It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God. Osama bin Laden, "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam"
"WHY DO YOU use an axe when you can use a bulldozer?" That wasOsama bin Laden's question in 1996 to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,the chief planner of what grew into the most deadly attack on theAmerican homeland in the nation's history. Mohammed is now inAmerican custody, the highest-ranking Al Qaeda leader captured todate in the war on terrorism. He has told interrogators that the"axe" to which bin Laden referred was his proposal to charter asmall plane, fill it with explosives, and crash it into CIA headquartersin Langley, Virginia. Bin Laden sent him back to the drawingboard with a charge to devise a more dramatic, devastating blowagainst the "hated enemy."
In the months that followed, Mohammed proposed a number of"bulldozer" options for bin Laden's review. As he explained in an AlJazeera interview in April 2002, just before he was seized, he andhis colleagues "first thought of striking a couple of nuclear facilities."But with regret, he noted, "it was eventually decided to leaveout the nuclear targets-for now." When the interviewer asked:"What do you mean 'for now'?" he replied sharply: "For now meansfor now."
AL QAEDA'S "MANHATTAN PROJECT"
In August 2001, during the final countdown to what Al Qaeda callsthe "Holy Tuesday" attack, bin Laden received two key former officialsfrom Pakistan's nuclear weapons program at his secret headquartersnear Kabul. Over the course of three days of intenseconversation, he and his second-in-command, the Egyptian surgeonand organizational mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri, quizzedSultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed about chemical,biological, and, especially, nuclear weapons. Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri,and two other as yet unidentified top-level Al Qaeda operatives whoparticipated in these conversations had clearly moved beyond theimpending assault on the World Trade Center to visions of granderattacks to follow.
Mahmood and Majeed's meeting with the leaders of Al Qaedacame at the end of months of prior meetings with subordinates. AlQaeda had sought out Mahmood, one of Pakistan's leading specialistsin uranium enrichment, for his capabilities, his convictions,and his connections. Mahmood's career spanned thirty years at thePakistani Atomic Energy Commission, and he had been a key figureat the Kahuta plant, which had produced the enriched uranium forPakistan's first nuclear bomb test. Thereafter, he headed the Khosibreactor in the Punjab that produces weapons-grade plutonium. In1999, however, he was forced to resign abruptly for describingPakistan's nuclear capability as "the property of a whole Muslimcommunity" and for publicly advocating that Pakistan provideenriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium to arm otherMuslim states. But even though the government of Pakistan vehementlydenounced Mahmood's views, it had been surreptitiouslyfollowing a similar policy, having offered or supplied uranium enrichmenttechnology and know-how to Iraq, Libya, Iran, and evenNorth Korea.
Mahmood is representative of a significant faction of Pakistani"nuclear hawks" who through the 1990s grew increasingly estrangedfrom the country's more moderate leadership. Under the leadershipof Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the revered "father of the Islamicbomb," these scientists had thrust Pakistan into the ranks of thedeclared nuclear powers, and through their work they becamesome of the most respected members of Pakistani society. But formany of them, the mission was not only to overcome India's conventionalsuperiority but to stand up for the Muslim world. AsPrime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto revealed in his memoir (writtenfrom prison just before his execution in 1979), these scientists wereordered in January 1972 to "achieve a full nuclear capability" inorder to demonstrate that "Islamic Civilization" was the full equalof "Christian, Jewish, and Hindu Civilizations."
