Would Al Qaeda (AQ) Ever Use A Nuclear Weapon, Even If They Had The Technology?

Seventy Thousand people dead in an instant, ‘quicker then a blink of the eye’, by the end of 1945, more than 140,000 people had suffered; became victims from a nuclear bomb they called the ‘little boy’; a bomb which was delivered by the B-29 Enola Gay (Hiroshima, Discovery Channel). Hiroshima was virtually flattened; more than seventy five percent of the buildings had either been totally destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The delivery of the ‘little boy’ on Hiroshima marked the public unveiling on nuclear technology (Hiroshima, Discovery Channel). The Hiroshima nuclear explosion measured 12 kilotons, which is equal to approximately 12 million tons of TNT (Allison, 2004; p.47).

What self assuring display of dominance and power such a weapon must have for the beholder of such an instrument? What would become of the world as we know of it today if Al Qaeda had this power? More importantly if they used it?

There are many horrifying stories that go into detail describing Hiroshima. The legacy of the nuclear bomb lives on in the aftermath, and in the scars of those who survived.

Fifty six years after the events of Hiroshima, America experienced the harsh reality of terrorism on home soil. The attacks of 9/11 by Al Qaeda would prove to America and the world that there are groups not formally associated to any one sovereign state that are willing to invest money for the development and execution of terrorist attacks in order to

savagely kill as many of their foes as it can. The world has already witnessed how Al Qaeda attacks are designed to gain the maximum amount of casualties in the most horrific way possible.

After 9/11 and the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001 reports started to surface that Al Qaeda had acquired the means to develop nuclear technology. Simultaneously additional news reports would claim that evidence had been discovered that proved Al Qaeda had already acquired the nuclear weapons from secondary sources; “The Al Qaeda terrorist organization was building a serious weapons program with a heavy emphasis on developing a nuclear device, according to an exhaustive review of documents discovered in Afghanistan”… “I don’t have any doubt that Al Qaeda was pursuing nuclear, biological and chemical warfare capabilities. It’s not our judgment at the moment that they were that far along, but I have no doubt that they were seeking to do so,”

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton told CNN on Thursday. “It underlines just how serious the threat of the use of these weapons of mass destruction could be, and why it’s such an important part of the global campaign against terrorism”… A discarded letter, dated January 12, 2001, offered a clue to the importance of this address. It was addressed to Abu Khabbab, who coalition intelligence sources said is Osama bin Laden’s top chemical and biological weapons commander. A 25-page document filled with information about nuclear weapons included a design for a nuclear weapon that would require hard-to-obtain materials like plutonium to create a nuclear explosion… (Boettcher & Arnesen, CNN 2002; Retrieved: 1 October 2007).”

“…bin Laden has been in search of nuclear weapons and materials since 1992 when he was in the Sudan. At that time, he made several purchases from Pretoria. This was verified by testimony in federal court in New York, viz., U.S. vs. Osama bin Laden (1999). “…there is undeniable proof that AL Qaeda has nuclear weapons. In December 2001, as U.S. troops combed the tunnels near an Al Qaeda base in Kandahar, they discovered uranium-238 in a lead-lined canister. This was reported in every major U.S. newspaper, including The New York Times.

In October 2001, an al Qaeda operative was arrested as he attempted to enter Israel through the checkpoint at Ramallah. The operative had a bomb strapped to his back that Mossad first believed was a radiological devise but later discovered, as verified by UPI, that it was a tactical nuke. Early in 2001, two British agents, as reported by BBC on Nov. 26, 2001, managed to infiltrate an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan by posing as recruits from a London mosque. The agents eventually were sent to Herat where they saw nuclear weapons being manufactured.

Finally, Dr. Mahmood and Dr. Majeed of the A.Q. Khan Research Facility in Pakistan admitted upon interrogation that they provided assistance to Al Qaeda in developing nuclear weapons and that at least one weapon was forward deployed from Karachi to the United States…(Nyquist, 2005; Retrieved; www.financialsense.com)”.

Declan McCullagh wrote in a www.wired.com news article in 2001 that there have been  accounts and debates on the subject whether Al Qaeda had obtained nuclear technology. In his article McCullagh decribes instances in which an Al Qaeda operative was arrested in Germany trying to purhase enriched uranium (2001, Retrieved 1October; www.wired.com).

