Al Qaeda and the Threat of Chemical and Biological Weapons

6 MINS READDec 4, 2004 | 02:09 GMT
Al Qaeda and the Threat of Chemical and Biological Weapons  Read more: Al Qaeda and the Threat of Chemical and Biological Weapons
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Workers enter the Russell Senate Office building in Washington on Feb. 4, 2004, after a ricin-contaminated letter was found on Feb. 2

A pamphlet published on the CIA's Web site says al Qaeda documents captured in Afghanistan indicate that the network possesses crude procedures for producing VX nerve agent, sarin and mustard gas. In light of this information, the mainstream media recently have focused on the possibility that al Qaeda will use chemical and/or biological weapons (CBWs) against the United States and U.S. interests abroad.

The American public has been besieged with warnings about al Qaeda and its CBW program since shortly after the United States launched a 1998 cruise missile attack against Sudan's Shifa pharmaceutical factory, which Washington said was a terrorist-related facility. STRATFOR also has written about the danger posed by terrorists using chemical or biological weapons on more than one occasion. Although these warnings are not without foundation, STRATFOR believes al Qaeda is neither capable of producing mass quantities of deadly agents nor does it have the means to effectively dispense them.

We know from the 2001 court testimony of Ahmed Ressam — the Algerian national who plotted to blow up Los Angeles International Airport — that al Qaeda members conducted experiments using cyanide and other toxins to kill dogs at the Deronta training camp in Afghanistan. Videos recovered by U.S. troops after the invasion of Afghanistan supported this testimony and, as noted by the CIA, seized al Qaeda training manuals have included recipes for making biological toxins and chemical agents. Recipes for producing toxins such as ricin are also readily available on the Internet.

The information about al Qaeda's experiments with chemical weapons should come as no surprise. In an interview aired on ABC News in December 1998, Osama bin Laden said, "If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then this is an obligation I carried out, and I thank God for enabling me to do so."

The evidence is clear: al Qaeda does possess the capability to make and use crude chemical and biological weapons. However, despite the fear that these substances engender, they often are quite ineffective as weapons. An examination of Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo's CBW program provides some important insight into these weapons and the cost and limitations of such systems.

According to testimony in the trials of Aum Shinrikyo leaders, the group conducted 17 known CBW attacks or attempted attacks between 1990 and 1995, 10 of them using chemical agents (four with sarin, four with VX, one with phosgene and one with sodium cyanide), and seven using biological agents (four with anthrax and three with botulinum toxin). The Japanese government further suspects Aum Shinrikyo in another 13 attacks that remain unsolved. The group also reportedly killed several dissident members using VX nerve agent.

Included among Aum Shinrikyo's attacks were several large-scale operations. For example, in April of 1990, the group used a fleet of three trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to release liquid botulinum toxin on the Imperial Palace, the Diet and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and two U.S. naval bases and the airport in Narita.

Between June and August of 1993, the group sprayed thousands of gallons of liquid anthrax in Tokyo. It used sprayers mounted on the roof of their headquarters on two occasions, and it also conducted two attacks with sprayer trucks, one against the Diet and the other against the Imperial Palace and the Tokyo Tower. In June of 1994, Aum Shinrikyo used a van equipped with a sarin dispenser to attempt to kill three judges hearing a case against the group. The judges, who all lived in the same dormitory, survived the attack when the wind blew the sarin away from the building, but seven people in the neighborhood were killed. Aum Shinrikyo's most successful attack was in March 1995, when members of the group punctured 11 sarin-filled plastic bags on five different subway trains, killing 12 people. Aum Shinrikyo's team of highly trained scientists worked under ideal conditions in a first-world country with a virtually unlimited budget. The team worked in large, modern facilities to produce substantial quantities of chemical and biological weapons. Despite the millions of dollars the group spent on its CBW program, however, it still faced problems in creating virulent biological agents, and it also found it difficult to dispense those agents in an effective manner. Because of these problems, the militants succeeded in killing only a handful of people, and they did not cause the global Armageddon they endeavored to create. Aum Shinrikyo's example shows us that creating and dispensing chemical and biological agents effectively on a large scale simply is not as easy as some would have us believe. The March train bombings in Madrid provide an interesting comparison to the 1995 subway attacks. In many ways, the attacks were similar: both groups placed multiple devices in the commuter train system and intended to create maximum casualties. However, the conventional improvised explosive device used in Madrid is estimated to have cost only $10,000 to manufacture —only a small fraction of what it cost Aum Shinrikyo to develop its CBW program. Yet, despite the great disparity in cost, the Tokyo subway attack killed 12, and the Madrid bombings killed 191. Al Qaeda has a history of attempting to commit spectacular terrorist attacks. Sometimes they have succeeded. As STRATFOR has argued, al Qaeda is under tremendous pressure to commit another attack — and a spectacular one at that. As the Aum Shinrikyo and the post-Sept. 11 anthrax-letter cases in the United States proved, chemical and biological weapons do cause a lot of panic, but when employed in limited quantities they will not create the number of casualties that al Qaeda is seeking. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and its allies have actively pursued al Qaeda. The network has had millions of dollars of its assets seized in a number of countries, and it no longer has the safe haven of Afghanistan from which to operate. In other words, is in a very different place organizationally than was Aum Shinrikyo during the 1990s. Al Qaeda cannot easily build large modern factories capable of producing thousands of gallons of agents or toxins. It certainly can create small quantities of these compounds, but not enough to wreak the kind of damage it desires. Of course, we are discussing al Qaeda prime, and not the larger jihadist universe. Independent cells and lone wolves will almost certainly attempt to brew some of the recipes in the al Qaeda cookbook. STRATFOR believes that the al Qaeda network intends to conduct another terrorist spectacular — and will do so if and when it can. We also believe that it is far more likely to utilize conventional explosives — with or without a radiological kicker — than the VX, sarin and mustard gas mentioned in the CIA pamphlet.

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