Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Al Qaeda's Religious Justification of Nuclear Terrorism

| Nov. 12, 2010

This publication is an extended excerpt from an upcoming research report by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior CIA officer and now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Mowatt-Larssen's report examines the debate within Muslim societies on the use of weapons of mass destruction; he assesses the public justification by Al Qaeda leaders of the use of such weapons, and warns of a heightened risk of another Al Qaeda attack. Mowatt-Larssen drew on the research from this section of his upcoming report for an article for on Nov. 16, 2010.

"This vanguard constitutes the solid base [qaeda in Arabic] for the hoped-for society ... We shall continue the jihad no matter how long the way, until the last breath and the last beat of the pulse-or until we see the Islamic state established."[i] — Abdullah Azzam

When legendary jihadist Abdullah Azzam was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in November 1989, suspects in his murder included Osama bin Laden and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leader Ayman Zawahiri.  After the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan, Azzam sought to shift jihad to his homeland, Palestine.  Zawahiri sought to focus the jihad on Egypt and the other secular Muslim states, in hopes of restoring the caliphate, the rule of Islamic clerics, which had ended after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. After Islamic rule had been re-established in the Islamic world, Zawahiri wrote, "then history would make a new turn, God willing, in the opposite direction against the empire of the United States and the world's Jewish government." [ii]

It is not clear who killed Azzam, but his departure from the scene played into Osama bin Laden's hands, by shifting the target of the jihad not to Israel or to Egypt, but to the United States. When bin Laden formed Al Qaeda a year earlier, Zawahiri was convinced to throw in his lot with this "heaven-sent man,"[iii] as Azzam had characterized bin Laden, principally because Zawahiri felt stymied in fulfilling his lifelong dream of overthrowing the Egyptian regime.

Bin Laden would develop an idea that would breathe life back into Zawahiri's dreams: the United States must become the target of the jihad. If the Americans could be provoked into war, they could be defeated like the Soviets, and expelled from Muslim lands for good. The fall of the U.S. superpower would lead to the overthrow of secular Arab states. This insight led to successive Al Qaeda strikes against the U.S., including the unsuccessful bombing of the World Trade Center (1993), bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa (1998), and the bombing of the USS Cole (2000).  It was not evident at the time, but the road to 9/11 began on the day Al Qaeda was formed.

It was with a grim mood of impending confrontation with the United States that the two Al Qaeda leaders shared an interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. By 1992, Al Qaeda was already dabbling in the nuclear black market. Undaunted by a series of scams by hustlers and con men, bin Laden and Zawahiri remained alert to opportunities to buy, steal, or build a bomb. After Al Qaeda was expelled from Sudan in 1994, Ayman Zawahiri mysteriously dropped out of sight. For two years, the Egyptian doctor and two of his top lieutenants traveled extensively to Russia, Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore, and China. The purpose of their travels has never been established, but Zawahiri's associations during his travels, and own statements, suggest that he and his cohorts may have been hunting for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).[iv]

It is no coincidence that 1998 was the year that Osama bin Laden openly declared war on the U.S., publicly stated that it was his Islamic duty to acquire WMD, and secretly launched the operational plan for the 9/11 attack.  Bin Laden privately expressed frustration that two brazen assaults against U.S. government interests abroad had failed to provoke the U.S. into invading Afghanistan. [v] He formalized an agreement within Al Qaeda to attack the "far enemy," the U.S., before the "near enemy," the Muslim states. The Al Qaeda high command secretly initiated the operational planning that would culminate in the 9/11 attack. They began chemical, biological, and nuclear programs under the direct supervision of Zawahiri and senior Al Qaeda members. At around this time, Zawahiri also began piecing together two separate Pakistani and Malaysian-based networks to develop an anthrax weapon for use in the United States.  [vi]

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[i] "The Solid Base" (Al-Qaeda), Al-Jihad (journal), April 1988, n.41

[ii] Wright, Looming Towers, Knopf (2006), p.46

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Lawrence Wright. "The Man Behind Bin Laden." The New Yorker (September 16, 2002)

Author's Note: The substance of Mr Wright's text was confirmed and amplified in my discussions with foreign intelligence officials. Ayman Zawahiri himself has stated that Al Qaeda operatives sought and obtained nuclear weapons from the FSU; no specific information has surfaced, to my knowledge, that substantiates his public assertion. It would seem highly unlikely that Al Qaeda would make an off hand, public assertion of this sort if they actually obtained bona fide nuclear weapons usable materials. However, his presumed failure to procure CBRN-related capabilities does not detract from his evident personal interest in them.

[v] 9/11 Commission Report pg 191; amplified in my discussions with government officials

[vi] "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland." National Intelligence Estimate. July 2007.



For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Mowatt-Larssen, Rolf. “Al Qaeda's Religious Justification of Nuclear Terrorism.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 12, 2010.

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