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This week the Vancouver Sun reported that al Qaeda is on the brink of using a nuclear bomb.
Al-Qaida is on the verge of producing radioactive weapons after sourcing nuclear material and recruiting rogue scientists to build “dirty” bombs, according to leaked diplomatic documents.
A leading atomic regulator has privately warned that the world stands on the brink of a “nuclear 9/11”.
This report should come as no shock. Information that came into the U.S. government’s after 9/11 revealed that al Qaeda had vigorously pursued WMD technology. The sad fact is that acquiring the means of a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack are all too easy. We are too easily comforted by the idea that construction of an actual nuclear bomb is difficult. We see nation-states with substantial resources, such as Iran, facing technical problems, so we think that the threat of such an attack is low.
But this is wrong. Making other types of WMD weapons is not difficult. A dirty bomb, for example, does not have the destructive impact of a true nuclear bomb. It is only a conventional explosive that disperses nuclear material of much lower grade into the surroundings. It may still kill hundreds, if not thousands, and contaminate its surroundings with radioactive material. The means to construct biological weapons are available in thousands of biotechnology labs and plants. Chemical weapons have been used by terrorists — in the 1990s, a Japanese terrorist group attempted to attack civilians with nerve gas; it only failed to kill thousands because it flubbed the aerosol device to spread the agent.
It is not the technology that is ultimately unavailable to terrorists, but their means of delivery. Nation-states don’t pursue dirty bombs, and perhaps have foresworn biological weapons because they are difficult to control, imprecise, and have low effectiveness against military targets. But the indiscriminate nature of such weapons makes them perfect for terrorists. I think we’ve been lucky that al Qaeda has been fixated on attacks that would produce spectacular video for its propaganda uses back in the Middle East. Hence their repeated focus on airliners, bringing down buildings, and attacking landmarks and well-known tourist sites. If al Qaeda really wanted to spread terror in the United States, they would use these primitive WMDs on soft, undefended targets like shopping malls, sporting events, and the crowded downtowns of major cities.
Since it is not possible to protect all of our vulnerabilities, the best way to prevent these types of attacks is to take the fight to al Qaeda so they cannot have the breathing room to acquire and deploy WMD (which still take more resources than simple car bombs and attacks with firearms). And that, to me, is the positive effect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — it is no mistake, I think, that as our offense ramped up in both places under President Bush, al Qaeda was unsuccessful in launching another attack in the U.S. If we lose in Afghanistan, it seems to me, we will cede another safe haven to al Qaeda which they will use to plan more of these kinds of attacks, but with more resources and sophistication as they were able to do in the years before 9/11.