Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Al Qaeda and WMD

A sudden spate of articles (e.g. see the links below) regarding Al Qaeda and its nuclear ambitions caught this blogger's eye...

A Failure to Imagine the Worst
Warning from Harvard study on WMD terror
Harvard report: al-Qaeda WMD threat a reality
Al-Qaeda Remains Intent on WMD Strike Against U.S., Report Says
Report says Al-Qaeda still aims to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S.

All of these are in reference to a January 2010 report published by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 'Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?'

In the articles referencing this report we read that the author, Mowatt-Larssen, "... provides a detailed chronology of relentless efforts by Al Qaeda from 1988 to 2003 to get and use chemical and biological weapons including ricin and anthrax, and, most worrying, nuclear weapons. Most of the details he cites have been reported before, but Mowatt-Larssen assembles the evidence in a fashion that leaves little doubt that Al Qaeda operatives would not hesitate to launch attacks that could kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans if they could pull off such an attack..."

OK, so let's take a look at the "detailed chronology"... It bullets 51 points during the period from 1988 to August 30th, 2003. This blogger is somewhat mystified why a "detailed chronology" published in 2010 appears to be blank for the past six and a half years! In reference to nuclear weapons the actual information related to acquisition (as opposed to the issuing of fatwas and declarations, and references to nuclear drawings, etc.) would seem to indicate that al Qaeda got nuclear materials and/or actual nuclear devices as far back as in the 1990's and early 2000's For example:

"Late 1993-Early 1994: "he heard later the uranium, which al Qaeda acquired for $1.5 million and was tested in Cyprus, was “genuine"; "1996... statement that al Qaeda had obtained nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union"; "November 7, 2001: "we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as deterrent.” In the same interview, Ayman Zawahiri states that, “If you have $30 million, go to the black market in the central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist, and a lot of dozens of smart briefcase bombs are available. They have contacted us, we sent our people to Moscow to Tashkent to other central Asian states, and they negotiated and we purchased some suitcase bombs"; January 2002: ... Ibn al-Shaykh al Libi during interrogation by Egyptians, al Libi claims al Qaeda operatives received chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training in Baghdad. He claims several small containers of nuclear material were smuggled into New York City by Russian organized crime." And, finally, June 26 2003 An Armenian citizen, Garik Dadayan, was caught with 170 grams of unsheathed highly enriched uranium (HEU) on the Georgia Armenia border. This was a sample of a larger amount of HEU that was being offered for sale to an unknown customer, possibly in the Middle East..."

However, actual evidence that they have come close is rather thin. In fact the report actually undermines its central thesis by arguing (and convincing) that Al Qaeda would not hesitate to launch attacks that could kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans. If you would believe the chronology, then al Qaeda actually has had nuclear weapons for up to a decade or more but for some reason has refrained from using them, a complete contradiction of this argument!

It needs to be said that even given that a) Bin Laden and crew are "incredibly patient", b) "... al Qaeda’s top leadership has demonstrated a sustained commitment to buy, steal or construct WMD...:", c) They have undertaken multiple approaches to achieve their ends, and d) the detonation of a nuclear device could have horrendous consequences, this still does not add up to President Obama's formulation that this would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life."

There is no doubt in this blogger's mind that al Qaeda would love to get their hands on one or more nuclear devices, and that they would love to cause untold U.S. casualties. Work needs to be done to degrade their organization and its capabilities, and to prevent their acquisition of nuclear materials. However, breathless reporting that this is the central issue our time is over the top...

Note: while this blog entry has looked at this report from the radiological and nuclear angle, the report's focus on WMD also included chemical, biological weapons. A couple of other responses that take issue with the Belfer report with regard to these dangers are linked below:

Terrorism Experts Can Be Alarmists, Too
The Busted Watch Of U.S. WMD Threat Assessment: More evidence

Note: This blogger would be remiss if he did not mention that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is charged with the attempted use of WMD, see the Bomb - explosive, firearm, and WMD blog entry. Since Bin Laden has 'claimed' the "underwear bomber" this blogger is forced to concede the al Qaeda - WMD link, but only on the basis of the expansive definition under criminal law!

Additional note: This isn't particularly new, for example see this article from April 2006, Osama Bin Laden All Nuked Up.

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