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The latest audio message from al-Qaeda, reportedly from Osama bin Laden himself, is only the most recent confirmation that the jihadist threat to the West remains real and deadly serious. But the fact that it could take the form of nuclear terrorism should be most worrying to citizens and policy makers alike.
Where a nuclear attack once may have been beyond the capacities of stateless terrorists, that is no longer the case. One need only consider Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), mastermind of 9/11 and chief operating officer of al-Qaeda, who revealed under intensive interrogation –– including the much-maligned tactic of waterboarding –– that a nuclear attack against the United States was a top priority for al-Qaeda.
According to the New York Daily News and its sources, the captive KSM told his interrogators that Osama bin Laden was planning a "nuclear hell storm" in America. Normally such a lurid claim would be disbelieved by our "inside-the-box" intelligence officers, but KSM's recovered laptop had corroborating details.
The agents learned that the chain of command for this new operation went simply: bin Laden, his terrorist doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mysterious scientist named "Dr. X," and an operational coordinator. The scientist turned out to be Dr. A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's atomic bomb, national hero, and nuke material proliferator extraordinaire. The operations ringleader was known as "Jafer the Pilot" (Jaffer al-Tayyar). This ID was corroborated by former al-Qaeda No. 3 Abu Zubaydah when he himself was waterboarded.
Dr. Khan's input was important: One month before 9/11, according to The Washington Post, bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, met around a blazing campfire with Pakistani scientists from an A.Q. Khan-affiliated group called Umma Tameer-E-Nau, to discuss how al-Qaeda could build a nuclear device themselves and ship it to a target.
The night meeting went well. 'Jafer the Pilot" is the nom de guerre of U.S. citizen Adnan el-Shukrijumah. Young, intelligent, fluent in multiple languages and a trained jet pilot who had apparently been in flight schools with Mohammed Atta, Shukrijumah had studied and worked with other jihadis at the 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at McMaster University in Canada. But one day all the terrorists disappeared from campus forever.
John Loftus of WABC News reported on November 7, 2003, that in the immediate wake of Shukrijumah and his fellow travelers' disappearance, 180 pounds of uranium ended up "missing" from the reactor. Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who interviewed Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, reported bin Laden saying that one of the founders of al-Qaeda, Anas el-Liby, had helped the Pilot haul out the stash of uranium.
McMaster U. has always insisted that no material was ever missing from the reactor, but instead claims that low-grade radiological material did turn up missing from their pharmacological/medical labs at the time. Paul Williams, author of The Day of Islam, published the Loftus-Mir assertions in his book and elsewhere. For his trouble, he was promptly sued by the University for $4,000,000. The suit is still pending.
But the Pilot and his atomically-inclined friends had not gone to live in a cave somewhere in Waziristan like their bosses had. Shukrijumah had much work to do for his "American Hiroshima" plan, which would detonate actual nuclear bombs in seven American cities at once. Paul Williams surmises that Osama bin Laden's increasingly messianic pronouncements over the airwaves are psychologically tied up with his expectations of the nuclear destruction of the Great Satan –– with bin Laden himself as the prophesied Mahdi, the fiery culmination of 1,600 years of Islamic history.
Whatever pangs of conscience remaining to the plotters as they contemplated burning millions of women and children alive was thoroughly assuaged by bin Laden's diplomacy. The supremo had duly arranged for a compliant mullah to issue a fatwa, which expressly authorized the destruction of the United States of American in clouds of atomic ash. Entitled "A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels," and dated May 2003, this fatwa can be read online by all the faithful. FBI chief Robert Mueller has also said that there is a " clear intent" by al-Qaeda to acquire and use nuclear weapons against the United States. As far back as 1993, said Mueller, Osama bin Laden had attempted to buy uranium from a source in the Sudan. Why should we expect him to stop in the last 15 years?
One thing is certain: homicidal doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri's made a decision when KSM was captured: Cancel that planned mass cyanide gas attack in the New York subway system. He told the operational plotters to stand down because "we have something better in mind," which would presumably suck up all the resources then available to him. What would be "better" than a mass cyanide attack in a confined urban rush-hour space? There is only one thing more murderous.
Unfortunately, even in 2004, the American intelligence services tasked with protecting the country seemed about as prepared for the Pilot as they were for the Hamburg Cell of 9/11. One full year after KSM spilled his guts in a secret CIA prison in Eastern Europe, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director John Mueller issued a joint press conference that everyone should be on the lookout for five exceedingly dangerous terrorists. Adnan al-Shukrijumah, the Pilot, was first on the list. Director Mueller called him the "Next Mohammed Atta." The American Hiroshima plan was not specifically mentioned, presumably to prevent panic in the country.
