Al-Qaeda and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Sammy Salama and Lydia Hansell

The prospect of terrorists deploying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is often referred to as the

foremost danger to American national security. This danger has become more realistic because of

al-Qaeda’s expanding global network and the expressed willingness to kill thousands of civilians.

In the past four years, numerous media reports have documented the group’s ongoing quest for

WMD capabilities; many reports have detailed al-Qaeda members’ attempts to manufacture or

obtain certain chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents to use in WMD

against targets in the West and the Middle East. Yet the question remains: Does al-Qaeda’s current

WMD capability match its actual intent? While most studies of the group have focused on its

explicit desire for WMD, allegations of CBRN acquisition, and the killing potential of specific CBRN

agents, few open-source studies have closely examined the evolution of al-Qaeda’s consideration

of WMD and, most notably, the merit of actual CBRN production instructions as depicted and

disseminated in the group’s own literature and manuals. The following report will examine the

history of al-Qaeda’s interest in CBRN agents, the evolution of the network’s attitude toward these

weapons, and the internal debate within the organization concerning acquisition and use of

WMD. More so, the following research will assess the validity of actual CBRN production

instructions and capabilities as displayed and disseminated in al-Qaeda’s own literature and


KEYWORDS: Al-Qaeda; Terrorism; WMD terrorism; Nuclear; Biological; Chemical; Radiological;

CBRN; Terrorist manuals; Uranium; Radium; Plague; Ricin; Cyanide; Hydrogen sulfide; Mustard

gas; Botulinum toxin; Cesium 137; RDD; Dirty bomb; Osama Bin Laden; Abu Musab – al

Zarqawi; Nuclear preparation encyclopedia; WMD Fatwa

The prospect of terrorists deploying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is the foremost

danger to U.S. national security. During the 2004 U.S. presidential debates, the danger of

WMD terrorism was one of the few topics on which both candidates agreed. Since the

September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks in the United States, this danger has become more

realistic because of al-Qaeda’s expanding global network and its expressed willingness to

kill thousands of civilians. In the past four years, there have been numerous media reports

concerning the group’s ongoing quest for WMD capabilities; many reports have detailed

al-Qaeda members’ attempts to manufacture or obtain certain chemical, biological,

radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents to use as a weapon of mass destruction against

targets in the West and the Middle East. Yet the question remains: Does al-Qaeda’s current

WMD capability match its actual intent?

Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No 3, November 2005 ISSN 1073-6700 print/ISSN 1746-1766 online/05/030615-39

– 2005 The Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

DOI: 10.1080/10736700600601236

While most studies of the group have focused on its explicit desire for WMD,

allegations of CBRN acquisition, and the killing potential of specific CBRN agents, few

open-source studies have closely examined the evolution of al-Qaeda’s consideration of

WMD and most notably, the merit of actual CBRN production instructions as depicted and

disseminated in the group’s own literature and manuals. Yet monitoring and analysis of

primary al-Qaeda literature provides the most revealing window into the actual

motivations, goals, and capabilities of al-Qaeda.

It is not the objective of this report to examine al-Qaeda’s ability and desire to target

chemical and nuclear facilities within the United States. The prospect of such incidents is

worthy of separate and lengthy in-depth investigation and is beyond the scope of this

particular research. Nor is it the intent of this report to explore alleged weaknesses of

certain American industries to a WMD attack, a topic that has recently attracted much

attention in the U.S. news. This report will examine the history of al-Qaeda’s interest in

CBRN agents, the evolution of the network’s attitude toward these weapons, and the

internal debate within the organization concerning acquisition and use of WMD. More so,

the following research will assess the validity of actual CBRN production instructions and

capabilities as displayed and disseminated in al-Qaeda’s own literature, manuals, and

websites. This sort of analysis on issues of nonproliferation and international terrorism is

not often covered in open-source research.

What is al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda is a Sunni Salafi Jihadi network with affiliates and supporters spread all over the

globe. The network formed its roots during the 1980s when Islamist ideologues began to

recruit fighters from the Muslim world to oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the

years that followed and up to today, al-Qaeda has continued to attract supporters around

the world with its international jihadist ideology. The group has gained much publicity in

the past decade following the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the

9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Whereas al-Qaeda is often envisioned as a well-defined group, it can be more

accurately described as a loosely affiliated network with very little hierarchical structure.

The diffused nature of the group poses many obstacles to intelligence collection and has

resulted in myriad contradictory and sensationalist accounts in open-source literature.

Many reports concerning al-Qaeda’s capability to conduct future attacks are focused on a

potential WMD capability. While the use of CBRN agents is a real security concern, the al-

Qaeda network is more likely to conduct future attacks by utilizing conventional weapons

in unconventional ways.

