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Sheldon Filger Headshot

Will Al-Qaeda Nuke America?

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It has been nearly eight years since Al-Qaeda struck the United States on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of that transformational event, some have speculated that a future strike on the U.S. by Osama bin Laden would be more devastating, involving perhaps a nuclear weapon. This apocalyptic scenario has been the plot of various novels, including my own nuclear terrorism thriller, "King of Bombs" (information at http://www.kingofbombs.com). However, the passage of nearly a decade has lulled some into a state of complacency. Could it be that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were right in deciding to invade Iraq? After all, it was their rationale (after no weapons of mass destruction were found) that fighting in Iraq meant the United States did not have to fight Al-Qaeda in the homeland. Could that be why Al-Qaeda has not launched a second attack on the homeland, after eight years?

In evaluating the possibility of future Al-Qaeda operations in the United States, it is useful to look back at an earlier plot that predated 9/11. On February 26, 1993 an Islamist radical cell linked to what would eventually be known as Al-Qaeda detonated 1,500 pounds of explosive material, consisting of oil and nitrates, in the underground parking garage at the World Trade Center. The resulting explosion killed six and injured more than 1,000. As destructive as this attack was, it did not fulfill the tactical and strategic objectives of the perpetrators.

The intention of the attackers was to bring down one of the Twin Towers in such as manner that it would topple over its twin, resulting in mass casualties and destruction. However, many mistakes were made by the plotters, ensuring that the detonation would not bring about the collapse of the building, while leaving a trail of forensic clues which would lead to the eventual apprehension of most of the plotters of the attack.

It would be more than eight years before Al-Qaeda struck again, with vastly more devastating results. Until 9/11, there was a level of complacency that inhibited American policymakers from correctly evaluating the threat of a jihadist cell striking at the American homeland, despite repeated and successful Al-Qaeda attacks directed at American targets overseas. This intellectual myopia on the part of U.S. decision-makers would be described in the official report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission as a "failure of imagination." Could history be repeating itself?

The American government, during the Clinton and subsequent Bush administrations, failed to recognize that Al-Qaeda was a transnational terrorist organization unlike any other. Furthermore, policymakers ignored clear threats by the leadership of Al-Qaeda to attack the American homeland. Several of these warning were issued personally by Osama bin-Laden to international journalists.

Since 9/11, Al-Qaeda has launched dozens of attacks throughout the world. This figure does not include Iraq and Afghanistan, where the number certainly runs into the hundreds, if not thousands. The jihadist followers of Osama bin-Laden have struck targets in diverse regions including Europe, North and East Africa, Turkey, the Philippines and Indonesia. On October 12, 2002 a jihadist group linked to Al-Qaeda attacked three targets on the Indonesian Island of Bali, including a bar frequented by European and Australian tourists, killing more than 200. On March 11, 2004 Al-Qaeda set off multiple bombs on Spanish trains in Madrid, killing nearly 200. On July 7, 2005 Al-Qaeda operatives trained in Pakistan detonated bombs that struck London's transit system, resulting in 52 fatalities and hundreds of injuries. These are but a few of a long list of murderous terrorist operations successfully carried out by Al-Qaeda since 9/11.

Based solely on operational tempo, Al-Qaeda's capability to mount attacks worldwide appears intact. There are indications that it may even have grown substantially. Experts who monitor Al-Qaeda believe two factors have contributed to the enhancement of this terrorist organization's capacity. In the first place, Al-Qaeda has developed a sophisticated capability to utilize the Internet as a recruitment tool as well as an operational asset. Thousands of jihadist websites spread the message of Osama bin-Laden's Islamist ideology to a large segment of disaffected Muslims, especially among immigrants in Europe. Secondly, the Iraq war is believed by many to have energized Al-Qaeda, and attracted support and sympathy throughout the Islamic world.

Some defenders of the Bush administration's decision to invade and occupy Iraq maintain that the war has made America safer, by attracting jihadists who would otherwise come to America to wage warfare. However, in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2005, then CIA Director Porter J. Goss stated that, "these jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks."

In 2007 the National Intelligence Estimate, reflecting the consensus view of America's intelligence gathering agencies, concluded that Al-Qaeda had reconstituted its command and control infrastructure in sanctuary areas inside Pakistan, astride the border with Afghanistan. Ominously, the NIE concluded that:

"We assess that Al-Qaeda's homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population. The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices, and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles. We assess that Al-Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability."