It is worth noting that designing and manufacturing a nuclear weapon outside the common concept of a state is not an impossible task. The required physics, chemistry, and engineering knowledge are freely available to the public on the Internet, or on the shelves of university libraries (Johnston, 2002). Furthermore there are unscrupulous individuals who have helped or would help Al Qaeda in their quest for nuclear power. For example, it is now well known that Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood an expert involved in Pakistan’s advanced nuclear weapons development, and a man who had access to top secret information had admitted assisting Al Qaeda clandestinely through one of his charities in providing technical information on building a nuclear bomb (Albright, et al, 2002).

Notably the trends of contemporary terrorism are ever changing and it is for this reason alone that that any assessment made on the subject needs to be re-evaluated constantly. Although the basic necessary information is readily available Al Qaeda would face a number of problems.

The evidence of the potential threat is clear and indisputable, the threat adequately depicts that Al Qaeda has the interest to persue a path to nuclear weaponry technology (Corera, G. 2006). However, the fundamental question this essay is focussing on is, would Al Qaeda use a nuclear device if they had one? Daniel Whiteneck (2005) writes;

“Unlike traditional states preoccupied with protecting territory and regime survival, terrorist groups use different scales to weigh costs and benefits, often calculating risks and evaluating rewards in ideological and religious terms. Evidence suggests, for example, that Al Qaeda might not only use WMD simply to demonstrate the magnitude of its capability but that it might actually welcome the escalation of a strong U.S. response, especially if it included catalytic effects on governments and societies in the Muslim world.”

One of the problems Al Qaeda would face in manufacturing a workable nuclear bomb is the problem associated to the handling of the explosives, (Barnaby, 2004, p.121). For example incorrect handling of the uranium or plutonium could lead to massive radiation exposure which could endanger the life of the individuals handling the explosives (Barnaby, 2004, p.122). Such a scenario is reduced but not excluded in the legitimate development of a nuclear weapon. Safety precautions in normal circumstances would be adhered too. Ensuring that no accidental discharge or leakage is set-off, that could injure or even kill innocent people.

The chilling question is however; could Al Qaeda be considered a reasonable organization that would undertake precautionary measures to ensure the safe handling of radioactive materials? Or is the perception of Al Qaeda being a mindless and cruel organization that just does not care true? The facts are that there is no evidence at hand that would suggest that Al Qaeda would exercise no precautionary measures when handling sensitive explosive material. There is no evidence to suggest that they are willing to take uncalculated risks in the development of nuclear weapons or that they are prepared to sacrifice their own lives in mass numbers in an accidental discharge of radio active material or an accidental explosion in order to completely destroy their enemies. We can be firm in our belief then that even though Al Qaeda wants to develop and use nuclear weaponry on its enemies, they are still mindful about their own safety. It is this mindfulness then that would make their objective for nuclear weaponry more difficult.

As stated already, there is sufficient evidence available that supports the theory of Al Qaeda seeking and having possibly ascertained nuclear technology. The past has shown how Al Qaeda terrorist cells have become more sophisticated. The efforts they have placed upon planning training and executing attacks are far more advanced, and thus it is logical to calculate that they would pursue advance technology in weaponry.

Allison (2004, p.46), stated that terrorist are more likely to use small type nuclear weaponry that were deemed to have been stolen from various nuclear capable states, such as the former USSR. One could reasonable conclude then, given the logistic problems Al Qaeda faced after the Afghanistan conflict, such as controlling or co-controlling a safe sovereign state to operate from, would make this type of nuclear weaponry a more attractive option. This type of weaponry would allow Al Qaeda to securely transport suitcase type nuclear weaponry across international boarders into their safe havens.

On the question on whether Al Qaeda would use a nuclear device; this is probably the most important question that poses the world at this present time, in relation to contemporary terrorism. It is from Al Qaeda’s past modus of operandi that we can reasonable conclude that Al Qaeda would be willing to use weapons of mass destruction in particular a nuclear bomb. Why? Simply because Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network always strive to attain a high body count from their attacks? No. More importantly, Al Qaeda sees itself as the leader in the Muslim world in destroying what they call the infidel. After all, their objective is to kill all Christians, to kill all non Muslims, all non believers of Allah their God.

