Thwarted: The massive terrorist attack that never came to be

Five years after 9/11, terrorists plotted a similar attack. In a gripping saga, Aki J. Peritz details the heroic intelligence work that stopped it. 

"Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History" by Aki J. Peritz, Potomac Books, 400 pp.

During the summer of 2006 a group of al-Qaida operatives – British citizens of Pakistani origin – planned Operation Overt, a terrorist attack that would have rivaled 9/11 in its destructiveness. They intended to detonate bombs on seven transatlantic passenger flights, which would result in 3,000 deaths, including their own. The attack was stopped by MI5 and Scotland Yard, with help from the CIA. “Disruption” is former counterterrorism analyst Aki J. Peritz’s account of this plot and the tireless intelligence work that foiled it. 

In the years immediately after 9/11, al-Qaida leadership grew increasingly frustrated. Not only did the attacks fail to damage the United States and its allies in any fundamental way, the targets of their jihad seemed as strong as ever. But young British Pakistani men were travelling to their ancestral homeland in large numbers. Under the pretext of visiting family or distributing aid to Afghan refugees in camps on Pakistan’s borders, many were really going to volunteer as guerilla fighters for al-Qaida, which had training camps in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of the country.

Rashid Rauf, a Birmingham-born al-Qaida operative, saw a volunteer with far too much potential to waste on a battlefield: Abdullah Ahmed Ali, a patient, intelligent Londoner with a knack for making other people follow him. Rauf decided to train Ali and send him back to London to lead the most destructive attack on the West since 2001.

In its detail and pacing, Peritz’s step-by-step account of the planning of Overt and the painstaking police work by which Scotland Yard learned what was afoot reads almost like a le Carré novel. “Disruption” is utterly gripping. 

But this is more than a book about terrorism and police work. Peritz is also convincingly adept at conveying the psychological and social background of the events that unfold in “Disruption,” particularly the realities and influences that made some British Pakistanis ripe targets for radicalization: the sense of alienation from British society, the lack of job prospects, the news that U.S. troops tortured Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaqi, a U.S.-born convert to Islam who had an unfortunate talent for persuading young Muslim men that violence was the fulfillment of their faith.

This is also a book about politics. The CIA and the British police and security services had competing agendas: the Americans – especially President George W. Bush – wanted immediate arrests. Their objective was to prevent another 9/11 at all costs. The British wanted to prevent a terrorist attack as well, but they did not want to make any arrests before gathering enough evidence to ensure the conviction of the Overt conspirators in a British court. Peritz’s account of how this conflict of priorities ended and the resulting “diplomatic hornet’s nest,” as he puts it, is a truly cringe-inducing glimpse of this special relationship.

Peritz also provides a troubling look at Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. Pakistan has often taken military action against terrorist organizations on its soil and has sometimes arrested al-Qaida operatives at the CIA’s request. But that doesn’t change the fact that al-Qaida training camps operate in Pakistan, or that during the Afghan War Pakistan’s government hoped for a Taliban victory. The bottom line, as readers of “Disruption” will learn, is that Pakistan cooperates with the U.S. in counterterrorism initiatives until it becomes inconvenient.

At times, “Disruption” would be funny if the subject weren’t so grim. On July 31, 2006, days before Operation Overt was to take place,  one of the conspirators, Assad Sawar, decided to hide all the bomb components he had gathered so far by burying them in a wooded area near his home in High Wycombe. On Sawar’s first attempt, digging a hole big enough to hold a large briefcase full of explosives apparently turned out to be more difficult than he expected. He went back home with the briefcase and didn’t return until the next day, which we know because he was under police surveillance. 

After Sawar and his co-conspirators were arrested on Aug. 9, police confiscated his computer.  They discovered he had gone back home on July 31 to search online for “how to dig a hole.” When Abdullah Ahmed Ali was arrested by the police, a search of his person recovered handwritten, step-by-step instructions for assembling the bombs and his packing list for his one-way flight.

Peritz’s prose is at its best when it’s understated and matter-of-fact. His occasional forays into humor or eloquence often fall flat, but these are minor complaints. “Disruption” is a compelling work of journalism on jihadism and counterterrorism – subjects that are sadly still relevant – and of the men and women who prevented an act of mass murder.

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