Al-Qaeda aims to expel Westerners and Muslims deemed ‘‘un-Islamic’’ from Muslim

countries and impose Islamic rule on countries in the Middle East. The group’s primary

goal during the 1990s was to force U.S. military and civilian establishments out of Saudi

Arabia.1 Since then, al-Qaeda’s objective has expanded to include the establishment of a

worldwide Islamic community, based on the concept of the umma (global caliphate).2

Current al-Qaeda affiliates aim to replace current, ‘‘corrupt’’ Islamic regimes and secular

Arab regimes with Shari’a Islamic law and to bring under control the regions of the world


that were once under Muslim rule.3 A commonly cited, long-term goal is to undermine

Western hegemony by targeting U.S. allies as well as U.S. military establishments and

civilian populations.4 Osama bin Laden, the most prominent leader of the al-Qaeda

network, has specifically identified the United States as the ‘‘great Satan’’ and has called for

armed struggle against the country and its allies.5

The al-Qaeda network has historically supported three different kinds of militant

groups: those who target Muslim regimes viewed as ‘‘apostates’’ (e.g., Egypt, Saudi

Arabia); those struggling to create their own Islamic state (e.g., Chechnya); and those who

aim to overthrow regimes that are believed to repress their Muslim populations (e.g.,

Indonesia, Kosovo).6 Network affiliates and supporters are encouraged to wage an armed

jihad, or holy war, against all enemies of Islam.7

Al-Qaeda Affiliates Worldwide

Al-Qaeda proper is in essence the 1998 union of bin Laden’s original al-Qaeda and Ayman

al-Zawahiri’s branch of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This union is now known as Qa’idat al-

Jihad, although the global network itself is still often referred to as al-Qaeda. As a global

movement, al-Qaeda affiliates include, but are not limited to, the following Salafi Jihadi


Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade (al-Qaeda in Europe), Ansar al-Sunna (Iraq), and the

Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have also been identified as network

affiliates.9 In addition to these identifiable groups, there are numerous ‘‘freelance’’ al-

Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Eritrea, Jordan, Kosovo,

Pakistan, Somalia, Tajikistan, and Yemen. Al-Qaeda cells have reportedly been disbanded

in Albania, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United

States. Current reports estimate that al-Qaeda affiliates operate in roughly 65 countries

around the globe.

. Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Egypt)

. Jamiat-ul-Ulema (Pakistan)

. Islamic Army of Aden (Yemen)

. Salafist Group for Preaching & Combat (Algeria)

. Groupe Tunisien Islamique (Tunisia)

. Ansar al-Islam (Iraq)

. al-Tawhid wal Jihad (or al-Qaeda in Iraq)

. Eastern Turkistan Liberation (China)

. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Philippines)

. Harkat al-Mujahideen (Kashmir)

. Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain (Morocco)8

. Jihad Movement (Bangladesh)

. Jemaah Islamiyyah (Indonesia)

. Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (Libya)

. al-Qaeda fi Jazirat al-Arab (Saudi Arabia)

. Usbat al-Ansar (Lebanon)

. Islamic Movement of Turkistan

. Abu Sayyaf Group (Malaysia, Philippines)

. Jaish-e-Muhammad (Kashmir)

. Lashkar-e-Taiba (Kashmir)

. Jama’at al-Fuqra (Kashmir)


Overview of Allegations Concerning al-Qaeda and WMD

The al-Qaeda network poses a significant WMD terror threat, not only because of the

group’s extensive resources, but also because of its expressed desire to use WMD against

its enemies.10 There is evidence that al-Qaeda remains committed to acquiring CBRN

agents and has actively pursued the materials required to weaponize such agents. Equally

disconcerting is the wealth of technical information being disseminated to potential

supporters outlining the steps necessary to produce both chemical and biological (CB)

agents. There have been no reported cases of al-Qaeda affiliates using weaponized CBRN

agents in a terrorist attack. However, there is evidence of multiple attempts to acquire and

weaponize CBRN agents and efforts to disseminate technical information to supporters.

The host of allegations regarding al-Qaeda and CBRN agents ranges from the mid-1990s to

the present and mostly consists of attempts by al-Qaeda cells or affiliates to acquire

biological agents, various toxic chemicals, radiological material, and uranium. Other

allegations include plots to use biological and chemical agents in a terror attack as well as

plans to attack nuclear facilities.11

The specific biological and chemical agents reportedly pursued by al-Qaeda affiliates

are, respectively, anthrax bacteria, botulinum toxin, ricin, yersinia pestis, mustard gas,

potassium cyanide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, sodium nitrate, sodium peroxide,

sodium oxide, sarin, and VX. The majority of reports involving CBRN materials are

uncorroborated and remain largely speculative.

Chemical Agents

Most reports concerning al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons (CW) efforts state simply that there

is proof that al-Qaeda is interested in producing or acquiring chemical weapons. Indeed,

the 11th volume of al-Qaeda’s Encyclopedia of Jihad discusses how to construct chemical

and biological weapons (CBW).12 Additionally, Osama bin Laden, himself, has stated that

acquiring weapons, including nuclear and chemical weapons, is a Muslim ‘‘religious

duty.’’13 In an interview in 2001 with a Pakistani journalist, bin Laden claimed, ‘‘We have

chemical and nuclear weapons as a deterrent and if America used them against us we

reserve the right to use them.’’14 The majority of reports concerning al-Qaeda’s chemical

weapons capability indicate that the network has researched the production of chemical

agents, but has not been able to weaponize such agents.

