Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, a longtime intelligence official who works at the nexus of al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction, writes that al-Qaeda “has been far more sophisticated in its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction than is commonly believed.” And there’s no reason whatsoever to disbelieve him. But what ought to be pointed out is al-Qaeda’s *capabilities, *not just its aspirations.
For one thing, al-Qaeda has failed for over a decade to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Mowatt-Larsen notes that al-Qaeda accordingly scaled back its ambitions to get nuclear weapons in favor of less-lethal but relatively easier to acquire bioweapons. But even that effort was dealt a setback by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Instead, look at the pattern of recent al-Qaeda attacks or potentially al-Qaeda-inspired attacks. Lots of big-devastation conventional impact attacks in south Asia and the Middle East, with occasional forays into Europe and southeast Asia. In the United States, a failed attempt at conventional explosions of an aircraft — damaging if it would have succeeded, but it would have killed an order of magnitude fewer people than the sophisticated and complex attack on 9/11 to turn several planes into missiles and fly them into strategic targets. There’s an argument to be had over whether to put Nidal Malik Hasan’s attack on Fort Hood into the “al-Qaeda-inspired” category. If you do, you get a successful attack that killed 13 people and wounded 45, not dozens, let alone hundreds or the thousands killed on 9/11.
Then you get a criminal claiming after the fact that his murder of a soldier outside a Little Rock recruiting office was connected to al-Qaeda. And failed efforts that were busted up before they reached fruition, as with Najibullah Zazi.
All this is why in the just-published issue of a bulletin published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism scholar with the Center for International Security and Cooperation, concludes:
Al-Qa`ida is declining, but it is still a dangerous organization. It is not a mass popular movement, but rather a complex, transnational, and multilayered organization with both clandestine and above-ground elements. It has proved durable and persistent. The determination of its leaders to attack the United States is undiminished and might strengthen as the organization is threatened, but another attack on the scale of 9/11 is unlikely.
None of this is to say that vigilance against the prospect of an al-Qaeda WMD attack is unwarranted. But it is a call to put the chances of one into perspective.
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