By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 12, 2002
The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. They said government analysts suspect that the transaction involved the nerve agent VX and that a courier managed to smuggle it overland through Turkey.
If the report proves true, the transaction marks two significant milestones. It would be the first known acquisition of a nonconventional weapon other than cyanide by al Qaeda or a member of its network. It also would be the most concrete evidence to support the charge, aired for months by President Bush and his advisers, that al Qaeda terrorists receive material assistance in Iraq. If advanced publicly by the White House, the report could be used to rebut Iraq's assertion in a 12,000-page declaration Saturday that it had destroyed its entire stock of chemical weapons.
On the central question whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein knew about or authorized such a transaction, U.S. analysts are said to have no evidence. Because Hussein's handpicked Special Security Organization, run by his son Qusay, has long exerted tight control over concealed weapons programs, officials said they presume it would be difficult to transfer a chemical agent without the president's knowledge.
Knowledgeable officials, speaking without White House permission, said information about the transfer came from a sensitive and credible source whom they declined to discuss. Among the hundreds of leads in the Threat Matrix, a daily compilation by the CIA, this one has drawn the kind of attention reserved for a much smaller number.
"The way we gleaned the information makes us feel confident it is accurate," said one official whose responsibilities are directly involved with the report. "I throw about 99 percent of the spot reports away when I look at them. I didn't throw this one away."
Like most intelligence, the reported chemical weapon transfer is not backed by definitive evidence. The intended target is unknown, with U.S. speculation focusing on Europe and the United States.
At a time when President Bush is eager to make a public case linking Iraq to the United States's principal terrorist enemy, authorized national security spokesmen declined to discuss the substance of their information about the transfer of lethal chemicals. Those who disclosed it have no policymaking responsibilities on Iraq and expressed no strong views on whether the United States should go to war there.
Even authorized spokesmen, with one exception, addressed the report on the condition of anonymity. They said the principal source on the chemical transfer was uncorroborated, and that indications it involved a nerve agent were open to interpretation.
"We are concerned because of al Qaeda's interest in obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, and we continue to seek evidence and intelligence information with regards to their planning activity," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. Johndroe was the only official authorized by the White House to discuss the matter on the record.
"Have they obtained chemical weapons?" Johndroe said. "I do not have any hard, concrete evidence that they have." Pressed on whether the information referred to a nerve agent, Johndroe said "there is no specific intelligence that limits al Qaeda's interest to one particular chemical or biological weapon over the other."
One official who spoke without permission said a sign of the government's concern is its "ramping up opportunities to collect more, to figure out what would be the routes, where would they be taking the material, how would they deploy it, how are they transporting it, what are the personnel?" The official added: "We're not just sitting back and waiting for something to happen."
A Defense Department official, who said he had seen only the one-line summary version of the chemical weapon report, speculated that it might be connected to a message distributed last week to U.S. armed forces overseas. An official elsewhere said the message resulted only from an analyst's hypothetical concern.
Prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, last week's "Turkey Defense Terrorism Threat Awareness Message" warned of a possible chemical weapons attack by al Qaeda on the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Incirlik is an important NATO facility from which a U.S.-led coalition in 1991 launched thousands of bombing runs to force Iraq to withdraw its army from Kuwait. Turkey has given conditional agreement to its use in the event of a new war with Iraq.
According to two officials, a second related threat report was distributed in Washington this week. The CIA message, transmitted before the daily 3 a.m. compilation of the Threat Matrix, described a European ally's warning that the United States might face a chemical attack in a big-city subway if war breaks out with Iraq. A U.S. government spokesman said the European ally offered little evidence and "the credibility of the report has not been determined."
Among the uncertainties about the suspected weapon transfer in Iraq is the precise relationship of the Islamic operatives to the al Qaeda network. One official said the transaction involved Asbat al-Ansar, a Lebanon-based Sunni extremist group that recently established an enclave in northern Iraq. Asbat al-Ansar is affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and receives funding from it, but officials said they did not know whether its pursuit of chemical weapons was specifically on al Qaeda's behalf.
The government is also uncertain whether the transaction involved a chemical agent alone or an agent in what is known as a weaponized form -- incorporated into a delivery system such as a rocket or a bomb. The latter would be a more efficient killer, but chemical weapons are deadly in either form. Among the reasons for suspecting VX was involved is that it is the most portable of Iraq's chemical weapons, capable of inflicting mass casualties in a quantity that a single courier could transport.