It turns out that the Pilot himself need not have been panicked. Several days after the press conference naming Shukrijumah, a certain Samuel Mac, the manager of a Denny's restaurant in Avon, Colorado, became uneasy as he served two "demanding, rude and obnoxious" patrons at his restaurant. One of them looked, for all the world, like the guy he remembered was in the Ashcroft-Mueller press conference's first poster: Adnan the Pilot. The other one, wolfing down a health-conscious chicken sandwich and a salad, looked like the guy the FBI said was Abderraouf Jdey, the head of al-Qaeda's cell in Toronto. They said they were traveling cross-country.
From behind his counter, Mr. Mac looked at these patrons again. He figured at least Washington, D.C., would have an FBI office, so he called there. The agent who answered the phone was uninterested and referred him to the Denver office. Calling this number, Mr. Mac was left with an endless loop of voice mail. The purported al-Qaeda officials eventually strolled out of the restaurant and took off. Five hours later an agent from the Denver field office called back, took a few perfunctory notes, and said he'd pass the info along. Mr. Mac thoughtfully preserved the plates and utensils the men had eaten with, but no one ever bothered to come over and collect them for DNA evidence, or interviewed any of the restaurant's employees. So much for the national "Be on the Lookout" alert. The Pilot quickly resurfaced in Waziristan province, Pakistan, home of Osama and Dr. Zawahiri. In April 2004, according to Paul Williams' sources in the FBI, where Williams had worked as a consultant, this turned out to be a "pivotal planning session" for the American Hiroshima plot, much as Kuala Lumpur in 2000 was the final planning session for the 9/11 plot. Mohammed Babar, an indicted terrorist, was also present. (Babar's Islamic Thinkers Society had held placards while demonstrating outside the Israeli consulate in 2006, helpfully saying, "The Mushroom Cloud is On Its Way.")
Thus funded and instructed, the Pilot flew to Honduras the next month, where he met with jefes of the violent street gang MS-13 (Mara Salvatruchas) and was noticed by the café owner, who had seen newspaper pictures of that Ashcroft-Mueller press conference. The Honduran security ministry confirmed Shukrijumah's presence there, and also the Pilot's multitude of calls then to France, the USA, and Canada.
Why was the Pilot meeting with MS-13 gang leaders? The answer became painfully obvious that summer, when he was seen again in Mexico in late August 2004, near "terrorist alley" in Sonora, the main thoroughfare for illegal aliens into the United States. MS-13 was the Pilot's new supply chain and courier of nuclear material for the bombs he was setting up.
The Pilot was now moving around at will, with no hindrance, all through Latin America. U.S. intelligence got another too-late break in November, when Sharif al-Masri, an al-Qaeda official working directly with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, was snatched and questioned by interrogators.
Al-Masri told his American captors that his bosses had arranged for nuclear supplies for bombs to be shipped into Mexico and thus into the USA with the help of the MS-13 street gang. This created a new sense of urgency, because on November 1st, Mexican officials reported that a man looking very similar to Adnan al-Shukrijumah had just stolen and flown off with a Piper PA Pawnee crop duster near Mexicali, destination unknown.
Since 2005, the Pilot has vanished from sight.
While the mainstream media currently mostly ignore this story and the almost certain fact that a nuclear plot is ongoing today, Senator Joseph Lieberman has held at least three separate hearings in 2008 of his Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on this very subject.
The testimony from experts summoned to these hearings has been grim. Nobody doubts that once terrorists acquire fissile material, which is either Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) or plutonium, a bomb is within their theoretical capacity and will to make and use. A simple gun-type device, like that used for the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, is sufficient to yield a one to ten kiloton explosion.
Al-Qaeda has been increasing its recruitment for nuclear-skilled workers. Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri issued a public call in September 2006 for "people of distinguished skills and high levels of expertise...particularly...nuclear scientists and explosives engineers" to work with al-Qaeda-in-Iraq. The mainstream media and the Democratic officeholders ignored this proclamation, because the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq is supposed to be a "distraction" from the "real" war on terror, which to them presumably would not include a mushroom cloud over Chicago.
