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White House Says Al-Qaeda Still Poses WMD Threat

Osama bin Laden WASHINGTON, October 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A new U.S. government report concludes that Al-Qaeda is still the greatest threat to the country's security.

The report on the government's counterterrorism strategy says the terrorist network, led by Osama bin Laden, is still determined to obtain weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. The report says Al-Qaeda remains strong and is secure in largely ungoverned areas of northwestern Pakistan.

It also acknowledges that despite successful efforts to kill or capture Al-Qaeda's midlevel leaders, bin Laden has managed to replace them.

The document also says the administration of President George W. Bush is working hard to thwart what it calls Al-Qaeda's "persistent desire" to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against its enemies, including the United States.

Low-Yield Weapons

John Wolfstahl, a former U.S. nuclear weapons inspector in the administration of President Bill Clinton, tells RFE/RL that there's the possibility that a group like Al-Qaeda would try to use what might be called "low-yield" weapons, such as the chlorine bombs that have been used recently in Iraq or the so-called "dirty bomb," which involves a relatively small explosion but pollutes radioactively.

"For every terrorist you kill, another will take his place. The way you solve the problem is by preventing vulnerabilities at the source where these nuclear materials exist." -- John Wolfstahl, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Wolfstahl, who now studies international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington policy research center, says the point of such weapons would be less to destroy than to sow panic in the population and make people lose trust in their leaders' ability to protect them.

The second threat is the use of an actual nuclear weapon.

"What we are concerned about is that an organization like Al-Qaeda can, through the black market or through a state sponsor, acquire a workable nuclear weapon or the basic materials -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium -- needed to construct a weapon," Wolfstahl says. "And that's something where we have seen both black marketeers and terrorist organizations target facilities with nuclear materials [and] try and either obtain small amounts or in one lump sum enough to make a weapon. And that's where the bulk of U.S. concern continues to reside."

Preventing Vulnerabilities

Bush has many times referred to his government's efforts to kill or capture members of Al-Qaeda's leadership, including Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who's said to have been the primary planner of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Wolfstahl says the new report shows that the Bush administration understands that merely killing terrorists won't prevent a group like Al-Qaeda from using weapons of mass destruction.

"For every terrorist you kill, another will take his place," he says. "The way you solve the problem is by preventing vulnerabilities at the source where these nuclear materials exist and by locking down those capabilities that might aid an organization in carrying out a WMD attack. I think you want to make sure that countries that have nuclear materials -- both nuclear-weapons states and otherwise -- treat them carefully and secure them, and I think you want to make sure that new countries don't acquire these capabilities, because every time there's a production facility that starts up, there's an additional vulnerability that's created."

The White House report said Al-Qaeda probably is working with regional terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to facilitate an attack against the United States. It also says it expects Al-Qaeda to try harder to situate its operatives in the country, although there is little evidence that they've made many such placements so far.

Also cited as a threat in the report is Hizballah in Lebanon, which was responsible for the deaths of 241 U.S. soldiers in a suicide bombing in Beirut in 1983. That had been the deadliest act of terrorism against the United States until the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The report also said the United States is susceptible to home-grown terrorism by violent Muslim radicals. It said the administration continues to work closely with the domestic Muslim community to mitigate such threats.