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/