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Al Qaeda’s New York

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Bombing the United Nations, which “gave” Afghanistan to the invading Americans after 9/11, or ripping a hole in the federal courthouse on Foley Square, where Al Qaeda foot soldiers have been tried and sent to prison, would be more pointed payback. The U.N., the city, and the U.S. government have understood the value of these targets and fortified them accordingly.

East 65th between Fifth and Madison has two NYPD Mobile Command Unit vans parked on it most days, not only because Temple Emmanuel is at the corner of Fifth, but also, not 100 feet down 65th, is the consulate of Pakistan, a reviled partner in the “war on terror.”

The grandfather of all New York targeting is Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh and Egyptian firebrand who arrived in Brooklyn in 1990 and is now incarcerated. Not only did he engineer the landmarks plot from his seat in the Al-Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue, he inspired the nine-year campaign to destroy the World Trade Center. The landmarks plot was busted by the FBI as the plotters were mixing the fuel oil and the fertilizer for their truck bombs at a rented garage in Queens, but in a real sense it never stopped. This is both the tactical ineptitude and the brilliance of Al Qaeda: It has an endless supply of conspirators to take over.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, who has spent two years in custody under extreme interrogation on—so it is rumored—the Indian Ocean air base of Diego Garcia, has given us a relatively clear picture of the targeting chain. Although he’s allegedly no longer in possession of a coherent personality as a result of his recent stresses in purgatory, KSM, as he’s called by U.S. officials, had the imagination to dream the big dream and the operational finesse and attention to detail to work on multiple projects. He was Jenkins’s ultimate “studio mogul.” And his vast legacy of targets and his reconnaissance network continue to affect investigations and deployments worldwide.

“Al Qaeda operations,” says an analyst, “are as much for display as to hurt us. They’re corporate communications.”

One of KSM’s many agents was Iyman Faris, an Ohio truck driver and naturalized American. He was arrested with brio in March 2003, a month after the world’s best nameless interrogators began to sweat his boss. Faris was assigned to reconnoiter the Brooklyn Bridge. Specifically, he was to research methods for cutting the cables, and to buy the necessary oxyacetylene cutters. Faris determined that, after 9/11, as he communicated in his ham-handed code, “the weather is too hot.”

His case reveals two valuable targeting facts. First, KSM’s assignment to Faris occurred simultaneously, or shortly after, 9/11. KSM had just arranged the apocalypse on one side of lower Manhattan. He wanted Faris to move it a thousand yards east. The second fact has less to do with targeting and more to do with luck—namely ours. In deciding how he wanted to blow up the bridge, it seems that KSM overlooked his naturalized American agent’s own gifts. Iyman Faris had a national hazardous-materials truck-driving license.

“Faris is Al Qaeda, the real deal,” says Sheehan. “He’s a bit of a whack job; most terrorists are. He’d been in the war, in Afghanistan; he knew bin Laden; KSM told him to come to Manhattan. But that’s not the point. Faris could operate an eighteen-wheeler around the country with hazardous materials. Now, he had a long way to go to get operational, but this is our nightmare, an absolutely frightening profile.”

Three weeks ago, the United States District Court in New York released an indictment against a very energetic, British-educated, Indian-born Al Qaeda reconnaissance man named Dhiren Barot, a.k.a. Esa al-Hindi. Now in the hands of U.K. authorities, Barot will eventually be extradited to New York to face conspiracy charges. His arrest was the result of a daisy chain of 2004 arrests and interrogations in Pakistan, including the arrest of two of the suspected bombers of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In their safe house, the Africans harbored some 51 compact discs of reconnaissance information and targeting research allegedly compiled by Barot.

Though dated from 2001, the reports were extraordinarily well written, according to Sheehan, who read them closely. Barot’s targets included the World Bank and the IMF in Washington, the Prudential building in Newark, the Citicorp building on Lexington Avenue, and, for the second time, the New York Stock Exchange. Twelve years ago, the NYSE occupied a place of honor on the landmark plotters’ target list, but they hadn’t cased it with Barot’s chilling specificity, down to the chair counts in the boardroom. However distant he was from becoming operational, Barot’s work means that the stock exchange still scratches the old Al Qaeda itch. It has become an idée fixe. Which, as we’ve seen, is a dangerous thing.


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