Looking back at the 8-year interval between the attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent eight years, we observe a number of key characteristics about Al-Qaeda and its leadership. Osama bin-Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are utterly committed to the victory of their interpretation of Islam, which means the reestablishment of a united Islamic caliphate ruled under strict shariah law. An essential preliminary to achieving this historic triumph, in their view, is the expulsion of all "infidel" influence within the Islamic world, meaning principally the United States, and the emasculation of America's economic power. While this goal seems preposterous to an American mind, within the context of Islamist radicalism Osama bin-Laden has articulated a rational and cogent strategy for achieving his aims.

Al-Qaeda and its senior leadership think in terms of a long timeframe for achieving their goals. Patience characterizes their operational planning, particularly involving major targets. Thus, in their mode of thinking, eight years was a reasonable period of time to improve upon their first attack on the World Trade Center mounted in 1993.

The 9/11 attack displayed ruthless execution and bold planning. It also established a benchmark for future attacks on America, with a far higher threshold of destruction required then what Al-Qaeda customarily inflicts during its attacks in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia. Anytime since 9/11, Al-Qaeda could have attacked transit systems, shopping malls and other "soft targets" in the United States. However, such terrorist incidents would be purely tactical, lacking any strategic consequences. Al-Qaeda has probably determined that any future attack on America, to be viewed as successful and strategic, must exceed the level of carnage inflicted on 9/11 by a significant degree. That is probably why the National Intelligence Estimate released in 2007 emphasized the likelihood that Al-Qaeda is planning to hit the American homeland again, possibly with a weapon of mass destruction.

When Osama bin-Laden attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11, he had a strategic objective clearly in mind. Mass casualties were the means to his goal, rather then the ends. By inflicting a shock on the American psyche of such dramatic proportions, he sought to induce the United States to militarily intervene in Afghanistan, repeating the experience of the former Soviet Union. He anticipated that a long, drawn-out war of attrition would demoralize the United States, cripple her economy and lead to its collapse, replicating what occurred to the Soviet Union. What he did not anticipate was that the U.S. would only send a small expeditionary force to Afghanistan, while devoting the bulk of its military resources towards the subjugation of Iraq, whose ruling regime had no connection with the events of September 11, 2001. In that sense, the strategic value of the consequences of 9/11 for Al-Qaeda probably exceeded their highest expectations.

In planning for its next attack on the United States, Al-Qaeda would seek to inflict a loss of such staggering proportions that it would again impel the United States into behaviors that would serve its ultimate existential goals. To achieve such an aim with conventional means, such as ordinary explosives or airplanes (as on 9/11) is probably an unlikely scenario. As suggested by the NIE on Al-Qaeda planning for a future operation on U.S. soil, it is likely that Osama bin-Laden is exploring ways of utilizing a weapon of mass destruction in a future attack.

The NIE speculates on the means of WMD that Al-Qaeda may be focusing on. Though biological and chemical weapons are possibilities, they are unlikely to be used by Al-Qaeda. These weapons are notoriously difficult to employ, as demonstrated in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway involving nerve gas. More importantly, while such weapons may, under certain circumstances, be deadly, they limit their effect to people, while leaving property intact. Al-Qaeda's methodology and doctrine stresses physical damage along with loss of human life. The iconic image of the twin towers dissolving on 9/11 was more valuable to Al-Qaeda then the actual number of fatalities. For those same reasons, a radiological weapon, commonly dubbed a "dirty bomb," also would not be of much interest to Al-Qaeda.

If Al-Qaeda is planning a future attack on America that will exceed 9/11 in its impact, there is a high probability that this operation would involve the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major urban center within the continental United States. The capacity for even a crude nuclear weapon to inflict vast carnage and destruction within a densely populated city is unmatched by any other weapon or scenario that Al-Qaeda could conceivably employ. Captured documents and other anecdotal information point to a very high level of longstanding interest by Osama bin Laden in nuclear weapons.

In recent years, both Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have issued repeated warnings that America would face attacks worse than 9/11, unless it fulfilled all of Al-Qaeda's demands, including withdrawal of its physical presence from anywhere defined as Islamic territory. In an Internet broadcast message, al-Zawahiri warned, "You are facing the Islamic rage ... what awaits you, should you press on, is far worse than anything you have seen."

In a macabre video marking the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Osama bin Laden offered a chilling message. Warning the American people that they were responsible for the continuation of the Iraq war by virtue of having reelected President Bush, he went on to propose two alternatives for ending America's involvement in Iraq: "The first is from our side, and it is to continue to escalate the killing and fighting against you. The second way is to reject America's democratic system and convert to Islam...I invite you to embrace Islam."

