AMMAN, Jordan – After the warehouse raid in northern Jordan, the word from authorities horrified the people of Amman.
Terrorists linked to al-Qaida had assembled a fearsome array of chemicals and planned a bombing that would send a 2-mile-wide “poison cloud” over this Middle East capital, killing as many as 80,000 people, military prosecutors said.
Osama bin Laden’s foot soldiers had finally concocted a weapon of mass destruction.
A year later, in the hard light of scientific scrutiny, that sinister scenario looks more fictional than factual.
“Eighty thousand! That would have been like Hiroshima. And that was an atomic bomb,” says Samih Khreis, one of the alleged plotters’ lawyers.
The defense attorneys aren’t alone in scoffing at the “WMD” claim. International experts checking the suspects’ supposed list of chemicals – from the industrial compound ammonium to the explosive nitroglycerin – say that either the defendants or the Jordanian authorities, or both, had little inkling about the makings of a chemical weapon.
The poison cloud of Amman is one more dubious episode in the story of the terrorist quest for doomsday arms, a dark vision that has become an axiom of today’s counterterrorist strategy. Four years into the global war on terror, half the Americans surveyed this summer said they worry “a lot” about the possibility of such a WMD attack, according to the U.S. polling firm Public Agenda.
Amid all the warnings, boasts and chilling tales, however, the daunting difficulties of fielding such weapons usually go unmentioned – along with al-Qaida’s glaring lack of expertise and stable home base, the unreliability of Internet “formulas,” and the progress made worldwide in locking down the raw materials of the most destructive weapons.
Concerns emerged in the 1990s when the Soviet Union’s collapse left nuclear and other arms vulnerable to theft. Worries grew as “recipes” for mass-casualty weapons flashed around the Internet. In 1998, al-Qaida leader bin Laden told Time magazine that acquiring such arms to defend Muslims “is a religious duty.” Three years later in Afghanistan, the U.S. military found al-Qaida documents, crude equipment and other evidence of chemical and biological experimentation.
Al-Qaida’s intent is clear, says a key U.S. intelligence analyst.
“The intent is there and you can see it in the ‘fatwas’ justifying the use” of WMD, Donald Van Duyn of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division said in a Washington interview.
But Amman’s story is one of many exaggerated threats or ill-conceived plans. Among others:
British police last year arrested eight people on suspicion of plotting a bombing that would spread osmium tetroxide, a dangerous corrosive compound. But this volatile chemical would have burned up in any explosion, scientists say.
The long-jailed Jose Padilla, an American al-Qaida member accused of planning a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the United States, is said by U.S. officials to have hoped to use uranium. But uranium has low radioactivity, and would have had no more impact than lead in a bomb, scientists note.
Eight Algerian and Libyan defendants accused of conspiracy to manufacture chemical weapons were freed in London last April after authorities acknowledged tests showed a substance found in one of their apartments was not highly lethal ricin, as earlier alleged. The plant extract, effective as a poison dealt to individuals, was long ago dismissed by military arms-makers as an impractical mass-casualty weapon.
American WMD specialists in Iraq reported that insurgents there last year recruited a Baghdad chemist to make the blistering agent mustard, a chemical weapon developed in World War I. They said he had the right ingredients, but he couldn’t produce the compound.
Nerve agent used in Japan
The only known terrorist use of a chemical weapon occurred in 1995 in the Tokyo subway system, when Aum Shinrikyo cult members punctured plastic bags of sarin, unleashing nerve-agent vapor that felled thousands of commuters.
The cult, including scientists, is believed to have spent millions of dollars on the demanding, dangerous production process, but came up with only impure sarin. It killed 12 people – hardly a mass-fatality terror attack, specialists point out.
“Regardless of what people say, this is very difficult to do, to inflict mass casualties with chemical or biological weapons,” said Jonathan Tucker, an authority on unconventional arms with California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies. “One really needs large quantities.”
Dr. Robert Hendrickson, Oregon toxicologist, calculates that terrorists would need 1,900 pounds of sarin – more than 200 gallons – to kill half the people in a typical open-air baseball stadium. So much liquid, with dispersal devices, would be extremely difficult to produce and to conceal.
Thousands of tons of sarin and VX nerve agent already exist in old U.S., Russian and other military arsenals. But those weapons’ potency has degraded and they’re being destroyed under the 1997 treaty banning them. Security around the storage sites has been tightened since the Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. terror attacks.
Some analysts say the facts of chemistry may mean little in the end for those who want to terrorize populations – their threats to use chemicals are enough to frighten the public.