Most cases involving chemical substances entail the use of cyanide in experiments

on animals. One eyewitness account came from Ahmad Rassam, who pleaded guilty in

2001 to plotting to attack Los Angeles International Airport. During his trial, Rassam

claimed that he had witnessed an experiment in which cyanide was used to gas a dog.15 It

is unclear how many experiments have been conducted with cyanide, but videotapes

allegedly recorded by al-Qaeda affiliates prior to 2001 show dogs being gassed with crude

chemicals. Experts have claimed that the substance used was either a crude nerve agent or

hydrogen cyanide gas.16 Other reports claim that al-Qaeda had planned to use cyanide,

sarin, or osmium tetroxide against large numbers of people in government buildings,

transportation hubs, and shopping centers in Britain, Jordan, and the United States.17


There have been specific reports of attempts to produce or acquire cyanide

compounds, as well as plots to use cyanide in terrorist attacks. In 2002, British authorities

arrested three men who were allegedly planning to use cyanide in an attack on the

London subway system.18 A series of reports in 2004 indicated that U.S. troops in Iraq

discovered three kilograms of cyanide at the home of an al-Qaeda affiliate.19 There are also

reports of attempted acquisition of hydrogen cyanide; however, this substance would

have to be disseminated in a high concentration in order to cause casualties. Additionally,

the gas emits a strong odor of bitter almonds, thus increasing the chance that victims may

be able to evacuate the area before the substance becomes lethal.20 Al-Qaeda has also

attempted to procure potassium cyanide, which can be used for cutaneous contamination

if mixed with the right chemicals. However, since the substance may appear wet or greasy,

it is likely that an individual who has come into contact with the substance would take

notice and wash the affected area of skin immediately. For this reason, potassium cyanide

is unlikely to cause mass casualties.21 There are also indications that al-Qaeda has pursued

toxic industrial chemicals, such as those used in a foiled attack on government targets in

Jordan in April 2004.

Biological Agents

The majority of allegations concerning al-Qaeda’s biological endeavors mention attempts

to procure and weaponize anthrax bacteria, botulinum toxin, and ricin.22 Many reports

have focused on the former Soviet Union (FSU) as a source of these biological agents. In

the mid-1990s, bin Laden associates allegedly attempted to ‘‘purchase’’ anthrax bacteria

and yersinia pestis (plague) in Kazakhstan.23 Some sources reported in 1999 that al-Qaeda

members obtained the Ebola virus and salmonella bacteria from countries of the FSU,

anthrax bacteria from East Asia, and botulinum toxin from the Czech Republic.24 In late

2001, U.S. officials in Afghanistan reported evidence indicating that Russian scientists were

assisting al-Qaeda militants in the weaponization of anthrax bacteria.25

In 2001, there were several indications that al-Qaeda had a continued interest in

acquiring a biological weapon (BW) capability. For one, Mohammad Atta and Zacharias

Moussaoui expressed interest in crop dusters prior to the 9/11 attacks.26 The same year, al-

Qaeda associate Ahmad Rassam testified that bin Laden was interested in acquiring

aircraft to disseminate biological agents at low altitude.27 Also in 2001, interrogations of

two captured militants in Malaysia led to allegations that al-Qaeda affiliate group Jemaah

Islamiyah was attempting to procure and weaponize biological agents.28 Around the same

time, U.S. operatives reported that multiple residences in Afghanistan, including al-

Zawahiri’s alleged residence in Kabul, tested positive for traces of anthrax bacteria.29

The network would need significant technical assistance to weaponize biological

agents for use in a terrorist attack. Anthrax bacteria can be harmful if dispersed in aerosol

form, or by personal contact. While anthrax bacteria in aerosol form is lethal, it is extremely

difficult to weaponize Bacillus anthracis spores so they maintain virulence and are easily

dispersed. Spore size is crucial to successful deployment of this agent. Botulinum toxin can

be difficult to procure through the soil, deteriorates quickly, and is very difficult to use as a

WMD. Yet it can be used effectively in aerosol attacks in closed spaces or in small-scale


poisonings.30 The biological toxin ricin can be extracted from castor beans, and while

deadly, it is only suitable for targeted poisonings as it is not contagious.

Radiological Materials

Although there is strong evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has attempted to procure

radiological material, there is no indication that the network has been successful in this

endeavor. As with claims of chemical and biological acquisition, many of the allegations

surrounding al-Qaeda’s procurement of radiological material focus on Afghanistan and

countries of the FSU. British authorities claimed to have discovered documents suggesting

that the network had constructed a radiological dispersion device, or ‘‘dirty bomb,’’ at an

unspecified location in Afghanistan.31 These reports have not been corroborated. Many

allegations concerning al-Qaeda’s pursuit of radiological material stem from interrogations

of militants arrested over the past several years.

In April 2001, Bulgarian businessman Ivan Ivanov reportedly told authorities that he

had met bin Laden in China, near the Pakistan border, to discuss business plans for an

‘‘environmental’’ company to purchase nuclear waste.32 In April 2002, another al-Qaeda

member, Abu Zubayda, claimed that the network had the knowledge to construct a dirty

bomb and hinted that there may be such a device hidden in the United States.33 A more

well-publicized case occurred in May 2002 with the arrest of al-Qaeda affiliate Abdullah al-

Muhajir (José Padilla) in Chicago. Padilla claimed that he was part of an al-Qaeda plot to

detonate a radiological dispersal device in the United States. He had reportedly attempted

to acquire radiological material in Canada.34 Reports in early 2004 indicate that al-Qaeda

affiliate Midhat Mursi (Abu Khabab) may have constructed a radiological dispersal device.