By fulfilling all of the theological requirements for a future attack on America, it appears that Osama bin-Laden is laying the groundwork for something "far worse" than 9/11. While his call for Americans to "embrace Islam" seems irrational to a Western mindset, in the context of Osama bin-Laden's world this is a supremely rational act for a jihadist warrior to undertake. Having provided fair warning and an opportunity to convert to his enemy, he no longer feels any moral restraint on inflicting the ultimate destruction on the American homeland.

As reflected in the NIE referred to earlier, the American intelligence community has high confidence that if Al-Qaeda ever acquired a nuclear weapon, they would unquestionably use it against an American target. Those within leadership circles who downplay the threat of nuclear terrorism from Al-Qaeda claim that it is beyond the capability of Al-Qaeda to manufacture or otherwise obtain such weapons. Unfortunately, there is much expert opinion that holds a contrary view.

It may be difficult for Al-Qaeda to acquire an intact nuclear weapon, though not inconceivable. It is known that during the break-up of the former Soviet Union, much of that nation's nuclear arsenal was insecure. Rumors have circulated for many years that during that chaotic period, Al-Qaeda obtained several Soviet nuclear weapons through the black market. It is impossible to know if that in fact happened, though another possible source of intact nuclear weapons is Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state that happens to be where the top Al-Qaeda leadership is believed to be in hiding. At present, a radical Islamist uprising is underway in significant parts of Pakistan, eroding the stability of the nation's fledgling civilian government.

A more likely scenario involves Al-Qaeda making its own nuclear bombs. Though challenging, this would be within the capability of an organization with the proven sophistication of Al-Qaeda. Much of the information on making nuclear devices is within the public domain, and it is known that Osama bin-Laden met personally with two senior scientists involved with Pakistan's nuclear weapons establishment, prior to 9/11. The barrier to building a nuclear bomb is not technical know-how but materials. Atomic weapons require fissile materials, either uranium 235 or plutonium. These materials require a national industrial infrastructure to create, so Al-Qaeda cannot fabricate fissile materials on its own.

Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a vast quantity of fissile materials became dangerously insecure, vulnerable to theft or being sold by the Russian Mafia. The U.S. Congress recognized the danger, and provided funding for a program that assists the Russians in improving security at facilities that store nuclear weapons and fissile materials. In the many years that this program has been in existence, only half of the insecure Russian nuclear sites have had their security upgraded. At the present rate of funding and implementation, it may be another 10 years before the remaining nuclear sites are secure, though the Obama administration has demonstrated a far higher level of concern on this issue than the previous Bush presidency. In addition, there are many other sites throughout the world, including the United States, which store fissile materials under less than optimum security. It would be an act of extreme optimism to believe that Al-Qaeda will sit and wait ten years until all these nuclear sites have upgraded their security arrangements. Possibly, Al-Qaeda might already have such materials in its possession. Depending on the design of the bomb, as little as 35 pounds of uranium 235 would be needed to build a device with a yield similar to the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. Should Al-Qaeda actually build such a weapon, it is highly unlikely that it would be detected by present security protocols and technology, should a jihadist cell seek to surreptitiously insert it into the United States. Contrary to public perception, nuclear weapons emit little radiation, which can be easily shielded. Once inside American borders, Al-Qaeda could deliver a nuclear bomb to any city by van or SUV.

Should a nuclear bomb ever be detonated in an American city, the carnage would defy our imagination. It is estimated that a ten-kiloton device, less powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, detonated in mid-town Manhattan during the workday, would immediately kill approximately 500,000 people. A similar number would be fated to die in the following days and weeks from the effects of radiation poisoning. Beyond the immensity of the carnage and destruction, America would be irreversibly transformed. Fear would dominate the country, with tens of millions of Americans contemplating the evacuation of their cities, uncertain if other bombs exist and would be detonated. Economic paralysis would ensue as the borders closed, while the financial markets, already weakened by the current Global Economic Crisis, would completely collapse. Civil liberties would be largely suspended, as the nation entered a new Dark Age, in which survival would take precedence over liberty. Likely, America's relationship with the world would be radically transformed in manner that suited Al-Qaeda's ultimate agenda.

In an interview conducted with the journalist Robert Fisk in 1997, Osama bin-Laden made his ultimate objective regarding the United States unambiguously clear. "I pray to God that He permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself," the Al-Qaeda leader told Fisk.

While knowledgeable national security specialists take seriously the threat of weapons of mass destruction being employed in any future Al-Qaeda atrocity on American soil, outside their small circle this vital issue of national survival has barely seeped into the public consciousness Yet, should Al-Qaeda actually detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city, the entire world as we know it would cease to exist.