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Al Qaeda's Nightmare Scenario Emerges

Does Osama bin Laden plan to become the ultimate suicide bomber?

11:00 PM, Feb 18, 2003 • By MANSOOR IJAZ
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OSAMA BIN LADEN, or some good likeness of him, spoke from the ether again on two occasions last week, releasing two undated audiotapes as Muslims completed their pilgrimages to Mecca. His call to Jihad did not stop at tying himself to Iraq's people, by which he had clearly hoped to provoke Washington into immediate unilateral military action against Saddam Hussein. Nor did it end with his messianic recitation of verses in the Koran that clearly demonstrated he knows the end game is near. Predicting his martyrdom this year, he vowed to die in "the belly of the Eagle," an Islamist reference to ending his life in a final act of terror against the United States on our soil. The man, put simply, is on the run.

Bin Laden's cowardice shines through his rhetoric. For the first time since the September 11 attacks against the United States, bin Laden demonstrated fear through his choice of words. In setting forth plans for his suicide, he probably came to the conclusion that al Qaeda's retaliation infrastructure around the world had been so effectively and systematically dismantled by western intelligence that his terrorists may not be able to mount a credible response to any planned U.S. military action in Iraq in the near future. Like many Mafia bosses before him, he appears to have decided that when the going looks tough--the poison network in Europe, for example, has been decimated by defections and confessions--it's better to exit stage left.

While bin Laden's vision of dividing the West and driving a wedge between the United States and her allies, whether Arab or European, has become a political reality, his terrorist acts have not yet reached their intended crescendo--to use a weapon of mass destruction against civilians. That is why bin Laden spoke and why we need to quickly and effectively decipher what he is really trying to tell us.

A plethora of available but seemingly unconnected evidence provides important clues for what may be bin Laden's final act. To understand the data, we must be imaginative and accept that al Qaeda's highest military objective is the economic paralysis of the West--killing us softly, to quote Roberta Flack. Hardcore acts of terrorism against civilian targets that cause mass casualties are certainly a part of the al Qaeda Jihad thesis, but these acts are designed more for recruitment than long-term debilitating impact.

Constructing the Tools of Armageddon

AL QAEDA has explosives expertise that is unsurpassed in non-military circles. It gets military-grade C4 charges from China and Iran; it employs Hezbollah and Hamas guerillas trained in the fine arts of detonation devices (witness particularly the maritime attacks against the USS Cole and the French oil tanker); and it has brainwashed legions of men who are willing to die for the cause.

What's missing? Plutonium, and the scientific expertise to build a crude but highly explosive nuclear bomb. (Plutonium is more easily transported without detection and offers a bigger bang for the buck than typical enriched uranium devices.)

Who's supplying the material and expertise? North Korea, and, surprisingly, our ally in the war against al Qaeda, Pakistan. Pyongyang--with a lot of help from China (which is supplying key chemicals to separate plutonium from depleted uranium) and Pakistan (which gave North Korea its uranium enrichment centrifuges and tutored its nuclear scientists)--will be able to churn out Coke cans of plutonium at the rate of one per week by the end of March.

According to my intelligence sources in the Far East, the outlying renegade provinces of Indonesia (Aceh, for example) and the Philippines (where al Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayyaf rules) are infested with senior al Qaeda leaders. Each one is financially empowered to purchase North Korea's plutonium the moment it is reprocessed. Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two, was reportedly in Indonesia last September, a month before the Bali bomb blast that killed 200 mostly Australian tourists. He could easily be there again.

We also know from published--and so far undisputed--reports that from February 2000 until July 2002, eight senior Pakistani nuclear scientists left their country without obtaining the required No Objection Certificates needed for travel abroad. They remain unaccounted for and at least some are reported to have traveled to Australia and Indonesia.

In a worst case scenario, al Qaeda could construct a crude but effective nuclear device in weeks, if not a month, from Hezbollah C4, North Korean plutonium, and a little nuclear expertise from disaffected Pakistani scientists. Making a "dirty" radiological dispersion device with Strontium or Cesium also remains an option, although it is clear that al Qaeda has the intent and resources to go for weapons that cause maximum collateral damage.