Mursi allegedly maintains links with al-Zawahiri.35 British officials arrested eight men in

June 2004 after the discovery of information on explosives, chemicals, and radiological

materials and building plans of the New York Stock Exchange, the International Monetary

Fund in Washington, D.C., the Citigroup building in New York, and the Prudential building

in New Jersey.36 Reports in late 2004 suggest that an al-Qaeda affiliate by the name of

Walid al-Misri told investigators that bin Laden may have purchased radiological material

from contacts in Chechnya.37

Nuclear Materials

There are many exaggerated accounts of al-Qaeda procuring both radiological and nuclear

material in the form of an ‘‘off-the-shelf’’ explosive device.38 Reports in 1998 indicated that

bin Laden had plans to acquire nuclear material from Chechen contacts as well as contacts

in Kazakhstan.39 Reports in 2000 allege that bin Laden sent associates to acquire enriched

uranium from unspecified Eastern European countries.40 There were also accounts in 2001

and 2002 that bin Laden had obtained enriched uranium rods and/or a suitcase nuclear

weapon from the Russian mafia as well as a Russian-made ‘‘suitcase nuke’’ from Central

Asian sources.41 Also in 2001, reports surfaced that Pakistani scientists had shared nuclear

information with bin Laden.42 U.S. authorities have also stated that Pakistani businessman

Saifullah Paracha gave al-Qaeda associates information on where to obtain nuclear


weapons. Although Paracha later denied the allegations, he admitted to meeting bin

Laden in 1999 to consider a potential business deal.43 Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir

reported in 2004 that al-Zawahiri had claimed in an interview that the al-Qaeda network

had acquired nuclear weapons from Central Asia. The al-Qaeda deputy leader allegedly

told Mir that affiliates had traveled to ‘‘Moscow, Tashkent, [and] countries in Central Asia’’

with the intent to purchase ‘‘portable nuclear material.’’44

Al-Qaeda’s interest in pursuing nuclear weapons is made obvious by statements

posted on websites and testimonies from al-Qaeda operatives. In 2001, Jamal al-Fadl

claimed that he was responsible for investigating the purchase of uranium to be used in

the construction of a nuclear device in the early 1990s.45 Reports surfaced in 2004 that al-

Qaeda had purchased nuclear devices from the Ukraine in 1998. (Ukrainian officials

claimed that all nuclear weapons from the FSU had been transferred to Russia as of 1996,

and that no such transaction had taken place.)46 There were also accounts of al-Qaeda

attempts to purchase uranium from Russia and Germany in 1998.47 In 2002, reports

indicated that diagrams of U.S. nuclear power plants had been discovered in al-Qaeda

facilities in Afghanistan.48 In January 2005, German authorities arrested suspected al-

Qaeda member Ibrahim Muhammad K. for attempting to purchase roughly 48 grams of

uranium in September 2002. Muhammad had allegedly approached an unspecified source

in Luxembourg to facilitate the transaction.49 Moroccan investigators reportedly un-

covered a plot by al-Qaeda affiliate group Salafia Jihadia to attack a French nuclear power

plant at Cap de la Hague, Normandy. Al-Qaeda members had allegedly been involved in

the plot.50

One major obstacle to the acquisition of a ‘‘ready-made’’ device is political will; it is

highly doubtful that any regime would transfer such a device to this terrorist network for

fear of discovery and subsequent armed retribution by the United States. Reports

regarding nuclear weapons development are mostly speculative and highly sensational,

although there have been numerous reports of attempts to acquire uranium on multiple

occasions.51 All available reports suggest that al-Qaeda has yet to acquire the requisite

amount of fissile material to construct a nuclear device. Equally important, it appears that

the network lacks the technical capability to assemble a nuclear device*even if it were to obtain many of the needed materials.

The group would need significant technical assistance from nuclear scientists in

order to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Of particular concern is the allegation that a small

number of Pakistani nuclear scientists have had contact with al-Qaeda over the past

decade. Specific reports allege that two Pakistani scientists transferred nuclear weapon

information to Osama bin Laden in the mid-to late 1990s.52 If these allegations are true,

such assistance could increase al-Qaeda’s nuclear potential significantly.

Recent Cases Involving CBRN Agents

Ricin Plots in London

On January 5, 2003, six men were arrested in Wood Green, North London, and charged

with attempting to ‘‘develop or produce a chemical weapon.’’53 The six men were


identified as Arab men from Algeria or other North African countries. Three days after the

arrests, a seventh man was detained in connection with the case. British authorities

reported that at least one of the suspects had trained in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan,

while the others may have participated in terrorist training exercises in Chechnya and the

Pankisi Gorge area of Georgia.54 The case quickly became world news after British

authorities reported the discovery of castor beans, equipment to process the beans, and

traces of ricin in the apartment shared by the original six suspects.55

Subsequent reports indicated that the men implicated in the ricin plot did indeed

maintain connections to the al-Qaeda network and that Osama bin Laden had been

directing a number of terrorist cells throughout Europe that were intent on producing

poison to be used in terrorist attacks. Despite these numerous allegations, the nature of

the London ricin plot remained in question.

On April 13, 2005, a London jury acquitted four of the suspects in the ricin case.

Information presented in the trial led to the conclusion that there had been no traces of

ricin discovered in the London apartment. While field equipment used by chemical experts

did test positive for ricin, subsequent laboratory tests revealed that the reading had been a

false positive.56 Furthermore, it appeared that the five-page document of crude

instructions on how to produce ricin, cyanide, and botulinum toxin had been copied

from the Internet, as opposed to having been taken from a terrorist training camp in

Afghanistan, as previously suspected. Subsequent investigations revealed that the lists of

chemical instructions discovered in the London apartment were direct translations from an

Internet site maintained in Palo Alto, California.57

The only suspect convicted in the trial was Kamel Bourgess, an Algerian who was

already serving time in prison for the murder of a British constable in connection with the

case.58 Reports indicate that Bourgess had planned to smear a ricin mixture on door

handles in order to cause casualties in North London.59 However, it appeared that

