He is an unusual terrorist leader in that he has produced a broad and sustained body of interviews, pamphlet essays and videotaped speeches, even after going into hiding. In these lie the jihadi nuclear doctrine, in plain sight.
Since the late 1980s and certainly since 1991, bin Laden has seen the United States as the principal invader of the Muslim world because of its support for the Saudi royal family, Israel and other Middle Eastern governments he labels apostate. In often tedious debates with comrades during the 1990s, he has argued that only by attacking distant America could al Qaeda hope to mortally wound the Middle East's frontline authoritarian governments.
(Al-jazeera Via Aptn /ap)
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His inspiration, repeatedly cited in his writings and interviews, is the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he says shocked Japan's fading imperial government into a surrender it might not otherwise have contemplated. Bin Laden has said several times that he is seeking to acquire and use nuclear weapons not only because it is God's will, but because he wants to do to American foreign policy what the United States did to Japanese imperial surrender policy.
Listening to him on tape after tape, it is difficult to doubt bin Laden's intent. There is evidence that he and his allies have experimented with chemical and biological weapons, typically low-level toxins. But in public, bin Laden talks mainly about nuclear bombs.
As far as is known, he and his followers lack the capability to carry out a significant attack. Given the pressure he is currently under, it is difficult to imagine how bin Laden himself will ever reacquire the space he would need to carry out or closely supervise such a complicated attack himself.
Yet as long as he is at large, he will at a minimum seek to inspire others to act on his behalf. He has already helped to radicalize several individual scientists associated with Pakistan's nuclear program. And by now bin Laden's rationale for attacking the far enemy with massive force has been globally distributed, on satellite television and across the Internet.
But wait, you may say: There hasn't been an attack of any kind on U.S. soil since Sept. 11., 2001. There are probably multiple explanations for this fact: a lack of effective al Qaeda cells in place; U.S.-led disruption efforts; and bin Laden's inability so far to inspire any significant following in the United States. But many al Qaeda watchers also believe that bin Laden or his followers may be husbanding their resources, planning and waiting until they can carry off an attack big enough to match or exceed the last.
What is the specific character of the threat as it may unfold over several decades?
Imagine the faculty lounge in the theoretical physics, metallurgy and advanced chemistry departments of an underfunded university in Islamabad or Rabat or Riyadh or Jakarta. The year is 2015. Into the room walk a group of colleagues -- seven or eight talented scientists, some religiously devout, all increasingly angry about events abroad. At night, between sporadic electricity outages, they watch satellite television and chat in cyberspace, absorbing an increasingly radical, even murderous outlook toward the United States. By day, as they sip coffee and smoke furtively in each other's company, these scientists spontaneously form a bond, and from that bond emerges a resolve to act -- by launching a nuclear or biological attack on American soil.
Unlike states, which so far have proved deterrable by the threat of retaliation even when led by madmen, this faculty cell may be utterly indifferent to and beyond the reach of the traditional mechanisms of nuclear deterrence.
This scenario of radicalization tracks the narratives preceding half a dozen recent conventional al Qaeda attacks, including the Madrid bombings last March and the suicide bombing in Casablanca in 2003. As terrorism analyst Marc Sageman has documented, the Madrid conspiracy highlights an emerging problem of spontaneous cell generation, incubated by al Qaeda ideology. The conspiracy involved independent, fluid group decision-making fueled by mixed motives, including religious idealism, criminality and greed.
The cells that carried out the Madrid and Casablanca attacks did not contain talented scientists. But the notion of a semi-independent cell of self-aggrandizing Islamist scientists is, unfortunately, not invented. The faculty lounge cell is just an extrapolation of the story of A.Q. Khan,the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, who sold secrets to global customers for profit.
From where might such undeterrable jihadi nuclear cells emerge during the next several decades?
The movement bin Laden now seeks to inspire draws from at least two channels. One is the spontaneous identification of individual Muslims with his cause -- self-declared affiliations by jihadis acting essentially on their own. These are often alienated, transnational migrants in the pattern of Ramzi Yousef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who was born in Pakistan, raised in Kuwait, educated in Britain, trained in Afghanistan and inspired by targets in New York.