May 10, 2005,
Reportedly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has either a nuclear bomb or the materials for a "dirty bomb." Whether that is true remains to be discovered, but it does raise the question how much do we know about al Qaeda's WMD program. Not surprisingly Osama bin Laden views the acquisition of WMD capabilities as a right and religious duty for an Islamist. As such al Qaeda established an organizational structure for its WMD-development program.
A few months ago, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat began publishing excerpts and a review of a book entitled The Story of the Arab Afghans From the Time of Arrival in Afghanistan Until Their Departure With the Taliban. This was reportedly authored by a senior religious leader, possibly even a member of the Shura Council, of al Qaeda. Although it was not focused on the WMD issue it did provide some important insights that may have been missed and that are even more relevant in light of the Zarqawi reports.
One key was that Abu-Hafs al-Masri, a.k.a. Mohammed Atef, in the role of military commander (a position analogous to the secretary of defense for al Qaeda, i.e. number 3), was personally in charge of al Qaeda's efforts to gain a WMD capability. Bin Laden himself, sometime in the early 1990s, added this duty to the position. In fact, Atef's predecessor, Abu-Ubaydah al-Banshiri, was on a mission to procure material for a dirty bomb possibly part of the embassy-bombing plot originally planned for 1996 but delayed until 1998 when he drowned in Lake Victoria in May of 1996.
Atef's personal oversight of al Qaeda's WMD programs means that Zarqawi, as the commander of al Qaeda's WMD training camps in Afghanistan (where the videos of choking dogs were filmed), would have reported directly to Atef. Zarqawi would likely have been assigned to this post personally by Atef. This could indicate that Zarqawi was not only a direct subordinate of Atef's in al Qaeda's WMD program but might have been Atef's prodigy.
Following Atef's death in November 2001, Abu Zubaydah became the military commander until his capture in Pakistan on March 28, 2002. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed then assumed this position until his capture in March 2003. During this time Saif al-Adil, who took the place of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Zarqawi were in Tehran under the protection of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Zarqawi is believed to have remained in Iran until sometime in late October 2002, when he was involved in the killing of a USAID official in Amman.
Interestingly, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence services, Haydar al-Shammari, claimed that his commander Col. Abu-Wail ordered him to aid al Qaeda members fleeing from Afghanistan to enter Iraq through Jordan and Syria, where they joined up with Ansar al-Islam. This included experts in explosives, car bombs, and chemical weapons. This might explain why Zarqawi entered from Jordan rather than Iran.
Yet his arrival in Jordan and his subsequent travel on a Syrian passport, which was the reason Iran refused to extradite him to Jordan in 2003, could also indicate a dangerous connection between the IRGC, al Qaeda, and the A. Q. Khan Network. The Pioneer, an Indian newspaper, reported that Dr. Khan agreed with Iraqi intelligence to smuggle unspecified Iraqi WMD-related materials from Syria to Pakistan for safekeeping before the return of U.N. inspectors. In October 2002 Dr. Khan had a plane that, after delivering nuclear material to Iran, flew on to Syria before returning to Pakistan. It is possible that the IRGC, which oversees Iran's nuclear program and coordination with al Qaeda, used this flight to move Zarqawi and others to Syria.
Zarqawi entered Iraq in November 2002 and remained traveling between the Ansar al-Islam bases near Al-Sulaymaniyah, where he was reportedly attempting to establish a WMD training camp and Baghdad until February 2003, when in anticipation of U.S. combat operations he returned to Iran. At that time Zarqawi and Adil, in an IRGC safe house, developed al Qaeda's strategy for Iraq. Part of that strategy involved Zarqawi's taking personal charge of al Qaeda's Iraqi operations. Zarqawi remained with Adil in Iran until August 2003, when he returned, with the aid of the IRGC, to Iraq. Since that time, Zarqawi, who appears now to be a direct subordinate of Adil, has continued with Adil to coordinate al Qaeda's terrorist operations in Iraq. It should also be noted that in addition to his involvement in Iraq, Zarqawi has been implicated in planned attacks, potentially involving chemicals, in Rome and London as well as a poison cream produced in Chechnya and intercepted in Turkey, which it is believed was designed for assassinations.
Another point of consideration is that al Qaeda has named the front organization for its large-scale operations "Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades," Atef's al Qaeda name. This is interesting considering that Atef planned and oversaw every major attack against U.S. interests from 1996 until his death in 2001. In addition it was through this same front that al Qaeda claimed responsibility for attacks in Egypt, Turkey, and Spain. This was also the front with which al Qaeda chose to threaten resumption of operations against Europe and following the reelection of President Bush, saying "your choice is going to drag you into intolerable hell."
Whether or not al Qaeda is already in possession of a crude WMD capability, after all we have been warned that it is only a matter of time before a terrorist acquires and attempts to use such weapons, it is more important that we be willing to honestly examine connections such as those mentioned above and then act on that knowledge in order to prevent any such attack.
Christopher Brown works for the Transitions to Democracy Project at the Hudson Institute.