Bourgess was far from being able to carry out the attack, given the crude attempts to

produce the poison. Even if he had successfully produced ricin, the substance would not

be an appropriate agent to cause mass casualties. Since ricin is a biological toxin as

opposed to a bacteria or virus, it is not contagious and cannot spread rapidly between

individuals. The surest way to induce fatalities is to encourage inhalation or ingestion of

the substance in a powder form or after it is dissolved in a liquid. Ricin is not cutaneously


Ansar al-Islam in Northern Iraq

Ansar al-Islam originated in Kurdish northern Iraq and is one of the most active Islamist

groups operating in Iraq since well before the 2003 coalition invasion. The group is

significant in that it is an al-Qaeda affiliate that has engaged in the production of both

biological and chemical agents, purportedly for use as terrorist weapons. Most reports

indicate that Ansar has worked with both cyanide and ricin; however, there is no evidence

to indicate that the group ever reached a stage of weaponization. Accordingly, it appears

that the group’s limited arsenal would have only been useful for targeted attacks or

assassinations and thus that it did not constitute a true WMD capability.


Available reports indicate that Ansar al-Islam had acquired cyanide over the past few

years, as well as a small amount of ricin, but they are unable to confirm the precise amount

of each substance or the degree to which the substances had been weaponized.60 Some

reports indicate that Ansar’s crude chemical weapons capability included a form of

‘‘cyanide cream’’ that ‘‘kills on contact.’’61 Other reports simply state that Ansar was in

possession of ‘‘cyanide,’’ without specifying storage details or any other information that

would indicate what type of cyanide was being used.

Still other reports claim that Ansar had produced or acquired ricin and had

conducted biological warfare experiments.62 One report even alleged that Ansar acquired

a quantity of VX smuggled through Turkey in the fall of 2001.63 While there is proof that

Ansar did acquire CB agents, technical details outlining the group’s involvement with such

agents remain vague and moderately consistent at best. Investigations of the laboratory

discovered in northern Iraq revealed that it was rudimentary and that the group was far

from achieving a real weapons capability.64

Ansar members claimed to have produced ricin, cyanide-based toxics, and aflatoxin

prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.65 Officials from the Patriotic Union of

Kurdistan (PUK) corroborated these reports, stating that Ansar members are trained in the

production of poisons in ‘‘encampments’’ in northern Iraq. Investigations by PUK and

coalition officials later revealed a makeshift laboratory that contained traces of ricin, as well

as equipment such as surgical masks, latex gloves, and beakers. After the invasion,

coalition forces also reportedly uncovered a ‘‘three-volume manual’’ that outlined steps for

conducting chemical and biological experiments. Specifics on the use of cyanide and ricin

were included in the manual.66 The group had allegedly tested both substances in

preparation for future use, including experiments on live animals.67

Ansar’s choice of ricin and cyanide, as well as the group’s failure to weaponize the

agents or develop adequate delivery systems, indicates that militants may have been

planning to conduct only limited attacks and/or assassinations. Both ricin and cyanide are

reasonable choices for a group that is planning to conduct a targeted attack because they

are easier substances to manipulate than some of their more virulent or unstable

counterparts. In addition, since very little would be needed for a limited attack, it makes

sense to choose agents that are easy to acquire and/or produce. Ricin is one of the easier

biological toxins to produce, while cyanide is a chemical that can be acquired from an

industrial complex. However, despite the deadly nature of these substances, neither can

be appropriately labeled as a weapon of mass destruction. Difficulties in weaponization

mean that such substances are suitable only for targeted assassinations, as opposed to

mass casualty attacks.

Experiments in Afghanistan

Numerous reports since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 have

indicated that al-Qaeda was involved in testing CB agents in makeshift laboratories

throughout Afghanistan. However, despite evidence pointing to attempts at CBW

production, it appears that that network was unable to weaponize CB agents for use in

an attack. Local Afghan sources reported in 1999 that bin Laden was using a laboratory in


Charassiab, south of Kabul, to produce chemical weapons.68 The same year, U.S. sources

reported that bin Laden had established crude facilities in Khost and Jalalabad,

Afghanistan, in order to test and produce chemical and biological weapons.69 In early

2002, American troops near Kandahar reported the discovery of an abandoned facility that

appeared to have been built to research/weaponize biological agents.70 Traces of ricin and

production instructions were also reportedly discovered in an al-Qaeda safe house.71 U.S.

investigators claimed that they uncovered laboratory equipment in a house near Kandahar

that would support ‘‘a very limited production of biological and chemical agents.’’72

Al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan have reportedly researched how to use mustard

agent and cyanide as weapons of mass destruction.73 Confiscated documents also

reportedly showed al-Qaeda’s interest in producing sarin, mustard, and VX.74 Reports from

the late 1990s indicate that the network attempted to create a pesticide/nerve agent with

a very high absorption rate and that the substance was tested on dogs and rabbits.75

Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has conducted experiments using

crude chemical agents, some of which included the use of cyanide. One of the most telling

pieces of evidence is a training video uncovered by investigators in which a dog is

enclosed in a box and killed with a chemical substance believed to include cyanide.

Yet despite the myriad reports citing al-Qaeda’s efforts at chemical and biological

weapons production, all available evidence shows that the network worked only with

crude chemicals and was far from a true weapons capability. For one, investigators have

not reported the discovery of any kind of dispersal device, a main requirement for the use

of a chemical or biological agent for weapons purposes. Additionally, journalists searching

an al-Qaeda camp in Khost, Afghanistan discovered stacks of photocopied manuals

dealing with CB agents that were downloaded from the websites of American right-wing

groups.76 This lack of technical equipment and expertise is not indicative of a group that

poses an immediate WMD threat.

