Two pressure cookers packed with death-dealing ball bearings, sharp nails and metal shrapnel took the American town of Boston – as well as New York – back twelve years to September 11, 2001, when eleven terrorists, 10 of them Saudi nationals, hijacked two civilian flights from Boston’s Logan airport and crashed them into the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
Then, too, Osama bin Laden’s dispensers of death used ordinary household tools – box cutters sold in any hardware or stationary store – turning them into a weapon of mass destruction that altered the face of America and the world.
To this day, US intelligence under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, have never disclosed where the Egyptian-born leader of the 9/11 atrocity, Mohamed al-Amier Awad al-Sayed Atta, stayed in Boston before heading to Logan.
Neither has any explanation been offered for the failure of the Clinton administration to act on the warning incoming in 1998 that al Qaeda was plotting to commandeer commercial flights and crash them into the Twin Towers and the White House. The same inaction persisted after Bush took office.
Their disregard is easily explained: Neither actually believed it could happen.
US intelligence authorities surprised again in Boston
This myopia still afflicts the highest levels of authority in Washington DC up until the present.
It was not cured by the innumerable commissions of inquiry, the formation of new security bodies and the endless self-examination – or even President Barack Obama’s public admission in December 2009 that US intelligence agencies had failed to connect the dots and were therefore unready for the attempt by the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutab, the “underwear bomber,” to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam as it landed in Detroit.
He failed only by chance: The explosive started burning his legs and fellow-passengers were able to grab hold of him in the nick of time.
However, the two bombings in Boston, which cost three lives and permanently maimed many of the 176 wounded victims, demonstrated that the conceptual switch to a working capacity for fighting al Qaeda in America has yet to take place in the intelligence and security agencies responsible for counterterrorism.
There are many new dots for filling out the picture.
Even the pressure cooker was not a novelty. Similar IED contraptions were used with deadly effect against US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They have also turned up in America. On May 1, 2010, the Pakistani-American terrorist Faisal Shazad planted a pressure cooker in a black nylon bag in a car among other primitive bombs and parked it on Times Square, New York.
This is the device that turned up again at the Boston Marathon finishing line Tuesday.
Leads to the dissident Saudi Alharbi clan
In the past twelve years, Al Qaeda has evidently not advanced beyond box-cutters, underwear and pressure cookers packed with sharp nails and shrapnel as weapons for killing large numbers of civilians.
Only once did the jihadists take a chance on a more sophisticated method: In October 2010, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP dropped two “printer bombs” at the UPS and Federal Express delivery services with addresses in the United States.
Instead of ink, the group’s senior bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri filled the printer cartridges with an undetectable white powdery explosive and connected them to a timer he hid in the printer’s circuitry.
This cargo was designed to blow up when the planes carrying it reached the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The plot was foiled by the interception of the packages in the UK and Dubai after a tip-off from Saudi intelligence.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources draw a straight line between that three-year old episode and this week’s Boston bombings.
The three Saudis suspected of rigging the bombs at the Boston Marathon come from the Alharb clan, whose home is on the west Saudi coast north of Jeddah. One or two of its members are married to daughters of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri.
One of the suspects was questioned in hospital with badly burned hands, after which the FBI-led investigators reached the apartment he shared with his two partners in Revere Massachusetts, five miles out of Boston.
Assurances of no follow-up as words of comfort
This interweave strongly indicates that AQAP managed to plant a cell of three Saudi students in the US for the Boston attack – and more covert groups may still be at large.
At the time this was written, the FBI had two cell members in hand – one suspected of burning his hands when he handled one of the bombs and the second picked up when their apartment was searched.
The authorities deny having anyone in custody so long as the third cell member is not apprehended.
They also deny that any more attacks are expected.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asserted Tuesday, April 16, that the Boston explosions were not part of a broader plot. And FBI Special Agent Richard Deslauriers talking to reporters in Boston stated emphatically: “There is no imminent threat.”
Both were anxious to calm the rattled town, but neither of those statements may be taken as gospel. The Saudi cell is almost certainly the visible tip of a broader clandestine network hiding out in Boston. Experience of such operations indicates that between five and ten accomplices must have been the cell’s support system for the attack. Some would have been spotters with local knowledge who scouted out the Marathon route for the cell leaders to place the bombs; others drivers who brought the bombers to the scene of attack and then used the chaos to whisk them away to safety.
There were certainly dry runs and alternative locations fixed in case US security personnel were in the way at the chosen spots or other surprises.
More than 30,000 Saudi students in America
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism experts make two more points:
1. Boston has some 1,000 Saudi students. Some have almost certainly been recruited by AQAP.
Therefore, the joint message Saudi King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman posted to President Obama Tuesday was more than a routine message of condemnation for the Boston bombings and condolence. It also expressed outrage and sorrow for the suffering of the innocent victims of terrorist acts.
By asserting that the perpetrators “belong to no religion,” that their deed was a violation of “ethics and morals,” and that they “represent no one but themselves,” the monarch effectively disowned them as Saudi citizens and as Muslims.
Two days after the attack, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal paid a quiet visit to Washington and was received by President Obama outside his public schedule.
Their discussion was described officially as centering on Syria. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that they debated on how to deal with the Saudi suspects held in connection with the Boston bombing and their possible deportation.
After the bombings, it is up to the US law enforcement agencies led by the FBI to check and recheck the identities and backgrounds of all the Saudi students in Boston and dig out any involvement they may have had in the bombings.
Those who ran in the marathon are already being checked.
2. If AQAP managed to enlist Saudi students in Boston without the knowledge of US or Saudi intelligence, similar cells may also have been planted in institutions of higher learning in other parts of the United States. It is hard to believe that none of the 30,000 Saudis studying in America was approached by terrorist recruiters.
Meanwhile, all US intelligence eyes will need to keep a sharp lookout in the coming months for the next terrorist attack.