Commentary: Al-Qaida's nuclear option


WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- President Bush says frequently "we are fighting them over there so they won't come over here." "Them" are transnational terrorists and "over there" is Iraq. The insurgency in Iraq has much to do with al-Qaida's plans for a WMD act of terrorism in the United States, but not the way the White House believes. Assuming the Bush administration is successful in midwifing democracy out of a near-civil war situation in Iraq, the WMD threat level will remain unchanged. High, that is.

Paradoxical though this may seem to Washington's armchair strategists, the defeat of the al-Qaida-Sunni insurgency in Iraq would actually heighten, not lessen, the danger of a 9/11 CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) attack. Defeated by the U.S. in Afghanistan and again in Iraq, al- Qaida would have to conclude that its strategy of forcing the U.S. into a humiliating, Vietnam-like retreat has failed.


Arabic-speaker Professor Gilles Kepel, one of France's leading experts on al-Qaida, published last week "Al-Qaida dans le Texte," an analysis of the public and (intercepted) private utterances of the two Z's -- Ayman Al-Zawahiri (Osama bin Laden's no.2) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's insurgency honcho in Iraq. Stripped if its complexities, al-Qa-da's strategy, Kepel explains, is to defeat the U.S. in Iraq, use this victory to roll over traditional oil-rich regimes in the Gulf that are security wards of the U.S., and then focus on Israel. But there is now an obstacle that is even greater than the U.S. -- Iran. Tehran, as seen through Zawahiri's geopolitical viewfinder, is already calling the shots in large parts of Iraq. Whether the U.S. stays or leaves Iraq, concludes Zawahiri, it's still Iran's ballgame. Which brings al-Qaida back to its WMD-in-America strategy.


"The Race Between Cooperation and Catastrophe," or why "the (nuclear) threat is outrunning our response" is how Sam Nunn, the former Senator and co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, describes an overarching terrorist construct. The starter's gun for this new race went off at the end of the Cold War. Congress has appropriated almost $12 billion under Nunn-Lugar legislation designed to enhance security in scores of former Soviet and now Russian nuclear weapons and nuclear materials storage sites. Another $20 billion was pledged for the same purpose at a G8 summit of the major industrialized nations in Canada three years ago -- $1 billion by the U.S. and $1 billion by the other seven per year for 10 years.

There has been no cooperation from India in the nuclear security field, according to Matthew Bunn, director of the Atom Project at Harvard. "China," he adds, "has secured one civilian facility."

With over $30 billion in the button-down-the-nukes kitty, over half the security work remains to be done. There are also 43 countries with more than 100 research reactors or related facilities that store enough highly enriched uranium nuclear materials to make several bombs. Only 20 percent of these sites are properly secured, says Nunn, and less than a handful meet U.S. Energy Department security standards, says Bunn. Most countries consider DOE's security criteria too demanding.


Rather than try to steal or buy one of thousands of Russian tactical nukes, or nerve gas artillery shells, a WMD terrorist is far more likely to knock off the night watchman, lower the chain link fence somewhere in Switzerland or Italy, and drive off with sufficient materials for a nuclear device. The actual making of a nuclear bomb after that is the easy part; the recipe is on the Internet.

Sam Nunn, chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says we appear to have forgotten the "devastating, world-changing impact of a nuclear (terrorist) attack. "If a 10-kiloton nuclear device goes off in mid-town Manhattan on a typical work day, it could kill more than half a million people," he explains. Ten kiloton is a plausible yield "for a crude terrorist bomb," according to Nunn. And to haul that volume of explosives would require a freight train one hundred cars long. As a nuclear bomb, it could easily fit on the back of a pickup truck.

Another Nunn scenario has a terrorist group with insider help acquiring a radiological source from an industrial or medical facility; say cesium-137 in the form of powdered cesium chloride. Conventional explosives are used to incorporate cesium into a "dirty bomb," which is then detonated in New York's financial district. A 60-square block area has to be evacuated. Millions flee the city in panic. Only two dozen are killed but billions of dollars of real estate is declared uninhabitable. Cleanup will take years -- and many more billions.


What interests Bin Laden and Zawahiri beyond casualty lists is collateral damage to civil liberties, privacy and the world economy. America, as they see it, would be knocked off its pinnacle. This would be the shot heard around the world and hundreds of millions of either frightened or jubilant Muslims would flock to the Muslim world's black Jolly Roger of white skull and crossbones.

In a routine exchange of information, Russia's chief intelligence officer in Washington notified his CIA liaison officer that al-Qaida operatives had been scouting nuclear storage sites in Russia. It would be a miracle if nothing had been stolen from Russia's long ill-guarded nuclear weapons storage depots during the collapse of the Soviet Union when anything and everything was for sale. We also know from sketches found in al-Qaida's safe houses in Kabul and Kandahar that bin Laden was interested in nuclear bomb design.

Two Pakistani nuclear scientists from Dr. A. Q. Khan's stable were in Kandahar when this reporter was there three months before 9/11.

The distance remaining to near-perfect security can be measured by how Sam Nunn describes the adequacy of the U.S.-Russian response to the terrorist nuclear threat.

On a scale of one to 10," says Nunn, "I would give us about a three, with the last summit between Presidents Bush and Putin moving us closer to a four."


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