The Possibility of WMD Terrorism

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Mushfiq Murshed

On September 11, 2001, the action of 19 persons changed the dynamics of global politics. A terrorism benchmark was set which instigated a backlash that resulted in the invasion of two countries and a war against terrorism which continues unabated for the past 12 years with the number of casualties running into tens of thousands. Pakistan alone has suffered an estimated 50,000 casualties. It would be illogical to believe that Al Qaeda expected anything less after they brazenly attacked the economic hub of a super power. Yet, that did not deter them from proceeding with their plans.
One week after 9/11 another incident occurred in the United States which many haveforgotten. A bioterrorist mailed an estimated 6 letters containing Anthrax spores. This resulted in 22 people being infected, 5 deaths and more than 30,000 were administered prophylactic antibiotics. In addition, according to a statement of the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Patrick Meehan, “dozens of buildings were contaminated …The decontamination of one postal facility took 26 months and cost $ 130 million. The United Sates Environmental Protection Agency spent $ 40 million to clean up government buildings in Washington, D.C. … According to the FBI, the damage from the anthrax attacks cost $ 1 billion”.
This was the result of around half a dozen contaminated letters. This attack was miniscule in comparison to what a well-organized terrorist network could have accomplished with the disbursement of a larger amount of more lethal toxins.
The threat of terrorist networks acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) agents to develop and use WMDs is real. Various terrorist networks have attempted to acquire WMDs. The more prominent among them being: AumShinrikyo of Japan, the Chechen rebels in Russia and AL Qaeda. However, known have been more vociferous about their intent and more persistent in their efforts than Al Qaeda.
Religiously motivated terrorist organizations or, to be more precise, terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, that manipulate religion and its related sentiments need legitimacy to achieve their objectives. This is accomplished by obtaining clerical sanctions through religious edicts (Fatwas) that are primarily based on decontextualized quotations from the sacred text. The edicts that Al Qaeda has pursued and propagated clearly are an indication of what strategy they intend to pursue.
In 1998 Osama bin Laden elevated himself to the status “chief cleric in charge of translating Islamist extremist theology and ideology into action” by issuing a fatwa that stated, amongst other things, that “The ruling to killing the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…” This Fatwa was a precursor to the 9/11 attacks.
Post 9/11, Al Qaeda pursued efforts to simultaneously acquire WMDs and radical clerics who would seal a WMD attack with a fatwa justifying such an act. While Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and other senior members of Al Qaeda pursued options to acquire WMDs which included “three Russian Nuclear devices” radical Saudi clerics issued a fatwa justifying the use of WMDs against the US and UK. Nasir Al Fahd, one of the radical clerics, posted this Fatwa on May 21, 2003, just before he was arrested by Saudi authorities. Later, from prison, he repudiated much of what he had sanctioned earlier. However, subsequently, he wrote a letter from prison stating that the repudiation was coerced by Saudi authorities.
Much later, in November 2007, Sayid Imam Abdel-Aziz al Sharif refuted his earlier manifestos of Jihad which he had published in the late 80’s and blamed Al Qaeda for distorting the true nature and meaning of jihad in a document “issued from his prison cell in Cairo,” titled: “Rationalizing Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World.”
In an attempt to counter this document, Ayman al Zawahiri published a book in March 2008 titled: Exoneration. While the rebuttal is obvious, this so-called ‘fatwa’ that Zawahiri penned, subtly projects the 2003 fatwa of Al Fahd in a positive light whereby he “weaves identical passages, sources and religious justifications for a nuclear terrorist attack against the United States.”
In 1998 Osama issued his Fatwa which was followed by the 9/11 attack. What will the 2008 Zawahiri fatwa be a prelude to?
A WMD attack may have been the logical next step to the 9/11 attacks. However, despite issuing fatwas which provided an insight into Al Qaeda’s intent, there has been no such attack. The delay can be attributed to the post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan whereby Al Qaeda leadership was denied safe havens from where they could operate freely and due to which their command structure was disoriented.
Considerable time has passed since the invasion. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the man “who lead the biological program,” has replaced Osama as the head of Al Qaeda. Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda wait patiently for the withdrawal of American troops in 2014. As stated in a recent editorial of The Friday Times: “They are readying themselves for a forceful attack on Kabul after US forces depart and the Karzai regime becomes vulnerable. For them, Pakistan’s North Waziristan and Balochistan provinces offer “strategic depth” bases from where to plan organize and launch attacks inside Afghanistan.”
In addition, the editorial suggests that the Afghan Taliban – Al Qaeda nexus has “consciously built” the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) “and facilitated its rise as a violent force for their grand strategy after the withdrawal of US forces from the region. Their sole aim is to help the TTP capture and retain FATA, initially as a strategic depth base area for themselves and eventually, in the event of their failure to capture Kabul, as part of a new Emirate of the Taliban incorporating Afghan areas to the South of and east of Kabul and to the North of Pakistan that are contiguous with Afghanistan.” Furthermore, if they succeed in establishing this “safe strategic base area or Emirate-State … then global “Islamic” terrorists will fly in the droves to this new “country” from which to plan and launch attacks in the region and beyond.” Such a scenario will bring in foreign intervention, once again. However, “this time it will be Pakistan and its endangered nukes and not stone age Afghanistan that will be the sole object of everyone’s grab for power or security.”
