Analysis: Al-Qaida’s ‘Doomsday’ revenge?

The frightening prospect is the new al-Qaida will seek to retaliate directly against the US in a big way with weapons of mass destruction.

Al Qaida Flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Al Qaida Flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is a truism that the vice of revenge has motivated humans since the dawn of history. The August 6 downing of a NATO helicopter in Afghanistan killing 30 American troops is perhaps the latest demonstration of a Taliban proxy retaliation to avenge the spectacular loss of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s legendary founder. The casualties included 22 Navy SEALs from Team Six, the secretive unit behind the daring raid that killed the leader on May 2 in Pakistan.
While it is premature to reach any definitive conclusion on the rationale for the Taliban’s deadliest attack, the frightening prospect is the new al-Qaida will seek to retaliate directly against the US in a big way with weapons of mass destruction. During the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington, DC in April 2010, US President Barack Obama expressed his concerns about a “doomsday” scenario. He warned that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations “are in the process of trying to secure nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and would have no compunction at using them.”
Now, four months after the Abbottabad operation and the death of the notorious mastermind of 9/11, the lingering question that still remains is al-Qaida’s worst revenge yet to come? Two reasons account for this likely eventuality. First is the persistent motivation of deep hatred towards the US and its friends and allies. For instance, in February 1998, bin Laden pronounced a fatwah (religious ruling) that Muslims should kill Americans, including civilians, anywhere in the world they could be found, and in the following May, he stated in a declaration titled “The Nuclear Bomb of Islam,” that it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to attack the “enemies of God.”
Second is the network’s unending effort to obtain an unconventional capability. Bin Laden’s operatives have relentlessly searched for such weapons and the materials to build them. The lure of engaging in a successful WMD operation as a worthy follow-up to 9/11 still persists as a “divine force.” The sights are definitely on something big. For example, in 2003, New York officials were alerted to a possible hydrogen cyanide gas attack by al-Qaida operatives on the New York subway system.
It didn’t materialize, supposedly called off by Ayman Zawahiri, at the time al-Qaida’s second in command, for “something better.”
Now, once again, the threat of terrorist attack on nuclear power plants is in the spotlight after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission asked nuclear reactor operators for additional proof of their ability to withstand acts of terrorism from the outside or perpetrated by insiders that may have unforeseen consequences.

Additionally, al-Qaida’s most likely option for a “nuclear” attack is setting off a radiological dirty bomb in a Western city that would contaminate only a small area with limited casualties but would cause widespread fear and panic, especially in the financial markets.
In the face of al-Qaida’s looming potential for unconventional revenge over the death of bin Laden, it is critical for the US and its allies to immediately strengthen their intelligence mechanisms and strategic partnerships. In the longer term, they must also employ “soft” elements in the restless Arab and Muslim worlds, including support of economic and social developments, assistance in creating job opportunities, help in reducing religious radicalism and promotion of tolerance, democratic values and civil society engagement.
Yonah Alexander is Professor Emeritus of the State University of New York and Director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Milton Hoenig was professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts. They co-authored The New Iranian Leadership (2008).