Evolution of al-Qaeda’s Attitude toward Weapons of Mass Destruction

WMD acquisition has been a recurring theme in bin Laden’s rhetoric*obvious in his steady claims that the Muslim world should achieve military parity with non-Muslims. On

May 11, 1998, just three days following India’s nuclear tests, Osama bin Laden stated, ‘‘We

call upon the Muslim nation and Pakistan* its army in particular*to prepare for the jihad. This should include a nuclear force.’’77 More than a year later, in reference to the

acquisition of weapons of mass destruction in December of 1999, bin Laden told Pakistani

journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, ‘‘Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a

religious duty. If I indeed have acquired these weapons I am carrying out a duty. It would

be a sin for Muslims not to try and possess weapons that would prevent the infidels from

inflicting harm on Muslims.’’78

Initial Interest

Osama bin Laden’s initial interest in WMD production likely began around 1994 during his

stay in Sudan. During that time, bin Laden became increasingly militant and showed


interest in the acquisition of CBRN agents. His research into chemical weapons began in a

laboratory in Khartoum and was supported by elements of the ruling National Islamic

Front (NIF) and the Sudanese military.79 Furthermore, it was reported that bin Laden hired

an Egyptian nuclear scientist and was able to purchase one kilogram of uranium from

South Africa.80 Subsequently, an American official reported, ‘‘Osama [was] directly

involving himself with the Sudanese government, trying to get it to test poisonous gases

in case they could be tried against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.’’81

Some of bin Laden’s growing militancy may have been a result of personal

difficulties during this time. In February 1994, the Saudi Arabian government revoked his

Saudi citizenship and froze his financial assets as a reaction to his aggressive and overt

criticism of the monarchy. Later that year, the Saudis also induced his older brother, Bakr,

to denounce and condemn Osama on behalf of the bin Laden family. More significantly, it

is believed that in February 1994, Osama was the target of two failed assassination

attempts. The first failed attempt was carried out by the Saudi intelligence services, while

the second was conducted by al-Khulayfi, an angry member of the Egyptian Islamist group

al-Takfir Wal Hijra. A failed assassination attempt was also made in Khartoum’s central

market on the life of Osama’s eldest son, Abdullah.82 These events may have contributed

to bin Laden’s determination to carry out mass casualty attacks on his enemies.

Internal Debate within al-Qaeda Concerning WMD Acquisition

Subsequent to the formal union of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s

branch of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan on February 23, 1998, which

established ‘‘The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders,’’ a new

and more dangerous al-Qaeda transnational organization emerged.83 Following this union,

a series of meetings took place within al-Qaeda’s ruling body, Majlis al-Shura, concerning

the acquisition of a WMD capability. At this time, the organization’s leaders were

concerned about an all-out American assault on Afghanistan due to a perceived U.S. desire

to control Central Asia or in retaliation for al-Qaeda attacks against Western targets. The al-

Qaeda hierarchy was especially concerned with the prospects of American WMD

deployment to win the war in Afghanistan. It appears that initially, the al-Qaeda leadership

wanted to achieve WMD capability not as a first-strike option, but as a deterrent against

U.S. military might and a counterbalance against American and Israeli WMD arsenals. In

these meetings within bin Laden’s inner circle, members repeatedly raised the following

questions: ‘‘Who will protect the Arab Mujahideen in their last abode on the face of the

earth? How are they to be protected? Who is going to protect the people, the states, the

wealth and the Islam of Central Asia, who have scarcely escaped the assault of the ‘Red

Satan’, only to face a more sinister attack from Washington and Tel Aviv?’’84

Inside Majlis al-Shura, the hawks frequently asked,

Who would protect the Muslims from them [the United States and Israel]? Is it the UN or

the Security Council? Or is it America’s friends and allies among the Arab regimes? What

if Israel decided to use atomic bombs, chemical or biological weapons against an Arab or

Muslim capital? What if America decided in the near future to lay siege on Afghanistan,


with its dirty bombs and lethal weaponry? And what would be the Islamic reaction if

Afghani cities were targeted from America or Israel with Atomic bombs?85

As a result of these internal discussions within Majlis al-Shura, the leadership of al-Qaeda

decided to pursue a very ambitious strategy. Its ultimate goal was to obtain atomic

weapons and store them on American soil to retaliate immediately for prospective U.S.

aggression against Afghanistan or other Muslim lands. In addition, although it was clear to

the al-Qaeda leaders that any WMD they could obtain would be inferior to the existing U.S.

arsenal, they made the decision that the acquisition of nuclear, chemical, and biological

weapons would be a priority for their organization.86

Within al-Qaeda’s ruling body, various factions voiced different attitudes toward the

value of the group’s prospective possession of WMD. Some believed that WMD are no

more than an empty threat, a ‘‘Jinni in a jar,’’ that no rational leadership would ever use.

Others argued that any WMD the network was able to acquire would not constitute a

strategic weapon, but a purely tactical weapon, because of its likely modest destructive

power and primitive qualities. A third faction argued that ‘‘weapons of mass destruction

would considerably enhance the fighting capability and moral influence of the Mujahideen

and the fighters of al-Qaeda. They are in dire need of such weapons to compensate for the

vulnerability of their military ordnance, the insufficiency of their numbers and their

growing isolation from their peoples.’’87 Several al-Qaeda leaders also envisioned WMD

paired with suicide attacks to maximize their effect.

