Thursday, October 18, 2007

David Ignatius on a possibly nuclear Al Qaeda

Today, Oct. 18, 2007, there are multiple copies of a syndicated column by David Ignatius, “Al Qaeda’s Search for Nukes” at PrairiePundit is a typical example. Here is the link.

The column is alarming, with evidence of attempts by Al Qaeda to try to acquire such weapons as early as 1993, and with the interpretation of a called-off cyanide attack in 2003 as meaning something bigger was coming.

The article discusses Department of Energy official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who he says "is paid to think about the unthinkable." There is very little of Mowatt-Larssen's work directly accessible on the Net. However, this is a link to a counterintelligence plan, and it describes such measures as polygraph tests (which will probably be replaced eventually with MRI "brain scan" lie detection technology discussed recently in the media).

In a sense, however, some of this is familiar. As far back as 1999, ABC Nightline had simulated an anthrax subway attack, two years before 9/11. One week before 9/11 Popular Science had described a scenario for an electromagnetic pulse attack. The media and Internet have been filled with stories as to how nuclear weapons (about the size of a refrigerator) could be manufactured and hidden by lead to escape port security, or be assembled in clandestine fashion somewhere in the US. There have been stories of “suitcase nukes” missing from Russia (and some of them in possession of Pakistan, which could fall into terrorist hands if Musharraf falls). Sam Nunn and others have set up a group called Last Best Chance aimed at security loose nuclear material from around the world, especially in former Soviet republics. A recent strike by Israel into Syria sounds like a security step to control proliferation. One of the most important books on this risk is Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Times Books, 2004).

The control of access to loose material seems like an item of highest priority, and questions about the stability of Russia (as raised by Garry Kasparov) make one wonder how completely successful an attempt to account for everything can be. Stability of old enemies like Russia and China, as well as the continued issue of North Korea, are major concerns in preventing some future huge tragedy.

Late today, major media outlets reported an assassination attempt, with many fatalities, on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned to Pakistan and visited the large coastal city Karachi. She left in 1999. She was well known to support US efforts to root Al Qaeda out of Pakistan. Even though the deepest support for bin Laden is thought to be in the rural Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, many activities supporting Al Qaeda may have taken place in that city over the years (as depicted in the movie A Mighty Heart this year). Bin Laden is known to have visited there various times before 9/11 and could conceivably escape on the Indian Ocean there.

Pakistan, remember, is a nuclear power, with some smaller or suitcase nukes in its possession, and these could fall into the wrong hands quickly. Musharraf himself is a military dictator, an ally of the U.S. when in uniform for mainly temporary political reasons. Alan Greenspan, in his new book The Age of Turbulence, writes in a cursory footnote on p 469, "A nuclear detonation on U.S. soil, I fear, could temporarily unhinge our economy." Euphemism to be sure.

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