By Michael Scheuer (from Terrorism Focus, June 20) –
This week’s issue of Time Magazine has caused a spike in U.S. and Western worries over al-Qaeda’s intentions and capability to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Prompting the concern is Time’s excerpt of journalist Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine, which describes al-Qaeda’s apparently successful development of a portable device that can be used to disperse cyanide gas. The gas kills upon inhalation, and Suskind claims that a cyanide gas attack on New York City’s subway system was within 45 days of occurring when al-Qaeda’s deputy commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called off the attack. Media coverage of the book excerpt so far has focused on how many casualties such an attack might have caused—first estimates are in the September 11 range of 3,000 dead—and whether or not the dispersal device would have actually worked .
Suskind’s book will provide grist for the media mill and WMD experts for weeks, but the more important issue to consider is why al-Zawahiri decided to call off the attack. Suskind’s sources suggest that al-Zawahiri decided that the subway operation was not a sufficient follow-up to the September 11 attacks . This judgment seems to be on very solid ground. Since declaring war on the United States in 1996, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly underscored his preferred method of operation. Al-Qaeda, he says, will incrementally increase the pain that its attacks cause the United States until it forces Washington to change its policies toward Israel and the Muslim world. While the graphing of al-Qaeda attacks since 1996 would not display a straight ascending line, the clear trend of the line would be upward; each attack has indeed been more destructive to U.S. citizens and material interests than the last.
If 3,000 Americans killed by chemical weapons in the New York subway system were not enough for al-Qaeda, what sort of attack did al-Zawahiri—and, implicitly, Osama bin Laden and his shura council—decide to patiently wait for? The answer, unfortunately for Americans, may well be the detonation of a nuclear weapon of some sort. While there is no definitive evidence that al-Qaeda has such a device, the group has had a specialized unit—staffed by hard scientists and engineers—that has sought one since at least 1992, and events over the past year suggest that such a possibility remains current.
Nuclear Knowledge Continues to Proliferate
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment found that "a small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to nuclear material, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear device" . Media reporting and scholarly writings since the 1970s have reinforced this finding, and just in the past year the full-range of proliferation activities of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan have come to light. Some reports suggest that Khan and/or some of his senior engineers have met with senior al-Qaeda leaders . In addition, the availability of unemployed nuclear-weapons-related scientists and engineers has increased exponentially since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003. Indeed, some Iraqi WMD scientists were released from custody by U.S. authorities in 2005 when no charges could be brought against them . Al-Qaeda’s supporters, too, have played a hand in the proliferation of nuclear knowledge by mounting a website on the al-Firdaws Forum dedicated to providing detailed instructions on how to make nuclear "dirty and biological bombs." First appearing on the internet in October 2005, the site had 57,000 hits just one month later, and a physics professor at the Imperial College in London said, after studying the site, that it was "more like a proper instruction manual" than the other more generic sites he had reviewed .
Nuclear Weapons and Materials are Unsecured
When asked by Congress in February 2005 whether he could assure Americans that no nuclear weapons were available to terrorists, then-CIA Director Porter Goss replied, "No, I can’t make that assurance. I can’t account for some of the [Former Soviet Union’s (FSU) nuclear] materials, so I can’t make the assurance about its whereabouts." In the spring of 2005, the U.S. National Intelligence Council also categorically assessed that "undetected smuggling [of nuclear materials] has occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted or stolen [from the FSU] in the last 13 years," and a former Soviet military officer said that "small tactical nuclear loads" had been found missing from the Soviet army’s inventory in the 1990s . Bin Laden himself has made clear that al-Qaeda has been nuclear shopping in the FSU. "It is a fact," bin Laden wrote to Mullah Omar on June 5, 2002, "that the [FSU’s] Islamic Republics region is rich with significant scientific experiences in conventional and non-conventional military industries, which have a great role in the future jihad against the enemies of Islam" .
