Accessibility links

Breaking News

Is An Apocalyptic Vision Driving Al-Qaeda's Quest For The Bomb?

Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, has made multiple arguments for using weapons of mass destruction to advance Al-Qaeda's ideology.
Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, has made multiple arguments for using weapons of mass destruction to advance Al-Qaeda's ideology.
Do we "get" Al-Qaeda and its goals?

Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, a succession of less spectacular but nonetheless traumatic subsequent outrages, and a bloody and expensive "war on terror" that has extracted a fearful price in life and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems hard to accept that there could be any misunderstanding or underestimation of the threat posed.

Yet Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency's counterterrorism weapons of mass destruction (WMD) department during President George W. Bush's administration, thinks that may be happening.

Now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Mowatt-Larssen has become increasingly preoccupied by a recurring nightmare -- of a nuclear-armed Al-Qaeda.

A year of close study of the pronouncements of Al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, and particularly those of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has convinced him that acquiring an atomic bomb, or a device of comparable destructiveness, is definitely the group's mission. The purpose, he says, is not that of deterrence, defense, or even straightforward military attack. The Islamist group seeks nothing less than the apocalyptic goal of transforming the planet to usher in a new dawn of Islamic-ruled social justice in place of the "American-Zionist conspiracy" that currently prevails, according to Al-Qaeda.

"Bin Laden and Zawahri, if they were just worrying about achieving things through military effects, fighting a war or battles, they probably wouldn't bother with these kinds of weapons that are extremely difficult to get and are then unpredictable in their use," Mowatt-Larssen says.

"But they're trying to change the world, and I think some people forget that they have these very, very serious ambitions that are very deeply religiously based for which using these weapons is almost essential."

Explicit Evidence

Mowatt-Larssen says he embarked on his study with an open mind, but even after years in the intelligence community was deeply sobered by what he found.

"I didn't take for granted what I read in the intelligence cables about Al-Qaeda's intent as far as it goes. I really wanted to understand what they're doing," he explains. "I went into my research quite receptive to coming out with all kinds of different conclusions. The essence of what I feel I've learned is that it's more frightening than I thought because I think the intent is much deeper.

"It's a very strong recognition of what [WMD] could do for them in achieving these goals I've referred to. The essentiality of changing the world, not just fighting an endless battle for the sake of proving to their god that they are in fact carrying out his will as they see it. No, it's much more than that. They believe they can win."

At the core of Mowatt-Larssen's conviction -- set out in a recent article in "Foreign Policy" magazine and a longer piece for the Belfer Center -- are arguments advanced by Zawahri in a 2008 book, "Exoneration."

In it, Zawahri repeated approvingly the words of a fatwa pronounced in 2003 by a radical Muslim cleric, Nasir al-Fahd, which is widely seen as a trail-blazing religious treatise endorsing the use of WMD.
He's [Zawahiri] talking about raising jihad to a qualitatively completely new level which requires, as he says himself, a completely different kind of justification than even 9/11.

Fahd's fatwa, which Mowatt-Larssen says was originally commissioned by Zawahri, makes three leading arguments for using the weapons, including the particularly callous one that women and children "may be killed as collateral" if "one cannot distinguish them [from the main fighters]."

Even more chillingly, Zawahri quotes Fahd in writing: "If a bomb were dropped on them, destroying 10 million of them and burning as much of their land as they have burned of Muslim land, that would be permissible without any need to mention any other proof."

There could be no more explicit evidence, in Mowatt-Larssen's view, of Zawahri and Al-Qaeda's determination to get their hands on a nuclear bomb.

"Everywhere I discussed that, everyone saw that for what it was," he says, "which was an explicit expression of intent to use weapons of mass destruction, probably nuclear. What's interesting about 'Exoneration' is that [Zawahri] essentially plagiarizes everything from the 2003 fatwa to make a case. I don't think that's an extrapolation.

"And if you read the substance of his assertions, he can't kill 10 million people by flying airplanes into buildings. He's talking about raising jihad to a qualitatively completely new level which requires, as he says himself, a completely different kind of justification than even 9/11."

