Al Qaeda’s New York

By definition, New York makes people around the world want a piece of it. And in this context, the thousands of Al Qaeda planners, bomb-makers, sleepers, and wigged-out suicide cadres strewn from Kuala Lumpur to the Sunni triangle are just wannabe New Yorkers, as delirious as any wet-eared Broadway gofer to see their work writ large across the skyline. “We know we’re at the top of the Al Qaeda hit list,” says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in his trademark thirties-inflected copspeak. “The bombings in 1993 and 2001 and the landmarks plot showed that they came back here and would want to come back here.”

And if the next 25 years are to be a football game in which the offense lobs bombs with an infinite number of clandestine delivery methods, then we’re obligated to spend lots of time thinking about how and where.

Understanding the where is paramount. Al Qaeda is sentimental, which is to say its planners and strategists follow their hearts. It keeps them consistent. This is what Kelly means when he notes that for the past fifteen years, they have been announcing that they will attack—and then attacking—New York.

The density and wattage of the human-target grid here—Shea on a summer night, JFK at Thanksgiving, Macy’s on a Saturday, Times Square just about any time—make the city itself a meta-target and raise the value of each individual target in it. According to Osama’s medieval worldview, more dead Crusaders and Jews means more dead Crusaders and Jews, so that any place attacked in New York has intrinsic value, but it doesn’t get at the likelihood of what might be next.

“What turns a thing into a target?” says Brian Michael Jenkins, Rand Corporation terror expert. “First, high symbolic value. Then, what do they want to accomplish with their home audience? Operations are as much for display—to attract recruits, financial support, and to establish credentials—as they are intended to hurt us. They’re corporate communications.”

Targets are developed in two ways. The first is a top-down sort of structure, as when bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed selected, trained, and defined the missions of the several cells who ultimately flew on September 11. The second process, running concurrently, is that allied cells around the world reconnoiter targets on their own, throwing proposals to the central organization.

“Think of it like every taxi driver in Los Angeles is also writing a film script,” Jenkins continues. “So, they’re going to pitch these to an agent or a studio. If you’re bin Laden and the boys, you sort of have this constant incoming flow of target folders and project proposals: ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could take down the stock exchange?’ You might look at one of those and say, ‘Gee, that’s an interesting idea—let’s take it up from a pitch to a story treatment.’

“Since it’s not a fluid battle situation, the iterative process is very long, by which I mean that there will be revisions both up and down the command chain. They have a long horizon. They started doing feasibility studies for the second World Trade Center attack in 1996.”

The Counter-Terrorism Bureau, under Deputy Commissioner Michael Sheehan, supplies the 140 detectives who work with the FBI in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. “The question is, what’s happening now?” says Sheehan, in blue herringbone shirtsleeves at his conference table at One Police Plaza. “Is Al Qaeda’s central organization able to reorganize itself and launch strategic attacks like 9/11? Or are these smaller operational cells going to be launching strategic attacks, as in Spain? We know they’re trying. I had thought that the post-9/11 operations were much more local, decentralized, independent operations: Madrid, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and those of Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, like Bali. But now I see ties back into Al Qaeda a little bit stronger than I thought, linkages going back to the training camps in the Afghan war.”

Such hydra-headed fluidity between groups and the continuum of activity reaching back fifteen years mean that NYPD counterterrorists must read the tea leaves in the operational detail of other attacks and investigations worldwide and distill the trends into possible narratives for the city. (And one concern near the top of Kelly’s list is that the bomb-making expertise developed in Iraq will be exported to New York.)

“In New York, you could begin making a list of targets downtown, and you’d have a very long one before you reached midtown,” says Jenkins. “But I’m convinced that the visuals trump the actuals for Al Qaeda. What I mean is, some of the infrastructure things that we may be concerned about, such as the Internet, may not be valuable targets, not just because of the lack of bloodshed but because of the visuals. These bombs are about a demonstration of prowess.”

Obvious targeting narratives determined the NYPD’s massive deployments around last summer’s Republican convention. Madison Square Garden at a mid-season Knicks game, however, doesn’t rate quite so high, which is to say the “softer” recreational targets get a slight—very slight—break from Al Qaeda.

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.

Al Qaeda’s New York