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

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 19

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

Al-Qaeda’s activities concerning weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or more precisely chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, are shrouded in secrecy. CBRN weapons are the ideal terror tactic and a tantalizing option for a terrorist group. An accurate picture of this type of strategy is extremely difficult to obtain even for the most advanced intelligence agencies, but it is possible to evaluate the strategic parameters in which al-Qaeda might be operating.

Information concerning internal discussions of WMD in the organization that became al-Qaeda is almost absent from open source materials. An exception to this is a manuscript by a purported member of al-Qaeda’s Shura Council that provides a plausible glimpse into these debates [1].

The initial opinion inside al-Qaeda was that WMD (what constituted WMD was not defined) would provide a considerable deterrent against the much more powerful enemy of the United States. If such a deterrent could be obtained, the group’s stature and coercive influence would be substantially increased. Because nuclear weapons were regarded as the most convincing deterrent, an effort to procure such weapons was initiated. The outcome of these deliberations placed Abu Hafs al-Masri, the rising military commander of al-Qaeda, in charge of a “plan” to acquire WMD. Although no time period was given for these discussions, the earliest known attempt to acquire material for a nuclear weapon occurred in late 1993 or early 1994 in Khartoum, Sudan.

Al-Qaeda turncoat Jamal Ahmad al-Fadl testified that in late 1993 or early 1994 he was involved in a concerted effort to obtain uranium from traffickers in Khartoum. Al-Fadl himself was not the chief architect of this uranium procurement effort but he was charged with facilitating the transfers of communications, money, and materials for this operation. He stated that al-Qaeda was “very serious, and they want[ed] to buy it [uranium].” Al-Fadl admitted to having arranged a price of $1.5 million for the uranium but obtained no further details of subsequent activities [2].

Al-Qaeda’s seems to have been preoccupied with acquiring a nuclear deterrent up until 1999. The group pursued procurement of uranium from the nuclear black market throughout the 1990s, taking advantage of Central Asian markets which reopened to the group after its return to Afghanistan in 1996. Al-Qaeda did not have the technical sophistication at this point to distinguish between weapons-usable uranium and other substances and was apparently scammed on several attempted acquisitions [3]. These setbacks might have led al-Qaeda to seek the assistance of Pakistani scientists.

Al-Qaeda members met with Pakistani scientists, possibly Bashirrudin Makmood and Abdul Majid who are now under house arrest, to discuss building a weapon. The scientists told the al-Qaeda representatives that the material obtained so far was useless and that the first step should be to acquire weapons-usable uranium [4]. The organization learned at some point in this process that it would need technical design information to continue with constructing a weapon after suitable uranium was procured. Documents obtained in Afghanistan by CNN confirmed that al-Qaeda had acquired a few technical specifications of bomb development that were not available through open source documents at the time.

Despite al-Qaeda’s nuclear activities, the U.S. Intelligence Community does not believe that the group has been successful in its efforts to obtain fissile material suitable for an improvised nuclear device. However, al-Qaeda’s desire for a deterrent still echoed in the rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden. He 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” [5]. It should be noted that at the time of this statement, neither al-Qaeda’s nuclear nor its chemical weapons programs were advanced enough to provide a credible deterrent.

Whether due to the frustrations of a stagnate nuclear weapons program or the aspiration to pursue other WMD for their unique capabilities, al-Qaeda, under the direction of Abu Hafs al-Masri and Midhat Mursi, aka Abu Khabab, established a biological weapons program around 1999 [6]. The program experimented and developed several biological agents including botulinum toxin, but al-Qaeda still seemed fixated on agents with mass casualty potential. Operating in laboratories scattered among al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, the biological program began experiments in isolating a virulent strain of “Agent X,” most likely anthrax bacteria.