Despite their differences, the one point on which the various factions within al-

Qaeda’s Majlis al-Shura unanimously agreed was their view that the United States was a

ferocious enemy but a dishonorable adversary. It would not hesitate to annihilate a weaker

opponent but would retreat in disarray if faced with a stronger enemy. To that end, the al-

Qaeda leadership agreed to continue to refer to CBRN agents despite their limited

operational benefit as weapons of mass destruction in order to sow fear and terror in the

minds of their enemies and to ‘‘bestow some credibility on the Mujahideen, and maybe

some respect, moral influence and an aura of invincibility in the minds of the people.’’88

Current Role of WMD in al-Qaeda’s Strategy

Since the late 1990s, changing realities in the Middle East have corresponded with

changes in al-Qaeda’s attitude toward the role of WMD. Since al-Qaeda’s leadership

decided to pursue WMD primarily as a deterrent and defensive weapon against possible

U.S. aggression and WMD deployment in Afghanistan and other Muslim and Arab lands,

various events have occurred that indicate al-Qaeda’s WMD policy has evolved from

defensive to offensive. The group is in fact aiming to use WMD as a first-strike weapon

against the United States and its allies. In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks that killed

roughly 3,000 American and other citizens, the United States and its allies invaded

Afghanistan and denied al-Qaeda its ‘‘last abode on the face of the earth.’’ Recently, many

senior members of al-Qaeda have been killed or captured, and bin Laden and al-Zawahiri

are on the run. In addition, al-Qaeda has evolved from an organization into a

decentralized, global movement made up of independent cells and international affiliates


who adhere to al-Qaeda’s doctrine and global vision but are not directly subordinate to

the commands of the parent organization.

Additionally, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has changed the reality

of the region; al-Qaeda is no longer anticipating and preparing for a full-blown

confrontation with the United States. At this point, al-Qaeda is in the midst of a conflict,

which it aims to expand and intensify by inducing the United States to act more

aggressively in the region in the hopes of escalating Muslim antagonism toward the

West and increasing the appeal*and membership*of global jihadi organizations. The al-Qaeda leadership anticipates that new recruits will swell the ranks of these

jihadi affiliates and undermine the security and rule of secular or moderate Muslim

regimes (e.g., Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Libya). The

ultimate goal, as has been the case since the conception of al-Qaeda, is the overthrow of

these regimes.

Moreover, attacking American and other Western targets is seen by al-Qaeda as the

most effective strategy to drive a wedge between the United States and its Arab and

Muslim allies.89 Furthermore, in light of the open conflict currently under way between al-

Qaeda and the United States, coupled with the Western occupation of Iraq and

Afghanistan, al-Qaeda leaders see WMD attacks against the United States and the

resulting mass casualties as legitimate means of retribution for current and past killings of

Muslims in these countries. Bin Laden made this sentiment clear in November 2002 when

he stated: ‘‘This is an unfair division. The time has come for us to be equal . . . Just as you

kill, you are killed. Just as you bombard, you are bombarded. Rejoice at the harm coming

to you.’’90

Al-Qaeda’s assessment of the utility of a WMD capability has evolved from the

notion of a defensive tool designed to deter an American attack on Afghanistan and other

Muslim areas, to a first-strike weapon that should be deployed against the United States in

retribution for past and present killing of Muslims. The hope is that this first-strike

capability would also bring about a severe American reprisal that would only serve to

garner more support for Islamists in the Muslim world. Accordingly, the leadership of al-

Qaeda has recently obtained religious justification from a Muslim scholar to permit WMD

use against the United States. In May 2003, bin Laden likely prompted the respected and

well-known young Saudi Islamic scholar Shaykh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd to issue a fatwa

(religious decree) in support of such actions. In his 25-page document, ‘‘A Treatise on the

Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels,’’ Shaykh al-Fahd

empowered al-Qaeda with a fatwa and provided the religious justification needed to carry

out such an attack.

In his document Shaykh al-Fahd argued, ‘‘This matter is so obvious to Muslims that it

needs no demonstration . . . . Anyone who considers America’s aggression against Muslims

and their lands during the past decades . . . will conclude that striking her is permissible

merely on the rule of treating as one has been treated. Some brothers have totaled the

number of Muslims killed directly or indirectly by their weapons and come up with a figure

of nearly 10 million.’’91

Shaykh al-Fahd also argued in his treatise that in a state of jihad against infidels, the

mass killing of American civilians is also permissible. He stated, ‘‘Thus the situation in this


regard is that if those engaged in jihad establish that the evil of the infidels can be repelled

only by attacking them at night with weapons of mass destruction, they may be used even

if they annihilate all the infidels.’’92 In the conclusion of his treatise, Shaykh al-Fahd did not

limit his argument to targeting Western locations and civilians; he argued that while

usually the killing of other Muslims is forbidden by God, in the path of jihad it should

be permitted. He stated, ‘‘. . . as long as jihad has been commanded . . . and it can be

carried out only in this way [i.e., with Muslims being killed in attacks by Muslims], it is


This is an important landmark in the evolution of al-Qaeda’s view of and quest for a

WMD capability. As a religious organization and movement, al-Qaeda has always sought to

present itself as working within the limits of what is permissible in Islam and advocates

that open jihad against unbelievers is the duty of true Muslims. Prior to May 2003, al-

Qaeda leadership did not possess any religious justification to carry out a WMD attack on

the West or Western interests in the Middle East. However, Shaykh Al-Fahd’s fatwa has

removed religious constraints and has empowered al-Qaeda*at least in theory*with justification to carry out such attacks even if they result in mass casualties among Western

or Muslim civilians.

