Nuclear Jihad: Inspiration or Intent?

 


In the past month, members of password-protected online jihadist forums have participated in dramatically more frequent discussions advocating a nuclear strike in the United States or against Western targets. This uptick has sparked a reaction among American security agencies, such as the FBI, which issued a bulletin to 18,000 law enforcement agencies this week warning that al-Qaeda has made new threats to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets.

In the past month, members of password-protected online jihadist forums have participated in dramatically more frequent discussions advocating a nuclear strike in the United States or against Western targets. This uptick has sparked a reaction among American security agencies, such as the FBI, which issued a bulletin to 18,000 law enforcement agencies this week warning that al-Qaeda has made new threats to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets.

Describing the bulletin to ABC News, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko wrote:

  “There have been several reports that al Qaeda will release a new message calling for the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against civilians… The FBI and U.S. intelligence community will review the message for any intelligence value”  
     

However, analyzing discussions that encourage a nuclear attack against the United States and Europe as representing an incipient threat against the United States would misread the intent of the posts. Although this uptick has prompted a response from American intelligence and security officials, such as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the FBI, the chatter should properly be seen as inspirational literature created by jihadists to express their desires to see a nuclear attack as a means to force the United States to react to al-Qaeda as an equal adversary rather than as comprising a coherent and imminent threat.

These discussions consistently return to the theme that al-Qaeda should encourage the development of a bipolar world order with the United States and al-Qaeda that would engender a new Cold War. In the view of jihadists, nuclear weapons would allow al-Qaeda to gain legitimacy as the geopolitical equal of the United States and force the West to recognize the jihadist movement as being equal in strength to the last remaining superpower.. Commonly voiced expressions of support for jihadists’ development of nuclear weapons centers around equalizing the balance of power between the United States and al-Qaeda, typified by the superior nuclear arsenal of the United States, and bolstered by assertions that the United States has been using weapons of mass destruction against Muslims in Iraq.

One of the first posts in the recent crop of messages, “Al-Qaeda and the Nuclear Weapon”, posted to password protected al-Qaeda affiliated forums in late April 2008, expressly states that a nuclear strike within the United States is desirable in order to position al-Qaeda as the military equal of the United States. The author asserts that al-Qaeda is largely immune to coercion through mutually assured destruction as it has no major cities, military bases, or population centers that the United States could strike in retaliation. He states that he has no doubt that al-Qaeda has developed nuclear weapons in order to ensure deterrence with the West, claiming:

  “There is no doubt that Usama [bin Laden] is not a man considered short-sighted.  Also, there is no doubt that al-Qaeda has prepared itself.  America will not surrender until it exhausts everything as far the tricks in its quiver and until it tries all of its weapons, including the nuclear weapons, or as they like to call it, the weapon of terror.”  
     

Moreover, he writes that for this weapon to have maximum utility as an agent to deter the United States, al-Qaeda must have smuggled it into the United States, hypothesizing:

  “I can almost swear that Usama and al-Qaeda possess nuclear weapons.  I am sure and I swear that al-Qaeda had reported to the Americans in a way that does not keep leave any doubt that the weapon had entered the American territories.  I am sure that any attempt to attack the Islamic countries with nuclear weapons would be met by a devastating reaction, because the American cities fall under the mercy of the Islamic nuclear weapon… al-Qaeda would not have entered a battle for existence such as we see today, unless it possesses the ability to neutralize the American weapon of terror.  
     
  And achieve a balance of fear that will turn America into mere traditional opponent that relies on the strength of its regular army and the intelligence of its field commanders.”  
     

The language of deterrence and mutually assured destruction set forth in “Al-Qaeda and the Nuclear Weapon” set the pattern for subsequent discussions, and projections, of the status of al-Qaeda’s nuclear program.

In May 2008, interest among jihadist forum members in using nuclear weapons to strike the West was further stimulated by a video, titled, “Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror”, that provides a series of arguments to support the development and use of nuclear weapons in Europe and the United States. The video, created in a documentary style, presented the words of Islamic scholars justifying the application of WMD as well as excerpts of speeches from Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri stating that al-Qaeda is developing the capacity for an upcoming massive strike.

