Al Qaeda's Religious Justification of Nuclear Weapons

This is an excerpt from an upcoming research report examining the debate within Muslim societies on the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This particular section warns of a heightened risk of another Al Qaeda attack. The report is principally authored by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former Director of the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's WMD and terrorism efforts. Mowatt-Larssen is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Rahim B. Kanani, graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, research associate at Harvard Kennedy School, and frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, assisted Mowatt-Larssen with the research and writing that went into this report.

Al Qaeda's Religious Justification of Nuclear Weapons

"This vanguard constitutes the solid base [qaeda in Arabic] for the hoped-for society ... We shall continue the jihad no matter how long the way, until the last breath and the last beat of the pulse--or until we see the Islamic state established." - Abdullah Azzam [1: "The Solid Base" (Al-Qaeda), Al-Jihad (journal), April 1988, n.41]

When legendary jihadist Abdullah Azzam was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in November 1989, suspects in his murder included Osama bin Laden and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. After the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan, Azzam sought to shift jihad to his homeland, Palestine. Zawahiri sought to focus the jihad on Egypt and the other secular Muslim states, in hopes of restoring the caliphate, the rule of Islamic clerics, which had ended after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. After Islamic rule had been re-established in the Islamic world, Zawahiri wrote, "then history would make a new turn, God willing, in the opposite direction against the empire of the United States and the world's Jewish government." [2: Wright, Looming Towers, Knopf (2006), p.46]

It is not clear who killed Azzam, but his departure from the scene played into Osama bin Laden's hands, by shifting the target of the jihad not to Israel or to Egypt, but to the United States. When bin Laden formed Al Qaeda a year earlier, Zawahiri was convinced to throw in his lot with this "heaven-sent man," [3: Ibid] as Azzam had characterized bin Laden, principally because Zawahiri felt stymied in fulfilling his lifelong dream of overthrowing the Egyptian regime.

Bin Laden would develop an idea that would breathe life back into Zawahiri's dreams: the United States must become the target of the jihad. If the Americans could be provoked into war, they could be defeated like the Soviets, and expelled from Muslim lands for good. The fall of the U.S. superpower would lead to the overthrow of secular Arab states. This insight led to successive Al Qaeda strikes against the U.S., including the unsuccessful bombing of the World Trade Center (1993), bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa (1998), and the bombing of the USS Cole (2000). It was not evident at the time, but the road to 9/11 began on the day Al Qaeda was formed.

It was with a grim mood of impending confrontation with the United States that the two Al Qaeda leaders shared an interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. By 1992, Al Qaeda was already dabbling in the nuclear black market. Undaunted by a series of scams by hustlers and con men, bin Laden and Zawahiri remained alert to opportunities to buy, steal, or build a bomb. After Al Qaeda was expelled from Sudan in 1994, Ayman Zawahiri mysteriously dropped out of sight. For two years, the Egyptian doctor and two of his top lieutenants traveled extensively to Russia, Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore, and China. The purpose of their travels has never been established, but Zawahiri's associations during his travels, and own statements, suggest that he and his cohorts may have been hunting for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). [4: Author's Note: The substance of Mr Wright's text was confirmed and amplified in my discussions with foreign intelligence officials.]

It is no coincidence that 1998 was the year that Osama bin Laden openly declared war on the U.S., publicly stated that it was his Islamic duty to acquire WMD, and secretly launched the operational plan for the 9/11 attack. Bin Laden privately expressed frustration that two brazen assaults against U.S. government interests abroad had failed to provoke the U.S. into invading Afghanistan. [5: 9/11 Commission Report pg 191; Amplified in my discussions with government officials] He formalized an agreement within Al Qaeda to attack the "far enemy," the U.S., before the "near enemy," the Muslim states. The Al Qaeda high command secretly initiated the operational planning that would culminate in the 9/11 attack. They began chemical, biological, and nuclear programs under the direct supervision of Zawahiri and senior Al Qaeda members. At around this time, Zawahiri also began piecing together two separate Pakistani and Malaysian- based networks to develop an anthrax weapon for use in the United States. [6: "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland." National Intelligence Estimate. July 2007]

Osama bin Laden 1998 "fatwa"

"All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims. And ulema have throughout Islamic history unanimously agreed that the jihad is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries. This was revealed by Imam bin-Qadamah in 'Al- Mughni,' Imam al-Kisa'i in'Al-Bada'i,' al-Qurtubi in his interpretation, and the shaykh of al-Islam in his books, where he said: 'As for the fighting to repulse [an enemy], it is aimed at defending sanctity and religion, and it is a duty as agreed [by the ulema]. Nothing is more sacred than belief except repulsing an enemy who is attacking religion and life.'"

"On that basis, and in compliance with God's order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, 'and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,' and 'fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.'" [7]

Issuing this fatwa served several objectives. First, Osama bin Laden became the unquestioned leader of a global jihad, and the mastermind behind the movement's decision to declare war on America. Although Osama bin Laden had no authority to issue a fatwa, he embraced an opportunity to seek "God's approval" for the decision to escalate the conflict to the next stage. By authoring the fatwa himself, bin Laden also assumed a role as chief cleric in charge of translating Islamist extremist theology and ideology into action. This positioned him to anticipate and preempt interference from Sunni clerics who were opposed to Al Qaeda.

By declaring it to be his "Islamic duty" to acquire WMD, the Al Qaeda leader envisioned the introduction of WMD (by either side) in the atmosphere of all out war that was sure to follow 9/11; he pre-justified their use on religious grounds. Finally, bin Laden made it a religious duty for his followers to pursue WMD. Henceforth, Ayman Zawahiri made it his mission to develop the religious case for using WMD, in parallel with his efforts to acquire operational capability for future attacks against the U.S.