Friday, June 20, 2003

Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction

David Carr has some thoughts on the question of whether Al Qaeda is capable of obtaining weapons of mass destruction using them to attack a western city, and in fact whether they are capable of mounting large scale attacks any more at all. I wrote a lengthy comment giving my thoughts on the matter, which I may as well reproduce here

In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released Sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo underground. This only killed a few people because they didn't get the distribution right (and because they deliberately used a lower concentration of sarin than they could have because they did not want the people who actually put the sarin on the trains to die). This is the only instance so far of a terrorist attack using what is commonly defined as a "weapon of mass destruction". What they did do was demonstrate that it is possible (and indeed fairly easy) for terrorists with a few competent chemists to produce a very deadly chemical weapon. Thankfully, in the longer term, Aum Shinrikyo was not very dangerous as a terrorist group. (They were a fruitcake cult that was relatively easily dismantled).

On the other hand, the only terrorist group to actually cause mass destruction is Al Qaeda, on September 11, 2001. They did this by exploiting weaknesses in America's transport networks, so that America provided the weapon as well as the target. This demonstrated to us that there are organisations out there with the will and ruthlessness (and I could say, the contempt for human life, both their own and that of their perceived enemies) to mount attacks on this scale. I think it possibly also suggested that Al Qaeda lacked much technological sophistication. They didn't use their own weapons because they didn't have their own weapons. Those weapons they have used in other attacks (explosives) have been relatively unsophisticated, although they have a thing for complex logistics (multiple attacks at the same time, for instance. And a failed shoe bomb attack doesn't impress me much). The Japanese example demonstrated that with a few good chemists, you could make sarin. Al Qaeda have not tried a copycat sarin attack, and this tends to suggest to me that they don't have a few good chemists. (Sarin seems to me to be the easiest weapon of mass destruction to make, which is why I would expect them to try to make some). As Al Qaeda are a lot weaker today than they were in 2001 due to America's intense war on them, I don't imagine that they are any more capable of mounting an attack with their own weapons than they were in 2001. This is not to say that they will never be able to obtain such weapons from somebody else, but again I think it is likely to be harder for them now than it was before 2001, and they clearly did not do it then.

So, if we see further attacks from Al Qaeda, I tend to think they will be the smaller scale, attacks on embassies, bombs in military barracks or similar type attacks, or they will attempt another September 11 like event in which they exploit some weakness in our infrastructure.

Of course, I could be wrong. I am utterly terrified about the possibility that I could be wrong, and the chance that I am wrong is sufficiently large that I still favour using immense resources to neutralise what is left of Al Qaeda.

And of course, even if I am right, all I am saying is that Al Qaeda are less of a threat than some people think. The prospect of somebody else with the will to attack the civilized world and the technical skills to make sarin or something worse is still out there, and to me it seems inevitable. I think we may find ourselves with an interlude of a few years to prepare for it, however.

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