Al-Qaeda’s WMD Strategy After the U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 20

Images displayed on an Islamist forum illustrate bomb-making methods for do-it-yourself mujahideen

With the loss of its Afghan sanctuary following the U.S. intervention in 2001, there was a question as to what role weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would play in al-Qaeda’s newly evolving strategy. Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of its recently assumed role as the ideological and strategic brain for the global jihad to create an environment from which a variety of jihadi elements can participate in acquiring and employing chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

Al-Qaeda has opened the door for its supporters to use CBRN weapons to further the goals of the global jihad. To this end, al-Qaeda has provided the religious, practical, and strategic justifications to engage in CBRN activities. These steps have served to strengthen the acceptance of such weapons within sympathetic audiences, dispelled objections to unconventional attacks and prepared the ground for jihadi leaders to operationalize CBRN weapons into their repertoire of tactics. Departing from its previous reliance on in-house production and management of CBRN weapons, al-Qaeda is now encouraging other groups to acquire and use CBRN weapons with or without its direct assistance.

Over the years, al-Qaeda has stepped up its efforts to seek justifications to conduct increasingly brutal attacks. Correspondingly, the group has attempted to frame the acquisition and use of CBRN weapons as the religious duty of Muslims. Al-Qaeda began the process of incorporating this dynamic before the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. In response to the testing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in 1998, Osama bin Ladin praised the efforts of the first Muslim state to defend itself through WMD and encouraged other Muslims to follow Pakistan’s example [1]. Shortly after these developments, bin Ladin was interviewed by Jamal Isma’il in December of 1998 over U.S. charges that al-Qaeda was aggressively pursuing CBRN. Bin Ladin asserted that using the word “charge” was misleading in that it implies a wrong doing. Rather, according to bin Ladin, “it is the duty of Muslims to posses them [WMD],” and that “the United States knows that with the help of Almighty Allah the Muslims today possess these weapons” [2].

These events illustrate al-Qaeda’s early gravitation toward promoting CBRN weapons that the network was attempting to produce before the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s pre-9/11 activities also display a sense of confidence in its preparation to use CBRN weapons. However, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the terror network came under increasing criticism from its Muslim audiences to more correctly follow Islamic traditions of warning, offers of conversion, and significant religious authorization before committing such highly destructive attacks in the future.

Through a series of subsequent statements, al-Qaeda is believed to have sufficiently fulfilled these prerequisite obligations for high-impact attacks. The lesson of 9/11 has also been applied to its WMD strategy, in that further preparations have been taken to justify CBRN attacks prior to the actual events. Al-Qaeda seems to frame its argument around references from the Qur’an that they interpret as instructing Muslims to respond to aggression with equal aggression (Qur’an 16:126; 2:194; 42:40); similar to the expression of “an eye for an eye.”

In this regard, Osama bin Laden stated in 2001 that, “if America used chemical and nuclear weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as a deterrent” [3]. Al-Qaeda also received much needed outside theological assistance from the radical Saudi shaykh Nassir bin Hamad al-Fahd. In 2003, al-Fahd issued an important and detailed fatwa on the permissibility of WMD in jihad. He stated that since America had destroyed countless lands and killed about 10 million Muslims, it would obviously be permitted to respond in-kind [4]. Al-Fahd’s ruling provided support to the previous assertion of al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith in 2002, stating that, “we have the right to kill 4 million Americans, 2 million of them children… and cripple them in the hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our obligation to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, to afflict them with the fatal woes that have afflicted Muslims because of their chemical and biological weapons” [5].

However, these do not constitute the most direct threats of WMD deployment by the terror network. In fact, purported al-Qaeda trainer Abu Muhammad al-Ablaj continued the preparation for eventual WMD use when he forebodingly said in 2003 that, “as to the use of Sarin gas and nuclear [weapons], we will talk about them then, and the infidels will know what harms them. They spared no effort in their war on us in Afghanistan and left no weapon but used it. They should not therefore rule out the possibility that we will present them with our capabilities” [6]. Al-Ablaj again emphasized the thematic justification of reciprocity concerning WMD. Later in 2003 al-Ablaj provided further explanation that a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon is a strategic weapon that has “reactions commiserate with its size.” He added, “It must therefore be used at a time that makes the crusader enemy beg on his knee that he does not want more strikes” [7]. Apparently al-Ablaj is convinced that al-Qaeda has fulfilled its preparatory duty for using CBRN and it is now only a matter of appropriate circumstances presenting themselves.