It is difficult for a group such as al-Qaeda to weaponize anthrax bacteria, but not impossible. Through interrogations and captured documents, we know that al-Qaeda was interested in aerial dispersal of a weaponized biological agent, presumably anthrax bacteria [7]. The primacy given to anthrax bacteria indicates that either deterrence was still considered an appealing possibility through biological as well as nuclear weapons, or that the intention was to actually engage in a WMD attack with the view of inflicting mass casualties. The second of these possibilities would have been a departure from the previous focus on deterrent weapons. If we look back to the initial debate over WMD we find that there was substantial disagreement among al-Qaeda leadership over the possible audiences’ negative reactions to a WMD attack. The audiences under consideration included the victimized population and its government, potential international sympathetic constituencies and perhaps even elements of al-Qaeda itself. These apparent reservations appear to have been resolved with the advancement of its biological weapons program.

Deterrence and mass casualties are not the only potential advantages of CBNR weapons. The employment of such weapons can impact multiple target audiences, incite government responses, create economic disruption, display scientific prowess and induce mass fear worldwide. These realizations presumably contributed to al-Qaeda’s further expansion of its WMD programs. Not only did al-Qaeda diversify its biological program, but it also developed a chemical weapons program in the late 1990s.

Chemical weapons are generally easier to produce than biological weapons. Al-Qaeda pursued several chemical agents including: hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, phosgene and a blister agent (probably a mustard derivative) [8]. These weapons show al-Qaeda’s continued interest in possible alternative applications of WMD aside from deterrence and mass casualties. Although chemical weapons have the potential to cause mass casualties, al-Qaeda lacked the sophistication to pursue advanced chemical weapons and thus experimented and eventually produced less destructive ones. Al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons development shows a continual progression away from its earlier fixation on deterrence to weapons that were purposefully pursued for their utility in actual attacks. This readjustment of strategy is further evidenced by the terror network’s training of recruits in chemical weapons production or dispersal at its various laboratories. One such individual is the now-infamous Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri), an al-Qaeda leader who would play a much more significant role in the organization’s strategy after the U.S. intervention.

Al-Qaeda has also shown a strong interest in radiological dispersal devises (RDD). These weapons are technically unsophisticated enough for them to produce, with the only obstacle being the limited access of appropriate radioactive materials. Al-Qaeda even kept libraries of documents pertaining to the construction of a RDD [9]. Trafficking of suitable radioactive materials was, and still is, occurring in Central Asia and the terror network would have had little trouble accessing this market and constructing a RDD.

Al-Qaeda’s original strategy was to acquire WMD first, and then make a decision on utilization based on its capabilities and objectives at the time of acquisition. It progressed from a uni-focal approach based on a nuclear deterrent, to exploring the potentials of biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. Having obtained chemical, biological and probably radiological capabilities before the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the question arises as to why al-Qaeda did not employ these weapons in actual attacks. One theory is that al-Qaeda had yet to identify suitable targets. Another explanation is that the organization was hoping to advance the programs further, not fully anticipating the total loss of its Afghan sanctuary. It is also possible that since chemical and especially biological laboratories can be set up practically in anyone’s garage, the essential materials and equipment were packed and transported out of Afghanistan to new locations.

With the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda could no longer maintain its WMD programs in that country. In the post-intervention period, there have been several developments which spotlight a changing strategy; moving from in-house production of WMD, to outsourcing. This will be the subject of the second part in this series.


1. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 9 December 2004.

2. Testimony of prosecution witness Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl, United States District Court, Southern District of New York, United States v. Usama bin Laden et al., defendants, 6-13 February 2001.

3. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 24 December 2000.

4. “Toby Harnden, “Rogue Scientists Gave bin Laden Nuclear Secrets”, Daily Telegraph (London), 13 December 2001; “Report to the President”, Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, 31 March 2005.

5. Dawn (Pakistani Daily), 10 November 2001

6. Abu Khabab is mentioned in several sources as being crucially involved in al-Qaeda’s WMD programs: see for instance al-Watan al-Arabi, 16 February 2001.

7. “Sketches of anthrax bomb found in Pakistani scientist’s office”,, 28 November 2001.

8. “Report to the President”, 2005.

9. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 9 December 2004.