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Report: Al Qaeda planned N.Y. subway attack

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A new book details a 2003 al Qaeda plot to attack New York City's subway system.

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New York
Acts of terror
Ron Suskind

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Osama bin Laden's top deputy halted a plot to release a poison gas in New York's subway system "only 45 days from zero hour," according to a new book excerpted Saturday on Time magazine's Web site.

Two former U.S. officials with knowledge of the terror plan confirmed to CNN on Saturday night some details from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine," but disagreed with others.

One former official agreed that bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called off the al Qaeda attack. The reason for his doing so was not made clear.

Both former officials said the United States was familiar with the design of the gas-dispersal device and had passed the information to state and local officials.

They disagreed with Suskind that the terrorists were thwarted within 45 days of the planned attack; the officials said the proposed timing was not that precise.

"We were aware of the plot and took appropriate precautions," Paul Browne, New York City Police Department deputy commissioner, told CNN.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said no one at the agency has seen the book and had no comment. (Read book excerpt at Time.comexternal link)

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said authorities took the plot seriously but were never able to confirm its existence.

"A whole variety of steps were taken," Schumer said.

According to Time's report on the book, U.S. intelligence learned of the plot from the contents of a laptop computer belonging to a Bahraini jihadist captured in Saudi Arabia early in 2003.

Terrorists had planned to disperse hydrogen-cyanide gas, which is deadly when inhaled, using a system dubbed "the mubtakkar," meaning "invention" in Arabic, the Time article says.

The CIA immediately set about building a prototype based on the captured design, which had separate chambers for sodium cyanide and a stable source of hydrogen, such as hydrochloric acid. A seal between the two could be broken remotely, producing the gas for dispersal, according to Time.

"In the world of terrorist weaponry," Suskind writes, "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."

The device was shown to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, Suskind wrote.

One of the former officials who talked to CNN said officials didn't necessarily believe Suskind's reference to the device having the capability of killing "everyone in a store."

"Our feeling was, it could be dangerous in a tightly sealed environment but not in a shopping mall-type environment," the official said.

On the other hand, the reference to a tip about the gas-dispersion device as coming from Bahrain was true, one of the officials confirmed to CNN. But the official could not confirm whether it came from a laptop belonging to Yusef al Ayeri, bin Laden's top operative on the Arabian Peninsula.

Al Ayeri was killed in a gun battle between Saudi security forces and al Qaeda militants about the time the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Suskind quotes a CIA operative as questioning whether it was an accident that the Saudis killed the man who could expose a cell that was planning a chemical weapons attack in the United States.

"The Saudis just shrugged," Time quotes the source as telling Suskind. "They said their people got a little overzealous."

A mole within al Qaeda?

Suskind, according to Time, writes that a "management-level" al Qaeda operative identified as "Ali" had given U.S. agents accurate tips and had believed his leaders had erred in attacking the United States on September 11, 2001.

"Ali revealed that Ayeri had visited Ayman Zawahiri in January 2003 to inform him of a plot to attack the New York City subway system using cyanide gas. Several mubtakkars were to be placed in subway cars and other strategic locations," according to the Time report.

"Ali did not know the precise explanation why" al-Zawahiri called off the plot, Time quoted Suskind as writing. "He just knew that Zawahiri had called them off."

Meanwhile, administration officials wondered why Ali was cooperating -- and why the plot was called off, Suskind wrote, according to Time.

Time magazine is owned by Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN.

CNN's Shirley Hung and Nicole Jackson contributed to this report.

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