A new report by retired longtime intelligence officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who served as chief of the CIA’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, accuses the U.S. government of seriously misreading al-Qaida’s operational objectives.
“Al-Qaida’s reasoning,” according to Mowatt-Larssen's new report from Harvard’s Kennedy School, “runs counter to analytic convention that equates the ease of acquisition of chemical, biological or radiological weapons with an increasing likelihood of terrorist use — i.e., a terrorist attack employing crude weapons is therefore more likely than an attack using a nuclear or large scale biological weapon.”
“In fact, it is the opposite” of that conventional wisdom, according to the analysis, entitled “Al-Qaida Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality.” Al-Qaida’s motivations suggest “the greatest threat is posed by the most effective and simple means of mass destruction, whether these means consist of nuclear, biological, or other forms of asymmetric weapons.”
That makes all the scarier the scolding that came this week from the congressionally authorized Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation. That panel gave the Obama administration an F grade for its performance in preparing the U.S. homeland for a terrorist attack that utilized biological warfare.
Mowatt-Larssen was stationed in Moscow and other critical venues in the course of his long career gathering intelligence. The details he provides of al-Qaida’s scheming in this report are nothing short of chilling.
“Considering the potential that such weapons hold in fulfilling al-Qaida’s aspirations,” it says, “their WMD procurement efforts have been managed at the most senior levels, under rules of strict compartmentalization from lower levels of the organization, and with central control over possible targets and timing of prospective attacks.”
That kind of planning suggests extreme sophistication and patience – a willingness to wait until such an operation against the U.S. could be sure to work. According to Mowatt-Larssen, “their approach has been ‘Mohamed Atta-like’ — similar to the modus operandi Khaled Sheikh Mohammed employed in making preparations for the 9/11 attacks — as opposed to resembling the signature characterizing most terrorist attacks to which the world has become accustomed.”
He noted that “Al-Qaida’s patient, decade-long effort to steal or construct an improvised nuclear device (IND) flows from their perception of the benefits of producing the image of a mushroom cloud rising over a U.S. city, just as the 9/11 attacks have altered the course of history.”
Mowatt-Larssen concludes that “This lofty aim helps explains why al Qaida has consistently sought a bomb capable of producing a nuclear yield, as opposed to settling for the more expedient and realistic course of devising a ‘dirty bomb,’ or a radiological dispersal device.”
In 1996, for example, Ayman al-Zawahiri, emir of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which eventually merged into al-Qaida, was detained in Russia where he may have been seeking nuclear weapons or material. Al-Zawahiri later stated that al-Qaida obtained nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.
According to Mowatt-Larssen, “There is no indication that the fundamental objectives that lie behind their WMD intent have changed over time.”
By comparison, “the pursuit of crude toxins and poisons appears to have been of little interest to the al-Qaida leadership, even though the production of such weapons is easier and thus might seem more attractive for potential use in attacks.”
He adds that “there is no evidence that the al-Qaida leadership regarded the use of crude toxins and poisons as being suitable for conducting what would amount to pin prick attacks on the United States; on the contrary,” it seems that “a relatively easy attack utilizing tactical weapons would not achieve the goals the al-Qaida leadership had set for themselves.”
According to the Kennedy School analysis, “Osama bin Laden’s morality-based argument on the nature of the struggle between militant Islamists and the U.S.-led coalition of secular forces focuses the group’s planning on the acquisition of strategic weapons that can be used in mass casualty attacks, rather than on the production of tactical, more readily available weapons such as ‘dirty bombs,’ chemical agents, crude toxins and poisons.”
If this former WMD chief for the CIA is to be believed, a big reason we have not suffered a repeat of 9/11 more than eight years later may be that Osama bin Laden and al Qaida are patiently working toward the day when they can successfully hit us with something a lot bigger.
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