Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 3, 2011

Al Qaeda’s Ambitions

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on March 3, 2011

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer and Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department following 9/11, as well as former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, has published a new report on “Islam and the Bomb.”  This is not a philosophical or religious tract on the underlying beliefs of Muslims concerning violence, but instead an analysis of the arguments made for and against acquisition and use of nuclear weapons. From his preface:

When I began this project, my goal was to develop insight into the deeper thought process behind al-Qaeda’s nuclear intent. I expected to find evidence that their interest is strong, perhaps unshakable, but hinges on capability, i.e., they will use weapons of mass destruction if they are able to acquire them. Specifically, I set out to examine the impact al-Qaeda’s apparent frustration in acquiring WMD has had on the group’s intent; perhaps their interest has waned in recent years, or has been overtaken by global events.

I was surprised to discover that al-Qaeda’s WMD ambitions are stronger than ever. This intent no longer feels theoretical, but operational. I believe al-Qaeda is laying the groundwork for a large scale attack on the United States, possibly in the next year or two. The attack may or may not involve the use of WMD, but there are signs that al-Qaeda is working on an event on a larger scale than the 9/11 attack.

Mowatt-Larssen is concerned that Al Qaeda has gone out of its way to not simply justify violence against its enemies but a very particular and vast scale of destruction.

For years, I chased leads to al-Qaeda’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), without finding the answers to fundamental questions. Yes, it is clear that al-Qaeda is seeking high-end WMD, specifically nuclear and biological weapons capable of causing mass casualties. But why has al-Qaeda set their sights so high? Isn’t a “dirty bomb” or a chemical device a more probable threat, since such weapons are much easier to obtain? What is al-Qaeda’s justification for using WMD — how much of a factor is religion in their thinking? What can terrorists hope to achieve by indiscriminately killing people on a mass scale?

Due to Al Qaeda’s use and seeming requirement of religious justification for such acts, Mowatt-Larssen contends that those justifications require analysis.

Considering the daunting challenge of divining what lies in someone’s mind, my modest objective is to present a framework for analyzing key factors that impact on the religious justification under Islam for and against nuclear weapons. Al-Qaeda (Sunni extremism) and Iran (Shia theocracy) are offered as two case studies in this regard, because their potential acquisition of nuclear weapons is of greatest contemporary concern. Presenting them side by side will invite a comparison of the respective arguments of a state and sub-state actor, in both houses of Islam. However, their inclusion together in this project should not be construed as an effort to compare or equate al-Qaeda and Iran with one another, either their motivations, or in moral terms.

The sections of this report represent a compilation of the various arguments that are being made in the Islamic community today. I have endeavored to faithfully represent the views of key voices in the Muslim world, scholars, and extremists, whether they are for or against nuclear weapons — and to put their testimony on the record. For this reason, the paper contains a large number of quotes and excerpts of key lines of reasoning for and against the bomb.

During a time when the majority of pundits and terrorism experts express the opinion that Al Qaeda represents an ideology that perhaps motivates action or inspires franchises and not a direct operational threat, Mowatt-Larssen’s ideas and conclusions will be controversial (never mind for those who discount the threat of nuclear terrorism entirely).

The entire report can be downloaded here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/uploads/Islam_and_the_Bomb-Final.pdf

Also challenging the conventional wisdom regarding Al Qaeda’s strength is Leah Farrall, an Australian counter terrorism analyst with an article in the latest edition of  Foreign Affairs. “How al qaeda works” argues that:

Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas in late 2001, al Qaeda has founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula and acquired franchises in Iraq and the Maghreb. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.

For a limited time you can read the entire article for free on her blog, “All Things Counter Terrorism:” http://allthingscounterterrorism.com/foreign-affairs-article-how-al-qaeda-works/

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 3, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

Arnold! Could you pinpoint where the “Weapons of Mass Destruction Department” exists or existed in the past?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 3, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

Bill, unfortunately I cannot. But I will ask and get back to you.

I have to admit that though Rolf is a colleague, I was lazy and just copied the biographical information supplied to the website (and I don’t have a well defined picture of CIA organizational structure).

I will say that though biased (through my personal interactions with him), I’ve always found that among the most persuasive arguments in favor of Rolf’s analysis is that pre-9/11 he was not a WMD analyst type. Instead, he spent his whole career in ops and was assigned the WMD/Al Qaeda portfolio following 9/11. And since he has been exposed to the highest level of related intelligence and has had the experience of running operations, so the fact that the first job upon his retirement from public service was a Harvard fellowship rather than for some DC contractor re-affirms for me the idea that what he learned about the issue concerned him in a deep and meaningful fashion (do not let reports of large Harvard endowments confuse you…”Senior Fellows” at the Kennedy School can almost always make much more money elsewhere. They simply care about the topics they address at the institution.)

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 4, 2011 @ 12:46 am

So he succeeded to the Michael Sheurer position? Author of “Imperial Hubris’!
By the way some wit labeled WMD (almost never used in DoD anymore instead CBRNE) as Weapons of Mass Disruption. Using that definition I have added a new weapon that has led to recent turmoil in Arabia and the Mahgreb! The new weapon is “corruption” which fits today’s post by Phil nicely.

Comment by john comiskey

March 4, 2011 @ 6:18 am


As a high school history aficionado, I predicated that one day near every nation would achieve nuclear capability. I was then and am now a subscriber to the idea that some things are inevitable, albeit in the instance of universal nuclear capability, unsettling.

AQ’s realpolitik nuclear wish list is pragmatic:

1. The mere articulation of AQ nuclear capability upsets the sensibilities of the populace and promotes military defense spending.

2. Debilitates homeland security’s capability to counter the more likely Mumbai-like threat -low tech, multi-frequency shoot and scoot tactics that may integrate dirty bombs into their arsenal.

