'Portents of A Nuclear Al-Qaeda'

David Ignatius and I don't see eye to eye on much, although he has written some very good pieces on the Middle East and Lebanon in particular (his column is published in the Daily Star of Lebanon).

But his column in the Washington Post this morning is a must read for anyone concerned about the ultimate terrorist threat; the detonation of a nuclear weapon on American soil:

With his shock of white hair and piercing eyes, Mowatt-Larssen looks like a man who has seen a ghost. And when you listen to a version of the briefing he has been giving recently to President Bush and other top officials, you begin to understand why.

He is convinced that al-Qaeda is trying to acquire a nuclear bomb that will leave the ultimate terrorist signature -- a mushroom cloud....

But it's worth listening to his warnings -- not because they induce more numbing paralysis but because they might stir sensible people to take actions that could detect and stop an attack. That's why his boss, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, is encouraging him to speak out. Mowatt-Larssen doesn't want to anguish later that he didn't sound the alarm in time.

Mowatt-Larssen has been gathering this evidence since a few weeks after Sept. 11, when then-CIA Director George Tenet asked him to create a new branch on weapons of mass destruction in the agency's counterterrorism center. He helped Tenet prepare the chapter on al-Qaeda's nuclear efforts that appears in Tenet's memoir, " At the Center of the Storm." Now that the uproar over Tenet's mistaken "slam dunk" assessment of the Iraqi threat has died down, it's worth rereading this account. It provides a chilling, public record of al-Qaeda's nuclear ambitions.
Al-Qaeda has been interested in acquiring nuclear weapons almost since its inception, dating back to 1993 when Osama offered $1.5 million to buy highly enriched uranium that could be used in a bomb. And three Saudi al-Qaeda operatives were thwarted from buying 3 Russian made nukes in 2003. They have enlisted the help of Pakistani scientists - some of whom worked on the Paikstani bomb program.

And just as importantly, Mowatt-Larssen has pointed out that al-Qaeda has received the blessing of several Muslim clerics to go ahead and use any nuclear weapon they might acquire.

Ignatius points out that most analysts doubt that al-Qaeda has a nuclear capability. But Mowatt-Larssen says "We just don't know."

And the nightmare for policymakers is that we will be unaware of the terrorist's capability to hit us with nukes until a mushroom shaped cloud blooms over an American city.
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