Heightening Fear of Terrorism

The alarming headline in The Washington Times, “CIA says al Qaeda ready to use nukes” (Page 1, yesterday), badly confuses al Qaeda’s fantasy with the reality we face. The description of the CIA report contained in the accompanying article is no better. This is unfortunate, as the dangers we face from weapons of mass destruction are bad enough without exaggerating them.

First, al Qaeda would indeed be “ready to use nukes,” if for only one caveat: To the best of our knowledge, they don’t have any. Since acquiring a nuclear weapon would be by far the hardest part of mounting a nuclear attack, saying al Qaeda is “ready to use nukes” exaggerates the threat.

Second, the article quotes the CIA report as stating that the chemicals and toxins found on al Qaeda members in Europe “… could cause hundreds of casualties and widespread panic if used in multiple, simultaneous attacks.” Pretty much anything—guns or bombs, for example—could cause hundreds of casualties “if used in multiple, simultaneous” attacks. Without explaining how many such attacks would be needed, and how that compares to the potential of conventional explosives, such a statement is merely useless at best, and is most likely misleading.

Third, the article reports that “an al Qaeda document obtained in Afghanistan revealed that the group had sketched out a crude device capable of causing a nuclear blast,” suggesting that this means al Qaeda may be closer to nukes than we’ve previously imagined. But crude bomb designs are easy to come by—you can download them on the Internet or find them at your library. They’re utterly worthless without fissile material, plutonium or highly enriched uranium, the acquisition of which is the greatest barrier to building a nuclear weapon.

Fourth, the article lists several radiological materials “that are available to terrorists” for a dirty bomb, suggesting that acquisition of these materials in quantities sufficient to build an effective dirty bomb would be easy. Although radiological materials are indeed widely available, most are too weak to be useful in a dirty bomb, while the larger ones are not easily available. Radiological source security needs to be tightened, but we should not exaggerate the danger.

Perhaps most ironically, the article quotes the CIA as stating that any attack would aim to create “panic and disruption.” With such an inflammatory article, who needs terrorists for that?