The only good news is that terrorists cannot make HEU or plutonium; they have to get it from somewhere else. HEU is not found in nature and has to be juiced up from normal uranium. For that reason, HEU is highly prized on the world's black markets. How will Adnan Shukrijumah get hold of this HEU (or even plutonium) to assemble into working bombs?
He has a range of options. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented 15 incidents of theft and smuggling of small amounts of separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium confirmed by the nations involved. But these 15 cases represent the tip of the iceberg of what has actually occurred. So there is always just approaching the right people and buying it –– not an easy task, but not an impossible one either.
Nuclear terror expert Matthew Bunn testified last month that "Nuclear weapons or their essential ingredients exist in hundreds of buildings in dozens of countries, with security measures that range from excellent to appalling –– in some cases, no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence."
In recent months, shadowy surveillance teams have been reported scoping out secret nuclear weapons facilities in Russia. They probably don't have to be: In February 2006, Russian citizen Oleg Khinsagov was arrested in Georgia (along with three Georgian accomplices) with some 100 grams of 89 percent enriched HEU, claiming that he had kilograms more available for sale. We can't know how many thefts that occurred were never detected. Dr. Bunn told Senator Lieberman that "it is a sobering fact that nearly all of the stolen HEU and plutonium that has been seized over the years had never been missed before it was seized."
The Pilot doesn't need too much HEU for his seven-city destruction plan. For one "simple" gun-type design HEU bomb, roughly 50 kilograms of HEU would be needed –– roughly the size of a six-pack. The Pilot could also try hitting up a HEU-based research facility, like his old alma mater McMaster University, although McMaster apparently didn't employ HEU per se. But some 130 research reactors around the world still do use HEU as their fuel.
Or has he already? The Washington Post, right before last Christmas, reported a strange story. Sometime in the night of November 8, 2007, two coordinated teams of armed men attacked the Pelindaba nuclear facility in South Africa, where hundreds of kilograms of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) are stored.
One of the teams was chased off by the guards, but the other team of four gunmen disabled the perimeter alarms, went to the emergency control center and shot a worker in the chest. Bleeding out, the worker was still able to sound the first alarm.
He might not have bothered. The attack team then spent 45 minutes inside the perimeter, without anyone harassing them. What they did next is unknown to the public. The team promptly disappeared through the same hole they had cut in the fence. South African officials later arrested three individuals, but soon released them. The South African government has since been close-lipped about what really happened last November, and it has refused earlier U.S. offers to remove the HEU at Pelindaba –– if indeed any remains after the attack. We don't even know how much HEU, if any, was spirited away.
But surely the point is not whether the Pilot hit this specific facility. It is that he could well have –– or dozens of others like it. We do know that if a 10 kiloton A-bomb, somewhat smaller than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima, is set off at ground level in midtown Manhattan, the death toll would be perhaps half a million people. We could expect roughly $1 trillion in direct economic damage from this one bomb alone. Multiply this by seven bombs, and we can expect the wholesale depopulation of America's cities in fear, incalculable economic devastation, and the end of the country as we currently know it.
Chicago naturally is on the list of targets. According to nuke expert Dr. Graham Allison, the HEU needed to nuke the city is smaller than a football. He writes, "If a bomb were put in the back of a tanker truck, driven downtown, and detonated at the Sears Tower, everything within a third of a mile would vanish. The United Center and all of Grant Park would look like the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The resulting firestorm and cloud of fallout would reach nearly to U.S. Cellular Field and Wrigley Field."
The experts are not talking about vague probabilities far into the future. Former Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison are among those who have estimated that chance at more than 50 percent over the next decade. That is, two respected experts in the field believe that the nuclear destruction of one or more American urban centers is more probable than not in the very near future.
Al-Qaeda keeps increasing the number of Americans it publicly dreams of killing in its nuclear hellstorm. In 2002, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's former official press spokesman, claimed the right for jihadis "to kill four million Americans." Just one year later, in his fatwa declaring the use of WMD obligatory, Nasir al-Fahd put the number of Americans that it is permissible to kill without further ado at 10 million souls, roughly 3 million of them children.
Because a nuclear attack would achieve the greatest possible destruction on American soil, there is every reason to think that the terrorists are plotting its execution. The question confronting American policy makers is: Are we prepared to stop this threat before it becomes a terrible reality?
This appeared May 26, 2008 in Front Page Magazine
Christopher S. Carson, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, is an attorney in private practice in Milwaukee. He holds a masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University.
This appeared May 26, 2008 in Front Page Magazine
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