Saturday, February 20, 2010

A review of "Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?" by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Post-terrorism Paris: soldiers on the streets

I was in Paris last week at a conference about terrorism. The focus of my job has drifted on to other matters in recent years, so it was fun being back in that world, meeting old acquaintances and making new ones. I gave a speech on a report I wrote a couple of years ago - mainly about how the US military conceived of the GSPC, now called AQIM - or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. I was that sandwich filling on my panel; squeezed between two generals, one of whom was the commanding officer of the GIGN - basically the French SAS. So not intimidating at all...

Anyway, I met a German researcher who was doing work on policy-making around the threat of WMD-terrorism. This is something that I used to work on, and my research turned me into something of sceptic. Hence I was interested when I spotted a report this week called "Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality?" on the website of Harvard's Kennedy School's Belfer Center - a prestigious research establishment. Reading the preface I was made even more interested:
"Rolf Mowatt-Larssen spent more than two dozen years in intelligence, both in the CIA and U.S. Department of Energy. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he led the U.S. government's efforts to determine whether al Qaeda had WMD capabilities and to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States. Mowatt-Larssen, now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has put together a detailed timeline illustrating terrorists' efforts to acquire WMD."
Mowatt-Larssen writes clearly about how the alarmism around WMD-terrorism in the early part of last decade turned many analysts into sceptics; much of the discourse was seen to be hype for political purposes and that "it is difficult to debunk this allegation, given the US government's lack of credibility in the case of Iraqi WMD" (p.8). Although in the US the idea that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and might give them to terrorists became part of the justification for war, this always seemed far fetched to me. I was always interested in the possibilities of non-state groups developing chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons without state sponsorship. Mowatt Larssens attempts to show al Qaeda's interest in CBRN through the 1990s and first half of the 2000s and to argue that this means the treat of WMD-terrorism is real. I think his paper is very unconvincing in its attempt.

Firstly for someone who has spent his career in intelligence his choice of sources (all well footnoted) are odd. He relies significantly on George Tenet's autobiography for many of the more interesting claims. Why Tenet felt he could reveal these intelligence details in his book, but Mowatt-Larssen could only refer to a secondary source, I'm not sure. Presumably Mowatt-Larssen saw the same intelligence whilst in government. Instead we have continual references to the memoir of the, to many discredited, former CIA chief, perhaps not the most obviously credible source. But actually that is a minor problem, the paper also contains factual errors which makes me think it was not proof read by anyone with a moderate knowledge of the subject area. Jemaah Islamiyah is a group based in southeast Asia, not southwest (p.14). Detective Constable Stephen Oake, was a Manchester police officer (not London) murdered in Manchester (not in London) and Kamal Bourgass stabbed him to death, he did not shoot Oake (all mistakes on p.25). In this, the supposed UK "ricin case", no ricin was found. Separate to Bourgass' murder conviction, he was only found guilty of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance not of a terrorist conspiracy to murder, and four co-defendents were found not guilty (charges were dropped against a further four). Mowatt-Larssen maintains Colin Powell's argument made whilst giving evidence to the UN on the eve of the Iraq war, that this was a link between Iraqi-based jihadists and "European terrorist cells" (p.25). Powell couldn't have known the outcome of the trial, still 2 years away when he spoke, but Mowatt-Larssen does not engage with the subsequent findings that there never was any ricin in the UK and despite the British government claiming otherwise there was no link from Bourgass in the UK to al Qaeda in Kabul.

Perhaps even more telling is that Mowatt-Larssen repeats the idea that in 1993 bombing of the WTC in New York, the bomb makers attempted to include cyanide in their bomb. This was a mistake made by a trial judge in a later court proceedings, and the myth was clearly proven false by John Parachini of the RAND corporation in his chapter in the excellent book "Toxic Terror", edited by Jonathan Tucker and published in 2000. I find it very surprising that anyone interested in non-state actors and CBRN weapons would not have read this book.

I've not really looked at this issue for three or four years, but if this Belfer Center paper represents where things have got to, it would seem we are still chasing our tails with only limited and often questionable open sources and as much confusion and mythology as there was half a decade ago.

But if all this a bit depressing, here's a sparkly Eiffel Tower for you:


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