Updated: Apr 8
REVIEW – There are a couple of surefire ways to annoy U.S. officials who worked on counterterrorism issues in the years shortly after 9/11. One is to suggest that there really wasn’t much of a major international terrorist threat after September 11, 2001. The other is to say that while there were threats – they were easily handled. Aki Peritz’s book, Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History, blows away both of those flawed assumptions.
Disruption is a deeply researched and reported examination of a plot by largely Britain-based al Qa’ida supporters who hoped to put suicide bombers on at least a half dozen trans-Atlantic flights in 2006. Had they succeeded, it would have turned out to be what one U.K. official called: “mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”
Peritz touches on the deadly London Transport “7/7” bombings of 2005 (and the lesser-known failed attacks two weeks later) in his book. But the best part of the story is the extraordinary detail he provides on what the U.K. dubbed “Operation Overt.” The book dives deeply into the lives and actions of the men who planned and hoped to carry out, the airliner plot using cleverly designed improvised explosive devices made with drained sport drink bottles that were filled with a mixture of modified hydrogen peroxide, and a flavored powdered drink for color. The devices were intended to be detonated using cheap Pakistani AA batteries and disposable cameras. The plotters are the people who are responsible for the fact that the public has been unable to carry liquids in quantities of more than three ounces on an airplane since 2006.
Disruption is also a tale of contradictions – in part, it is the story of the fiendishly clever individuals who worked out a way to bring down massive airliners with mostly household products. But it is also about some less-than-clever participants – such as a plotter who wanted to temporarily bury some chemicals in a forest but had to Google: “how to dig a hole.” And another plotter supposedly started drafting a martyrdom suicide note which his unwitting wife found when it fell out of his pocket. Despite this, the scheme came all too close to being pulled off.
The mastermind behind the plot, Rashid Rauf, grew up in the UK but by 2006, was hiding out in Pakistan, having gone there shortly after the murder of his uncle in Britain.
The crux of the story is how the Brits (with help from the U.S. and to a limited extent, Pakistan) got on to the plotters and tried to thwart their plans. The Brits launched a massive round-the-clock surveillance operation which produced some frightening discoveries, none more so that when a member of the surveillance team followed a plotter into an internet café and observed him looking up one-way flights from the UK to North America.
As the scope of the plot became more clear, the U.S. grew increasingly nervous that some element of the plan might be carried out while we were watching. The Americans were anxious to disrupt the plot, but the Brits wanted to let it run to see what more could be learned. The progress of the investigation was briefed to then-President George Bush at least twice a day and for a while, White House counterterrorism advisor Fran Townsend was sleeping in her office in order to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice to newly collected intelligence.
As the situation was coming to a head, CIA Director General Michael Hayden, (now a Cipher Brief Expert) was in Islamabad accompanied by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the National Clandestine Service, for a series of meetings. Pakistani intelligence officials groused that they were tired of U.S. complaints about their perceived lack of cooperation on counterterrorism matters. Rodriguez stayed behind for more meetings with his counterparts after Hayden left the country. While Rodriguez was with senior U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials, word arrived that the Pakistanis had learned that Rauf was on a bus and might be able to be captured a short while later. But that capture hung on Rodriguez’s OK. The matter required an instant decision – a call back to Washington might have amounted to letting Rauf go. Rodriguez opted for action – and Rauf was rolled up.*
The unexpected action displeased the Brits – who were forced to take all of the plotters into custody right away – despite not having an arrest plan in place. Many of the plotters were tackled and taken down by unarmed members of surveillance teams.
Peritz describes in detail, the seemingly overwhelming evidence presented to British courts — some of it collected during the surveillance phase – the rest gathered post-arrest. The fact that it took several trials for some of the defendants, (in the end a couple were acquitted and others found guilty of lesser charges) might seem to some that the unplanned end to the investigation was a mistake. But where you stand on such questions often depends on where you sit. For the Brits – the investigation was largely a police matter – and the goal, eventual convictions. For the U.S., the goal was to do whatever necessary to avoid an attack that not only would have killed thousands – but also would have served a devastating blow to the international economy. The price of guessing wrong on when to roll up the plot could have been enormous.
Peritz says that before Rauf’s capture, at least one British official was arguing that the plotters should be allowed to get on their planes with their explosive devices – and only then, have the aircraft captains announce mechanical difficulties preventing take off, followed by quick arrests. Such a scheme might have resulting in detonations on the ground, however.
Disruption is full of hard to believe (but true) stories. For example, despite protestations that they were full partners in the war on terror, the Pakistani government never gave the U.S. access to Rashid Rauf while he was in custody. Then, sixteen months after he was captured and while being taken to a court appearance, Rauf’s police escorts reportedly took him first to a McDonald’s restaurant and then allowed him to visit a mosque – unaccompanied. Apparently, Rauf’s prayers that the mosque would have a back entrance were answered and he “escaped.” He subsequently was unable to escape a U.S. airstrike however, a couple of years later, although the details of that, like so many things, are in some debate.
The fact that some of the plotters escaped lengthy jail terms – and others may have escaped prosecution entirely – no doubt leaves some people dissatisfied. But the fact that the flying public has remained safe from al Qa’ida attacks in the intervening years – means that “Operation Overt” was an unqualified success.
Book Review: Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History by Aki J. Peritz / Potomac Books
The Reviewer: Bill Harlow is The Cipher Brief’s senior book editor. He is the former chief spokesman for the CIA. A retired Navy captain, Harlow is the co-author of four New York Times bestsellers on intelligence and is the author of Circle William: A Novel.
Disruption is awarded a prestigious four out of four trench coats.
*Full disclosure – The reviewer, Bill Harlow, co-authored former CIA Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez’s 2012 memoir, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, where his explanation of his thinking during this episode is detailed at length.
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