Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, previously Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy and Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department for the CIA, has published a 32-page report, Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?, which asks the obvious question:
Why hasn’t there been an attack up to now by al Qaeda utilizing WMD?
To date, al Qaedaâ€™s WMD programs may have been disrupted. This is in fact one likely explanation, given a sustained and ferocious counterterrorist response to 9/11 that largely destroyed al Qaeda as the organization that existed before the fateful attack on the US. If so, terrorists must continue to be disrupted and denied a safe haven to reestablish the ability to launch a major strike on the US homeland, or elsewhere in the world. …
Or perhaps, al Qaeda operational planners have failed to acquire the kind of weapons they seek, because they are unwilling to settle for anything other than a large scale attack in the US. …
[I]f Osama bin Ladin and his lieutenants had been interested in employing crude chemical, biological and radiological materials in small scale attacks, there is little doubt they could have done so by now. However, events have shown that the al Qaeda leadership does not choose weapons based on how easy they are to acquire and use. …
An examination of the 9/11 attack sheds light on al Qaedaâ€™s reasoning behind the selection of specific weapons, and how that may apply to the role WMD plays in their thinking. Al Qaeda opted to pursue a highly complex and artfully choreographed plot to strike multiple targets requiring the simultaneous hijacking of several 747 jumbo passenger aircraft, because using airplanes as weapons offered the best means of attacking the targets they intended to destroy. If conventional wisdom on assessing WMD terrorism threats had been applied to considering the likelihood of the 9/11 plot, analysts may well have concluded it never would have happened; at the time, it was simply hard to believe any terrorist group could pull off such an elaborate plot utilizing novel, unpredictable weapons that were so difficult to acquire.
Mowatt-Larssen presents a detailed 15-year (unclassified) chronology of efforts by al Qaeda to acquire WMD.
Graham Allison summarizes the evidence of that chronology in a forward to the report:
This chronology teaches us four important lessons. First, al Qaedaâ€™s top leadership has demonstrated a sustained commitment to buy, steal or construct WMD. In 1998, Osama bin Laden declared that â€œacquiring WMD for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty.â€ In December 2001, bin Ladenâ€™s Deputy Ayman Zawahiri stated, â€œIf you have $30 million, go to the black market in the central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist and a lot of dozens of smart briefcase bombs are available.â€ A few months later, al Qaeda announced its goal to â€œkill four million Americans.â€
Second, al Qaeda was prepared to expend significant resources to cultivate a WMD capability even during the planning phases of 9/11. In the years leading up to September 2001, we see that bin Ladenâ€™s organization never lost its focus on WMD, even while coordinating the 9/11 attacks, orchestrating the simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and successfully striking the U.S. warship (USS Cole) in 2000.
Third, a clear hallmark of al Qaedaâ€™s WMD approach is to pursue parallel paths to procure these deadly materials. Multiple nodes of the network were assigned to different tasks of the overall WMD effort, acting and reporting independently, ensuring that failure in one cell did not jeopardize the entire operation. By taking into account possible operational set-backs and intelligence breaches, al Qaeda has displayed deliberate, shrewd planning to acquire WMD.
Fourth, al Qaeda has taken part in joint development of WMD with other terrorist groups. This collaboration between the most senior members of separate organizations demonstrates that interest in and motivation to possess WMD are not limited to a single group.
The single most alarming detail must be:
Pakistani humanitarian NGO Umma Tameer e Nau (UTN), which was founded by Pakistani nuclear scientists with close ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban. UTN was headed by Bashiruddin Mahmood, who had been chief of Pakistanâ€™s Khushab plutonium reactor. … Sometime before August 2001, UTN CEO Bashiruddin Mahmood offer[ed] to construct chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs for al Qaeda and Libya, in two separate, discreet approaches. …
Mahmood confesses that he was introduced to al Qaeda seniors in Afghanistan in summer 2001, met with Osama bin Ladin around a campfire, and they discussed how al Qaeda could build a nuclear device. Mahmood drew a very rough sketch of an improvised nuclear device. When Mahmood advised Osama bin Ladin that it would be too hard for his group to undertake a nuclear weapons program and develop the billion dollar infrastructure for weapons-usable materials, bin Ladin queries, â€œWhat if I already have it? (the nuclear material)â€