US officials received intelligence that Al-Qaeda operatives had been 45 days from releasing a deadly gas into New York City subways when the plan was called off by Osama bin Laden's second-in-command in 2003, according to a book excerpt released Sunday on Time magazine's Web site.
According to the investigative report by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, an informant close to Al-Qaeda management told US officials that Ayman al-Zawahri cancelled the plan in January 2003, despite the likelihood that the strike would have killed as many people as the September 11 attacks.
The informant said that operatives had planned to use a small, easily concealed delivery system to release hydrogen cyanide into multiple subway cars.
US officials had already discovered plans for the device in the computer of a Bahraini jihadist arrested in February 2003, and they had been able to construct a working model from the plans.
The easy-to-make device, called "the mubtakkar," meaning "invention" or "initiative," represented a breakthrough in weapons technology that "was the equivalent of splitting the atom," Suskind writes.
All previous efforts to use the deadly gas, similar to that used in Holocaust-era gas chambers, in mass attacks had failed.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the bureau would have no comment on the excerpted material, and on Sunday's CBS' "Face the Nation," White House press secretary spokesman Tony Snow said: "I don't want to confirm or deny this particular story."