A Career U.S. Intelligence Officer on Al Qaeda, Nuclear Terrorism and the Nuclear Threat

In a recent discussion with Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, we discussed al Qaeda's quest for nuclear weapons, the scale and scope of the nuclear terrorism threat, and ways in which we can avert a nuclear terrorist attack.

Prior to his appointment as a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, Mr. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen served over three years as the Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy. Prior to this, he served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, to include Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorist Center, and Deputy Associate Director of Central Intelligence for Military Support.

In his most recent report titled "Islam and the Bomb," Mowatt-Larssen explores the Islamic justification for and against the acquisition, possession and use of nuclear weapons. More information can be found here.

Rahim Kanani: In assessing and analyzing the nuclear terrorist threat, whether against the United States or another part of the world, how should the public understand the situation in the context of other current and potential international crises?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: Nuclear terrorism is inextricably linked to the broader phenomenon of terrorism.  As the cycle of violence escalates, the use of weapons of mass destruction has become more attractive to terrorist groups like al Qaeda.  There are chilling similarities between the cycle of al Qaeda warnings in the run-up to the 9/11 attack, and a new cycle of warnings associated with an attack on a much larger scale than 9/11.  In 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a religious ruling (fatwa) that declared war on America; the 9/11 attack followed three years later. In 2008. Al Qaeda deputy chief Ayman Zawahiri published an exhaustive religious justification for using weapons of mass destruction that could kill ten million Americans. This treatise ("Exoneration") built on the first-ever WMD fatwa issued by Saudi cleric Nasir al-Fahd in 2003.  Al Qaeda's WMD warnings are not part of some theological exercise, of that we can be certain; they are laying the groundwork in providing the required justification and serial warnings in advance of a future attack.  If the 9/11 cycle holds true, al Qaeda is in the middle of planning another major attack against the US in the near future.

Rahim Kanani: And in the same vein, how should policymakers contextualize this threat as it competes against a range of domestic and international concerns?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: Policymakers are swamped with a daunting array of "number one priorities," it is true.  However, some threats deserve more attention than others.  Given the potentially catastrophic consequences, even a small probability of terrorists getting and detonating a nuclear or "big bio" bomb is enough to justify urgent action to reduce the risks. It is plausible that a technically sophisticated group could make, deliver, and detonate a crude nuclear bomb if they could get their hands on sufficient fissile material.

Rahim Kanani: In the immediate term, or over the next 2 to 4 years, what are some concrete steps we can take, both from the perspective of an engaged citizen, and also from the perspective of the international community as a whole, to prevent, in the words of Harvard's Belfer Center Director Graham Allison, the ultimate preventable catastrophe?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: Nuclear terrorism is a preventable catastrophe.  It is very difficult for terrorists to buy, steal or build a bomb. Although we are unlikely to convince terrorists that it would be a disaster if they use WMD, I cannot fathom how they can hope to advance their cause by using weapons that indiscriminately kill millions of men, women and children of all faiths.  But our destiny lies in our own hands. The first order of business is to deny terrorists the capability they seek. The most critical task is to fulfill the historic nuclear security summit's goal of locking up all weapons-usable nuclear materials as soon as possible, preferably in the next four years. In addition, governments must strengthen international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation to find and eliminate terrorist nuclear plots before they reach fruition.  The nuclear black market in trafficking of nuclear materials needs to be shut down. Severe punishment must be meted out for anyone dealing with the stuff of mass destruction.

Rahim Kanani: Similarly, if we broadened the timeline of this discussion to long-term action, or over the next 15 to 20 years, what does the United States and the international community need to either decide, understand, or act upon, to ensure nuclear terrorism and the threat of nuclear terrorism ultimately decreases to an almost-zero percent chance of being realized?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: Down the road, we must ensure that the global expansion of technologies and materials connected with nuclear energy does not raise the proliferation risks, especially concerning the fuel cycle, transportation, waste and storage.  As global citizens, we must press our leaders to take courageous measures to reduce nuclear arsenals, and ultimately lock the nuclear genie back in his bottle by eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide. This is not a utopian ideal for dreamers; the concept of global zero has won the brave support of many of the world's most visionary leaders and practitioners, such as Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry, to name a few. One thing is clear: If the world does not act in concert to rid us of this menace, we are more likely to experience the catastrophe of a mushroom cloud in this century, than in the last century.

Rahim Kanani: What are the biggest impediments to implementing the range of short-term and long-term solutions you propose?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: In order to be successful, we must insist on uncommon leadership; vision; moral courage. Given the right mindset, there are no practical impediments to ridding ourselves of nuclear weapons. But if we stand still and accept the status quo, we will fail, because today, we are not doing enough to eliminate the threat.  Only strong leadership can overcome the widespread tendency to dismiss events that have never happened.  It is easier for bureaucracies, absent forceful direction from the top, to deal with their overflowing in-boxes, than to sit back and proactively head off the bigger threats of tomorrow.

Rahim Kanani: At a recent Harvard Kennedy School forum on the future of nuclear weapons, you asserted that we have to live with the prospect of this kind of attack, in order for us to survive it maturely. Is such an attack inevitable? And how would you characterize a surviving civilization as one that survives maturely?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: As someone who has been working on WMD terrorism for a decade, I still struggle to get the balance right: on the one hand, nuclear and bio terrorism are real and urgent threats that must be taken seriously. On the other hand, I try to not hype the threat to make my point. I would never try to sell the threat for political reasons, because it is too important to play games.  As serious as I think the threat is, we must never submit to fear in our efforts to deal with it, no matter how tempting that may be. If we allow ourselves to live in fear, the terrorists win. If we sacrifice our values that we are fighting for in our desire to feel safe, the terrorists win.  I agree with terrorists on one crucial point: this is a moral conflict.  It is about our values versus theirs.  And I am secure in my own belief that our cause is just, and that no good can ever be justified through terrorist violence.  The mere fact that the al Qaeda leaders are so hateful that they would unleash the scourge of WMD on humanity ultimately discredits them.

Rahim Kanani: And lastly, with such an intensely complicated and world-changing potentiality at stake, of which you were tasked for several years to lead the U.S. government's efforts in preventing exactly this realization, is there light at the end of the tunnel? And how do you balance pragmatism with optimism, as you continue your efforts in this regard?

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: The world has a tricky way of confronting mankind with challenges that reveal who we really are. I will always be an idealist, because cynicism is all-consuming, if one allows oneself to succumb to it.  Striving to do the right thing has its own rewards. I worry about the argument that it is fine to torture people if it works; it is never right, even when it works. I worry about the impact of inaction for the future of our children. So, let us act!  I'll never concede that our problems are too big and that we cannot solve them.  I'm  excited over the prospects of living in a world where a growing number of people are forcing change, even if it creates great uncertainties and carries new risks.  We need to seize this historical opportunity to address problems that have been festering for decades, for the sake of all mankind, and not for the narrower definitions of "self-interest."

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary