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Since the Americans had identified the elusive Swift Sword in March as Yusef al-Ayeri, the status of the al-Qaeda operative had risen swiftly. A name will do that. It helps fix identity. First, it was discovered that this al-Ayeri was behind a website, al-Nida, that U.S. investigators had long felt carried some of the most specialized analysis and coded directives about al-Qaeda's motives and plans. He was also the anonymous author of two extraordinary pieces of writing short books, really, that had recently moved through cyberspace, about al-Qaeda's underlying strategies. The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, written as the United States prepared its attack, said that an American invasion of Iraq would be the best possible outcome for al-Qaeda, stoking extremism throughout the Persian Gulf and South Asia and achieving precisely the radicalizing quagmire that bin Laden had hoped would occur in Afghanistan. A second book, Crusaders' War, outlined a tactical model for fighting the American forces in Iraq, including "assassination and poisoning the enemy's food and drink," remotely triggered explosives, suicide bombings and lightning-strike ambushes. It was the playbook.
Once it became clear that the writer wasn't some enthusiast looking to curry favor with al-Qaeda but the organization's chief for the Arabian Peninsula, the writings took on predictive import. Al-Ayeri was conducting a kind of cyberspace conversation with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
And more specific conversations, as well. Tucked inside the sigint chatter in April 2003 of possible upcoming attacks inside the kingdom was evidence of a tense dialogue between al-Ayeri and another, less senior operative in the gulf, Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, over whether the Saudi al-Qaeda operation had enough men, weapons and organization to truly challenge and overthrow the Saudi regime. Al-Ayeri said no, it was too soon, the organization had not yet matured, while al-Ghamdi strongly recommended pushing forward. Al-Zawahiri, who managed the discourse, sided with al-Ghamdi.
On May 6, the first inkling of trouble surfaced: a gun battle in Riyadh between well-armed terrorists and Saudi security forces. The Saudi government issued a most-wanted list citing 19 insurgents, including al-Ayeri and al-Ghamdi, and adding photographs. Six days later, explosions ripped through an apartment complex on the outskirts of Riyadh, killing 35 including nine Americans and injuring more than 300. War broke out in the streets of Riyadh, as Saudi forces clashed with well-armed al-Qaeda soldiers.
Events were being monitored by the hour inside the CIA. "Owning Iraq," a country in confusion, with its oil wells shut down, was one matter. The overthrow of Saudi Arabia the true nexus of oil and Allah, producer of 25% of the world's exported petroleum and, by some U.S. estimates, nearly all of the world's most far-reaching terrorism was entirely another. At a 5 p.m. meeting in mid-May, the CIA's top management huddled. Tenet, that morning, had been grilled by Cheney about the status of the CIA's investigation of the reputed mubtakkar cell in the United States.
"What do we know?" Cheney pressed CIA operatives. "This could be another 9/11. This one we can't miss."