber they used to use in California, isn't it?

My guess is that the ability to put together a small reliable device in a manner that does not kill the developers but that does go off reliably when and only when you want it to go off is pretty nice work. the gas chamber may use a similar reaction, but dropping a pellets into a bucket by mechanical levers is not exactly the same as a compact, safe, reliable, deadly, remote controlled device.

But I bow to your tenure.

peter hoh said...

Yeah, the article is a plant, but then somefeller had to go and spill the beans. I mean, did somefeller have permission to reveal the real story behind the story?

closehauler said...

Clearly, the device is not very complicated, and the requisite materials are easy to obtain; thus, someone with little or no training could build one of these devices. In fact, in April 2003, someone did, and it was seized by U.S. federal agents in east Texas. The suspect who was arrested was not a jihadist, but an anti-government extremist named William Krar.

According to investigators, Krar found the blueprint for his device on the Internet. The more important point, however, is that the construction of a so-called mubtakkar is more or less intuitive and relies upon a simple and well-recognized chemical reaction. In all three cases, the design of the devices employed the principle of keeping the volatile ingredients separate and then, by use of a delay mechanism, allowing them to mix and generate hydrogen cyanide gas.

Applying a Threat Matrix

While hydrogen cyanide gas is deadly in high concentrations, it is a volatile gas and dissipates quickly. Because of this, deadly concentrations are often hard to achieve in a real-world setting. It follows, then, that however easy a mubtakkar device might be to build, its use would not be likely to generate massive casualties. And that means it probably would not be the weapon of choice for an organized group with a reputation to consider and protect, such as al Qaeda -- unless, of course, the central organization was indeed desperate and disrupted.

Given the ease with which more loosely organized groups or cells might build and use such a device, however, a few points are worth noting.

Initiating a device like the mubtakkar with a detonator would create a significant bang and create a thick cloud of caustic smoke. Government tests have shown that such a device generates cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, and possibly chlorine. The cyanogen chloride would irritate people's eyes, throats and lungs before the hydrogen cyanide could build up to lethal concentration. With those physical symptoms, victims would be apt to evacuate the area in search of fresh air. Depending on details of the location, they might be able to escape before inhaling lethal doses. Even if the device were activated in an enclosed area, such as a subway car, they could buy time by staying low to the ground, since hydrogen cyanide gas is lighter than air. The release of caustic smoke in a subway car would cause a panic, and it would be difficult to see or breathe; however, a smoke hood and small flashlight can be life-saving devices in such events. There also is a risk of psychosomatic injury -- people erroneously believing they have been injured -- so keeping calm is critical. (In cases where psychosomatic injuries have occurred, "victims" sometimes pass out -- which leaves them vulnerable to smoke, fire and trampling -- or deadly gas fumes.)

A more important point, however, is that hydrogen cyanide gas -- used as a chemical weapon -- is not as effective as other toxic substances, such as the nerve agent sarin. And even sarin (which was used in Aum Shinrikyo's March 20, 1995, strikes against the Tokyo subway system) can be less than devastating. In that attack, Aum members on five different subway trains punctured 11 plastic bags filled with sarin, killing 12 people. The more conventional bombing attacks in Madrid and London, by way of comparison, killed 191 and 54 people respectively.

Given this history, then, it is little wonder that (if Suskind's information is correct) the al Qaeda leadership would call off an attack involving hydrogen cyanide gas. Weapons of this sort certainly may be part of the al Qaeda arsenal (and perhaps of jihadist mythology), but in practical terms they do not represent a revolution of any sort in terrorist tactics -- nor, quite frankly, are they even as deadly as a more conventional bomb of comparable size. Judging from the historical examples, one clearly has a much better chance of escaping from a rail car containing a mubtakkar device than one containing a 20-pound Madrid-style backpack bomb.