Today, TIME magazine went with a brief but sensational story on the Mubtakkar of death, a cyanide-producing device that al Qaeda was set to unleash in the New York subway in 2003.
It was quickly picked up by all newsmedia and spread around the country with the lurid insinuations that the attack would have potentially caused more death than 9/11. It was seeded with the usual unbalanced buzz-terms of exaggeration and hyperbole that should set warning bells ringing.
TIME magazine even interviewed itself as a mechanism for reiterating the sensational points of its story, using one reporter to question the man with the scoop, Pulitzer-winner, Ron Suskind.
TIME: "Is the mubtakkar device easy to make, once you have the design?"
Suskind: "It is fairly easy to make. You need someone only modestly skilled to do it."
Readers of the literature on al Qaeda chemical and biological plots know by now that in the media, everything is easy to make. Botulism is easy to make. Ricin is easy to make. Any number of very bad things are easy to make. Death is always inevitable.
"Easily constructed and concealed, mass casualties were inevitable if it could be triggered in any enclosed public space," wrote Suskind for TIME. It was the equivalent of "splitting the atom" in the world of terrorism," he added. You could take a trip to the Home Depot, make it there, and set if off at once, causing mass death. Does Home Depot sell pure sodium or potassium cyanide? Nope.
The newsmedia and counterterror experts are literally possessed by things that are easy to make or easy to do and which can cause mass death. And, lacking clear and concrete evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to be suspicious of them.
For example, In the trial of the London ricin ring, it was claimed: "The impact on the public, if he [Kamel Bourgass] had succeeded in what he wanted to do, is incalculable." And of the poison plans seized by British authorities: "These were no playtime recipes ... These are recipes that experts give credence to and experiments show work. They are scientifically viable and potentially deadly."
But arguments from authority were preserved only when people didn't see the original information. When they did, as displayed here -- the fear evaporated under the light.
Details for the mubtakkar of death were seized on a Bahraini's computer. CIA-men rushed to test the truth of the device by examining the plan. While there was no device to inspect, and no chemicals seized, they prepared a "prototype" based on the theoretical machine, "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." And they showed their mechanism to the President.
Again, alarm bells go off. The first red flag is the CIA recreation of the device to generate and disperse hydrogen cyanide gas, an original of which is not in their possession. The literature of chemical and biological terror hype is replete with examples of CIA and other government agency exercises in which weaponization is conducted as a barometer, or measuring stick, of how easy it is for terrorists to do something. And we have come to learn that such exercises cannot be trusted. They are often dog and pony shows in which resources which terrorists do not have are employed, or the dots and gaps in their understanding and technical skill are filled in by teams of experts, all so as to provide an example of a working threat.
Can a chambered device be made which exists to allow a reaction of a cyanide salt and hyrdrochloric acid. Yes, certainly. And can it be done remotely? Yes, certainly, the chemical industry knows how to do it because if one plans on manufacturing hydrogen cyanide, it's one of the ways to do it. And Dick Destiny blog, and many others, could come up anything from diagrams to a "prototype " that did something without even needing to look at the plans of a jihadist. And would it look frightening to others? It might easily.
Does that mean its a breakthough akin to "splitting the atom" in the world of terror? Not without a lot more in the way of concrete details.
The second red flag is Suskind's uneasy grasp of the science. The reaction of hydrochloric acid, a common reagent (an antique name for it is muriatic acid), and sodium cyanide is a simple one to explain, not a breakthrough. To emphasize, it is not equivalent to splitting the atom, and "stable source of hydrogen" is an awkward and unusual way to describe HCl in this context. It indicates someone who was not a scientist or perhaps knowledgeable on the fine details, if there are any.
In any case, the production of hydrogen cyanide has been present in Islamist literature for years, from the Mujahideen's Poisons Handbook to the notes of the convicted killer, Kamel Bourgass.
Futher conspiracies are spun in Suskind's tale for TIME. The US government was rushing to find the details of the plot when Saudi intelligence conveniently killed the best source of information. Was it an accident? Or was it, as insinuated, possibly a way of helping to cover al Qaeda tracks? Suskind doesn't know. And no one knows why the cyanide attack, which was alleged to be 45 days away from launch, was called off. It's all hearsay. There is no mubtakkar of death, handcrafted by terrorists, to show and examine.
Suskind ventures an explanation as to why mubtakkars of death did not go off in TIME's interview of itself. It was maybe because al Qaeda "has a kind of loose, almost entrepreneurial structure" and jihadists would want to "check-in" with the bosses before using something "viewed as a weapon of mass destruction." And when they checked in with their boss, al Zawahiri, he called it off. Well. what else is there to say?
But why, if the mubtakkar of death is so easy to make has it not been seen since, or employed in Iraq, or used anywhere there have been other terror attacks?
Questions, questions, questions.
Of course, it's difficult to know how much truth is in Suskind's expose, excerpted from a forthcoming book. We know their are terrorists and they have plans. And they have claimed their desire and efforts to make chemical and biological attacks which include the use of cyanide. In this, they have also been motivated by the preponderance of statements from American experts and the newsmedia that it is easy to do and quite deadly. The latter assertion has yet to be answered.
