Islamist Movements and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Islamist Movements and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Hans Rühle and Michael Rühle | 30 Oct 2007

World Politics Review Exclusive




Just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Pakistani authorities arrested two atomic scientists suspected of having aided the terror network al-Qaida in efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. One year earlier, they had founded a humanitarian aid agency for Afghanistan: the “Reconstruction of the Muslim Umma.” But for the two Taliban sympathizers, the aim of constructing a new Muslim community was not only a matter of economic and political solidarity with the faithful around the world. In their opinion, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which they had helped to develop, were also the “property of all Muslims.”

A Reevaluation

This episode represents only one of numerous developments in recent years that make it absolutely urgent for us to undertake an overview and reevaluation of the issue of Islamist movements and nuclear weapons. When Pakistan joined the class of nuclear powers in 1998, the commentaries still moved within the classical categories of regional equilibrium and mutual nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan. Since the destruction of the towers of the World Trade Center by suicidal Islamist extremists, however, the question of the relation between Islamism and weapons of mass destruction has become one of the key questions of international politics. The attack did not only demonstrate that al-Qaida was capable of conducting terrorist operations on a strategic scale in the heart of the Western world; it also showed that Islamist terror did not shrink from committing mass murder against non-combatants.

A short time later, it became known that Iran was conducting a secret nuclear program that threatened to create a nuclear domino effect in the Middle East. Just shortly after that, yet another reason to fear such an eventuality emerged, as the full scope in which Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had, on his own initiative, furnished nuclear hardware and software to Libya, Iran and other countries became clear. Finally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provided the macabre highpoint to this series of developments when he repeatedly called for Israel to be “wiped from the map”: Ahmadinejad, the president of a country that — as Pakistani President Musharraf recently put it to a German journalist — “was always eager to get an atomic bomb.”

In 1983, Iranian-controlled suicide bombers blew up the headquarters of the American marines in Lebanon: 241 soldiers died — and the United States withdrew from Lebanon shortly thereafter. In the years following, suicide bombing became the preferred form of terrorist violence in the Middle East. Suicide is clearly prohibited in Islam. But the extremists managed to resolve this dilemma in an astoundingly simple manner: the suicide bomber was transformed into a “martyr,” who was glorified and who was promised entry into paradise after death. More prudent Muslim spiritual authorities tried to prevent this recategorization by pointing to the fact that, according to the traditional Muslim understanding, a martyr was someone who was killed by the enemy in a holy war for Islam. Their efforts, however, were without notable effect.

A Glorification of God

The advocates of “martyrdom operations” — thus the Islamist terminus technicus for suicide attacks — argued that the suicides that occurred in the context of such martyrdom operations, since they were not the result of world-weariness or desperation, were therefore not in fact suicides: On the contrary, they were a form of glorification of God in the holy war against the unbelievers.

Through most of the second half of the 1990s, the theory and practice of suicide attacks was almost entirely limited to the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Within a few years, all the restrictions associated with the laws and customs of war seemed to have given way. Israeli women could be killed without any limitation, because — so ran the justification — they not only did military service, but they remained available to the army thereafter as reserves. They were also supposed to be legitimate targets, moreover, because of their lifestyle — they generally failed to observe the Islamic rules on chastity — and the public display of their femininity. Israeli farmers and old people were also no longer to be treated as protected civilians because they occupied Muslim land. It was still not permissible directly to attack children and civilians regarded as uninvolved in the conflict; their death, however, was to be accepted as an “undesired side-effect.”

Muslim victims of suicide bombers were treated in a similar fashion. In the view of the extremists, their deaths were acceptable, since they too thereby — even if involuntarily — became martyrs. In contravention of the imperative to minimize collateral damage, the suicide attack was directed less and less against a particular person, but sought, on the contrary, to achieve the maximum degree of horror in causing the maximum number of civilian victims. The general principle of proportionality of the means used toward military aims had gone up in smoke.

Different Themes and Aims

Islamist terrorists also understood their actions as a defensive struggle against an illegitimate occupation of Arab territory by Israel and the United States. This argument has remained a part of Islamist rhetoric. But the nearly ritualistic complaints about the victimhood of Islam are increasingly accompanied by new accents placing the emphasis rather on the obligation to bring about a world revolution. Mohammad Atta and his comrades-in-struggle regarded themselves as the vanguard in a holy war against the unbelievers, which would some day lead to the worldwide triumph of Islam. The suicide attack was thus released from the narrow regional context of the Middle East, and it has in the meantime also arrived in Europe.

The author Joseph Croitoru has drawn attention to the significance in this regard of a little known pamphlet that explicitly names the new enemies or “false idols”: The United Nations, The U.N. Charter, the International Court in the Hague, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Islamic World Congress. Croitoru comments: “If one considers the rhetoric of al-Qaida more closely, it becomes clear that the leader of the terrorist organization and his allies aim to spark an Islamic world revolution, which would destroy the old world order and the international institutions associated with it, and replace it with an Islamic Caliphate.” The terrorist movement thereby adopts the political ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder Hassan al-Banna called for the universal rule of Islam in the 1940s. Here the words of al-Banna: “It lies in the nature of Islam to rule and not to be ruled, to impose its laws on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet.”


