Meanwhile, a separate team of Al Qaeda operatives was engaged in a parallel research-and-development project to produce ricin and chemical-warfare agents at the movement’s Derunta camp, near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. As one senior U.S. intelligence officer who prefers to remain anonymous explained, “Al Qaeda’s WMD efforts weren’t part of a single program but rather multiple compartmentalized projects involving multiple scientists in multiple locations.”
The Derunta facility reportedly included laboratories and a school that trained handpicked terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Among this select group was Kamal Bourgass, an Algerian Al Qaeda operative who was convicted in British courts in 2004 and 2005 for the murder of a British police officer and of “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of poisons or explosives.” The school’s director was an Egyptian named Midhat Mursi—better known by his Al Qaeda nom de guerre, Abu Kebab—and among its instructors were a Pakistani microbiologist and Sufaat. When U.S. military forces overran the camp in 2001, evidence of the progress achieved in developing chemical weapons as diverse as hydrogen cyanide, chlorine and phosgene was discovered. Mursi himself was killed in 2008 by a missile fired from a U.S. Predator drone.
Mursi’s death dealt another significant blow to Al Qaeda’s efforts to develop nonconventional weapons—but it did not end them. In fact, as the aforementioned senior U.S. intelligence officer recently commented, “Al Qaeda’s ongoing procurement efforts have been well-established for awhile now . . . They haven’t been highlighted in the U.S. media, but that isn’t the same as it not happening.” In 2010, for instance, credible intelligence surfaced that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—widely considered the movement’s most dangerous and capable affiliate—was deeply involved in the development of ricin, a bioweapon made from castor beans that the FBI has termed the third most toxic substance known, behind only plutonium and botulism.
Then, in May 2013, Turkish authorities seized two kilograms of sarin nerve gas—the same weapon used in the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system—and arrested twelve men linked to Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al Nusra Front. Days later, another set of sarin-related arrests was made in Iraq of Al Qaeda operatives based in that country who were separately overseeing the production of sarin and mustard blistering agents at two or more locations.
Finally, Israel admitted in November 2013 that for the past three years it had been holding a senior Al Qaeda operative whose expertise was in biological warfare. “The revelations over his alleged biological weapons links,” one account noted of the operative’s detention, “come amid concerns that Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria are attempting to procure bioweapons—and may already have done so.”
Indeed, Syria’s ongoing civil war and the prominent position of two key Al Qaeda affiliates—Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—along with other sympathetic jihadi entities in that epic struggle, coupled with the potential access afforded to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, suggest that we have likely not heard the last of Al Qaeda’s ambitions to obtain nerve agents, poison gas and other harmful toxins for use as mass-casualty weapons.
NONETHELESS, A fundamental paradox appears to exist so far as terrorist capabilities involving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are concerned. As mesmerizingly attractive as these nonconventional weapons remain to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, they have also mostly proven frustratingly disappointing to whoever has tried to use them. Despite the extensive use of poison gas during World War I, for instance, this weapon accounted for only 5 percent of all casualties in that conflict. Reportedly, it required some sixty pounds of mustard gas to produce even a single casualty. Even in more recent times, chemical weapons claimed the lives of less than 1 percent (five thousand) of the six hundred thousand Iranians who died in the Iran-Iraq war. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo succeeded in killing no more than thirteen people in its attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995. And, five years earlier, no fatalities resulted from a Tamil Tigers assault on a Sri Lankan armed forces base in East Kiran that employed chlorine gas. In fact, the wind changed and blew the gas back into the Tigers’ lines, thus aborting the attack.
Biological weapons have proven similarly difficult to deploy effectively. Before and during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army carried out nearly a dozen attacks using a variety of germ agents—including cholera, dysentery, bubonic plague, anthrax and paratyphoid, disseminated through both air and water—against Chinese forces. Not once did these weapons decisively affect the outcome of a battle. And, in the 1942 assault on Chekiang, ten thousand Japanese soldiers themselves became ill, and nearly two thousand died, from exposure to these agents. “The Japanese program’s principal defect, a problem to all efforts so far,” the American terrorism expert David Rapoport concluded, was “an ineffective delivery system.”
