The publisher of online newspaper World Net Daily alleged in an Aug. 2 interview with daily political magazine FrontPageMagazine.com that al Qaeda has nuclear weapons within the United States and is preparing to unleash an "American Hiroshima." Publisher Joseph Farah claims al Qaeda has been planning a large-scale nuclear attack for years, and that at least some of its nuclear weapons have been smuggled into the United States over the Mexican border with the help of local criminal gangs. In the same interview, however, Farah contradicted himself, claiming the devices were smuggled into American cities by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Although it is known that al Qaeda has long been interested in acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the likelihood that the network possesses functional nuclear weapons is remote. From time to time, various groups or individuals have made the assertion that al Qaeda, or groups such as Chechen militants possess nuclear weapons,
possibly in the form of "briefcase nukes," compact, portable nuclear devices that supposedly were developed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The premise here is that these groups have acquired nuclear weapons from Soviet-era stockpiles. Given Russia's questionable ability to maintain nuclear surety during and after the Soviet period, it would not be impossible for militant groups to have acquired such devices. Russian security sources, however, say Chechen militants and other groups lack the training to properly operate and maintain such weapons. They are, in fact, more intricate than larger missile warheads. More importantly, because of the potentially devastating consequences, the longer the terrorists held on to such a weapon, the greater the chance it would be discovered by authorities and destroyed. In the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has devoted a huge proportion of its recourses to the investigation and interdiction of WMD, even to the extent of failing to fully assess other possible threats. Detection capabilities for potential WMD have greatly improved since the Sept. 11 attacks, with detection systems installed in major U.S. cities and issued to first responders. Furthermore, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and major police departments check storage facility sites and run name checks on storage-space renters, which also helps reduce the probability of nuclear devices being assembled or stored at these sites. Although these checks are mainly an effort to interdict conventional bombs, they could easily uncover the existence of a nuclear device. Of course, some cities are better prepared than others, with New York perhaps the most vigilant of all. Al Qaeda has often said it is engaged in an all-out war with the United States, and that any and all U.S. interests — from military personnel to civilian non-combatants — are fair game for attacks. Furthermore, al Qaeda tried to acquire a nuclear capability for many years prior to Sept. 11 — as Osama bin Laden publicly acknowledged in a Dec. 23, 1998 interview. "I would say that acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty … If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then this is an obligation I carried out and I thank god for enabling us to do that ... But how we could use these weapons, if we possess them, is up to us." In light of such statements, security regarding WMD has been tightened considerably since Sept. 11 — suggesting it would have been easier to acquire such weapons before September 2001. If al Qaeda had had WMD at that time, it would have used them instead of airplanes. The idea that these devices are pre-positioned in American cities and that al Qaeda is awaiting a significant date to unleash them is simply preposterous. First, dates and anniversaries are not particularly important to al Qaeda. Second, such a weapon would be its crown jewel — and the network would never run the risk of it being discovered by leaving it hidden for long periods. Considering all the resources that would have to be expended and the risk associated with using a nuclear weapon, a terrorist group would get a much higher return from carrying out more conventional attacks, similar to the Madrid train bombings or the London Underground bombings. Farah's theory is that al Qaeda might have sub-contracted the delivery and operation of its nuclear weapons to Mara Salvatrucha criminal gangs and former Soviet KGB agents and Spetznats commandos. If al Qaeda possessed such weapons, however, they certainly would be the most valuable physical assets controlled by the network — and their operation would be closely coordinated with the core leadership, perhaps even with the direct knowledge of bin Laden. The operatives assigned to deliver and operate the weapon would be drawn from al Qaeda's most trusted inner circles, chosen for their loyalty and commitment to the cause. Because of this, custody and operation of the weapons would probably not be trusted to infidel criminal gangs and former enemies. The very existence of "briefcase nukes" also is questionable. Some have claimed that perhaps 100 such weapons from the former Soviet arsenal are unaccounted for. With so many of these devices supposedly on the loose, it is logical to assume that some trace of at least one of them would have been uncovered by either Russian, U.S., British, French, German, or Israeli intelligence. To date, this has not happened. It is important to keep in mind that these are complex devices that require a great deal of regular, careful maintenance. They do not have an indefinite shelf life. Speculation about terrorists possessing and using nuclear weapons has been making the rounds for years. Because of the exponentially increasing risk associated with holding onto a nuclear device, however, any group that possesses one would use it sooner, rather than later. If al Qaeda had a nuclear device, it would have used it by now.