Although the core of al-Qaeda has been primarily concerned with justifying WMD attacks based on reciprocity, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri), a highly experienced jihadi, veteran of the Afghan conflicts and associate of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has taken another line of justification. Al-Suri’s position is similar to the legal judgment of al-Fahd when he wrote that “if those engaged in jihad establish that the evil of the infidels can be repelled only by attacking them with weapons of mass destruction, they may be used even if they annihilate all the infidels” [8].

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar was forced out of Afghanistan after the U.S. intervention at the end of 2001. He then devoted the next several years to, as he explains, “plug one of the Muslims’ major gaps: reflection on past experience… and comparing it with the confrontation and battles which the future holds for us, as I am one of the few mujahideen remaining who specialized in this matter” [9]. The fruit of al-Suri’s contemplative hiatus is an unprecedented 1600 page treatise of strategic and military guidance which should be taken very seriously in terms of its impact on the future strategy of the global jihad. He has concluded that CBRN weapons are the “difficult yet vital” means to ensure final victory, partially due to ineffectiveness of current tactics. He also stated that “the mujahideen must obtain them [WMD] with the help of those who posses them either buying them,” or by “producing primitive atomic bombs, which are called dirty bombs [RDD]” [10]. His prescription of WMD will serve to strengthen the direction of the global jihad towards using CBRN in the future as he has essentially bound the aforementioned broad strategic parameters created by al-Qaeda’s traditional leadership into a more actionable logic. Al-Suri, in a sense, has departed from the current strategy of al-Qaeda’s traditional leadership. Al-Qaeda’s leadership has been primarily concerned with providing the justification for jihadis to use WMD, while al-Suri advances this to actively advocating CBRN weapons as essential to the “end-game” strategy.

It must be recognized that although what has constituted “al-Qaeda” as an organization or network is now undergoing considerable realignment into a more of a guidance and support base, it still retains operational capabilities which will be demonstrated in the future. Figures such as Abu Khabab, a director of al-Qaeda’s chemical and biological weapons programs believed to be at large, or other members of the former weapons programs, may play a significant role in any future attack. Abdullah al-Muhajir, previously Jose Padilla, is an example of al-Qaeda’s traditional cadres’ continued intention to plan and execute such attacks. Padilla is accused of meeting with “senior al-Qaeda operatives” while in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, who instructed him to return to the United Sates to explore advanced plans for attacking America, including an attack with a radiological weapon (RDD) [11]. Lastly, it is also worth noting that the rising class of “e-mujahideen,” who are increasingly integrated into the Internet yet have little connection to established jihadi groups, have displayed enthusiasm for WMD.

There are several “encyclopedias” online claiming to contain formulas for chemical agents or construction plans for dirty bombs [12]. Although much of the information provided in these manuals is usually flawed from a technical perspective, the fact that e-mujahideen are promoting WMD procurement and use while disseminating CBRN manuals is quite alarming. It is only a matter of time before more accurate manuals will begin to surface, an eventuality that will make countering CBRN terrorism increasingly more difficult.

Conclusion

Al-Qaeda’s leadership has made a concerted effort to prepare its audiences for a WMD attack. However, it has been argued that since the historical volume of direct references to WMD by al-Qaeda has been relatively low, this somehow displays a disinterest in or unlikelihood of WMD playing a role in the terror network’s future. Al-Qaeda operative Muhammad al-Ablaj has already responded to this argument when he asked: “Is there a sane person who discloses his [WMD] secrets?” [13] A second explanation is that what has already been presented has adequately justified WMD use, and thus there is little more to be said until a need for further guidance presents itself, such as it did for al-Suri. Whether by al-Qaeda core cadres, those answering al-Suri’s calls, or e-mujahideen inspired by their own arguments and supported by al-Qaeda’s justifications, CBRN weapons are likely to be employed by jihadi forces in the not-so-distant future.

This is the second in a two-part series addressing al-Qaeda’s WMD strategy.

Notes:

1. Al-Quds al-Arabi, June 1, 1998.

2. Interview rebroadcast on al-Jazeera, September 20, 2001.

3. Dawn (Pakistani Daily), November 10, 2001.

4. Nassir bin Hamd al-Fahd, Risalah fi hokum istikhdam aslihat al-damar al-shamel didh al-kuffar, May 2003.

5. Suleiman Abu Gheith, www.alneda.com.

6. Al-Majallah, May 25, 2003.

7. Al-Majallah, September 21, 2003.

8. Al-Fahd, Risalah fi hokum istikhdam aslihat al-damar al-shamel didh al-kuffar.

9. El Pais, June 6, 2005.

10. Ibid.

11. United States court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Docket No. 03-2235.

12. Examples of sites have included: http://elaqsa.2islam.com/; www.alm2sda.net; www.tawhed.ws; www.geocities.com/i3dad_jihad/.

13. Al-Majallah, September 21, 2003.