Contemplating the Unthinkable
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow February 2, 2017
In decades past, Americans looked across the oceans and worried about the threats posed by powerful states and empires: the British Empire, the Kaiser’s Germany, Imperial Japan, Hitler’s Reich, the Soviet Union. In an ironic twist of history, it’s not powerful nations that occupy most of our attention today, but rather small transnational groups and even individuals that have the means and motives to do unimaginable damage to our country. Armed with portable nuclear devices, makeshift radiological bombs or other WMDs, these 21st-century enemies with 20th-century technologies could throw America’s high-tech society backwards to pre-industrial days.
The targets on September 11—United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 toppled the World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, Flight 93 was headed for the White House—offer a glimpse of what these enemies want to do: destroy our economy and prosperity, cripple our military, and decapitate our government. As then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned after the attacks, our jihadist enemies “would, if they could, go further and use chemical or biological or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction.” The only thing preventing them from using such weapons is their inability to buy, steal or build such weapons. “We have been warned by the events of 11 September,” Blair concluded. “We should act on the warning.”
But the American people—and their government—have grown complacent in the intervening years. For instance, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said last summer that Washington’s efforts to deal with climate change were “of equal importance” to “the challenge of…terrorism.” During his administration, President Barack Obama said “the tide of war is receding,” declared al Qaeda “on the path to defeat” and described ISIS as a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.” And just before he left office, Obama bafflingly announced, “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland,” even though terrorists connected to ISIS attacked San Bernardino and Orlando, and a terrorist connected to al Qaeda attacked Ft. Hood.
Taking their cues from their political leaders, Americans expressed less concern about terrorism during the Obama presidency than during the Bush presidency.
Yet our jihadist enemies are far from defeat. As Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly concluded before he traded in his fatigues for a suit and tie, “Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.”
From the very beginning, al Qaeda and its kindred movements have sought the weapons that can “kill every one of us”—nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. As the late Gen. Wayne Downing put it during his tenure as White House adviser for counterterrorism, al Qaeda is “obsessed” with “radiological dispersion devices…[and] nuclear weapons.” Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, noted that bin Laden sought help from Iraq and Sudan in the 1990s “on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons acquisition and development.”
We know that al Qaeda has tried repeatedly to acquire nuclear weapons and other WMDs—uranium from Sudan and South Africa, nuclear weapons materials from Russia and from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network, homegrown biological weapons in Afghanistan, chemical weapons from Libya—dating as far back as 1993-94
We know that al Qaeda recruit Jose Padilla planned to explode a “dirty bomb”—a crude radiological device wrapped around explosive materials—in the United States.
We know that terrorists under the command of al Qaeda’s Abu Musab Zarqawi carried out WMD experiments in northeastern Iraq—a year before the U.S. invasion.
We know that al Qaeda planned ricin and cyanide attacks in Britain, Spain, Italy and France in 2003.
A 2014 report delivered by Gen. Michael Flynn, who now serves as National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump, revealed that U.S. agencies were “concerned about the potential for terrorists to acquire Syrian WMD materials…Determined groups and individuals, as well as the proliferation networks they tie into, often work to sidestep international detection and avoid export‐controls.”
As Flynn feared, ISIS and al Qaeda are known to have used WMDs such as cyanide gas, chlorine and sulfur-mustard in terrorist operations and battlefield engagements. Just last month, as they cleared eastern Mosul of ISIS fighters, Iraqi troops came upon sulfur-mustard agent alongside Russian-built missiles. And ISIS recently boasted it could purchase an off-the-shelf nuclear device from elements inside Pakistan in order “to do something big.”
In short, this enemy desperately wants to inflict unimaginable death and destruction onto the United States and the rest of the civilized world. That explains why defeating this enemy—not containing or degrading or disrupting it—is the great task of our time; why it is so important that this enemy not be allowed safe haven (like Afghanistan up until October 7, 2001, Iraq before 2003 and between 2011 and 2014, and Syria before 2014); why this enemy cannot be allowed easy pathways into the U.S.