However conflicting theories exists, O’Neill & McGrory (2006, p.236) quote Abu Hamza;

“This is now what we ask the Muslims, to do that, to be capable to do that, to bleed the enemies of Allah anywhere by any means. You can’t do it by nuclear weapons; you have to do it by kitchen knife, no other solution. You can’t do it by chemical weapons, you have to do it by poison (Abu Hamza, In: O’Neill & McGrory 2006, p.235)”.

Jenkins further expanded on the above theory, stating in a 1977 paper that; “Scenarios involving the deliberate dispersal of toxic radioactive material…do not appear to fit the pattern of any terrorist actions carried out thus far…Terrorist actions have tended to be aimed at producing immediate dramatic effects, a handful of violent deaths – not lingering illness, and certainly not population of ill, vengeance-seeking victims…If terrorists were to employ radioactive contaminants, they could not halt the continuing effects of their act, not even long after they may have achieved their ultimate political objectives. It has not been the style of terrorists to kill hundreds or thousands. To make hundreds or thousands of persons terminally ill would be even more out of character (Jenkins 1975, p.6 & 7).”

However, it would be simply insane to rely on the explanation by the likes of Hamza, or more so Laquer’s, or Jenkins out dated theories’ that it is almost certain that terrorist groups would not resort to nuclear weaponry simply because it would defeat their political purpose (Laqueur, 1977; p.231). These theories were post 9/11 and prior to the sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo during 1995 (Hoffman, 2006; p.270). Even Laqueur had reassessed the situation in 1996, quoting that not all terrorist would adopt the usage of weapons of mass destruction, in the foreseeable future, but that most certainly some would utilize this type of aggression “even in spite of all the militating against it (Laqueur, 1996; p.34).”

In aftermath of the original 1993 World Trade Centre attack, we learnt that the terrorist responsible for that attack had hoped the attack would kill at least 250,000 people (9/11 Commission Report, p.72). In this attacks there was evidence that linked the perpetrators indirectly back to Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda is an organization that plays on the ideology that it is doing what it is doing for the good of all Muslims that they are waging a war against America and its allies for the good of the suppressed and manipulated Muslims of the world, who according to them are under the influence and indoctrination of the west. They emphasize the fact that what they do is for religious reasons, and that no restraint is necessary when dealing with the enemy, therefore justifying their actions as blessed by Allah.

This twisted religious philosophy governs their willingness to expand their concept, to execute aggressively their enemy. Their philosophy includes the concept, that if you are not with them, then you are against them. Therefore anyone that stands against them is a legitimate target in their religious war. In their eyes they are the righteous soldiers of Allah embarked on a holy war, a war that has no demands of their enemy, a war in which they are not willing to negotiate surrender or compromise (Barnaby, 2004, p.127), surrender either of themselves or their enemy. The total alienation of their enemy is sought. This is Al Qaeda, and it is for this reason credibility is given to the thought that one day Al Qaeda would use a nuclear device on their enemy. They have proven by their action in 9/11 that they are willing to die, and to kill as many civilians as possible. They seek not the recognition of their enemy, nor want anything from them (Barnaby, 2004, p.128), as they do not recognize the legitimacy of their enemy.

The Koran and the ideology of Islam is all they acknowledge, Al Qaeda is changing, incorporating Shiat and Sunni principles (Barnaby, 2004, p.1292), and they strive to unite one common strand of Islam, one against the rest of the world. It is this ideology, which is sought in the life of Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda that makes the realization of the potential threat of a nuclear strike by Al Qaeda eminent. The question should not be if? But rather when and where?

Hoffman (2006, p.273) concludes; bin Laden in 1998 proclaimed that; “it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God (Hoffman, 2006; p.273).”

In conclusion, it would unwise for any intelligence agency or head of state to conclude infinitively that Al Qaeda would not utilize nuclear technology. Al Qaeda has surprised the world in its determination and willingness to do what ever it needs to do in order to bring their objective into a realization. Prior to 9/11 no one ever thought that a fanatical fundamentalist terrorist group would ever attack America at mass, and in such a way that still sends chills down a person spin when the events of 9/11 are recounted. But yet Al Qaeda did it. Therefore, how can we ever be certain that they will not use nuclear technology if they had it? Are we to take their word on it?