Mahmood was-and is today-an Islamic extremist. In the late1980s, Mahmood published an essay titled "Mechanics of Doomsdayand Life after Death," in which he argued that natural catastrophesare inevitable in countries that succumb to moral decay. Incontrast, he later praised the virtues of the Taliban government inAfghanistan, which he called the vanguard of the "renaissance ofIslam." His spiritual leader, the Lahore-based Islamic radical clericIsrar Ahmad, declared in the fall of 2001 that the U.S. attack onAfghanistan was the beginning of "the final war between Islam andthe infidels." Ahmad condemned the U.S. war on terrorism as a"materialistic jihad," in contrast to the Muslims' jihad, which hecharacterized as being for "the sole purpose to gain the pleasure ofAllah and for the preservation of justice and equality." Ominously,Ahmad's student Mahmood predicted in an essay that, "by 2002,millions may die through mass destruction weapons, terrorist attacks,and suicide." After his forced departure from Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commissionin 1999, Mahmood founded a "charitable agency" that henamed Ummah Tamer-e-Nau (Reconstruction of the Muslim Community)to support projects in Afghanistan. Majeed also retired in1999 and joined Mahmood's organization. Under this cover, theytraveled frequently to Afghanistan to develop projects, one of whichcalled for mining uranium from rich deposits in that country. Othermembers of the board of Mahmood's foundation included a fellownuclear scientist knowledgeable about weapons construction, twoPakistani Air Force generals, one Army general, and an industrialistwho owned Pakistan's largest foundry.
At the time of Mahmood and Majeed's visit to bin Laden in thesummer of 2001, relations between the United States and Pakistanwere still in a deep freeze, in response to Pakistan's test of a nuclearweapon in 1998. The United States had immediately imposed economicsanctions on the country, and President Bill Clinton denouncedthe Pakistani government for its decision, saying, "I cannot believethat we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian subcontinentrepeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century whenwe know it is not necessary to peace, to security, to prosperity, tonational greatness or personal fulfillment." In 1999, relations deterioratedfurther when General Pervez Musharraf seized power in acoup d'��tat that ousted the democratically elected prime minister,Nawaz Sharif.
When reports about the August 2001 meeting reached CIAheadquarters at Langley after the attacks on the World Trade Centerand the Pentagon, alarm bells sounded. Analysts at the CounterterrorismCenter recognized the story line. In 1997, Pakistaninuclear scientists had made secret trips to North Korea, the resultof which was that Pakistan would provide North Korea with technicalassistance for its nuclear weapons program in exchange forNorth Korean assistance in Pakistan's development of long-rangemissiles. The CIA had additional information about a third Pakistaninuclear scientist, who had been negotiating with Libyan intelligenceagents over the price for which he would sell nuclear bomb designs.CIA director George Tenet was so alarmed by the report of Mahmood'smeeting with bin Laden that he flew directly to Islamabadto confront President Musharraf.
On October 23, Mahmood and Majeed were arrested by Pakistaniauthorities and questioned by joint Pakistani-CIA teams. Mahmoodclaimed that he had never met bin Laden, but repeatedly failedpolygraph tests in which he was asked about his trips to Afghanistan.His memory improved, however, after his son Asim told authoritiesthat bin Laden had asked his father about "how to make a nuclearbomb and things like that." According to Mahmood, bin Ladenwas particularly interested in nuclear weapons. Bin Laden's colleaguestold the Pakistani scientists that Al Qaeda had succeeded inacquiring nuclear material for a bomb from the Islamic Movementof Uzbekistan. Mahmood explained to his hosts that the material inquestion could be used in a dirty bomb but could not produce anuclear explosion. Al-Zawahiri and the others then sought Mahmood'shelp in recruiting other Pakistani nuclear experts who could provideuranium of the required purity, as well as assistance in constructinga nuclear weapon. Though Mahmood characterized the discussionsas "academic," Pakistani officials indicated that Mahmood andMajeed "spoke extensively about weapons of mass destruction,"and provided detailed responses to bin Laden's questions about themanufacture of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
After their arrest and interrogation, Mahmood and Majeed werefound to have violated Pakistan's official secrets act. Their passportswere lifted and they remain, in effect, under house arrest. Nonetheless,the Pakistani government refused to bring the two to trial forfear of what they might reveal about Pakistan's other secret nuclearactivities. This was not an idle fear. In a prescient article publishedless than a month before he was kidnapped and executed whileinvestigating the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, Daniel Pearl of theWall Street Journal revealed that Pakistani military authorities foundit "inconceivable that a nuclear scientist would travel to Afghanistanwithout getting clearance from Pakistani officials," because Pakistan"maintains a strict watch on many of its nuclear scientists, using aspecial arm of the Army's general headquarters to monitor themeven after retirement."
