While the core group was still wrastling the angels of inspiration, my go-to cells were employed in preliminary logistical tasks: establishing safe houses, moving cash, rounding up supplies for the wizard cells. In this latter effort, C came to the fore with his experience in corporate R&D. We purchased several whole laboratories’ worth of gear and dropped it in self-storage units on both coasts. Because the ACC had rightly ruled out the use of germs or bombs (we’re patriots, not terrorists), we weren’t trafficking in restricted material per se. But lately our government has taken to quietly monitoring sales of even innocuous gear like beakers and pipettes, and we took great pains to leave no trail.
We knew from the start that one of the ACC’s strengths was its position in the telecom industry, and we soon realized that Uncle Sam had provided us an easy leg up in prosecuting our mission.
Al-Qaeda is notorious for passing communication by hand in order to circumvent electronic surveillance. One reason for this has to do with bin Laden’s own personal experience in the 1990s. According to news accounts at the time, Osama bin Laden really liked talking on his Inmarsat satellite phone. He especially enjoyed calling his mother in Saudi Arabia from his Afghan camps. We know this because the NSA was listening in on their conversations from at least 1996. This happy arrangement, along with Osama’s charming naïveté, came to an abrupt halt one day in August 1998, when he phoned his mother and told her he wouldn’t be able to call “for a while.” After hanging up, he turned off his sat phone. The next day, the president of the United States ordered a cruise missile strike on the phone’s last known coördinates. We blew up a desert training camp that day, but the Dark Prince had already flown.
Is it any wonder that bin Laden became phone-shy after that? Most reasonable people would. At some point, the NSA decided that if it could no longer tap bin Laden’s phone, the next best thing to do was tap everyone else’s. This was actually not a bad idea, but it required compliant telecom companies to shunt complex spur lines into secret listening posts, often small rooms inside switching stations, where NSA spooks could sift billions of calls through their voodoo supercomputers. In creating this system, the NSA had done the heavy lifting for us, and our linemen inside the same telecoms tapped their taps. Soon we were channeling the same floodwaters of chatter, and we set our wizards trolling for keywords and casting social nets.
I made it a point to become acquainted with the members of my go-to cells and their families, usually without anyone’s knowledge. I confirmed that we had recruited outstanding individuals. Smart, gutsy, none of your house-in-the-burbs, corporate-treadmill types. These were the cutups in middle school, the teenage pregnancies, the try-everything-once crowd. A little older now, a little more God-fearing and respectful of real realities. Solid.