The objectives mentioned in the Friday Times editorial are not merely a part of a conspiracy theory but have been stated clearly by none other than Ayman Al Zawahiri. In his recent message he urged fighters to create a safe haven in Pakistan so that it can become a base for establishing an Islamic system. Last year he had urged the people of Pakistan to rise up against the government and military. Furthermore, in his September 12, 2013 message, Zawahiri encouraged Muslims to take the war to America by attacking “it in its soil.” While encouraging Al Qaeda sympathizers to carry out small attacks in the US he added that they “must watch and wait to seize any opportunity to direct a large strike on (America), even if that takes years of patience to do it.”
Yet, despite the obvious intentions elaborated in numerous messages and fatwas, the All Parties Conference in Pakistan, by accepting the TTP as “stakeholders” with whom “unconditional peace talks” are to be held, is inadvertently assisting the Afghan Taliban-AL Qaeda-TTP nexus in achieving their strategic objective of establishing safe havens/bases/sanctuaries and, as a result, are moving towards neutralizing some vital strategic objectives that the war on terror accomplished which did not allow the concerned non-state or sub-state organizations to orchestrate a large scale terrorist attack, this time perhaps with WMDs in an attempt to surpass the magnitude of damage incurred on 9/11.
It has already been reported in an article in Dawn, that the “Taliban are using more toxic chemicals” in their bombs which cause the survivors of their bomb/suicide attacks “lethal injuries” and infections that are not curable by antibiotics. It is apparent from these attacks that their expertise in manufacturing explosive devices with lethal toxins has evolved. The raw materials used in these devices, such as sodium, potassium, phosphorous, nitrogen, magnesium, etc.are easy to procure. In addition, the more relevant lesson that can be extracted from such cases is the direction in which the Taliban bomb making expertize is moving. Their obvious objective is to develop chemical weapons that can cause as much suffering to as many people as possible. After all, according to them, all those who are not with them are infidels and, therefore, potential targets of future terrorist attacks.
Keeping these objectives in mind, the acquisition of physical terrain or safe havens is an essential prerequisite for extremist groups to plan and train. According to Dr.FarukhSaleem’s article in the News titled Terrorism, “In 2004, Pakistan ceded territory under the Shakai agreement. In 2005, Pakistan ceded territory under the Sararogha peace deal. In 2006, Pakistan ceded territory under the Miranshah peace accord. In 2008, Pakistan ceded territory under the Khyber agency pact. As things stand, Pakistan has ceded some 30,000 square kilometers of its 796,095 square kilometers to various terrorist-insurgent conglomerates.” What will the next round of peace talks cede?
Peace deals and negotiations with extremist criminal elements that are an integral part of Al Qaeda is not the path to tread in order to assure the world that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure and it is not “the most dangerous country in the world.” Furthermore, terrorist attacks on major military targets fuel global concerns regarding the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear assets as such attacks have confirmed suspicions that even the officer corps of the military may not be immune to the rampant religious radicalization that has spread in the country.
Musa Khan Jalalzai wrote an op-ed piece titled: “The prospect of Nuclear Jihad in South Asia,” for the Daily Times. This piece was lop-sided in its approach and some of his comments on the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear assets were absurd. These assets are secure and this has been recently reconfirmed even by the US government. However, despite this, there were still a few points that he articulated which are worth quoting. He mentions that once the Director General of Strategic Planning Division, Lt. Gen (retd.) Kidwai had stated that “more than 70,000 experts are working in 15 atomic plants across the country, including 8,000 well trained scientists of which more than 2,000 scientists have sensitive knowledge.” Musa further states that, “During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda sought nuclear weapons assistance from Pakistan. Pakistani scientists who helped Taliban and Al Qaeda groups were Sultan BashiruddinMahmood, a retired officer of the Atomic Commission and Choudhry Abdul Majeed. They met with bin Laden in August 2001 and discussed with him anuclear weapons infrastructure in Afghanistan.” Furthermore, the article mentions the various attacks on military bases and suggests that they “highlight, once again, the poor security infrastructure of the country and the undetected infiltration of extremists into the ranks of the armed forces” and other sensitive organizations.
The “ideological space” that our government and “politicians are bent upon allowing” to terrorists through legitimizing their position as stakeholders, in the midst of a semi-radicalized society educated in a “public school system that teaches a “curriculum of hate” and produces trainloads of closet jihadis” will be disastrous for Pakistan.
There is only one solution and that is to declare a “full-fledged” war on the Al Qaeda-Taliban network which would include the removal of the “protective cover” that has been given to North Waziristan and the initiation of a military operation there. Till then the impression that Pakistan harbors terrorist elements and provides them safe havens from where they plan and implement terrorist attacks globally will remain true and, as a result, drone attacks will continue. We need to reverse this impression and eradicate all radical forces that have subverted the writ of the state and use our soil to commit heinous crimes against humanity. The mere possibility of a future WMD terrorist attack planned or initiated from our country remains the greatest threat for Pakistan. Till we have neutralized this threat we, unfortunately, remain, “the most dangerous country in the world.”