Al Qaeda's core leadership refuses to give up its nuclear ambitions and still craves to ignite a rising mushroom cloud over an American city, a retired CIA officer argues in a report released by Harvard today.
In the 32-page report, "Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?," Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, argues Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have not lost their desire to top the 9-11 attacks with an even more spectacular attack involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD), preferably nuclear weapons.
"To date...al Qaeda is the only [terrorist] group known to be pursuing a long-term, persistent and systematic approach to developing weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks," he writes.
The majority of the report chronicles al Qaeda's attempts to acquire chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear WMD from its birth in 1988 until 2003.
But Mowatt-Larssen's argument doesn't only hinge on what al Qaeda core leadership has done, but what it has not done.
"The pursuit of crude toxins and poisons appears to have been of little interest to the al Qaeda leadership, even though the production of such weapons is easier and thus might seem more attractive for potential use in attacks," he writes.
According to Mowatt-Larssen, al-Zawahiri in March 2003 canceled an affiliated terrorist cell's attack on the New York City subway system using cyanide gas for "something better."
Mowatt-Larssen does however concede that the absence of an al Qaeda WMD attack since 9-11 does legitimately arouse skepticism considering the run up to war with Iraq.
"It is difficult to debunk this allegation," he writes, "given the US government's lack of credibility in the case of Iraqi WMD."
Mowatt-Larssen believes there are good, possibly overlapping reasons why al Qaeda's intentions have not become capabilities. First, the "sustained and ferocious counterterrorist response" to the 9-11 attacks by the U.S. and allied forces have destroyed much of the organization and disrupted its most apocalyptic ambitions. If that is the case, then he argues al Qaeda must perpetually be denied a safe haven to rebuild its capabilities.
Second, there's the possibility al Qaeda will only settle for something bigger than 9-11. If so, then core al Qaeda is struggling to not only acquire or develop WMD capabilities but to plan and unleash such a spectacular attack "in an environment of heightened security and vigilance in the US."
The attacks of 9-11, however, provides historical ammunition to support his second hypothesis, Mowatt-Larssen argues. Al Qaeda did not resort to crude weaponry or devices to attack the United States that September morning, rather it devised "a highly complex and artfully choreographed plot" that turned 747s into missiles, he explains.
Before laying out core al Qaeda's 15-year quest for WMDs ending in 2003, Mowatt-Larssen tries to convince readers of the threat by alluding to the terrorist organization's past intentions and actions, including Bin Laden's 1998 declaration that it was a religious duty for Muslims to acquire WMDs for their defense.
"Presenting this chronology will hopefully allow the reader to develop a better feel for the threat posed by al Qaeda's interest in WMD at that time, and use it as a basis to help determine whether the WMD terrorism threat is real."
♦ Screenshot of report's cover