Atlantic Monthly

What ISIS Really Wants

In The Atlantic.

With a follow-up here.

The Daily


Originally appeared in The Daily.

The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind

By Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer

Hachette, $22.95

The best-known photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, admitted mastermind of the September 11 attacks, is one of those images that cannot be unseen. Bleary-eyed and disheveled, he sports a stubbly double-chin, and so much body hair that you’d think he could be lifted up by the scruff of his neck, like a kitten. Within hours of the photograph’s release, shortly after his capture in Pakistan in March 2003, Internet jesters noted a resemblance to the hirsute porn star Ron Jeremy (himself a prolific producer of cannot-be-unseen images).

Atlantic Monthly

Indirect Hit

At $600,000 per Tomahawk cruise missile, the cost of whacking Ayro ran into the low millions. It would have been a bargain at twice the price. Somalis, victims of two decades of war and state breakdown, can bid farewell to a murderous madman, and their hapless provisional government will enjoy at least a slight boost in their efforts to quash the Islamist insurgency and repair the country. (Though turning Mogadishu back into a functioning city will be about as easy as turning foie gras back into a functioning goose liver.) For the U.S., however, the dividends from Ayro’s death will be more modest.

Atlantic Monthly

The Las Vegas Treat

Extracting ricin — so potent that a single drop could kill you and your whole family — isn’t difficult, which is why a man with obvious social handicaps and no relevant training apparently succeeded in producing enough to poison himself half to death. Governments have made breathless claims about Al Qaeda’s desire to weaponize the chemical, and the dubious success of this poor man’s homebrew will stoke the fears of the stokeable.

My reaction: It’s good that the guy has a hobby. I hope Al Qaeda’s hobby is the same. Ricin is, first of all, one of the more pitifully ineffective chem-bio agents — botulin, sarin, and anthrax are much worse. But even if Al Qaeda produced those, their scientists would be far more likely to poison and kill themselves than to poison and kill others.

The recipe for ricin has been publicly available since 1962 (amateur chefs, click here), and almost no one has died by malicious ricin poisoning. Even if they were capable of buying ricin off the shelf, they’d have to figure out a way to inject or spray victims with the stuff, and anyone who’d submit to an injection or puff of mist from a stranger on the street probably would be easy to kill by conventional means anyway. Let us hope that Al Qaeda is following the fearmongers’ cue and ordering chemistry sets through the post right now, rather than conventional weapons available for the same price.

Originally appeared at