After initial denials, Iraq admitted in the 1990s that it had manufactured tons of VX and two less sophisticated nerve agents, Sarin and Tabun. Its remaining chemical arsenal was limited to blister agents, such as mustard gas, that date back to World War I.
First developed as a weapon by the U.S. Army, VX is an oily, odorless and tasteless liquid that kills on contact with the skin or when inhaled in aerosol form. Like other nerve agents, it is treatable in the first minutes after exposure but otherwise leads swiftly to fatal convulsions and respiratory failure. The United States, a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, destroyed the last of its stocks of VX and other chemical agents on the Johnston Atoll, 825 miles southwest of Hawaii, in November 2000.
U.S. military forces, hazardous materials teams and some ambulance systems carry emergency antidotes. They usually come in autoinjectors containing atropine and an oxime -- drugs that reverse the neuromuscular blockade of a nerve agent. Atropine-like drugs have other uses, such as in anesthesia and in treating cardiac arrest, and are often stocked in hospitals.
During inspections by the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, in the 1990s, Iraq denied producing any chemical weapon other than mustard gas. Faced with contrary evidence, it eventually acknowledged the manufacture of 3.9 tons of VX and 3,859 tons in all of lethal chemicals. The Baghdad government also admitted filling more than 10,000 bombs, rockets and missile warheads with Sarin. It denied having done so with its most potent agent, VX, but an international commission of experts assembled by UNSCOM said the scientific evidence suggested otherwise.
UNSCOM said in its final report, in January 1999, that it could not account for 1.5 tons of the VX known to have been produced in Iraq, and that it could not establish whether additional quantities had been made.
The U.N. Security Council ordered Iraq in April 1991 to relinquish all capabilities to make biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as well as long-range missiles. The declared basis for the present threat of war is the U.S. view, shared by the Clinton and Bush administrations, that the Baghdad government never came close to complying.
In 1998, the Clinton administration asserted that Iraq provided technical assistance in the construction of a VX production facility in Sudan, undertaken jointly with al Qaeda. In retaliation for al Qaeda's August 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton ordered the destruction of the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan's capital.
Clinton's advisers released scant public evidence about al Shifa, and the Tomahawk missile attack was widely regarded as a blunder. Top Clinton administration officials, and career analysts still in government, maintain there was strong evidence behind the strike but that it remains too valuable to disclose. During last year's New York trial of the embassy bombers, prosecution witness Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a onetime operative who broke with al Qaeda, offered limited corroboration. He named al Qaeda and Sudanese operatives who had told him they were working together to build a chemical weapons plant in Khartoum. He said nothing about Iraqi support for the project and named a site near, but not in, the al Shifa plant.
Only once has a chemical weapon been used successfully in a terrorist attack. During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo placed packages on five subway trains converging on Tokyo's central station. When punctured, the packages spread vaporized Sarin through the subway cars and then into the stations as the trains pulled in.
In all, the Sarin contaminated 15 stations of the world's busiest subway system, putting 1,000 riders in the hospital and killing 12 of them. Though the attack spread great terror in Japan, it took fewer lives than its authors expected because the Sarin reached many victims in a form that was not sufficiently concentrated.
"Psychologically, use of nerve agent in the United States would send people over the deep end, but it probably wouldn't kill very many people," said an official whose responsibilities have included the assessment and disruption of the threat.
Others said the panic induced could have serious economic consequences, rendering many Americans unwilling to enter a facility of the sort that had suffered a chemical attack.
In general, al Qaeda's pursuit of chemical and biological weapons is well known to U.S. intelligence. A central player in the effort has been Midhat al Mursi, an Egyptian who is among the most-wanted al Qaeda operatives but who remains at large. He ran a development and testing facility for lethal chemicals in a camp -- in Derunta, Afghanistan -- that was eventually renamed "Abu Kebab" after Mursi's nom de guerre.
The Derunta operation is not thought to have progressed beyond unsophisticated poisons, including the cyanide used in videotaped experiments on dogs. Unconsummated plots by al Qaeda and its allies in Jordan just before the turn of the millennium, and in Britain last month, also involved cyanide.
CORRECTION-DATE: December 18, 2002, WednesdayDecember 13, 2002, Friday
Citing U.S. government officials, a Dec. 12 article misidentified as Asbat al-Ansar an al Qaeda-affiliated group in northern Iraq. The group is Ansar al-Islam. A Dec. 12 article incorrectly reported that the United States possesses no more VX nerve agent. The Army destroyed the last of its VX stocks on Johnston Atoll in November 2000, but other stocks await destruction elsewhere.