More recently, statements from al-Qaeda leaders left little to the imagination and

made it abundantly clear that if and when the movement were to acquire a credible WMD

capability, it would not hesitate to use such weapons against suitable targets. This new

direction was made obvious following the allegations that one of al-Qaeda’s cells in Jordan

intended to carry out a massive chemical attack in April 2004. After the seizure of large

amounts of explosives and chemical precursors by Jordanian security forces and the arrest

of several suspects, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the sponsor of this attack and bin Laden’s

lieutenant in Iraq, denied that the group had planned to use chemical weapons in the

attack. (Al-Zarqawi is the one-time head of al-Tawhid wal Jihad who, in October 2004,

swore allegiance to bin Laden and changed the name of his outfit to al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-

Rafidayn [al-Qaeda in the Land of two Rivers, i.e., Iraq].) Although al-Zarqawi claimed that

al-Qaeda did not possess WMD, he avowed unequivocally, ‘‘If we had such a bomb*and we ask God that we have such a bomb soon*we would not hesitate for a moment to strike Israeli towns, such as Eilat, Tel Aviv and others.’’94

These sentiments were echoed by another important jihadi thinker and operative,

Mustafa Sit Maryam Nasar, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Musab al-Suri, who, in

December 2004, published the manuscript, ‘‘The International Islamic Resistance Call.’’95 In

this 1,600-page global jihadi blueprint and in his ‘‘Letter of Reply to the U.S. State

Department,’’ al-Suri enthusiastically argues that weapons of mass destruction should be

used against the United States and criticizes Osama bin Laden for not using weapons of

mass destruction in the 9/11 attacks. He states, ‘‘If I were consulted in the case of that

operation I would advise the use of planes in flights from outside the U.S. that would carry

WMD. Hitting the U.S. with WMD was and is still very complicated. Yet, it is possible

after all, with Allah’s help, and more important than being possible* it is vital.’’96 He adds, ‘‘The Muslim resistance elements [must] seriously consider this difficult yet vital



Al-Qaeda’s Evolving Organizational Structure and Implications for WMD Use

It is worth considering the intentions of al-Qaeda in light of the network’s transformation

into a decentralized organization. This evolution into a global movement with various

regional affiliates and autonomous cells increases the risk of an attack utilizing CBRN

agents, but decreases the likelihood of any individual cell obtaining a true mass-casualty


Three factors explain the heightened risk of a CBRN attack. First, since operational

decisions are currently made by the leaders of individual cells without consent from Majlis

al-Shura, these cells operate without oversight from a ruling council; thus, any cell is

theoretically free to pursue any course of action that it deems desirable or appropriate.

Second, cell leaders are likely to carry out a WMD attack as soon as they have the capability

to do so. This has been the case with conventional weapons, and there is no reason to

believe that cell leaders would delay an attack once they are armed with weaponized

CBRN agents. In addition, it may be in the best interest of cell leaders to precipitate an

attack in order to safeguard the virulence and/or potency of any biological or chemical

agent employed as a weapon. Third, the fatwa issued by Shaykh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd

in 2003 served as an open invitation to all al-Qaeda jihadis to deploy WMD against

Western interests when they are ready and able. This was the first semblance of religious

justification for the use of CBRN materials by al-Qaeda affiliates. Additionally, bin Laden’s

statement that the acquisition of nuclear and chemical weapons is a religious duty for all

Muslims will surely quell any remaining doubts among Salafi Islamists with regard to the

use of CBRN agents.

While the cellular nature of the organization may facilitate the acquisition and

deployment of CBRN agents in some ways, the same decentralized structure is likely to

prevent any one cell from developing a true mass-casualty capability using CBRN agents.

The result is that an individual cell is destined to have a more modest weapons capability

than the network as a whole. Individual cells are likely to acquire only low-end CBRN

agents, comprising a crude CBRN capability. As previously discussed, such a capability is

more suitable for targeted assassinations than for mass-casualty attacks.

One caveat to this argument is that the rank and file of al-Qaeda, and especially the

Egyptian cadre, are the most capable components of the al-Qaeda network, and thus

worthy of special attention. Al-Zawahiri and his cohorts have thus far evaded capture by

Western or allied entities and are likely to remain on the run, at least in the foreseeable

future. Given that the cellular structure of al-Qaeda greatly hinders monitoring efforts, it is

difficult to accurately assess the threat of this or any one faction. It is possible that the

Egyptian cadre is able to acquire or produce more advanced CBRN agents; such a prospect

would have serious implications for the security of Western entities around the globe.

How Are WMD Portrayed in al-Qaeda’s Literature?

Using the Internet to Export the Revolution

After 9/11, an array of al-Qaeda and pro-al-Qaeda websites have emerged on the Internet.

Currently, the al-Qaeda movement relies heavily on these websites to enhance its mission


and spread its message. Furthermore, many al-Qaeda affiliates, such al-Tahwid wal Jihad,

the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and many others, have

erected their own websites. While most pages on these websites contain religious

doctrines, ideological justification, reports of the tyranny of Arab regimes, and anti-

Western diatribes outlining historical Muslim grievances against Western powers, a select

number of these sources deals specifically with operational terrorist methods and tactics

that detail how to carry out terrorist attacks against potential targets and how to

manufacture conventional and unconventional weapons. One of the best ways to

ascertain information about al-Qaeda and assess its threat, intentions, and capabilities is

through active monitoring of various al-Qaeda websites.

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