The Atom Bomb and the Fatwa

In 1986, Osama bin Laden established al Masadah – the Lion’s Den – a training camp in Afghanistan for Persian Gulf Arabs, where he began inculcating his faithful with the dream of global jihad. After three years he founded al Qaeda – the Base, to carry out his nefarious dream, and fifteen years later this week, on a website named after the al Masadah training camp, al Qaeda announced a Fatwa that authorized Muslims to use a nuclear device against Americans.

Some essential background information: Islam is based on two writings, the Qur’an, believed by Muslims to have been revealed by Allah to Mohammad during the 7th century, and the Sunnah, which records the Prophet’s life. Taken together, the Qur’an and Sunnah form the basis for Islam as a religion and for Islamic jurisprudence, very much like our Constitution forms the basis for our secular laws; except that Islam does not distinguish between “religious” and “secular” as we do in the West.

The Shari’ah, which is analogous to codified law in Western society, consists of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and a constantly evolving collection of Fatwas, or rulings, that deal with every aspect of Islamic life from ideology to practical daily matters. Throughout Islamic history, Imams and Mullahs have issued Fatwas, which have the force of law among Muslims, similar to a ruling by a Western court. As in the West, these rulings can be confirmed or overturned by a higher authority, by issuing a Fiqh.

This new Fatwa announced by The Lion’s Den is especially significant because of the length to which it goes to establish its legitimacy. The Fatwa commences with the 60th verse from the Qur’an section called the Al-Anfal, or The Spoils of War. It reads in part:

And prepare for them you Muslims all you can recruit of strength: armed forces and mounted troops to strike terror into the hearts and minds of Allah’s enemy who is your enemy, and into the hearts and minds of others whom you do not know but Allah knows them. And remember that whatever you spend in divine service you shall be reimbursed and never shall you be wronged.

The Fatwa is signed: The al Qaeda Network, The Sheikhs’ Major General.

The al Qaeda threat has received a confirmation of sorts from a disaffected former CIA official.

Michael Scheuer was a senior official in the CIA’s counterterrorism unit and a special advisor to the head of the agency’s bin Laden unit until he resigned on Nov. 12. He is the “anonymous” author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. He appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, Nov. 14, speaking with Steve Kroft. He said: “[Bin Laden] secured from a Saudi sheik … a rather long treatise on the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Americans. [The treatise] found that he was perfectly within his rights to use them. Muslims argue that the United States is responsible for millions of dead Muslims around the world, so reciprocity would mean you could kill millions of Americans.”

To me, Scheuer’s approach in his book and on “60 Minutes” smacked of fear-mongering, and reminded me of Chicken Little’s reaction to the falling acorn. I do not minimize the danger posed to the United States and the rest of the non-Muslim world by al Qaeda, but it is important to understand their threats within the proper context.

For example, The Lion’s Den reports: “Our attempts to make small nuclear bombs with great potential for destruction have succeeded.” And it emphasizes the threats made by OBL just before the election: “Al Qaeda will respond harshly to your refusal to heed sheikh Osama bin Laden’s warning not to re-elect the foolish Bush in the presidential elections. We tell you that this refusal will bring Allah’s divine wrath upon you. He will make you the prime target of an attack that will strike at the heart of America.”

Scheuer, however, is pushing his own agenda as well. On “60 Minutes” he said: “One of the questions that should have been asked of [former CIA Director George] Tenet was why were there always enough people for the public relations office, for the academic outreach office, for the diversity and multi-cultural office? All those things are admirable and necessary but none of them are protecting the American people from a foreign threat.” And he also said to Kroft, “I think our leaders over the last decade have done the American people a disservice … continuing to characterize Osama bin Laden as a thug, as a gangster. Until we respect him, sir, we are going to die in numbers that are probably unnecessary. Yes – he’s a very, very talented man and a very worthy opponent.”

With these dire words, Scheuer should not want for money-earning bookings in the coming months.