The documentary opens by alleging that the United States has been using chemical weapons in Iraq, featuring excerpts from an interview with a purported former American soldier describing the use of “White Phosphorus” in Iraq along with images of charred and mutilated human remains.  After showing examples of alleged Western WMD usage, the documentary then states that the Muslim nation must develop similar weapons in order to force a détente, similar to that between the United States and the Soviet Union. Included in the video are several exhortations to use WMD to allow jihadists to sow widespread destruction, claiming:

  “the idea of killing lots of people, this idea is available to us, and it must be used under the idea of treating others the same, so I say that terror in their countries must involve human losses and these human losses must be with WMD”.  
     

Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror advocates the use of weapons of mass destruction throughout the video, and particularly highlights the deterrent power of WMD, such as when the video quotes an unidentified jihadist stating:

  “This [attacks] cannot be stopped except by mutual suppression, like the nuclear suppression that happened between Russia and America. You have nuclear weapons, I have nuclear weapons. You stay with what are known as conventional weapons, good. You go for what is called WMD, there is no room for balancing out. WMD include of course the nuclear and... which is very dangerous, very, very dangerous, but we are looking to organize the weapons for the war of the future, so we must look to see what is being used.”  
     

These clips are interwoven with excerpts of Western documentaries demonstrating the technical ease of creating chemical and biological weapons and the devastation such weapons would cause if unleashed.

“Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror” was released to the Ekhlaas jihadist forum on May 25, 2008 by a user named “p2l0a0g8u9e”, a name that members of the Ekhlaas forum quickly deduced represents an amalgamation of "plague" and "2008/9". This user account was created shortly before the video was uploaded, and has only been used to post this video. Although posted by a new member, the thread in which the video was posted was quickly elevated to a “sticky” thread, indicating that forum administrators approved of the video. In order to ensure that members saw the video, administrators of the al-Ekhlaas forum posted a banner pr omoting “Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror” at the top of the forum interface.

 Exposure to a WMD agent
Source: Nuclear Jihad: The Ultimate Terror, posted on the Al-Ekhlaas forum

 

Members of Ekhlaas responded with great enthusiasm, sparking discussions in which forum members discuss how they would view a nuclear attack in the United States or Europe. One such discussion, titled “How Would You Feel if America or Britain Were Hit with a Nuclear Weapon?” solicited responses largely in favor of a nuclear strike. In a similar thread, begun on May 27, 2008, a prominent member of the Ekhlaas forum posted a message, titled, “Question and Answer about the Next Attack in the Heart of the Infidel America”, claiming that news of a forthcoming nuclear jihadist strike had come to him in a dream. Claiming that evidence backing up the dream can be found in the publications and projects of as-Sahab, the member Usama al-Asad writes that the attack, designed for “mass-killing” will be carried out by sleeper agents and will “break it [the United States] up into mini-states”.

Recent discussions about nuclear weapons have not been restricted to the al-Ekhlaas forum. On the al-Hesbah forum in May 2008, forum member Al-Fata al-Jurani discussed the potential ramifications of using nuclear weapons in a thread titled “The Mujahideen to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction from Permissibility to its Application”. He suggests that before deploying WMD against the West, jihadists should weigh the costs against the benefits of such an action, writing:

  “if the mujahideen want to use weapons of mass destruction against the enemy, they should look at the consequences of this action.  They should look at it from the point of view as a virtue or view.  And if the bad exceeds the good, it should be forbidden”  
     

Al-Fata al-Jurani summarizes his view by writing that ultimately, using WMD against the West will harm Muslims when the West retaliates with their superior firepower. Other members of the al-Hesbah forum vigorously contested these findings, writing that if the Mujahideen had access to WMD, especially nuclear weapons, they should use them immediately and that the Muslim community would only benefit. They believe that utilizing WMD in the process waging their jihad will make the United States fearful of them, because they have the ability to strike with the same force of the United States military. One member, using the name Barayev74 argued that:

  “I believe Allah knows better, and we have to stop them by using nuclear and the biological weapons.  We will make them fearful.  I know that Allah will bring the Muslims victory, even if only one of us survives."  
     

The reoccurring language of détente and Cold War utilized by forum members when discussing weapons of mass destruction indicates that jihadists view al-Qaeda’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as an important step towards gaining legitimacy on an international scale and as a method of competing with the military power of the United States. Additionally, the preoccupation of members with an ideal world order in which the United States and al-Qaeda compete as hegemons underscores the abstract and aspirational, rather than tactical, nature of these discussions.

While members of the online jihadist community are forthright in stating that they would welcome any nuclear attack in the United States and Europe, these discussions are properly viewed as expressions of desire rather than indicating that jihadists are utilizing online messageboards as a training platform from which to coordinate nuclear attacks.