Rogue actors are very uncomfortable with their newfound proximity to American military forces, and they have sought to covertly "encourage" the U.S. to depart from Iraq as soon as possible. Yet, simultaneously, fearing President Bush's "Axis of Evil" strategy, states like Iran and Syria know
that any aggressive moves on their part could lead to a sudden and unwanted military confrontation with America.
Radiological and chemical materials are not typically easy to obtain or handle and, moreover, often leave telltale evidentiary footprints. At least for the moment, the risk for state sponsors of terrorism of an unconventional attack being traced back to its origin is unacceptably high. The ultimate goal of the clerical order in Iran and Bashar Assad's regime in Syria is survival-not a kamikaze mission.
Unfortunately, in the 21st century, terrorists no longer need to restrict their search for weapons of mass destruction to official sources. The Pakistanis have been forced over the past two years to place several of their own nuclear scientists under official scrutiny for having links to Usama Bin Laden.
"Al Qaeda has instead sought to build its own weapons of mass destruction." Al Qaeda has had contacts not only within the Pakistani scientific community, but also in senior circles of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Following September 11, 2001, President Pervaiz Musharraf was forced to purge the ranks of the ISI to remove a hidden cache of Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters. There is some reason to believe that these disgruntled ex-intelligence officers may have played a role in the various failed assassination plots targeting Musharraf in the years since.
If these crude attempts at a coup d'etat were to succeed, U.S. policymakers would face the possibility of Taliban-style religious extremists seizing power in Pakistan. Thus, in the context of a chaotic Islamic revolution in Pakistan, there are multiple scenarios by which Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups could come into possession of WMDs.
Nevertheless, in order to avoid some of the same persistent problems and constraints that have been associated with relying on state sponsors, Al Qaeda has instead sought to build its own weapons of mass destruction. This ambitious research and development project has suffered its own share of setbacks. Al Qaeda has been conned at least twice by purported black market vendors of radiological material. When Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Mahmood was visiting Afghanistan in 2001, Bin Laden's men brought forth a supposedly valuable box that they had purchased "for a huge amount of money." According to his son, Mahmood examined the box and laughed at them, dismissing their WMD treasure as totally useless.
Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have traditionally had their greatest success when they employ simple but effective tactics. In the world of WMDs, this translates to common chemicals and biotoxins that do not require advanced scientific ability to manufacture or handle. Notable examples of this are the Sarin cult attacks on Japanese subways and Al Qaeda's ongoing experimentation with cyanide and ricin.
State-sponsored or not, Usama Bin Laden and his subordinates seem bent upon obtaining and implementing weapons of mass destruction, even after repeated and embarrassing failures. This may not be the most efficient approach, but Al Qaeda's "try, try again" strategy is bound to pay off eventually-with potentially devastating results for America. Extreme vigilance both at home and abroad will prove critical in averting this seemingly inevitable threat to homeland security.
Evan Kohlmann is a Senior Terrorism Consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project and author of the upcoming book, Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe: the Afghano-Bosniak Network, to be released by Berg Publishers in June 2004.