In a statement published in 1998, for which he has received the explicit support of several Muslim notables, Osama Bin Laden said: “To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible.” Bernard Lewis, the British dean of Islam scholarship, has labeled this fatwa the “License to Kill.” On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaida terrorists made use of it. In committing a mass murder of non-combatants, Islamic extremist terror had become entirely unbound from all traditional constraints. The Qaida justification for the indiscriminate killing of Americans — i.e. that in the democratic United States the whole people elects its criminal and aggressive government and is thus entirely responsible for its actions — merely provides the ultimate macabre proof for this fact.

Hardly Any Limits

In this connection, the question of how Islamic terrorism would deal with weapons of mass destruction has to be posed. This is not merely a theoretical question and it has not been for a long time already. Osama Bin Laden demonstrated this in 1998, when he declared it to be the religious duty of every Muslim to make nuclear and chemical weapons available for the higher aims of Islam. In 2003, a Saudi Islamist provided the religious justification for their use. In a comprehensive opinion, he declared that Muslims are authorized to kill 10 million Americans — if necessary, by using weapons of mass destruction. There is no detailed explanation given for the number 10 million. But it is likely no coincidence that it corresponds to the size of the population of New York City: the supposed citadel of the Western civilization that the Islamists so much despise.

It would be irresponsible to rule out the use of weapons of mass destruction by Islamists. It would be all the more irresponsible inasmuch as al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations have been attempting to acquire nuclear material since 1990: above all, in the successor states of the former Soviet Union. The Clinton Administration’s “Project Sapphire” makes this clear. When the Kazakh government was seeking to dispose of some 600 kilograms of “unclaimed” highly enriched uranium in 1993, al-Qaida was reportedly present in the area. By gently applying pressure on the Kazakh government, the United States was able finally to purchase the nuclear material — enough for 20 atom bombs as powerful as that dropped on Hiroshima — and remove it by plane. In this case, al-Qaida came up empty-handed. It is unlikely, however, that all its other — in part documented — attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction or their preliminary components have likewise failed.

One need not have in mind here the immediate use by al-Qaida of a nuclear weapon. There are other, less demanding, possibilities that already fall within the scope of its capacities: the use of chemical agents, the release of nuclear radiation through the depositing of radioactive material in highly populated urban areas, or the detonation of a “dirty bomb,” whereby radioactive material is disbursed over a wide area by a conventional explosive. According to the findings of a scientific study from 1992, the detonation of a high-caliber bomb of this sort in Manhattan would require the evacuation of the entire island and (per the guidelines of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) render an area of several hundred square kilometers uninhabitable.

Why Has It Not Happened Up Till Now?

If, however, as is probable, al-Qaida has both the know-how and the materials required to build at least a relatively simple explosive device like a “dirty bomb,” why has no such attack occurred up till now? There are several possible explanations. Al-Qaida could be having a go at producing a technically demanding weapon, whose construction and use presents challenges that are for the moment beyond its capacities or require a considerable amount of time to resolve. It is also possible that the anti-terror measures of the United States and its allies have damaged al-Qaida to such an extent that undertaking major projects like the use of weapons of mass destruction is presently impossible for it.

Political considerations could also play a role. Al-Qaida could fear that by using weapons of mass destruction, it would lose the large acceptance it enjoys in the Arab world, which could have as consequence in turn the loss of financial and material resources as well as personnel. Finally, it can also be presumed that deterrence has had some effect — even if it has always been maintained up to now that there can by definition be no deterrence vis-à-vis terrorists who love death more than life. This may well be correct as far as the individual suicide bombers are concerned. But for an organization like al-Qaida, which has larger, indeed global, plans for conquest, the survival of its leadership and large parts of its infrastructure is indispensable.

Such an organization does not need its own territory, like the territory of state. It depends, however, on having at least a host country: a “safe harbor” where it can train its cadres and to which it can fall back in order to regroup. Osama Bin Laden might believe that at the moment he cannot afford to provoke retaliatory strikes — possibly themselves employing weapons of mass destruction — against, say, a country like Pakistan.

In short: By virtue of the globalization of the suicide attack and its justification on the part of radical Islamic spiritual authorities, Islamism has torn down the traditional limitations placed on the use of violence in war. For the moment, we can only begin to imagine the consequences this uncompromising attitude toward the use of violence — including the use of weapons of mass destruction against innocents — will have for the stability of the multinuclear world of the 21st century.

Hans Rühle is the former chief of the planning section in the German Ministry of Defense. Michael Rühle is the head of the speechwriting section in the Political Affairs Division of NATO. The above article represents only their personal views. It first appeared in German in the Swiss daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Oct. 11. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.




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