Is TIME and reporter Suskind's expose a few small nuggets of information spun into an ecompassing plot of horror narrowly averted by luck and coincidence? Or is it all absolutely true? Is the mubtakkar of death, as a weapon of mass destruction, easy to make, and it's only a matter of time before we see the macabre nature of it in rows and rows of bodies in the morgue?
It's impossible to say without knowing more. The careful assessment now requires that arguments from authority, be they delivered by government expert or Pulitzer-winner, be taken with an entire shaker of salt. And again, part of the nut of the matter lies hidden in the alleged diagrams or plans for it seized on a jihadist's computer. Is this material more substantial than that discussed in The Annals of Terrorism two weeks ago and the Botox Show of Death last week?
Or is it more of the same practice, al Qaeda materials and capabilities spun, stretched and twisted out of shape, shaped by the searing experience of 9/11, so as to provide more of a cracking good fright story? Is it, in other words, like the poison plot of Kamel Bourgass and the London ricin ring, one that, according to authorities, could have caused "incalculable" harm had it gone off as planned in Britain?
Perhaps time will tell and the documents will be released for view. While I'm not betting on that, I invite anyone with inside knowledge to let me know of the truth of the matter. Just ask for George Smith, Ph.D., at GlobalSecurity.Org in Alexandria. (Phone: 703-548-2700.) Confidentiality is guaranteed.
In any case, historically, there haven't been many examples, if any, of small -- by scale -- devices lethally dispersing cyanide gas as described by TIME. In World War II the Nazis used it in their sealed death chambers.
In World War I, it was used in some quantity on the battlefield with results that left the combatants searching for more lethal compounds and mixtures. A limitationa of hydrogen cyanide was that it dissipated rapidly. It is also highly flammable, making its battlefield use in munitions difficult.
Chemistry students and researchers know about the hazard of accidental mixing of acids and salts of cyanide in the lab and its bad potential. And the mining industry, which uses a great deal of it, is also profoundly aware of the risks.
But while the production of hydrogen cyanide is easy to understand, it is not so clear the production of it for use in mass death is well understood. Is it very easy with death inevitable, the equivalent of the terrorist splitting of the atom? Well, the devil is in the details, a good reason to argue for seeing the plans in the light of day, unencumbered by the usual reasons for turning them into a sensation story.
Additional reading: The British went paranoid over an alleged poison gas vest of death earlier this summer. Here is a discussion of threat analysis and the related imbroglio.
Postscript (Monday, June 19): Government agencies have warned of gas attack plans by al Qaeda off and on since 9/11. As part of the lore of chemical and bioterror hype, Dick Destiny blog has written most of them off as wretched interpretations of capabilities and warnings in the absence of verified threats.
Paul Sperry, the author of a book called Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington circulated e-mail pointing to a series of stories he reported for the Internet tabloid, WorldNetDaily. Sperry calls Suskind's scoop old news, having retrieved a threat memo from Department of Homeland Security in 2003, one that briefly claimed the existence of a makeshift device for emitting poison gas into a ventilator in enclosed spaces or a subway. It is viewable if you read carefully and page down from this index.
Once again, it reveals the shortcomings of "intelligence" delivered by government agency experts. Since DHS does not reveal the actual hard information and the statements are brief --buried at the end and only a couple sentences in length, one cannot determine if they are fabrications, a product of paranoia, hearsay from a really lousy source, or based on the type of trashy al Qaida-attributed documents Dick Destiny has examined.
Defensetech pitches in with a good practical observation on Suskind's alleged Mubtakkar of Death here.
IMPROVISED CYANIDE MUNITION: Photo of prototype developed for illustrative purpose by US government. Distributed in a 2003 warning from the Department of Homeland Security, see entry here.
MORE NOOZ -- June 22: As far as the mainstream media was concerned, Ron Suskind's news of the Mubtakkar of Death was a pleasing tale. He went from media outlet to outlet, repeating his claims to all. No one asked questions which would be regarded as rude and interrupting to the narrative. But for National Public Radio's Fresh Air on the 20th, Suskind was peerless.
For host Terry Gross, Suskind repeated his script on the cyanide-producing Mubtakkar, but with a few additions. The terror device that was the equivalent of splitting the atom, used sodium chloride and a hydrogen substance or whatnot. Here is a partial transcript of the Pulitzer-winning reporter, describing the details of a selling point for his new book.
The Nazis used it -- Zycon B [sic] -- I suppose in the gas chambers. And Al Qaeda and other terrorist cells around the world have been trying for years to figure out a way to deliver it. What they came up with was this device called the mubtakkar which is an elegant portable delivery system. It's sort of like two Mason jars together in a little paint can -- I think that's the best way to put it -- and between the two jars, one of which has sodium chloride and the other some hydrogen substance like hydrochloric acid or whatnot, and then in between a triggering catalytic element, a seal that can be broken with a cellphone, just like the other bombs. It mixes these two liquids quickly and sends out a fairly potent cloud of the deadly gas . . .
Heed the words of the expert on al Qaeda chemical terror for a couple of days, sprinkling table salt into the dread Mubtakkar -- Morton's and some whatnot. (Note: This would make your stomach a miniature Mubtakkar.) The Nazis used it -- he supposed -- in the gas chambers.
Listen to the amazing and pleasing story of the sodium chloride Mubtakkar here. Oof!
More: Cyanide bomb diagram and photo, their provenance and discussion.