Al-Qaeda has Religious Authorization to use Nuclear Weapons
Since May 2003, al-Qaeda’s intention to use nuclear weapons against the United States has had religious sanction. In that month, a respected Salafi Saudi cleric named Sheikh Nasir Bin Hamd al-Fahd concluded that the use of nuclear weapons in the United States was theologically justified on the basis of reciprocity. "Anyone who considers American aggression against Muslims and their lands during the last decades," al-Fahd wrote, "will conclude that striking her [with nuclear weapons] is permissible merely on the rule of treating as one has been treated. Some brothers have totaled the number of Muslims killed directly or indirectly by their weapons and come up with a figure of nearly 10 million." More recently, the respected cleric and spiritual leader of Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiya, Sheikh Abu Bakar Ba’asyir—who was freed from prison last week—said that Muslims must embrace nuclear weapons "if necessary" because "in places like London and New York there must be other calculations [than conventional attacks]. In battle it is best to cause as many casualties as possible" .
With the necessary nuclear knowledge and materials available, and with religious approval in hand, Suskind’s book also suggests that al-Qaeda still possesses the discipline and command-and-control capabilities that would be required to stage a sophisticated, 9/11-type attack, such as one that would include the use of WMD. The New York subway operation was scheduled for spring 2003, at a time when many Western authorities were asserting that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were completely isolated and cutoff from their fighters stationed outside South Asia. Suskind, however, describes the January 2003 secure travel of the operation’s commander—Yusef al-Ayeri, then head of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula—from Saudi Arabia to al-Zawahiri’s location, where al-Zawahiri listened to the description of the proposed attack and decided that it should be canceled. Al-Ayeri then returned to Saudi Arabia and ordered the operation terminated. Suskind’s book also shows that the al-Qaeda fighters tasked with executing the subway operation beat U.S. immigration-and-border controls and easily entered New York City from North Africa in the fall of 2002, more than a year after the 9/11 attacks.
All told, Suskind’s book appears to present a gripping account of a viable WMD attack that was canceled by al-Zawahiri. More importantly, however, the book suggests that several judgments about al-Qaeda that are now accepted in the United States and the West as common wisdom—such as al-Qaeda’s inability to stage large, complicated attacks in the United States; that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are isolated and cannot exercise command-and-control over al-Qaeda; and that U.S. border security is greatly improved since 9/11—need to be reexamined and debated.
1. "Al-Qaeda cell planned to attack subway with poison gas, says new book," Time, June 18; Mark Thompson, "Interview: And then what happened?" Time, July 18; Al Baker, "U.S. feared cyanide attack on New York subway," New York Times, June 18.
3. Quoted in Kevin O’Neill, "The nuclear terrorist threat," Institute for Science and International Security, August 1997.
4. "Paks Khan and Mehmood met Osama—Report," Press Trust of India, April 3, 2005; Saul Hudson, "U.S. wants full break-up of Khan nuclear network," Reuters, March 17, 2005; Syed Mohammad Amin Shah, "Jihad, nuclear program, and democracy," Islam, May 21, 2003.
5. Stephen Farrell, "Saddam’s scientists freed as U.S. house of cards starts to tumble," Times Online, December 20, 2005.
6. Uri Mahnaimi and Tom Walker, "Al-Qaeda woos recruits with nuclear bomb website," Times Online, November 6, 2005.
7. David Morgan, "Senate examining intelligence on nuclear terror," Reuters, February 18, 2005; "U.S. intelligence council concludes that theft of Russian nuclear material ‘has occurred’," Agence-France Presse, February 23, 2005; "Nuclear devices disappeared from 14th Army inventory in 1990s," Nezavisimaya Moldova, April 25, 2005.
8. Osama bin Laden to Mullah Omar, June 5, 2002, USMA Counterterrorism Center Website, Document #AFGP-2002-600321.
9. Nasir Bin Hamd al-Fahd, "A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels," May 2003; Samantha Maidan, "Embrace N-Weapons: Bashir," The Australian, October 4, 2005.