Mowatt-Larssen's is not exactly a voice in the wilderness. In April 2010, addressing a 47-nation summit on nuclear terrorism in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama identified the possibility of a terrorist group obtaining atomic weapons as the single biggest threat to U.S. security.

"We know that organizations like Al-Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon -- a weapon of mass destruction that they would have no compunction in using," Obama said. "This is something that could change the security landscape of this country and around the world for years to come."

Yet as Mowatt-Larssen acknowledges, there is no evidence that Al-Qaeda is remotely close to getting its hands on such devastating devices, and the probability of it doing so remains low.

Negligible Threat

Furthermore, some seasoned Al-Qaeda watchers believe the nuclear threat is negligible compared with the possibility of the group carrying out further conventional attacks.

Brynjar Lia, an analyst at the private Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, believes Zawahri's real goal in 'Exoneration' was to refute Islamist criticism of Al-Qaeda's tactics rather than to justify nuclear weapons.

"'Exoneration' was written at a time when Al-Qaeda faced public-relations crises," says Lia. "There were mounting criticisms of its attacks on civilian targets and the fact that more Muslims were killed as a result of Al-Qaeda operations than Westerners and so-called 'Crusaders.'

"So I think in terms of providing more legitimacy for mass-casualty attacks, one might say that Ayman al-Zawahri's treatise is a contribution to trying to do that. But I'm not sure that it adds much to our knowledge about Al-Qaeda's intentions in terms of weapons of mass destruction."

Economic Blood-Letting

Denied the safe haven it once had under the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lia argues, Al-Qaeda simply lacks the capacity to develop a nuclear capability. It is now more intent on a strategy of survival coupled with a war of attrition in the form of conventional attacks that it hopes will bleed the West economically, he says.

"We did a fairly thorough survey of online training and instruction manuals on chemical and biological and radiological devices and also other writings on nonconventional weapons to try to measure Al-Qaeda's interest in these types of weapons," Lia continues. "It's fairly clear that this is a very small literature compared to their interest in conventional weapons and conventional means of warfare and terrorism. And also, when you look more closely at these training manuals, they are very crude; their recipes don't even work. So our impression is that their capacity in this field is very low."

The trouble, counters Mowatt-Larssen, is that too many Western intelligence agencies share this assessment -- at the risk of being blindsided one day by Al-Qaeda's well-demonstrated capacity for surprise attacks.

"I do worry that the intelligence community, not just in the United States but globally, feels that the more likely threats are conventional," he says. "The things we're worried about now logically are things like packages from Yemen and underwear bombers and shoe bombers and European threats.

"I don't want to diminish the importance of those threats, because they are real. But at the same time, I urge my colleagues not to forget the other side of the [football] field. Somebody could throw a long pass down there and beat our entire defense on a major attack that would be unconventional, like a nuclear or biological weapons attack, and [we need to] take those seriously as well.'"

Threat As A Weapon

If it all seems alarmist and improbable to the ordinary citizen, it is not to Professor Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at Haifa University in Israel, who has spent years monitoring 7,600 websites and chat rooms of violent militant groups across the world, including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Intensive study shows Al-Qaeda is obsessed with carrying out an attack that will surpass 9/11 in horror and magnitude, Weimann says. That ambition has corresponded with an increase in the volume of threats to use a nuclear bomb and other destructive weapons, including cyberterrorism. While Weimann says it is impossible to assess how realistic such threats are, he echoes Mowatt-Larssen in warning that their importance lies in the fact they are made, not least because it has the effect of spreading psychological terror.

"How authentic are those threats? I'm not in a position to tell," Weimann admits. "When they discuss using weapons of mass destruction or cyberterrorism, for example, how close are they to really operating? Are they just talking about it? Are they just aiming at psychological warfare or are they really doing it? I'm not sure that I can really tell from the websites.

"But the basic step that they do consider it, that they do plan it, that they do disseminate information and try to show that they are acquiring the know-how is already demonstrating their eagerness to do it, their willingness to find information about it. And I think these are already quite alarming signals."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.