Terrorist groups have grown persistently in the last two decades. With an ever-increasing arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction hereby referred to as WMDs, it becomes imperative to question how safe are these stockpiles and what efforts might terrorists undertake to access them. But it is also equally important to understand how terrorists operate and why or why not may they be motivated to acquire WMDs.
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The WMD threat from terrorists gained credence after 9/11. Never before had the ammo of terrorists been so different and the ideology veered so far from what terrorism seeks; 9/11 could not be defined as typical terrorism, and to understand why, we need to look at the objectives behind a terrorist attack.
Conventional violence, as opposed to terrorism, only works on the principle of violence without a higher purpose (ignoring oppression). The act involves two actors, one is the perpetrator of violence, and the other is the victim. For terrorism, three protagonists are involved, first is the terrorist, second being the victim(s), and the last is the audience which is supposed to be affected indirectly through the actions of the terrorists, mainly through fear and anxiety (Ackerman, 2004).
9/11 on one hand was a terrorist attack. Terrorism, under its definition, is the “calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals.” (DoD, 2001). The world watched as the two towers, symbols of US economic prowess and prosperity, crumbled to the ground. But more important than the symbolic fall of these buildings was the fear instilled into the hearts of US citizens. The terrorists had sent a message; no place is safe.
On the other hand, the attacks caused nearly 3000 deaths as a direct result. Terrorists seek to spread fear, not death. That Tuesday morning, terrorists meant to kill as many people as they could. The scale of the attack led many to believe that this could be act of war (an excuse the Bush administration later used to attack Afghanistan). However, the first aim of terrorism also stood fulfilled. Fear gripped the country and air travel was like never before.
Discussing the factors contributing to terror organizations’ motives and their ideology is also paramount. In the 1995 Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, the perpetrators were religiously rooted, but motivated politically. In the dynamic system of these ideas, it is hard to say which would eventually be the deciding factor. On that day in Tokyo, Aum Shinrikyo, the cult responsible, decided to carry out the attack to divert attention after getting tipped that the police would be raiding their facilities (Richard Danzig, 2011). This attack was one of the first terrorist chemical attacks against a civilian population.
Why the group resorted to using chemical weapons is an important question. Sarin gas is a nerve agent, and is also considered a WMD once weaponized. What Aum wanted to do was to wipe out a large portion of Tokyo’s urban population. The group did manage to injure thousands of people travelling on the subway, while killing a few as well. Using conventional weapons, this attack would not have been successful, mainly due to the intricate system of tunnels in subterranean Tokyo, blowing up which would have been nearly impossible. And since the group had pursued Biological weapons before, it was only a matter of transferring knowledge into the chemical warfare program to develop Sarin from ground-up.
The well-known terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda is known to be in pursuit of WMDs. In a 1998 interview, long before it became a household name, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hinted at the group’s pursue of WMDs.
We must use such punishment to keep your evil away from Muslims, Muslim
children, and women. American history does not distinguish between civilians
and military, and not even women and children. They are the ones who used
the bombs against Nagasaki. Can these bombs distinguish between infants and
military?â€¦We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists
are the Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means.
In October 2001, Gary Anderson from the Centre of Emerging Threats and Opportunities said that before 9/11, the threat of a large scale attack was not serious, since it did not serve the terrorists’ interests (Cummins, 2001). Following the attack, it was important to understand why had Al-Qaeda resorted to such a huge attack, and why it would find it beneficial to acquire WMDs, especially nuclear.
The answer can be found in one of bin Laden’s interviews:
We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and
the weakness of the American soldier who is ready to wage Cold Wars and
unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled
after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours, and this
was also repeated in Somalia. We are ready for all occasions. We rely on Allah. (Laden, 1998)
Bin Laden mentions that America was not prepared for war. This sets the precedent for the 9/11 attacks, which, if common sense prevails, meant that America would become more inclined towards a large scale war on terror. However, since Osama believed that the American public would not support war, he was more than willing to attack the American soil. Osama also believed that US intervention would hasten the fall of regimes he sought to overthrow in the middle-east. Overthrowing non-Islamic regimes in the middle-east was a very important objective in al-Qaeda’s operations.
Scott D. Sagan, professor at Stanford, mentions that any terrorist leader with such a vision would not be deterred from using nuclear WMDs on the United States. He further argues that weapons could be delivered covertly, without anyone claiming responsibility (Sagan, 2003). This would also cause huge casualties, but would lack the motives of a terrorist organization. Such attacks would also instill an even greater fear among the larger audience. A development of terrorism into a social phenomenon in its own right, separate from the violence from which it grew is an unprecedented situation, but an explanation to why WMDs were now being sought by terrorists and other groups.
When North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon on Oct. 9, 2006 amid warnings from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the whole world leapt to its feet in outcry. Why was the possession of nuclear WMDs by North Korea such a threat to the world?
Actions of North Korea can be easily characterized as those of a terrorist group. Still at de facto war with South Korea, the North regularly threatens to attack its sister state on a regular basis. The country is run on a personality cult of the Eternal President, Kim Il-Sung (d.1994) and his family. Under a highly authoritative rule and a socialist regime, the country’s economy is suffering from ever-lasting poverty. Despite such poor conditions, the regime has successfully pursued nuclear weapons, in order to defend itself from the ‘Imperialist American Forces’.
