Al-Qaeda and Weapons of Mass Destruction

REPORT

DOES INTENT EQUAL CAPABILITY?

Al-Qaeda and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Sammy Salama and Lydia Hansell

The prospect of terrorists deploying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is often referred to as the

foremost danger to American national security. This danger has become more realistic because of

al-Qaeda’s expanding global network and the expressed willingness to kill thousands of civilians.

In the past four years, numerous media reports have documented the group’s ongoing quest for

WMD capabilities; many reports have detailed al-Qaeda members’ attempts to manufacture or

obtain certain chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents to use in WMD

against targets in the West and the Middle East. Yet the question remains: Does al-Qaeda’s current

WMD capability match its actual intent? While most studies of the group have focused on its

explicit desire for WMD, allegations of CBRN acquisition, and the killing potential of specific CBRN

agents, few open-source studies have closely examined the evolution of al-Qaeda’s consideration

of WMD and, most notably, the merit of actual CBRN production instructions as depicted and

disseminated in the group’s own literature and manuals. The following report will examine the

history of al-Qaeda’s interest in CBRN agents, the evolution of the network’s attitude toward these

weapons, and the internal debate within the organization concerning acquisition and use of

WMD. More so, the following research will assess the validity of actual CBRN production

instructions and capabilities as displayed and disseminated in al-Qaeda’s own literature and

websites.

KEYWORDS: Al-Qaeda; Terrorism; WMD terrorism; Nuclear; Biological; Chemical; Radiological;

CBRN; Terrorist manuals; Uranium; Radium; Plague; Ricin; Cyanide; Hydrogen sulfide; Mustard

gas; Botulinum toxin; Cesium 137; RDD; Dirty bomb; Osama Bin Laden; Abu Musab – al

Zarqawi; Nuclear preparation encyclopedia; WMD Fatwa

The prospect of terrorists deploying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is the foremost

danger to U.S. national security. During the 2004 U.S. presidential debates, the danger of

WMD terrorism was one of the few topics on which both candidates agreed. Since the

September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks in the United States, this danger has become more

realistic because of al-Qaeda’s expanding global network and its expressed willingness to

kill thousands of civilians. In the past four years, there have been numerous media reports

concerning the group’s ongoing quest for WMD capabilities; many reports have detailed

al-Qaeda members’ attempts to manufacture or obtain certain chemical, biological,

radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents to use as a weapon of mass destruction against

targets in the West and the Middle East. Yet the question remains: Does al-Qaeda’s current

WMD capability match its actual intent?

Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No 3, November 2005 ISSN 1073-6700 print/ISSN 1746-1766 online/05/030615-39

– 2005 The Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

DOI: 10.1080/10736700600601236

While most studies of the group have focused on its explicit desire for WMD,

allegations of CBRN acquisition, and the killing potential of specific CBRN agents, few

open-source studies have closely examined the evolution of al-Qaeda’s consideration of

WMD and most notably, the merit of actual CBRN production instructions as depicted and

disseminated in the group’s own literature and manuals. Yet monitoring and analysis of

primary al-Qaeda literature provides the most revealing window into the actual

motivations, goals, and capabilities of al-Qaeda.

It is not the objective of this report to examine al-Qaeda’s ability and desire to target

chemical and nuclear facilities within the United States. The prospect of such incidents is

worthy of separate and lengthy in-depth investigation and is beyond the scope of this

particular research. Nor is it the intent of this report to explore alleged weaknesses of

certain American industries to a WMD attack, a topic that has recently attracted much

attention in the U.S. news. This report will examine the history of al-Qaeda’s interest in

CBRN agents, the evolution of the network’s attitude toward these weapons, and the

internal debate within the organization concerning acquisition and use of WMD. More so,

the following research will assess the validity of actual CBRN production instructions and

capabilities as displayed and disseminated in al-Qaeda’s own literature, manuals, and

websites. This sort of analysis on issues of nonproliferation and international terrorism is

not often covered in open-source research.

What is al-Qaeda?

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