The challenges inherent in using germs as weapons are borne out by the research conducted for more than a decade by Seth Carus, a researcher at the National Defense University. Carus has assembled perhaps the most comprehensive database of the use of biological agents by a wide variety of adversaries, including terrorists, government operatives, ordinary criminals and the mentally unstable. His exhaustive research reveals that no more than a total of ten people were killed and less than a thousand were made ill as a result of about two hundred incidents of bioterrorism or biocrime. Most of which, moreover, entailed the individual poisoning of specific people rather than widespread, indiscriminate attacks.
The formidable challenges of obtaining the material needed to construct a nuclear bomb, along with the fabrication and dissemination difficulties involving the use of noxious gases and biological agents, perhaps account for the operational conservatism long observed in terrorist tactics and weaponry. As politically radical or religiously fanatical as terrorists may be, they nonetheless to date have overwhelmingly seemed to prefer the tactical assurance of the comparatively modest effects achieved by the conventional weapons with which they are familiar, as opposed to the risk of failure inherent in the use of more exotic means of death and destruction. Terrorists, as Brian Jenkins famously observed in 1985, thus continue to “appear to be more imitative than innovative.” Accordingly, what innovation does occur tends to take place in the realm of the clever adaptation or modification of existing tactics—such as turning hijacked passenger airliners into cruise missiles—or in the means and methods used to fabricate and detonate explosive devices, rather than in the use of some new or dramatically novel weapon.
THE TERRORISTS have thus functioned mostly in a technological vacuum: either aloof or averse to the profound changes that have fundamentally altered the nature of modern warfare. Whereas technological progress has produced successively more complex, lethally effective and destructively accurate weapons systems that are deployed from a variety of air, land, sea—and space—platforms, terrorists continue to rely, as they have for more than a century, on the same two basic “weapons systems”: the gun and the bomb. Admittedly, the guns used by terrorists today have larger ammunition capacities and more rapid rates of fire than the simple revolver the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich used in 1878 to assassinate the governor-general of St. Petersburg. Similarly, bombs today require smaller amounts of explosives that are exponentially more powerful and more easily concealed than the sticks of TNT with which the Fenian dynamiters terrorized London more than a century ago. But the fact remains that the vast majority of terrorist incidents continue to utilize the same two attack modes.
Why is this? There are perhaps two obvious explanations: ease and cost. Indeed, as Leonardo da Vinci is said to have observed in a completely different era and context, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The same can be said about most terrorist—and insurgent—weapons and tactics today.
Improvised explosive devices (IED) and bombs constructed of commercially available, readily accessible homemade materials now account for the lion’s share of terrorist—and insurgent—attacks. The use of two crude bombs packed in ordinary pressure cookers that killed three people and injured nearly three hundred others at last April’s Boston Marathon is among the more recent cases in point. Others include the succession of peroxide-based bombs that featured in the July 2005 suicide attacks on London transport, the 2006 plot to blow up seven American and Canadian airliners while in flight from Heathrow Airport to various destinations in North America, and the 2009 attempt to replicate the London transport bombings on the New York City subway system.
The account of the construction of the bombs intended for the New York City attack presented in the book Enemies Within vividly illustrates this point. Written by two Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the book describes how the would-be bomber, an Afghanistan-born, permanent U.S. resident named Najibullah Zazi, easily purchased the ingredients needed for the device’s construction and then, following the instructions given to him by his Al Qaeda handlers in Pakistan, created a crude but potentially devastatingly lethal weapon:Image: Pullquote: As mesmerizingly attractive as nonconventional weapons remain to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, they have mostly proven frustratingly disappointing to whoever has tried to use them.Essay Types: Essay