Hamid Mir is loved, hated, revered and slandered by his fans and cautious observers alike. The Pakistani journalist has battled his way from the dregs of anonymity to the bright lights of evening programming, hosting the popular political talk show Capital Talk since 2002. What propelled Mir to the hierarchy of international popularity was his early reporting and access to militant Islamists operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. More specifically, he obtained notoriety on the international stage when he supposedly became the first journalist to interview Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. As if this was not unique enough, Mir reported that in his interview bin Laden claimed to possess nuclear weapons. More recently, Mir has continued his specialty of reporting nuclear gossip by claiming that there is one such al-Qaeda plot in the works involving an elusive, intelligent and lone operative named Adnan Shukrijumah (also known as Jaffar al-Tayyar).
While Hamid Mir’s reported rumors of a “Nuclear Hiroshima” plot have developed and changed over time, so have the operational realities of those who would attempt to carry out such an attack in the future. This article seeks to provide a perspective on the realities surrounding potential nuclear or radiological plots by using some of Mir’s claims of ongoing al-Qaeda operations as the setting.
The Pre-9/11 Setting
The recent claims made by Hamid Mir during an interview with al-Arabiya on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks was the latest of several interviews this year in which Mir has confidently claimed that al-Qaeda is in position to attack using unconventional weapons. In May, in another interview with al-Arabiya, Mir describes previous encounters with al-Qaeda leaders confirming the possession of both dirty bomb capabilities using radioactive materials and actual nuclear weapons (al-Arabiya, May 1). Mir goes into further detail saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri personally confirmed the existence of nuclear weapons in the form of “suitcase nukes.” The “nuclear materials” were supposedly smuggled into the United States prior to the overthrow of the Taliban through its border with Mexico facilitated by al-Qaeda operatives using fake passports containing Jewish and Christian names. Located in major U.S. cities, operatives controlling these weapons are ostensibly waiting for a signal to commence attack.
However sensationalized it seems, Mir’s reporting should be viewed more closely. Fears of suitcase nukes smuggled through Russian black market channels using the permeable Mexican border were well established rumors prior to his May interview. Furthermore, credible experts have largely discounted the threat of al-Qaeda’s possession of suitcase nuclear devices . It would also be a major change in al-Qaeda’s modus operandi to announce such a complex, expensive and important plot to a well-known talking head. Such information has traditionally been highly compartmentalized.
Two issues that Mir addressed that have a potentially factual basis are al-Qaeda’s radiological weapons experimentation and U.S. border insecurity. From the limited available information concerning al-Qaeda’s radiological dirty bomb activities prior to the September 11 attacks, it is generally agreed that there was some sort of radiological experimentation or at least progressive research . If operatives were to have successfully smuggled radiological materials into the United States using the border with Mexico, the most appropriate time would have been prior to 9/11, as Mir suggested. Since then, however, there has been a continuous overhaul of detection and border monitoring capabilities and awareness. In the post 9/11 environment, such a smuggling operation would be much more difficult due to the fact that most materials best suited for a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) emit radiation that is fairly easy to detect even in light of other persistent border control issues. Furthermore, evasively transporting the necessary materials from Afghanistan to Mexico presents its own complications due to increased technical detection capabilities around the world .
Enter the Mythical Jaffar al-Tayyar
Although the reasons remain unclear as to why Hamid Mir decided to abandon his previous nuclear plot that concentrated on suitcase nukes and pre-fall-of-the-Taliban activities, his new story seems to better address the operational realities of current times. It involves an operative named Adnan Shukrijumah who apparently smuggled “nuclear materials” into the United States through Mexico during the past two years (al-Arabiya, September 11). Mir claims that Shukrijumah is currently hiding somewhere in the United States, although the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan recently distributed matchbooks containing his name, photo and other information implying a strong suspicion of his presence in the South Asia region (Los Angeles Times, September 3).
The new story has a much cleaner veil of credibility than Mir’s first vague accusations. U.S. officials believe that Shukrijumah’s nom de guerre is Jaffar al-Tayyar in reference to the Islamic hero. The elusive Shukrijumah has also been referred to as “The South American,” which references his upbringing in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Having numerous well-known and even flattering aliases are not comforting revelations for counter-terrorism officials. The intelligent, English-speaking Shukrijumah is a Western college-educated world traveler who has lived in the United States and has connections to Islamic communities in the Middle East, South Asia, South America and formerly in the United States. He is the perfect operative to develop a nuclear myth around.