Consider the above litany in the context of two other realities: 1) the availability of small, easily transportable nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and other WMDs, and 2) the inadequacy of America’s border security and border controls.
After the Cold War ended, ex-Soviet officials reported that dozens of “suitcase nukes” or “backpack nukes” were unaccounted for. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed and deployed small, highly portable nuclear devices (the “Davey Crockett Weapon System” was America’s smallest nuclear device; the Soviets had “portable atomic demolition munitions”), but experts in the U.S. and Russia continue to debate reports that any of Russia’s portable nuclear devices were lost or stolen.
Even so, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report notes that Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are “less secure” than its other nuclear assets. CRS also raises concerns that disgruntled elements of the Pakistani military “might covertly give a weapon to terrorists” or that “an Islamic fundamentalist government or a state of chaos in Pakistan might enable terrorists to obtain a weapon.”
If terrorists were able to acquire a small nuclear device, CRS concludes they would likely smuggle it into the U.S. “across lightly-guarded stretches of borders, ship it in using a cargo container, place it in a crude oil tanker, or bring it in using a truck, a boat or a small airplane.” As CRS reports, studies exploring the consequences of terrorists detonating even a small-yield nuclear device (just two-thirds the size of the Hiroshima bomb) in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station make 9/11 look like a stroll through the park: 500,000 people killed immediately, hundreds of thousands more injured and affected by the fallout, “much of lower Manhattan permanently destroyed,” and direct costs of more than $1 trillion.
It may sound like the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel, but this unthinkable scenario is exactly what our enemies are contemplating.
For example, Ayman Zawahiri, who took over as al Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death, claimed in 2001 that “We purchased some suitcase bombs” on “the black market in central Asia.” Given al Qaeda’s single-minded desire to wreak death and destruction in the West, the terror superpower would have used its suitcase nukes by now, if it truly possessed such weapons. In other words, Zawahiri either was lying in hopes of deterring the U.S. or was the victim of a bait-and-switch con. Regardless, we know that “al Qaeda had a focused nuclear weapons program and repeatedly attempted to buy stolen nuclear bomb material and recruit nuclear expertise,” as a Belfer Center report concludes.
As another example, consider what North Korea’s military is training to do: In the event of renewed hostilities with South Korea, North Korea plans to send elite units across the DMZ to smuggle “nuclear backpacks” into South Korea, which would then be detonated and spread radioactive and/or radiological material across large swaths of the ROK.
As to America’s woeful border security, before leaving his post at SOUTHCOM, Kelly noted that “terrorist organizations could seek to leverage” smuggling routes into our southern borders “to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens.” These human smuggling networks, he explained, are “so efficient that if a terrorist or almost anyone wants to get into our country, they just pay the fare.” He grimly added that “The amount of movement and the sophistication of the network overwhelms our ability to stop everything.”
The Honduran press has uncovered “a criminal network that paid Honduran officials to illegally register foreigners as legal residents, which gave them access to documents that could then be used to gain broader access to the Western Hemisphere,” as The Washington Times reports. At least 100 Palestinians and Syrians obtained these fraudulent documents. (If that number doesn’t raise concerns, recall that just 19 al Qaeda operatives maimed Manhattan and the Pentagon, and that a seven-man ISIS assault team laid siege to Paris, murdering 130.)
Adm. Kurt Tidd, current SOUTHCOM commander, reports that ISIS has attracted 100 to 150 recruits from Latin America, and he confirms that an unknown number have returned, or attempted to return, to the Americas from the Iraq-Syria battlefront.
In 2011, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano raised concerns about collaboration between Mexican drug cartels and jihadist terrorists. “We have, for some time, been thinking about what would happen if, say, al Qaeda were to unite with the Zetas” cartel.
None of this is intended to cause alarm, but rather to re-remind our countrymen of the dangers we face; to alert the public to the threat posed by portable nuclear weapons, radiological devices, chemical and biological weapons, and other WMDs; and to make the case for measures to detect, defeat and mitigate against these threats. In the next issue, we explore how U.S. agencies are doing just that.