Since the sarin attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan in 1994-1995, the
anthrax attack in the United States in October 2001 and the chlorine attacks by
al-Qaida elements in Iraq in 2006-2007, there was no serious chemical,
biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incident worldwide. Although limited
in their scope and lethal results, these attacks materialized, albeit tardily,
the potential CBRN threat perceived since the early 1970s.
in the Greater Middle East and Pakistan have raised the specter of a far greater
and more present danger. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime it became known
that he had secretly kept some of his chemical weapons arsenal, in spite of his
international obligations. Two sites containing chemical weapons were found in
Libya and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and
the United States were notified.
The OPCW inspectors visited Libya in
mid-January 2012 and found stocks of mustard agent. Libya now has until April
29, 2012, to submit a detailed plan and a date by which the destruction of the
materials would be completed.
However, no one is sure such agents could
not have been disseminated to terrorist elements, as heavy weapons,
ground-to-air and antitank missiles have found their way to jihadists in the
Gaza Strip and possibly to al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb elements in the Sahara
region. For instance, in February 2012, 43 SA-24 anti-aircraft missiles and the
shoulder- fired SAM-7 were found in a cache in the town of In Amenas in southern
Algeria, near the Libyan border.
This scenario could be repeated with the
chemical (nerve and blister agents), biological and even radiological weapons
and agents found in the hands of the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria. Already
in May 2011, in a CNN interview, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about
the possibility that Hezbollah is armed with more missiles and rockets than most
states, possibly with chemical or biological warheads.
In the event of a
power vacuum in Syria there is the possibility of weapons proliferation to
Hezbollah or other regional militant groups.
Damascus has already
provided ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. An Israeli defense official threatened
that Israel will not tolerate any transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to
Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The future status of Syrian chemical weapons has
become a major worry also for the United States, which is pressing nations
bordering Syria to be attentive for unconventional arms that might be smuggled
into their territories. It was reported that the US and some Middle East allies
are intensifying satellites surveillance of Syria’s chemical and biological
sites. According to Arab and US officials, Jordan and the United States are
preparing a strategy for securing Syria’s considerable arsenal of chemical and
possibly biological weapons. In the event an Arab peacekeeping force is approved
to enter Syria, Jordanian special forces teams would be assigned to find and
protect close to 12 WMD-related facilities located at al-Safira, Hama, Homs and
The 2008 US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass
Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism centered its findings on several areas
where the risks to the United States were increasing, and mainly at “the
crossroads of terrorism and proliferation in the poorly governed parts of
Pakistan,” described as “the most likely source of WMD acquisition.”
should be remembered that Pakistani nuclear scientist Bashiruddin Mahmood,
former chief of Pakistan’s Khushab plutonium reactor, had close ties to al-Qaida
and the Taliban.
Together with other scientists and military and
intelligence officers he created the Pakistani humanitarian NGO Umma Tameer e
Former Director General of Pakistani Interservices
Intelligence Directorate (ISID) Hamid Gul was among the board members and
patrons of UTN.
Before 9/11 Mahmood offered to construct chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons programs for al Qaida. After 9/11 he was detained
with other associates by Pakistan Intelligence at the request of the US
government, but was later liberated.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, senior fellow
at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard and former
director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the US Department of Energy,
mentioned several scenarios of “nuclear nightmares that keep [him] up at night”:
Pakistan loses control of its bomb; the burgeoning Pakistani nuclear arsenal
(more places where something can go wrong); increased extremism; the perilous
Pakistan is seen indeed by international
officials and experts as the main threat in this field.
The US has
implemented a $100 million program to secure Pakistan’s nuclear laboratories and
weapons (for example, by separating warheads from missiles) while “US officials
remain concerned about foreign-trained scientists who support radical Islamic
causes infiltrating Pakistan’s nuclear establishment and, more broadly, about
the remote (but not unthinkable) possibility of an acute regime-threatening
political crisis during which nuclear security is breached and a warhead falls
into the hands of Islamic extremists.”
In a February 20, 2011, editorial,
significantly titled “Pakistan’s Nuclear Folly,” The New York Times warned that
Pakistan, which has between 95 and over 110 deployed nuclear weapons, had
manufactured enough fuel for 40 to 100 additional weapons. “The ultimate
nightmare is that the extremists will topple Pakistan’s government and get their
hands on the nuclear weapons,” claimed the editorial.
A more realistic
scenario is the Islamist radical terrorists attack some nuclear facility and
provoke a major nuclear incident, or get their hands on some fissile
Eight people were killed in a 2007 suicide bombing at a nuclear
missile holding site south of the Pakistani capital. Suicide bombers in 2008
attacked entry points at Pakistan’s Kamra air base – a suspected nuclear weapons
holding site – and the Wah Cantonment facility, thought to be involved in
putting nuclear weapons together.
Two high-profile attacks by terrorists
on highly secure military bases in Pakistan, the General Headquarters of the
Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi in October 2009 and the naval aviation base at PNS
Mehran near Karachi in May 2011, have renewed anxiety about the safety of
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Some terrorists learned their tactics from the
Pakistan Army’s elite commandos, the Special Service Group, which had trained
earlier generations of Pakistani/ Kashmiri militants in similar tactics for
operations against India.
In light of the revolutionary events and the
growing instability in much of the Greater Middle East and South Asia and the
growing threat of failing states losing control on their chemical, biological
and nuclear assets, an international effort to monitor, control and foil CBRN
terrorist attacks is vital for the security of the international
The writer is a senior research scholar at The International
Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a fellow at the Institute for Policy and
Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.