In an interview aired Feb. 7 on CNN, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she considers weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of an international terrorist group to be the largest threat faced by the United States today, even bigger than the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. “The biggest nightmare that many of us have is that one of these terrorist member organizations within this syndicate of terror will get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction,” Clinton said. In referring to the al Qaeda network, Clinton noted that it is “unfortunately a very committed, clever, diabolical group of terrorists who are always looking for weaknesses and openings.”
Clinton’s comments came on the heels of a presentation by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In his Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community on Feb. 2, Blair noted that, although counterterrorism actions have dealt a significant blow to al Qaeda’s near-term efforts to develop a sophisticated chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attack capability, the U.S. intelligence community judges that the group is still intent on acquiring the capability. Blair also stated the obvious when he said that if al Qaeda were able to develop CBRN weapons and had the operatives to use them it would do so.
All this talk about al Qaeda and WMD has caused a number of STRATFOR clients, readers and even friends and family members to ask for our assessment of this very worrisome issue. So, we thought it would be an opportune time to update our readers on the topic.
Realities Shaping the Playing Field
To begin a discussion of jihadists and WMD, it is first important to briefly re-cap STRATFOR’s assessment of al Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement. It is our assessment that the first layer of the jihadist movement, the al Qaeda core group, has been hit heavily by the efforts of the United States and its allies in the aftermath of 9/11. Due to the military, financial, diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement operations conducted against the core group, it is now a far smaller and more insular organization than it once was and is largely confined geographically to the Afghan-Pakistani border. Having lost much of its operational ability, the al Qaeda core is now involved primarily in the ideological struggle (which it seems to be losing at the present time).
The second layer in the jihadist realm consists of regional terrorist or insurgent groups that have adopted the jihadist ideology. Some of these have taken up the al Qaeda banner, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and we refer to them as al Qaeda franchise groups. Other groups may adopt some or all of al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology and cooperate with the core group, but they will maintain their independence for a variety of reasons. In recent years, these groups have assumed the mantle of leadership for the jihadist movement on the physical battlefield.
The third (and broadest) component of the jihadist movement is composed of grassroots jihadists. These are individuals or small groups of people located across the globe who are inspired by the al Qaeda core and the franchise groups but who may have little or no actual connection to these groups. By their very nature, the grassroots jihadists are the hardest of these three components to identify and target and, as a result, are able to move with more freedom than members of the al Qaeda core or the regional franchises.
As long as the ideology of jihadism exists, and jihadists at any of these three layers embrace the philosophy of attacking the “far enemy,” there will be a threat of attacks by jihadists against the United States. The types of attacks they are capable of conducting, however, depend on their intent and capability. Generally speaking, the capability of the operatives associated with the al Qaeda core is the highest and the capability of grassroots operatives is the lowest. Certainly, many grassroots operatives think big and would love to conduct a large, devastating attack, but their grandiose plans often come to naught for lack of experience and terrorist tradecraft.
Although the American public has long anticipated a follow-on attack to 9/11, most of the attacks directed against the United States since 9/11 have failed. In addition to incompetence and poor tradecraft, one of the contributing factors to these failures is the nature of the targets. Many strategic targets are large and well-constructed, and therefore hard to destroy. In other words, just because a strategic target is attacked does not mean the attack has succeeded. Indeed, many such attacks have failed. Even when a plot against a strategic target is successfully executed, it might not produce the desired results and would therefore be considered a failure. For example, the detonation of a massive truck bomb in a parking garage of the World Trade Center in 1993 failed to achieve the jihadists’ aims of toppling the two towers and producing mass casualties, or of causing a major U.S. foreign policy shift.
Many strategic targets, such as embassies, are well protected against conventional attacks. Their large standoff distances and physical security measures (like substantial perimeter walls) protect them from vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), while these and other security measures make it difficult to cause significant damage to them using smaller IEDs or small arms.
To overcome these obstacles, jihadists have been forced to look at alternate means of attack. Al Qaeda’s use of large, fully fueled passenger aircraft as guided missiles is a great example of this, though it must be noted that once that tactic became known, it ceased to be viable (as United Airlines Flight 93 demonstrated). Today, there is little chance that a flight crew and passengers of an aircraft would allow it to be seized by a small group of hijackers.
Al Qaeda has long plotted ways to overcome security measures and launch strategic strikes with CBRN weapons. In addition to the many public pronouncements the group has made about its desire to obtain and use such weapons, we know al Qaeda has developed crude methods for producing chemical and biological weapons and included such tactics in its encyclopedia of jihad and terrorist training courses.
However, as STRATFOR has repeatedly pointed out, chemical and biological weapons are expensive and difficult to use and have proved to be largely ineffective in real-world applications. A comparison of the Aum Shinrikyo chemical and biological attacks in Tokyo with the March 2004 jihadist attacks in Madrid clearly demonstrates that explosives are far cheaper, easier to use and more effective in killing people. The failure by jihadists in Iraq to use chlorine effectively in their attacks also underscores the problem of using improvised chemical weapons. These problems were also apparent to the al Qaeda leadership, which scrapped a plot to use improvised chemical weapons in the New York subway system due to concerns that the weapons would be ineffective. The pressure jihadist groups are under would also make it very difficult for them to develop a chemical or biological weapons facility, even if they possessed the financial and human resources required to launch such a program.
