- Oct 10, 2009
Al Qaeda's Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction
The authoritative timeline.
BY ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN | JANUARY 25, 2010
BY ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN | JANUARY 25, 2010
In 1998, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden declared that acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was his Islamic duty -- an integral part of his jihad. Systemically, over the course of decades, he dispatched his top lieutenants to attempt to purchase or develop nuclear and biochemical WMD. He has never given up the goal; indeed, in a 2007 video, he repeated his promise to use massive weapons to upend the global status quo, destroy the capitalist hegemony, and help create an Islamic caliphate.
Since the mid-1990s, al Qaeda's WMD procurement efforts have been managed at the most senior levels, under rules of strict compartmentalization from lower levels of the organization, and with central control over possible targets and the timing of prospective attacks. The modus operandi has been top-down -- more similar to the 9/11 attacks than to more recent bottom-up efforts, like the attempted bombing of Flight 253. For instance, al Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri personally shepherded the group's ultimately unsuccessful efforts to set off an anthrax attack in the United States.
Al Qaeda concentrated its efforts on nuclear devices in the run-up to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Based on the timing and nature of its WMD-related activity in the 1990s, al Qaeda hoped to use such weapons in the United States during an intensified campaign following the 9/11 attacks. There is no indication that the fundamental objectives that lie behind its WMD intent have changed over time.
Al Qaeda seems to have failed in its mission to successfully detonate WMD due to its overpowering interest in such big-casualty, big-impression attacks. The organization has not pursued simpler, cheaper, and easier-to-use technologies, like crude toxins and poisons, with anything like the same fervor. To be sure, experimentation with and training in such agents was standard fare in al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan before 9/11. But bin Laden and his top associates left the initiative to lower-ranking planners and individual cells. Once, Zawahiri even canceled a planned attack on the New York City subway in lieu of "something better" that never materialized.
But just because "something better" has never materialized, and just because the threat of WMD terrorism has been used to political ends, does not mean that WMD are not a threat. This chronology provides the knowable extent of al Qaeda's interest in, plans to obtain, and efforts to use the world's most deadly weapons.
1988: Osama bin Laden founds al Qaeda. Other founding members include Jamal al-Fadl, Abu Ayoub al-Iraqi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Dr. Fadhl al-Masry.
Winter 1990 - Spring 1991: Bin Laden and his associates relocate to Khartoum, Sudan.
Feb. 26, 1993: A car bomb is detonated under the World Trade Center in New York City. According to Federal Judge Kevin Duffy, the goal of al Qaeda mastermind Ramzi Youssef was to "engulf the victims trapped in the North Trade Tower in a cloud of cyanide gas." The explosion incinerates the gas, greatly decreasing the number of casualties. Five people die.
Late 1993 - early 1994: Al Qaeda tries to acquire uranium in Sudan to use in a nuclear device. This is the first evidence of bin Laden's plans to purchase nuclear material for an improvised nuclear device.
Evidence of this attempted transaction comes from Fadl, who defected from al Qaeda in 1996 and became a source for the FBI and CIA. He testifies in court that former Sudanese President Saleh Mobruk attempted to help al Qaeda acquire uranium of South African origin. Fadl says he heard later that the uranium, which al Qaeda acquired for $1.5 million and was tested in Cyprus, was "genuine."
1996: Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (which later merged into al Qaeda), is detained and released by the state security service in Russia. There is unconfirmed speculation that Zawahiri was seeking nuclear weapons or material there.
May 21, 1996: Abu Ubeida al-Banshiri, a founder of al Qaeda, dies in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria. According to testimony from senior al Qaeda officials, he was seeking nuclear material in southern Africa.
May 1996: Al Qaeda's leadership relocates to Afghanistan.
Early 1998: Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) merges with al Qaeda. Zawahiri and EIJ bring technological know-how about chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons to the more ideological al Qaeda. Zawahiri takes control of nuclear and biological weapons development for the whole organization.
Before this time, high-ranking al Qaeda members had held internal discussions about the wisdom and efficacy of pursuing chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear interests. 1998 marked the year when systematic and programmatic efforts began.
Feb. 23, 1998: Bin Laden issues a fatwa against the United States, saying, "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."
Aug. 7, 1998: Al Qaeda initiates simultaneous suicide truck-bomb attacks at the U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. At least 230 civilians, mostly locals, die. The FBI places bin Laden on its "10 most wanted" list and starts monitoring al Qaeda closely.
Aug. 20, 1998: The United States destroys the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, based on suspicions that the plant might be producing the nerve agent VX for the Sudanese government and al Qaeda.
Dec. 24, 1998: Osama bin Laden states in an interview with Time's Rahimullah Yusufzai: "Acquiring [WMD] for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty."
1999-2001: Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan conduct basic training courses in chemical, biological, and radiological weapons for hundreds of extremists. Abu Khabab al-Masri, a chemist and top bomb-maker, and Abu Musab al-Suri (better known as Setmariam), a Spanish citizen born in Syria, conduct the training courses at the Durante and Tarnak farms.
Setmariam is captured in a raid in Pakistan on Nov. 3, 2005. The outspoken proponent of using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons in attacks against the United States tells authorities that al Qaeda had made a mistake by not utilizing WMD on Sept. 11, 2001.
Early 1999: Zawahiri recruits a midlevel Pakistani government biologist with extremist sympathies, Rauf Ahmed, to develop a biological weapons program. He is provided with a laboratory in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Early 1999: The head of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al Qaeda-associated militant Islamist group based in southwest Asia, introduces an ex-Malaysian Army captain and California Polytechnic State University (better known as CalPoly) graduate, Yazid Sufaat, to Zawahiri.