So, what is the real threat of al Qaeda actually unleashing nuclear holocaust on the United States?

In past articles, I have discussed the unlikelihood of any terrorist group successfully assembling a functioning “suitcase” type nuke. (See “New Nuclear Threat Is Based On Junk Science” and “Reckless Science – ‘Nuclear Nightmares’ Exposed.”) The bottom line is that no terrorist group in the foreseeable future will be able to assemble, let alone manufacture, a tritium-based thermonuclear device. The ingredients are too pure and too scarce, the design is too complex, and the engineering is too precise – it simply isn’t going to happen.

What about al Qaeda assembling a device similar to the 13-kiloton uranium gun-type device exploded over Hiroshima? Bottom line: It’s possible. If al Qaeda actually can assemble sufficient Uranium-235, which is the fissile form of Uranium, in sufficient purity, and if it can actually manufacture a design that will work, at least theoretically, then it has – theoretically – the possibility of exploding one of these devices.

In its simplest form, a gun-type device consists of four elements: (1) the “uranium target,” which sits at one end of the (2) “rail.” At the other end is (3) the “Gun” that shoots (4) the “Uranium bullet,” which is fired into the target. By themselves, neither the target nor the bullet contain sufficient Uranium-235 to generate a chain reaction. When slammed together, “critical mass” is obtained, and a nuclear detonation results – maybe.

Uranium-235 is radioactive, emitting neutrons spontaneously. If sufficient Uranium-235 is held together, each of these released neutrons strikes a Uranium atom, releasing another pair of neutrons, which each create another pair, etc, causing a run-away chain reaction that ultimately (in a few micro-seconds) results in a massive detonation. So the trick is to have sufficient Uranium-235 for critical mass, keep it sufficiently separated so it won’t detonate, and when you want it to detonate, jam the two sections together.

What isn’t obvious from this description is that as soon as the chain reaction begins, the critical mass of Uranium-235 tends to blow itself back into a non-critical mass of Uranium-235, and what you end up with is a poof and a fizzle, with a limited, but locally lethal release of neutrons, and a bit of initial beta (high energy electrons), and some residual alpha (helium nuclei). That’s it. Period.

The difficulty in designing one of these devices and then building it, is that it is not trivial how to integrate the bullet and the target. If the bullet is too fast, it passes through the target. If the alloy mix is incorrect, one or the other, or even both shatter, and you don’t get critical mass. If the bullet is too slow, the critical mass is obtained too fast, and before the actual explosion happens, the unit blows itself apart in a mini-explosion – a poof and a fizzle. In the real world, there are a thousand ways the device can fail, and only one way it can work.

These are not very good odds for the would-be terrorist atom bomb maker.

And that’s all al Qaeda will ever likely be able to produce: A poof and a fizzle.

And they know it, because by their rhetoric they have already tried, and that’s all they apparently accomplished: A poof and a fizzle. Otherwise we would have known, because the U.S. intelligence community and our allies have the ability to detect a nuclear explosion anywhere on Earth.

Incidentally, these devices are big, well over a thousand pounds. They’re not going to sneak one through our southern border. In fact, the only viable way for al Qaeda to have a chance at exploding one of these devices – assuming that they can actually create a working model – is to construct it inside the United States, or bring it into one of our ports inside a cargo vessel.

And you can be certain that our best people are making sure this doesn’t happen!

So, whatever al Qaeda has in mind, it most certainly is not a nuclear explosion. A “dirty bomb”? Maybe (see my article, “The Dirty Nuke – What It Is and Isn’t,” for an in-depth discussion of this possibility). A biological attack? Much more likely (see my article, “We Can Handle the Most Likely Threats,” for a detailed discussion of the biological threat). But even in this case, as the article title suggests, we can handle it.

It goes without saying that the United States and its western allies must wage an unrelenting campaign to track and hunt down al Qaeda and its leaders.

What we don’t need is Scheuer and the other Chicken Littles criss-crossing the country, spreading alarm for the sole benefit of their wallets.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.