Why should the world consider North Korea as a threat? The answer lies in the political-geography of the region. The region’s instability because of the territorial claims by China, Japan and Taiwan over their sea borders leads to a highly irregular power-centre being created with the North having nuclear weapons. This could potentially set of a nuclear arms race, with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan also seeking nuclear weapons for ‘self-defence’ (BBC, 2012).
Moreover, since North Korea is governed on anti-imperialist principles, and considers America as its number one enemy, the stationed American forces in South Korea are now always on high alert. In 2010, a South Korean warship sank near its western sea border. Following two months of investigation, North Korea was accused of firing a torpedo to which, in a typical response, Pyongyang denied allegations and threatened war (BBC, 2010). With nuclear weapons in the argument, the threat was very much credible, and China rushed to cool down both sides.
A similar case of a state using WMDs is Iraq. Even though America did not find any signs of nuclear weapons in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, it did find an entire arsenal of chemical weapons; weapons which Iraq possessed despite sanctions from the UN (Special Advisor, 2004).
Again, the same question arises. Why should we care if Iraq has chemical WMDs?
Iraq, in the Iran-Iraq war, made extensive use of chemical weapons. During the last stages of the war in 1988 under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq ran a deadly campaign against the Kurds, an ethnic minority living in northern Iraq. A very horrific genocide was carried out on Halabja in 1988, where more than 5,000 civilians were killed (BBC, 1988). The Americans, even though having complete knowledge of Iraq’s actions, blamed Iran in what was a move to support Hussein’s regime (Hiltermann, 2003).
What motivated Iraq to obtain WMDs? It was obviously to stay on top in the war with Iran, and to cause as many casualties as possible. With such objectives, Hussein could not be deterred by anything. This mind-set raises further questions about validity of defence against an enemy who has nothing to lose.
Bringing Iran into the argument might introduce an interesting shift in the discussion. It is relevant to consider Iran and Israel together, since the political scenario in the Arab world is linked to these two, with a power-centre in Israel. Iran’s pursue of nuclear technology (‘technology’ since Iran repeatedly denies that it is pursuing nuclear weapons, but rather nuclear technology for peaceful purposes such as energy and medicine) can be legitimized by the fact that it feels threatened by Israel, an argument used by both parties involved. But considering the fact that Israel already has nuclear weapons, it becomes undeniably true that Iran would want to acquire nuclear weapons as well. But then why are Iran’s nuclear ambitions being fought against?
The first and foremost concern is the threat to Israel. With a religiously inclined hard-core government, Iran is bent on destroying Israel at the first opportunity. In July this year, Iran declared it could destroy nearby U.S. military bases and strike Israel within minutes of an attack on the Islamic Republic, reflecting tensions over Iran’s suspect nuclear program (AP, 2012). With an agenda of destruction of Israel, it becomes imperative to stop the development of such a nuclear-armed country which could prove destructive to the region’s peace. It is also feared that Iran might supply nukes to its allies in the Gaza strip, further threatening the existence of Israel.
The second argument is based on the religious differences in the region. Iran is a Shi’a Muslim majority, while most of the surrounding region is Sunni Muslim. These differences have led Iran to have hostile relations with some of its neighbours in the past. In early 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that a nuclear armed Iran would set off an arms race in the region, as all nation-states would try to acquire nuclear arms for self-defence (CBC, 2010). Such proliferation would lead to the region becoming highly unstable. This is highly undesirable since Iran also borders Afghanistan, and some of its nukes might find their way to Al-Qaeda if the country goes through an internal power shift.
With the evolution in the terrorism theory, it is becoming increasingly important to keep WMDs in safe hands. When nation-states, hypothetically with far more resources, come into play with interests similar to those of terrorist groups, it becomes even more important to stop proliferation, especially on the state levels.
In Pakistan, A.Q. Khan ran a proliferation network from 1980s to until well into the 2000s, supplying knowledge, parts and blueprints to North Korea, Iran and Libya. With political conflicts, such as the war against the soviets in Afghanistan during 1980s and Bush’s War on Terror after 9/11, it becomes hard to control such proliferation. Even though US knew from its intelligence about Khan’s proliferation network, it did little to contain the course of events since it wanted to have Pakistan’s support for its war in Afghanistan.
What followed next can be seen easily, North Korea was able to develop its own nuclear program, threatening thousands of people living south of its border and Iran is always making headlines with its on-going nuclear program. With concerns over such ‘rogue-states’, and the larger nexus of terrorists co-operating with nation-states because of their shared ideology, political scientists are becoming increasingly aware of any development which might point towards WMDs getting into the hands of terrorists.
Terrorists are also moving away from their objectives that they had; of having a large audience watching as they create chaos. With murder as the sole objective, it becomes difficult for security agencies to control these groups. Analogous to suicide bombers, who truly have nothing to lose and are said to be bombs with brains, groups with only objectives to kill could strike anywhere and at any time. With WMDs, these strikes could cause catastrophic damage to civilians. Thus it becomes critical to explore where terrorists could get such weapons from and how they could be used. Of course, most terrorist groups lack expertise to develop such weapons on their own (especially radiological and nuclear). Hence it is also equally important to constantly monitor countries already developing or having stockpiles of WMDs, since they constitute the easiest route through which WMDs can be obtained by terrorists or terrorist-states.