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KSM's Sleeper Agents Posed A Serious Threat

Peter Bergen v. The CIA

12:00 AM, Sep 11, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Bergen argues that Faris's research in this regard reveals that he was incompetent. But what, then, does that make his boss, KSM, the originator of the idea? Does Bergen want to argue that KSM, the principal planner of the September 11 attacks, was incompetent too?

In describing the KSM/Faris plot against the Brooklyn Bridge, Bergen likens it "to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker." But that is not accurate at all. The tools Faris researched were "gas cutters" and not merely a "blowtorch," as Bergen claims. While it is not clear what specific gas cutters Faris researched, such tools are several steps above the blowtorch you keep in your garage. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, gas cutters (and similar tools) are used to "dismantle large objects, such as ships, railroad cars, automobiles, buildings, or aircraft."

So, a priori, it is not entirely inconceivable that one could bring down a bridge with gas cutters when that same type of tool is used to dismantle other large-scale objects.

Moreover, it was not Peter Bergen who first found the "gas cutters" plot difficult to execute. It was Iyman Faris. In early 2003, Iyman Faris reported back to his al Qaeda higher-ups that, in the middle of winter (!), the "weather was too hot." Authorities later discovered this was a coded reference to the Brooklyn Bridge plot, which Faris himself called off for the time-being. In short, Faris was no dope.

Faris found that not only were the "gas cutters" he wanted hard to come by (this again shows he was not contemplating using your typical "blowtorch," which you can get at your neighborhood hardware store), but also the structure of the bridge did not lend itself to an easy severing of its cables. What's more: Faris was dismayed by the increased security presence on the bridge. Throughout 2002, authorities received multiple reports suggesting that al Qaeda had the bridge in its crosshairs. One of the first threat reports came from Abu Zubaydah, who was captured on March 28, 2002. Zubaydah told authorities that al Qaeda wanted to bring down the bridge shown in the 1998 remake of the movie Godzilla. U.S. officials watched the film and realized Zubaydah was talking about the Brooklyn Bridge.

As a result, security in and around the bridge was tightened. To this day, you'll find NYPD patrol cars stationed at either end of the bridge--right near where, according to press accounts of Faris's arrest, the suspension cables were most susceptible to attack.

While Faris aborted the original "gas cutters" idea KSM had him explore, the al Qaeda threat against America's infrastructure, including the Brooklyn Bridge, cannot be dismissed as easily as Bergen suggests. As we've learned with airliners, U.S. warships, American embassies, and the World Trade Center, once al Qaeda's terrorists have a particular target in mind they do not easily give up the idea of attacking it. In fact, portions of an al Qaeda training manual released by the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2001 specifically cited the "blasting and destroying [of] bridges leading into and out of [the] cities" of "godless regimes" as one of al Qaeda's chief desires.

Who is to say that Faris would not have come up with an alternative means for bringing down the bridge? Is it that much of a stretch to believe that Faris, who had been trained by al Qaeda, may have considered using, say, a truck bomb or two instead?

Regardless, Faris's plotting was not confined to casing the bridge. Faris, at the behest of KSM, researched a whole range of other attack plans, including derailing a train in the Washington D.C. metro area. In Ronald Kessler's book The Terrorist Watch (2007), FBI agent Art Cummings explained that while he did not think the prospects for the original "gas cutters" plot were good, it does not mean Faris was nothing to worry about. New Yorkers, Cummings surmised, would not have let Faris and his accomplices get away with cutting down the bridge's cables. But still:

"[Faris] was looking at a number of other things at the same time. The problem was, he was a research conduit for al Qaeda central, directly. So eventually he probably would have gotten to a point where they would have given him something useful. He also knew a lot of people."

Faris knew so many people, in fact, that authorities used him as a double agent. As an article in Time magazine explained in June of 2003, Faris was moved to a safe house in Virginia shortly after his arrest. From there, Faris made calls to other al Qaeda operatives for several weeks, thereby helping to expose still more terrorists' identities.

Some of the people Faris knew included members of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell in Ohio who wanted to launch an attack on a Columbus shopping mall. At the same time Faris cased targets for KSM, he discussed the nascent mall plot with members of this Ohio cell, some of whom had been trained in terrorist camps overseas as well.

That is, Faris was not alone. He had other trained terrorists on U.S. soil willing to do his and KSM's bidding. But, of course, Bergen does not mention any of this. He simply dismisses the Brooklyn Bridge plot out of hand and ignores the rest of Faris's dossier.

The story behind the identification and arrest of al Qaeda operatives working for KSM in March of 2003 is an unequivocal success story. Perhaps KSM's sleeper agents did not have their finger on the trigger at the precise moment they were detained. But they were clearly preparing al Qaeda's next attacks. The officials who oversaw the dismantling of KSM's American-based network deserve our debt of gratitude. This includes those officials who were responsible for getting KSM to divulge his secrets--including his plotting with the Parachas, Adnan El Shukrijumah, and Iyman Faris.

Peter Bergen may want to pretend this is all about refuting Vice President Cheney. Both of his pieces on the topic start with the same hook: Cheney is wrong about enhanced interrogations.

But Bergen is not just contradicting Dick Cheney, who is an easy target for media types. Bergen is also contradicting the judgments of intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as the courts. All of them saw KSM's sleeper network as a major threat. In fact, the CIA found that KSM became the U.S. Government's "preeminent" source on al Qaeda.

Just because Peter Bergen says otherwise doesn't make it so.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.