Threats and Responses
Posted by James Lamond
Bob Graham, the former Florida Senator who chaired the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, has an op-ed in today’s Post about the threat posed post bin Laden. While his analysis that the current threat posed by AQ to America is from “significant but smaller attacks” is correct, Graham overstates AQ’s capabilities, matching them to AQ's intentions for a WMD attack.
He says, that:
What do we do now? What are al-Qaeda’s capabilities to do us harm?
For at least the past 15 years, bin Laden sought to acquire a nuclear or biological weapon of mass destruction. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a career intelligence officer and former head of the CIA’s department on weapons of mass destruction, has observed that “al Qaeda is the only group known to be pursuing a long-term, persistent and systematic approach to developing weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks.” Bin Laden’s quest for a weapon of mass destruction was driven by his dogma that each attack against the United States or its interests abroad should be greater than any previous assault. This became operational in late 2002 or early 2003, Mowatt-Larssen reported, when al-Qaeda’s central leadership canceled a planned attack using a crude cyanide device on New York subways because it was waiting for “something better.”
It is probable that the next leadership of central al-Qaeda will not cling to bin Laden’s tenet, so if and until the new supreme leader acquires a weapon of mass destruction, Americans are likely to be threatened by significant but smaller attacks.
Meanwhile, the fruits of bin Laden’s efforts to acquire non-conventional weapons will be available to the new leader. Advances in technology have reduced the necessity of a significant organizational capacity for such weapons to be secured and utilized. A small group whose organizing principle is hatred of Americans could concoct a lethal brew of pathogens in a basement laboratory and stealthily disperse it through a vaporization machine in the back of a pickup truck, killing tens of thousands in a major American city.
But AQ’s intentions and capabilities are not the same thing. For years the organization has sought the ability to implement a WMDs attack , but has been unsuccessful. As the 9/11 Commission Chairmen stated last fall in a report outlining the threat posed by al Qaeda and related groups:
Despite al-Qaeda’s long interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, on the infrequent occasions that it or its affiliates have tried to deploy crude versions of these weapons their efforts have fizzled, as was evident in the largely ineffectual campaign of chlorine bomb attacks by “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” in 2007. Militant jihadist groups will be able to deploy only crude chemical, biological, or radiological weapons for the foreseeable future, and these will not be true “weapons of mass destruction,” but rather weapons of mass disruption, whose principal effect will be panic but likely few deaths.
Indeed, a survey of the 172 individuals indicted or convicted in Islamist terrorism cases in the United States since 9/11 by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and the
New America Foundation found that none of the cases involved the use of CBRN. (In the one case where a radiological plot was initially alleged -- that of the Hispanic-American
al-Qaeda recruit Jose Padilla -- that allegation was dropped when the case went to trial)
Similarly, as Peter Bergen (one of the above report’s authors) writes in West Point’s CTC Sentinel, when discussing AQ leadership 2001 claims to a Pakistani Journalist that the organization contained nuclear and chemical capabilities:
Bin Ladin’s and al-Zawahiri’s portrayal of al-Qa`ida’s nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities in their post-9/11 statements to Hamid Mir was not based in any reality, and it was instead meant to serve as psychological warfare against the West. There is no evidence that al-Qa`ida’s quest for nuclear weapons ever went beyond the talking stage. Moreover, al-Zawahiri’s comment about “missing” Russian nuclear suitcase bombs floating around for sale on the black market is a Hollywood construct that is greeted with great skepticism by nuclear proliferation experts.
Adding that, “it is unlikely the group will ever acquire a nuclear weapon.” And plots in recent years that do involve other weapons falling under the CBRN umbrella have been amateurish and have often been over-hyped, because of the obvious excitement that can be drawn from such an fearful event. The case of the 2003 ricin attacks in Britain were overblown in the media, for example. Even a “dirty bomb” which is one of the more fear-inducing weapons, should be put in perspective. STRATFOR explains that, “the panic generated by a dirty bomb attack could very well result in more immediate deaths than the detonation of the device itself.” These are more weapons of disruption than destruction.
This is not mean to undermine the obvious calamity that any attack, particularly, a nuclear attack, would present. Or even the threat posed by chemical, biological, or radioactive weapons. They are seriously concerning. The United States should work diligently to secure fissile and other dangerous material. I consider the unprecedented effort last year at the Nuclear Security Summit one of the most important and innovative national security achievements from the Obama administration.
But bin Laden’s death offers a moment to reexamine our homeland security efforts and counterterrorism polices to bring them more in line with the threat we face and the appropriate measure to prevent and address that threat. The threat today that we face – as Graham admits in his piece – is from a decentralized and diversified al Qaeda. Stephen Flynn offers some smart thoughts on what a broad approach to homeland security should look like in this new Foreign Affairs essay. The recommendations for Washington include: building trust with local communities, rather than alienating and isolating them; opening up the national security bureaucracy for better communication with the varied components necessary for homeland security; and avoid overreacting, particularly to small-bore plots that are specifically designed to cause an overreaction.