Saturday, March 25, 2006

Al Qaeda's nuclear option

By Arnaud de Borchgrave
The Washington Times
March 24, 2006

President Bush says frequently "we are fighting them over there so they won't come over here." "Them" are transnational terrorists and "over there" is Iraq.
The insurgency in Iraq has much to do with al Qaeda's plans for a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) act of terrorism in the United States, but not the way the White House believes. Assuming the Bush administration is successful in midwifing democracy out of a near-civil war situation in Iraq, the WMD threat level will remain unchanged. High, that is.
Paradoxical though this may seem to Washington's armchair strategists, the defeat of the al Qaeda-Sunni insurgency in Iraq would actually heighten, not lessen, the danger of a September 11 CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) attack. Defeated by the U.S. in Afghanistan and again in Iraq, al Qaeda would have to conclude its strategy of forcing the U.S. into a humiliating, Vietnamlike retreat has failed.
Arabic-speaker Professor Gilles Kepel, one of France's leading experts on al Qaeda, published last week "Al Qaeda dans le Texte," an analysis of the public and (intercepted) private utterances of the two Z's -- Ayman al-Zawahri (Osama bin Laden's No. 2) and Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda's insurgency honcho in Iraq. Stripped if its complexities, al Qaeda's strategy, Mr. Kepel explains, is to defeat the U.S. in Iraq, use this victory to roll over traditional oil-rich regimes in the Gulf that are security wards of the U.S., and then focus on Israel. But there is now an obstacle even greater than the U.S. -- Iran. Tehran, as seen through Zawahri's geopolitical viewfinder, is already calling the shots in large parts of Iraq. Whether the U.S. stays or leaves Iraq, concludes Zawahri, it's still Iran's ballgame. Which brings al Qaeda back to its WMD-in-America strategy.
"The Race Between Cooperation and Catastrophe," or why "the [nuclear] threat is outrunning our response" is how Sam Nunn, the former senator and co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, describes an overarching terrorist construct. The starter's gun for this new race went off at the end of the Cold War. Congress has appropriated almost $12 billion under Nunn-Lugar legislation designed to enhance security in scores of former Soviet and now Russian nuclear weapons and nuclear materials storage sites. Another $20 billion was pledged for the same purpose at a G-8 summit of the major industrialized nations in Canada three years ago -- $1 billion by the U.S. and $1 billion by the other seven per year for 10 years.
There has been no cooperation from India in the nuclear security field, says Matthew Bunn, director of the Atom Project at Harvard. "China," he adds, "has secured one civilian facility."
With more than $30 billion in the button-down-the-nukes kitty, more than half the security work remains to be done. There are 43 countries with more than 100 research reactors or related facilities that store enough highly enriched uranium nuclear materials to make several bombs. Only 20 percent of these sites are properly secured, says Mr. Nunn, and less than a handful meet U.S. Energy Department security standards, says Mr. Bunn. Most countries consider the Energy Department security criteria too demanding.
Rather than try to steal or buy one of thousands of Russian tactical nukes, or nerve gas artillery shells, a WMD terrorist is far more likely to knock off the night watchman, lower the chain-link fence somewhere in Switzerland or Italy and drive off with sufficient materials for a nuclear device. Actually making a nuclear bomb after that is the easy part; the recipe is on the Internet.
Mr. Nunn, chairman of the board of trustees at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says we appear to have forgotten the "devastating, world-changing impact of a nuclear [terrorist] attack. "If a 10-kiloton nuclear device goes off in Midtown Manhattan on a typical work day, it could kill more than half a million people," he explains. Ten kiloton is a plausible yield "for a crude terrorist bomb," according to Mr. Nunn.
Hauling that volume of explosives would require a freight train 100 cars long. As a nuclear bomb, it could easily fit on the back of a pickup truck.
Another Nunn scenario has a terrorist group with insider help acquiring a radiological source from an industrial or medical facility; say cesium-137 in the form of powdered cesium chloride. Conventional explosives are used to incorporate cesium into a "dirty bomb," then detonated in New York's financial district. A 60-square block area has to be evacuated. Millions flee the city in panic. Only two dozen are killed but billions of dollars of real estate is declared uninhabitable. Cleanup will take years -- and many more billions.
What interests bin Laden and Zawahri beyond casualty lists is collateral damage to civil liberties, privacy and the world economy. America, as they see it, would be knocked off its pinnacle. This would be the shot heard around the world and hundreds of millions of either frightened or jubilant Muslims would flock to the Muslim world's black Jolly Roger of white skull and crossbones.
In a routine exchange of information, Russia's chief intelligence officer in Washington notified his CIA liaison officer that al Qaeda operatives had been scouting nuclear storage sites in Russia. It would be a miracle if nothing had been stolen from Russia's long ill-guarded nuclear weapons storage depots during the collapse of the Soviet Union when anything and everything was for sale. We also know from sketches found in al Qaeda's safe houses in Kabul and Kandahar that bin Laden was interested in nuclear bomb design. Two Pakistani nuclear scientists from A.Q. Khan's stable were in Kandahar when this reporter was there three months before September 11, 2001.
The distance remaining to near-perfect security can be measured by how Mr. Nunn describes the adequacy of the U.S.-Russian response to the terrorist nuclear threat.
On a scale of 1 to 10," says Mr. Nunn, "I would give us about a 3, with the last summit between Presidents Bush and Putin moving us closer to a 4."

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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