This time, some circumstantial reporting can back up Mir’s claims. The nuclear connection could have been derived from Shukrijumah’s reported presence on the campus of McMaster University in Canada in 2003. News reports were deliberate in pointing out the presence of a 5-MW research reactor on the campus, which would have been a potential location for obtaining source material for a weapon . He has also been linked to Jose Padilla, which—even if far removed—carries obvious connotations. Furthermore, Shukrijumah supposedly traveled in Central America and Trinidad and Tobago in recent years, raising fears of recruiting possibilities or partnering activities with drug or criminal organizations in the region (La Tribuna [Tegucigalpa], November 12, 2005; Trinidad and Tobago Express, September 4). Fears of these criminal enterprises facilitating entry or smuggling activities for terrorist operatives rose immediately after 9/11 and have remained persistently high, even despite little perceived benefit to the facilitators. The increased border vigilance and detection capabilities already mentioned, however, could cause operatives such as Shukrijumah to look to these established surreptitious entryways.
The rumors swirling around Shukrijumah as al-Qaeda’s nuclear option or being a one-man dirty bomb deserves to be placed in some perspective in light of his other purported activities. It is not clear whether the alleged plots involve radioactive or nuclear materials, or both. This makes a significant difference especially considering consequences, logistics, technical expertise and support.
It is unclear whether operatives would choose to acquire radioactive material for a dirty bomb inside the United States or from locations abroad. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. As for fabrication and employment of the weapon, it is conceivable that someone such as Shukrijumah could have received the requisite training abroad to conduct the operation without the need for additional assistance. The magnitude of disruption caused by a RDD developed under such constricted circumstances, however, would likely be much lower than that fabricated by a larger cell that included specialists. It is unlikely that al-Qaeda’s leadership would risk compromising a highly prized operative such as the mythical Jaffar al-Tayyar for an attack of relatively low consequence compared to other conceivable plots.
Shukrijumah’s potential possession of an improvised nuclear explosive device raises a whole new set of concerns. Firstly, al-Qaeda is not known to have acquired the requisite materials for a viable weapon. Although nuclear weapons materials—such as weapons grade concentrations of uranium-235—would be much less likely to be detected through technical means than other radioactive material, constructing such a weapon in the United States from smuggled materials is most likely out of the range of capabilities for Shukrijumah or any other known operative for that matter.
Smuggling a complete weapon would be another option, but much more logistically difficult, especially since such a weapon would likely be large enough to need to enter through an established border crossing. Detection capabilities are a high priority of U.S. Homeland Security officials and in the future it will become possible to detect even heavily shielded materials. The operational environment for al-Qaeda operatives in the United States is clearly becoming highly constricted, especially in terms of potential for nuclear and radiological activities.
Terrorist interest in radiological and nuclear weapons remains high. It is likely that as long as this remains the perceived truth, Hamid Mir will continue to report on novel plots. Even though many of these fears can be passed off as emotionalized rumors and fabrications, they serve as a reminder of the critical vulnerabilities that continue to exist. As evidenced by Abdul Hameed Bakier’s September 19 report in Terrorism Focus, the exposure of every new potential plot heightens the interests of those willing to debate the merits of pursuing a strategy involving such weapons. Further to this worry, Sheikh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd’s notorious fatwa on the permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction continues to be circulated and translated into English, Urdu and other languages .
Fortunately, international partnerships designed to prevent the acquisition and utilization of these weapons are making tangible progress. The question will continue to linger as to whether the global jihad’s creativity and talented operatives such as Shukrijumah will successfully circumnavigate these technically oriented defensive expenditures. Although this technically focused defensive strategy has made solid progress, confronting the global jihad’s ideological and religious justifications for pursuing such a strategy seems to remain off the table, a gap that continues to be exploited by jihadi propaganda.
1. “‘Suitcase Nukes’: A Reassessment,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, September 23, 2002.
2. BBC, January 31, 2003.
3. National Nuclear Security Administration, Megaports and Container Security Initiatives, http://www.nnsa.doe.gov.
4. Insight Magazine, October 29, 2003.
5. Available on websites such as http://almedad.com and http://muwahideen.vze.com.