According to documents filed in federal court by the US Attorney’s office in New York, al-Qaeda may soon acquire WMD through its own development rather than seizing them on the battlefield — although the battlefield in this case is Somalia, not Syria. When might that happen? CBS’ John Miller says the documents don’t answer that question, but the fact that their project has advanced this far creates a significant concern for American counter-terrorism efforts:
A new document filed in a still-developing terrorism case in New York seems to confirm the long-held fear that al Qaeda is working to develop chemical weapons.
On Wednesday, CBS News obtained a document filed by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York indicating that three men charged with being members of the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia had “substantial knowledge regarding an al-Shabaab research and development department that was developing chemical weapons.”
CBS News senior correspondent John Miller told “CBS This Morning” the lead defendant in the case, Mahdi Hashi, and two others were arrested in August, 2012, by African authorities while allegedly on their way to Yemen. They are charged with participating in a weapons and training program with al-Shabab over a four-year period beginning in 2008. …
Miller notes that neither the new court document, nor, to his knowledge, current U.S. intelligence, reveal a clear timeline regarding when al Qaeda might actually be able to produce a finished chemical weapons agent or gain the capacity to use such a weapon against the United States.
Miller adds, however, that the mere “idea that they have a department and that they have capable, knowledgeable people in that department who are striving towards it is … very concerning” to U.S. intelligence organizations.
The concern isn’t new, of course, nor is word of AQ efforts on WMD. In May, CNN’s Peter Bergen reported on AQ’s pursuit of chemical weapons in the context of Syria. In fact, al-Qaeda in Iraq managed to make crude chlorine bombs in 2006 and 2007 as they attempted to create a widespread civil war, but the chemical component of the explosives turned out to be less than effective. One source counted 16 such attacks before the surge put an end to AQ’s experimentation in Iraq.
At that time, AQ leadership warned its affiliates about the blowback from using chemical weapons, both literally and figuratively, but only in the context of discrediting their movement rather than humanitarian concerns:
The use of such weapons has been a matter of some debate within the leadership of al Qaeda.
In documents found by the U.S. Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound two years ago in Abbottabad, Pakistan, there was a letter written by bin Laden five days before he was killed in which he urged his followers in Yemen who were considering using “poison” to be “careful of doing it without enough study of all aspects, including political and media reaction.”
As we consider the conflicting reports of the use of chemical weapons that have emerged from Syria over the past weeks, it is worth recalling that the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria has in the past used crude chemical weapons on multiple occasions in neighboring Iraq.
Also al Qaeda’s leaders such as bin Laden have pushed back on the use of such weapons only insofar as their use might damage the image of al Qaeda in the eyes of the Muslim public, not because of international norms that the use of these weapons is beyond the pale.
Ironically, this is actually an argument for a military response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against AQ and other rebels in Syria. A lack of action could convince AQ that the political and strategic blowback for using WMD will be minimal and/or ineffective, and we could see more of it as a result. However, AQ-I didn’t hesitate anyway in 2006-7, and the Somali effort appears to predate Assad’s use of the weapons in Syria.