In the end, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Mahmoodand Majeed had provided bin Laden with a blueprint for constructingnuclear weapons. Thereafter, sometimes in collaboration withthe Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),and otherwise unilaterally, American operatives have sought tointercept further "vacations" in Afghanistan by Pakistani nuclearphysicists and engineers. The CIA's summary of the matter, submittedto President Bush, concluded that while Mahmood and his charityclaimed "to serve the hungry and needy of Afghanistan," in fact,it "provided information about nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda."
PATIENCE, THOUGHTFULNESS, AND EXPERTISE
Andrew Marshall, director of net assessments at the Department ofDefense and one of the wise men among national security insiders,has long warned that "if the U.S. ever faced a serious enemy, wewould be in deep trouble." Al Qaeda qualifies as a formidable foe.With an annual budget of over $200 million during the 1990s, AlQaeda brought more than sixty thousand international recruits toAfghanistan for training in terrorist attacks. It established cells,including sleeper cells, in approximately sixty countries. It createdaffiliate relationships with major terrorist groups around the world,from Chechnya to Indonesia, from Saudi Arabia to Germany, andwithin the United States itself. Indeed, an Al Qaeda sleeper cell inSingapore, among the most secure and watchful societies in theworld, was narrowly prevented from launching an attack on theU.S. and Israeli embassies there, with ten times the amount ofexplosives used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. As oneSingaporean official observed, "If they could do it here, they coulddo it anywhere."
Even before 9/11, Al Qaeda's attacks demonstrated an organizationalcapacity to plan, coordinate, and implement operations wellabove the threshold of competence necessary to acquire and use anuclear weapon. Veterans of the most successful U.S. covert actionsagree with Tenet's bottom line: the attack on the World Trade Centerand the Pentagon was "professionally conceived and executed-itshowed patience, thoughtfulness, and expertise." As an analystconducting the postmortem on that attack observed: Who else couldhave found four scheduled American flights that took off on time?
After 9/11, terrorism analysts and other specialists within theU.S. government reexamined the pattern of Al Qaeda's earlierattacks in an effort to connect the dots. When those dots are connected,they reveal a dagger pointed from Al Qaeda's February1993 attack on the World Trade Center, through the August 1998attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and thebombing of the warship USS Cole in October 2000, to the massiveattack of 9/11. Indeed, the dagger points beyond what was achievedin that case to further mega-terrorist attacks with chemical, biological,and nuclear weapons.
When U.S. Special Forces, CIA operatives, and Afghan warlordstoppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001, theU.S. government and American journalists learned more about AlQaeda than most had imagined they wanted to know. Overrunninghundreds of headquarters buildings, safe houses, training camps,and caves, they recovered tens of thousands of pages of documents,plans, videos, computers, and disks. Secretary of Defense DonaldRumsfeld found in this evidence "a number of things that show anappetite for WMD." Together with information extracted throughinterrogation of captured Al Qaeda operatives, these findings nowprovide a solid base for assessing Al Qaeda as a nuclear threat.
One of the untold stories of this drama has been the key roleplayed by journalists in acquiring critical information. In December2001, the Wall Street Journal purchased a desktop computer and alaptop computer looted from an Al Qaeda safe house that turnedout to have been used by several top bin Laden lieutenants, includingal-Zawahiri and bin Laden's former military commander, thelate Mohammed Atef. In addition to hundreds of routine lettersand memos dealing with the daily administration of Al Qaeda's terroristnetwork, the computers' hard drives contained password-protectedfiles on a project code-named "al Zabadi," Arabic for"curdled milk." The curdled milk project sought to acquire chemicaland biological weapons, and it had reached the point of testingnerve gas recipes on dogs and rabbits.
CNN discovered perhaps the most disturbing piece of evidencein the Kabul home of Abu Khabab, a senior Al Qaeda official-atwenty-five-page essay titled "Superbomb," which included informationon types of nuclear weapons, the physics and effects ofnuclear explosions, and the properties of nuclear materials. DavidAlbright, a former nuclear weapons inspector who reviewed thedocument, concluded that "the author understood shortcuts tomaking crude nuclear explosives."
Excerpted from NUCLEAR TERRORISMby GRAHAM ALLISON Copyright © 2004 by Graham Allison. Excerpted by permission.
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