Al Qaeda Poses Both Nuclear and Biological Threat
For several months, U.S. news reports, citing various intelligence sources, have suggested that the al Qaeda terrorists still pose a threat to the United States. It is my assessment that we face both the threat of a biological attack and possibly even a nuclear weapon attack from the terrorists, but not in the scenarios most commonly cited in news reports.
I have been convinced for some time that al Qaeda will attempt a biological attack by disbursing a deadly mix of biological agents over a large number of college campuses across the United States. The most likely scenario appears to be a distributed biological attack. It is easy to pull off, and requires no special training or equipment: just a bike, a backpack, and a simple dispersion device such as a small, pressurized scuba bottle.
A vast array of biological agents is readily available to al Qaeda. These include dozens of flu strains, which – although not necessarily deadly – can cause massive disruption of our health facilities if hundreds of thousands of people are simultaneously afflicted all over the country. To a lesser extent, the same is true for the entire spectrum of other diseases in the lexicon of things that are bad for humans. Pick your bug: polio, diphtheria, tetanus, TB, plague, smallpox and a host of lesser-known ailments. Add to this mix things like anthrax, rabbit fever, and the other “developed” or “weaponized” bugs and viruses.
Al Qaeda does not need to use a specific agent, or even a very refined agent. Just mix them all together in a witch’s brew, partially fill a half-size or smaller scuba bottle with the stuff, pressurize the bottle from a large scuba bottle that has been filled normally at a dive shop, and ride down the street anywhere with the bottle in your backpack spraying through a tube into the air, leaving misery and death in your wake.
Why do you think al Qaeda has shown such interest in scuba diving lately? I doubt these desert foxes are suddenly interested in the underwater world. I don’t personally buy the idea that they want to blow up a few ships. This takes more than they have, specifically, magnetic limpet mines. On the other hand, in order to get a scuba bottle filled without rousing suspicion, you must hold a valid diver certification card. Hence al Qaeda’s current interest in diving.
I also suspect al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, reportedly captured in Pakistan on March 28, was sent to us to spread disinformation, and to distract us from the real pending operation of al Qaeda. Remember that he pointed us to Padilla in the first place. While we are spinning our wheels with these guys, as many as 10,000 al Qaeda operatives – and an unknown number probably here in the United States – are diligently working towards additional attacks.
News media focus on the threat of al Qaeda using a “radiological bomb” – a conventional explosive device designed to disperse highly radioactive material wrapped around the explosive core in a non-nuclear detonation – has come to the fore in recent weeks after disclosure of the arrest of U.S.-born al Qaeda suspect Abdullah al Muhajir (born Jose Padilla) and his alleged interest in obtaining and detonating such a weapon.
I believe Padilla was sent to distract us from what al Qaeda is really doing. The distraction seems to have worked very well, at least so far as the news media is concerned. During the days following disclosure of Padilla’s arrest, calmer voices began to pop up saying that we had better keep our eyes peeled. The guy was simply too obvious. We had him in our sights all the time.
I have been skeptical of reports that al Qaeda has working nuclear devices, and have made light of their ability to detonate a meaningful “dirty nuke” any time soon. My reasons for these conclusions are simple: The conventional wisdom is that Al Qaeda’s only realistic source for working nukes is the old Soviet stockpile. These weapons have not been serviced for at least a decade now.
Nuclear weapons are very different from conventional explosives, in the sense that while conventional explosives tend to become less stable with age, nukes actually become increasingly stable, which means that eventually they won’t detonate at all. This is especially true for tritium-boosted devices, since they first tend to lose their load of tritium, turning them – in effect – from very large thermonuclear bombs into very small atom bombs.
Then, with time, the small atom bombs lose their ability to fission in a controlled manner, so that they fizzle and poof instead of bang when they are detonated. About the only thing that happens is a short burst of neutrons as pieces of plutonium pass one another, followed by a bit of a contamination mess resulting from powdered pieces of plutonium flying about – a mini-dirty nuke, if you will.
If al Qaeda has any nukes – and this is a very big if – I am relatively certain that they do not have the expertise to make them viable. So the risk of a nuke going off in one of our major cities is very slim. I trust the FBI is not sitting on its hands in this matter, but it should not be taking center stage.
But it appears likely that al Qaeda has another nuclear option, and this should be taken very seriously by our Homeland Security group.
In an earlier article I wrote about the probable Iraqi nuclear arsenal: (“A Nuclear-Armed Iraq Must Be The Next Target,” DefenseWatch, Dec. 12, 2001). Our intelligence estimates indicate that Iraq may have three Hiroshima-type weapons, three implosion weapons, and three tritium-boosted thermonuclear devices. As reported in that article, credible evidence indicates that Iraq actually exploded a Hiroshima-type weapon on Sept. 19, 1989, in a cavern under Lake Rezzaza, about 90 miles southwest of Baghdad.
I seriously doubt that if Iraq has these weapons they will willingly part with either the implosion or tritium-boosted weapons. I believe it highly unlikely that al Qaeda has or could acquire one of these weapons.
On the other hand, Iraq may very well have three of the older style, very large Hiroshima-type weapons. These weapons are too big to be manhandled, and certainly too big for normal transport to any specific destination, with one huge exception: transport in the hold of a friendly ship, or built into a specially modified container, and transported with or without the knowledge of the ship’s owners.
If the intelligence reports out of Iraq are correct, if Iraq really has these nuclear weapons, then it is also distinctly possible, even probable, that al Qaeda has one or more of the Hiroshima-type weapons.
Exploding one of these devices in a ship in a harbor would devastate the harbor. If they packed additional radioactive material around the device, the resulting plume of steam would carry the radioactive material high into the atmosphere, causing potentially severe radioactive contamination wherever the condensed steam falls.
Remember, this threat is only as credible as the information indicating that Iraq actually possesses the bomb already – has for a decade. It certainly is sufficiently credible to warrant searching every ship approaching our shores, or at least those ships even remotely linked to anything Muslim, Mideast or terrorist.
We cannot search every container – it’s physically impossible with our current and projected manpower levels. We can, however, create a monitoring system that causes containers to be inspected and certified at the time of their initial loading, and ensures that they are not subsequently opened. I am aware of at least one such system that was proposed several months ago.
A ship carrying a Hiroshima-type nuke is dependent upon Iraq actually having accomplished the Lake Rezzaza event, and to be accommodating al Qaeda. Both are very likely.
It appears, therefore, that we are faced with an uncertain future. Our Homeland Security people had better keep alert to ensure that we are able to cope with the inevitable biological attack, and that we prevent the loss of critical harbor facilities (and adjoining cities) such as Long Beach, New York, Charleston, Boston, Norfolk or Seattle.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor