Monday, June 19, 2006

TIME'S MUBTAKKAR OF POISON: Swallow it, lose sense

On Sunday, Pulitzer winner Ron Suskind's tale of the Mubtakkar of Death and its role in a plot against the New York City subway was fantastic. "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. Go to the Home Depot, build one with off the shelf parts, and set if off, killing everyone as you leave the store.

But Zawahiri, al Qaeda's Number Two had called it off. Why, no one knew. In an interview with itself, TIME and Ron Suskind ventured an answer:

TIME: Why do your sources think al-Qaeda hasn't used the mubtakkar?

Suskind: Al-Qaeda has a kind of loose, almost entrepreneurial structure with lots of cells in various countries that are semi-independent. I think for a weapon like this, even outliers or wannabes among the world's jihadists would probably do a check-in with the al-Qaeda leadership before they used something that would be viewed as a weapon of mass destruction.


Colorfully and hyperbolically written for maximum impact, by Monday TIME's tale had been repeated in over 700 competing news venues, according to the Google News tab.

"An al-Qa’ida cell in the United States came within 45 days of launching a cyanide attack on the New York subway system that could have killed as many people as the attacks of 11 September 2001," wrote the Belfast Telegraph.

"The attack was called off by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for reasons that remain unclear . . ." it continued. "[Suskind's] book describes the rank fear inside the White House . . . "

"According to the investigative report by Ron Suskind, an informant close to al-Qaida leaders told U.S. officials that Ayman al-Zawahri had canceled the plan in January 2003, despite the likelihood that the strike would have killed as many people as the Sept. 11 attacks," wrote the Houston Chronicle.

Not everyone gave so generous an interpretation to Suskind's story, like Dick Destiny blog here. And according to an unnanmed intelligence expert in the Telegraph: "They’d be lucky if they killed everybody on one car [with it] – you can do that with a 9-millimetre pistol."

But as befits a fantastic tale of secret terror put off, the story was already changing. From reasons unclear for Zawahiri's cancellation, to reasons crystal clear.

"Al Qaeda decided not to launch a deadly cyanide gas plot in New York's subways because it wouldn't have killed enough people, according to the author whose bombshell book revealed the frightening scheme," wrote the New York Daily News on Monday morning.

According to Suskind, "Al Qaeda's thinking is that a second-wave attack should be more destructive and more disruptive than 9/11 . . . Why? Because that would create an upward arc of terror. ... That fear and terror is a central goal of the Al Qaeda strategy."

What could not be argued with was the upward arc of sensation caused by TIME's tale of terror deferred.

Since no Mubtakkar of Death, or cyanide, or even hydrochloric acid was present as evidence other than invocation by name, many were free to theorize. So Congressman Pat Roberts of Kansas got inside Zawahiri's head. That Zawahiri had made the decision to call off the attack "was correct," reported the Daily News."I think, when any terrorist considers an attack, they also consider the public reaction." Not enough mass death. Whew, dodged a bullet.

And for someone who knew only the particulars of what had been repeated in the newsmedia, where the hard facts were few, the man sure had all the information.

But perhaps what should have also been considered was that when journalists consider an attack a story, they also consider the public reaction, and often design it accordingly.

When a tale of secret terror postponed is told, one with such little evidence in hand other than say-so and hearsay, is delivered with such good packaging, planning and fanfare, who is being terrorized? Is it a public service, an effort to genuinely keep the public well-informed? Or does it deserve its own special genre: terror plot infotainment?


Post a Comment

<< Home