Of course, it is not unimaginable for al Qaeda or other jihadists to think outside the box and attack a chemical storage site or tanker car, or use such bulk chemicals to attack another target — much as the 9/11 hijackers used passenger- and fuel-laden aircraft to attack their targets. However, while an attack using deadly bulk chemicals could kill many people, most would be evacuated before they could receive a lethal dose, as past industrial accidents have demonstrated. Therefore, such an attack would be messy but would be more likely to cause mass panic and evacuations than mass casualties. Still, it would be a far more substantial attack than the previous subway plot using improvised chemical weapons.
A similar case can be made against the effectiveness of an attack involving a radiological dispersion device (RDD), sometimes called a “dirty bomb.” While RDDs are easy to deploy — so simple that we are surprised one has not already been used within the United States — it is very difficult to immediately administer a lethal dose of radiation to victims. Therefore, the “bomb” part of a dirty bomb would likely kill more people than the device’s “dirty,” or radiological, component. However, use of an RDD would result in mass panic and evacuations and could require a lengthy and expensive decontamination process. Because of this, we refer to RDDs as “weapons of mass disruption” rather than weapons of mass destruction.
The bottom line is that a nuclear device is the only element of the CBRN threat that can be relied upon to create mass casualties and guarantee the success of a strategic strike. However, a nuclear device is also by far the hardest of the CBRN weapons to obtain or manufacture and therefore the least likely to be used. Given the pressure that al Qaeda and its regional franchise groups are under in the post-9/11 world, it is simply not possible for them to begin a weapons program intended to design and build a nuclear device. Unlike countries such as North Korea and Iran, jihadists simply do not have the resources or the secure territory on which to build such facilities. Even with money and secure facilities, it is still a long and difficult endeavor to create a nuclear weapons program — as is evident in the efforts of North Korea and Iran. This means that jihadists would be forced to obtain an entire nuclear device from a country that did have a nuclear weapons program, or fissile material such as highly enriched uranium (enriched to 80 percent or higher of the fissile isotope U-235) that they could use to build a crude, gun-type nuclear weapon.
Indeed, we know from al Qaeda defectors like Jamal al-Fadl that al Qaeda attempted to obtain fissile material as long ago as 1994. The organization was duped by some of the scammers who were roaming the globe attempting to sell bogus material following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several U.S. government agencies were duped in similar scams.
Black-market sales of military-grade radioactive materials spiked following the collapse of the Soviet Union as criminal elements descended on abandoned Russian nuclear facilities in search of a quick buck. In subsequent years the Russian government, in conjunction with various international agencies and the U.S. government, clamped down on the sale of Soviet-era radioactive materials. U.S. aid to Russia in the form of so-called “nonproliferation assistance” — money paid to destroy or adequately secure such nuclear and radiological material — increased dramatically following 9/11. In 2009, the U.S. Congress authorized around $1.2 billion for U.S. programs that provide nonproliferation and threat reduction assistance to the former Soviet Union. Such programs have resulted in a considerable amount of fissile material being taken off the market and removed from vulnerable storage sites, and have made it far harder to obtain fissile material today than it was in 1990 or even 2000.
Another complication to consider is that jihadists are not the only parties who are in the market for nuclear weapons or fissile material. In addition to counterproliferation programs that offer to pay money for fissile materials, countries like Iran and North Korea would likely be quick to purchase such items, and they have the resources to do so, unlike jihadist groups, which are financially strapped.
Some commentators have said they believe al Qaeda has had nuclear weapons for years but has been waiting to activate them at the “right time.” Others claim these weapons are pre-positioned inside U.S. cities. STRATFOR’s position is that if al Qaeda had such weapons prior to 9/11, it would have used them instead of conducting the airline attack. Even if the group had succeeded in obtaining a nuclear weapon after 9/11, it would have used it by now rather than simply sitting on it and running the risk of it being seized.
There is also the question of state assistance to terrorist groups, but the actions of the jihadist movement since 9/11 have served to steadily turn once quietly supportive (or ambivalent) states against the movement. Saudi Arabia declared war on jihadists in 2003 and countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Indonesia have recently gone on the offensive. Indeed, in his Feb. 2 presentation to the Senate committee, Blair said: “We do not know of any states deliberately providing CBRN assistance to terrorist groups. Although terrorist groups and individuals have sought out scientists with applicable expertise, we have no corroborated reporting that indicates such experts have advanced terrorist CBRN capability.” Blair also noted that, “We and many in the international community are especially concerned about the potential for terrorists to gain access to WMD-related materials or technology.”
Clearly, any state that considered providing WMD to jihadists would have to worry about blow-back from countries that would be targeted by that material (such as the United States and Russia). With jihadists having declared war on the governments of countries in which they operate, officials in a position to provide CBRN to those jihadists would also have ample reason to be concerned about the materials being used against their own governments.
Efforts to counter the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology will certainly continue for the foreseeable future, especially efforts to ensure that governments with nuclear weapons programs do not provide weapons or fissile material to jihadist groups. While the chance of such a terrorist attack is remote, the devastation one could cause means that it must be carefully guarded against.
This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR