Terrorism and WMD: A FOX Fan Expert Forum

Dr. Jim Walsh
Dr. Jim Walsh disagrees with Mansoor Ijaz on Iran, and responds to arguments made by Col. Hunt, and Evan Kohlmann on Al Qaeda:

It has been seven months since the fall of Baghdad, and while there have been dozens of attacks every week – sometimes daily – none of these attacks have involved WMD.  If the remnants of Saddam’s government or Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq had WMD, they probably would have used it by now.  After interviewing scores of Iraqi scientists, military officers, and intelligence personnel, the consensus is that Saddam Hussein destroyed or got rid of his chemical and biological weapons sometime in the early 1990s

I agree with Mansoor Ijaz: given the current circumstances in Iraq, it would be difficult for terrorists to build the kind of laboratories and related facilities required to construct new, military grade, chemical and biological weapons.

With regards to Iran, however, I must respectfully disagree with Mansoor Ijaz.  There are elements in Iran that oppose better relations with the U.S. and would like to cause trouble, but any move to transfer chemical or other weapons would completely undermine their recent attempt to avoid a showdown over their nuclear program. 

More generally, no country is likely to provide WMD to Iraqi-based terrorists.  First, they don’t want to suffer the consequences.  Second, despite the existence of chemical weapons since WWI and thousands of international terrorist attacks each decade of the 20th century, no country has transferred these deadly weapons.  Why?  There are many reasons, including the fact that countries do not trust terrorists, who might turn around and use the weapons against them at a later date.

Despite all the reasons why it is unlikely that U.S. forces will be attacked by WMD, it is not impossible.  If it were to happen, there are two groups that would be the probable perpetrators:

The first group consists of Saddam’s loyalists. It is possible that they could find a lost or buried chem weapon and use it.

The second group would be Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. Evan Kohlmann rightly calls Al Qaeda’s efforts in this area a “flirtation” that has been “costly, unproductive, and unprofessional.” Col. David Hunt points out that Al Qaeda has a flat organization and that operatives work in small cells.  A cell organization is precisely the wrong kind of organization for engaging in complex scientific projects where lots of people need to interact with each other and collectively solve problems.

Still, Al Qaeda might be able to procure radiological material and make a dirty bomb, which is not a scientifically challenging task.  Worse, they might be able to get hold of a lost or stolen tactical nuclear weapon that was lacking the safeguards that would prevent unauthorized use.

The other bad news here is that neither Saddam’s Baathists nor Al Qaeda can be deterred from attacking.  Saddam was probably deterrable before the invasion, but now he has nothing to lose.  Al Qaeda was never deterrable.  It is a non-state actor on a religious/political mission.

 "We have not secured nuclear materials and established 
a global system of bio-surveillance"

The best way to reduce the danger of a WMD attack, particularly a nuclear attack, is to prevent the terrorists from getting access to the materials required for such weapons.  For example, there are about 600 metric tons of nuclear bomb material in the former Soviet Union.  Without nuclear material, a terrorist cannot make a nuclear bomb.  The government has made some effort in this area, but it has been slow and has lacked political priority. 

As for biological weapons, the key is early intervention and protection before diseases spread out of control.  An early warning system would help reduce the risks of biological weapons and would have the added benefit of promoting public health in countries around the world.

My concern is that neither the President nor the Congress, neither Democrats nor Republicans, have demonstrated the political will to take the actions that would reduce the risk of a WMD attack.  Abroad, we have not secured nuclear materials and established a global system of bio-surveillance.  At home, our ports continue to be vulnerable.  Crazy as it sounds, we have not done what is required to protect us from the most terrible tragedy this country might ever suffer.

Dr. Jim Walsh is Executive Director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.  Dr. Walsh's research and writings focus on international security, and in particular, topics involving weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Middle East.

Dr. Walsh has testified before the United States Senate on the issue of nuclear terrorism. He also chairs the International Working Group on Radiological Weapons. He serves as editor for the book series, Terrorism: Documents of International & Local Control, and is currently working on a book about Iran.