The recent audio statement of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir contained several points of analysis for looking at the current state of jihad in Iraq through one of its leadership nodes. Among the issues in al-Muhajir’s message included his frustration with established religious figures’ lack of commitment to jihad and the inferred need for increased religious guidance to support ongoing operations. Al-Muhajir saved his most unique statement, however, for the end of the recording, where he emphasized the need for individuals of scientific and technical specialities to join the mujahideen in Iraq. He even attempted to play upon the implied belief that scientists can be enticed to join such programs through offers of field experimentation as he tells potential listeners that “the battlefield will accommodate your scientific aspirations” .
The overt recruitment offer for non-conventionally-focused scientists is unprecedented. Strategists such as Abu Musab al-Suri have expressed the necessity of scientific expansion in the fields of non-conventional weapons, but as far as operational commanders are concerned this is the first known overtly disseminated advertisement (Terrorism Monitor, September 21; Terrorism Monitor, October 5). Al-Muhajir also explicitly emphasizes the need for “nuclear scientists” and offers U.S. military encampments as a testing ground for dirty bombs (radiological) and germ weapons (biological).
Al-Qaeda and related groups have not traditionally placed much emphasis on the development of chemical, biological or radiological weapons for tactical battlefield use. Iraqi insurgents on the whole have not pursued these weapons with any consistency or conviction. The al-Abud network initiated the most successful of these endeavours during late 2003 and early 2004. This network was linked to the Jaysh Muhammad group and attempted to procure and weaponize both crude chemical and toxin agents. Although some progress was made on chemical weaponization, it was generally believed that, even if the network was not shut down, its program was not suitable for producing effective tactical munitions .
If the same lessons were to be applied to the current scenario, al-Muhajir might not be requesting the radiological and biological assistance for the Iraqi battlefield, but rather to develop an unconventional capability to be used in other settings abroad for their disruptive and symbolic values. In the context of his statement, it makes even more sense since he has requested scientists to use Iraq as a testing ground rather than framing the development as a current battlefield necessity.
In the event that specialists actually heeded his call, the operational environment and material limitations would likely restrict substantial progress for chemical and biological programs but not necessarily so for radiological. There would most likely be adequate radioactive sources or other material from which to conduct Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) experimentation as Iraqi authorities have had limited control and recoverability programs since 2003. Aside from available resources, it is also logical to test such weapons away from the future intended targets.
On the other hand, there is little perceived benefit—other than networking and training others—for chemical and especially biological specialists to risk exposure to infiltrate and operate in Iraq. Laboratories would lack resources. Furthermore, although labs could operate on a micro level, with the volume of raids conducted by counter-terrorist forces, the requisite mobility to evade detection would be extremely difficult to maintain. This is especially true if al-Qaeda desired to pursue a productive research and production schedule.
1. Statement by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, September 28, 2006.
2. Annex E, Volume 3, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” September 30, 2003.