I do not doubt AQ nuclear capability wish list nor AQ-ideology and logic that support the goal of nuclear capability.

I have a great deal of confidence that the US intelligence community has the capability to detect AQ nuclear capability pre-mushroom cloud.

I copied Rolf Mowatt-Larssen’s pdf to my “things I would like to read” file and can only hope to reference it at a time TBD.


As bad as the corruption is -worse yet is society’s acceptance/tolerance of meta-corruption.

The one thing that still intrigues me about the Holocaust is not Nazi genocidal mania. Rather the acceptance, tolerance, and facilitation by so large a number of seemingly disinterested peoples.

Take away –lions will eat well and sheeple will be trampled upon. The sheeple need not self-immolate but do need to eat the lion.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 4, 2011 @ 7:43 am

John! Thanks for you comments! Living in FRG before the Wall Fell-1968-1970 and largely interacting with military forces not general population I was fascinated and awed by the democratic progress made since WWII by the West Germans. But even though I did not then and do not now believe in collective guilt–and strongly recommend the movie “Judgement At Nuremburg” with Spencer Tracey and Maxmillian Schell–certain elements in German character do seem to be both strengths and weaknesses. I prefer not to itemize those here. But elements of American culture and polity have many of the same and witness the long term racism of American life and discrimination against what some percieve as the “other”!
In other words it meaning ethnic cleanisng could happen here and elsewhere.

In 1990 or about then in two separate social settings with high-ranking CIA officials that were close friends-both long dead–from heart disease of various kinds–and their knowing my interest in nonproliferation issues told me that their unofficial guestimates were 30-30 meaning that by 2020 there would be 30 nation-states with nuclear capability although not necessarily delivery systems. So time will tell but perhaps anti-proliferation efforts have slowed the pace somewhat although both admitted to me that few in the CIA were interested in non-proliferation issues. My anti-CIA bias has been disclosed elsewhere but these two men I thought were concerned and just NOT their job to worry about. Of course IMO it is all of our jobs whomever we are. And now of course with problems even in the US with nuclear surety and safeguard issues the issue of non-state actors gaining possession of a nuclear device seems vastly increased.
I do count the present countries with nuclear capability and delivery systems as the US, UK, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and perhaps one or two others like N.Korea and Iran. Those nation-states that from a go point today that could be nuclear capable in a hurry [less than a decade] include Brazil, Japan, S.Korea, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, Ukraine, Canada, Italy, and S.Africa. So with that 20 there are probably others but still with only 9 years left in decade hoping that anti-proliferation efforts largely ignored by many US administrations will be more effective. My personal view is that the US should renounce any first use of nuclear weapons based on strategic theory alone and see if that could make all understand these weapons are NOT of military use but purely weapons of strategy including blackmail. Although never ruling out humanity’s instinct for self destruction I have no doubt another NUDET will occur by some nation-state or non-state group or individual over the course of this century.

Comment by john comiskey

March 4, 2011 @ 9:30 am


Judgment at Nuremburg is instructive and particularly with respect the manifestation of the Nuremburg Doctrine.

I recall an earlier post of yours where you lament the US’s nonparticipation in the ICC. I believe we are in agreement. But the AQ threat leaves me with some doubt about the rules of fair play.

In 1954 General Doolittle’s Report of the Special Study Group on the Covert Activities of the CIA noted that:

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and whatever cost. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long standing American concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated means than those against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamental repugnant philosophy.

An AQ-nuclear threat would be a next-to-existential threat that might require an equally repugnant philosophy.

Still, I don’t want a CONSPIRACY
See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFYyLUtIVX8

What is most distressing about the Wansee Conference was that learned men, PHDs, MD, JDs, and others conspired to make genocide state policy.
I want more sheeple who are willing to do what is necessary to eat each and every lion.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 4, 2011 @ 10:14 am

While I share you concerns I believe the National Security of the US can be protected using the rule of law which is the ultimate bulwark against those who threaten US. I worked long enough with the National Security Council staff and the same in DOJ to know that often they just did not want to take the time to struggle with the often complex legal issues.

Not sure if 1954 was date of Doolittle report but his use of “fair play” was a direct undermining of the principle of the rule of law. The problem of course is that it was not until the late 1980’s that two brillian law professors Peter Raven-Hansen at GWU and Stephen Dycus at U.VT created the first course materials on National Security law and a domestic focus. Befoer that it was considered solely the province of the International Law community of legal scholars. Those materials and that type of course is NOW the most popular elective course in American law schools. The issues of course are fundamental to whether “this nation of the people, for the people” will long endure.o

Comment by The Flag In Peril!

March 5, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

AQ and its ambitions, let the German led EU and the ever powerful Vatican worry about how they will deal with such issues – every day, not only is the purchasing power of each citizen lost qs

Comment by The Flag In Peril!

March 6, 2011 @ 12:06 am

as the US dollar value falters and political promises of “change” are taking every bit of change left in our pockets w/energy and food costs skyrocketing, few jobs and prospects of a good future with real estate prices certain to decline…even our mighty military will eventually see substantial declines in its ability to sustain itself as it has and to challenge the corruption and the Islamic radicalism taking shape throughut the Middle East and elsewhere! Ethiopia soon to fall….

We are broke! This “Goldman Sachs” administration and even state and local politicians have not a clue how to get our nation on track. The ineptness is quite evident and AQ will soon be distracted by policy changes throughout the EU composition which will be downsized to only ten (10) nations and has no tolerance whatsoever for AQ, teh Hezbollah or the likes…

The quest has been on for centuries and while the Vatican and the Islamic fundamentalists seek control of Jerusalem, as you Barry continue w/both sides of the aisle keep increasing our present $15 trillion budget deficit, the weaker and more insignificant we become on the world front!


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