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Albright, D. Buehler, K. & Higgins, H. (January & February 2002). Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In: Assessing Al Qaeda’s WMD Capabilities. 2 September 2002. Al Qaeda and Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved 1 October 2007: http://www.ccc.nps.navy.mil/rsepResources/si/sept02/wmd.asp

 Allison, G. (2004). Nuclear Terrorism. The Risk and Consequences of the Ultimate Disaster. Constable & Robinson, London. Chapter 2, ‘What Nuclear Weapons Could Terrorists Use? pp 43-60. In: Readings GPM418 No: 2, (2007). O’Brien, N. (Comp.) Charles Sturt University. Bathurst, p.75, 76.

Barnaby, F (2004). How to Build A Nuclear Bomb And Other Weapons of Mass Destruction. Granta Books. Chapter 7, ‘Terrorism With Weapons of Mass Destructions’. pp121, 122. In: Readings GPM418 No: 2, (2007). O’Brien, N. (Comp.) Charles Sturt University. Bathurst, p.24, 25, 127, 128, 129.

Boettcher & Arnesen, (25 January 2002). CNN. Al Qaeda documents outline serious weapons program terrorist group placed heavy emphasis on developing nuclear device. Posted 11.41AM EST (1641 GMT). Atlanta, Georgia. Retrieved, October 2007: http://edition.cnn.com/2002/US/01/24/inv.al.qaeda.documents/index.html

Corera, G. (2006). Shopping For bombs, Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, And The Rise And Fall Of The A.Q. Khan Network. In: Readings GPM418 No: 2, (2007). O’Brien, N. (Comp.) Charles Sturt University. Bathurst, p.8.

 Hoffman, B. (2006) Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia Press. New York, p. 268. Laqueur, W. (1977). Terrorism. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. pp. 231, 273.

 Jenkins, B.R. (1975). Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? Rand Corporation, p.5541. Santa Monica, California, USA. In: Hoffman, B. (2006) Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia Press. New York, p. 268. Laqueur, W. (1977). Terrorism. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. p, 270.

 Johnston, R. (22 September 2002). Osama bin Laden and nuclear weapons. Retrieved: 1 October 2002. http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/nuclear/osamanuk.html

 Laqueur, W. (1977). Terrorism. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. p, 231. In: Hoffman, B. (2006) Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia Press. New York, p, 268.

 Laqueur, W. (1996). “Post Modern Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs. 75, No.5 (September –October 1996; p.34). In: Hoffman, B. (2006) Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia Press. New York, p, 268.

 O’Neill, S. & McGrory, D. (2006. The Suicide Factory, Abu Hamza and The Finsbury Park Mosque. Chapter 16, ‘The Recin Plot’. p.235 In: Readings GPM418 No: 2, (2007). O’Brien, N. (Comp.) Charles Sturt University. Bathurst, p.42.

 McCullagh, D. (28 September 2001). Does Osama Have a Nuclear Bomb? www.wired.com. Retreived, 1 October 2001:http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/2001/09/47158

Nyquist, R. (2005). Does Al Qaeda Have Nuclear Weapons? Part One. Retrieved, 1 October 2007: http://www.financialsense.comstormwatch/geo/pastanalysis/2005/0923.html

 Whiteneck, D. (2005).Deterring Terrorists: Thoughts on a Framework
The Washington Quarterly – Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2005, pp. 187-199

Television Documentaries:

Hiroshima. Wilmhurst, P. Producer & Writer. Discover Channel Asia. Televised 8 October 2007.

 Commission Reports:

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon The United States (2004). The 9/11 Commission Report. Chaired, Kean. T.H: Retrieved April 10 2007, http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/index.htm, pages, 72.

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Author: Christian PW Faust

Founder and CEO of Faust Legal Support Services and www.flssglobal.net. A graduate of Criminology, Terrorism, Safety & Security, Certificate III Investigations, Certificate in Due Diligence, Holder of Master CAPI License. Also a Member of Associate International Academy for Investigative Psychology. American, European, Australian & New Zealand Societies of Criminology and San Andres Volunteer Fire Brigade, Manila, Philippines. And a Special Consultant for Legal & Political Affairs - Manila City Council.