Evaluating Al-Qaida’s Nuclear Strategy
Of all the terrorist threats facing the United States, one stands in a category by itself. If al-Qaida set off a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city, there would be hundreds of thousands of casualties and a landscape uninhabitable for years to come.
A nuclear bomb is the one true weapon of mass destruction.
The likelihood of al-Qaida carrying out a nuclear attack involves two questions: First, does the group have the technical capability? And second, would it really want to use it?
As the top intelligence official at the Department of Energy, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the man in the U.S. government whose job it is to worry about nuclear terrorism.
He does not think al-Qaida has a nuclear bomb in its arsenal yet. Acquiring one would be a challenge.
As for the group’s thinking, Mowatt-Larssen imagines Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders sitting around a campfire somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan, debating whether a nuclear attack on the United States would be a good idea.
“I could hear a pro and a con emerging from that discussion,” Mowatt-Larssen says, with “some arguing that it would enhance, exalt the group’s standing historically, others arguing that it would be a disaster.”
Al-Qaida is sometimes portrayed as a terrorist group with an apocalyptic vision, intent mainly on destroying its enemies, without a focus on long-term goals of its own. But Mowatt-Larssen and other terrorism experts argue that it should be seen instead as acting strategically — at least from its own perspective.