What if al-Qaeda Gets Syrian Chemical Weapons?

The threat of terrorists acquiring WMD is real, experts say, though the danger to America is hard to measure

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Narciso Contreras / Polaris

A bus used as barricade from sniper fire in Aleppo, Syria, on May 3, 2013

Even in light of recent evidence that Syria’s embattled ruler, Bashar Assad, might have used nerve gas against his own people, Barack Obama seems reluctant to escalate American involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war. But another scenario involving chemical weapons could force Obama into the deeper engagement he has long resisted: the alarming prospect that radical Islamists could acquire Syrian chemical weapons and try to use them beyond Syria’s borders, perhaps even within the U.S.

“I think we should be worried,” says Jeffrey White an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former military-intelligence officer. “As the war progresses and the rebels gain territory, assuming they do, inevitably they’re going to close in on some of the regime’s chemical facilities.” In fact, that has already happened. Earlier this year, rebel fighters with the powerful Jabat al-Nusra faction — a group the State Department calls an extension of al-Qaeda in Iraq — battled close enough to a major Syrian chemical stockpile near Aleppo that the regime is believed to have relocated its weapons to another location.

(VIDEO: U.S. Ponders Syria’s Possible Chemical Weapons)

In theory, this is a nightmare scenario. Since 2001, preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction has been America’s highest security priority. George W. Bush largely justified his invasion of Iraq as an effort to secure Saddam Hussein’s (supposed) chemical and biological weapons, lest they fall into terrorist hands. Obama opposed that war, but he shares the underlying concern. “[T]here is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction,” Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy declared. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham cast the Syrian threat in dire terms recently: “Chemical weapons — enough to kill millions of people — are going to be compromised and fall into the wrong hands, and the next bomb that goes off in America may not have nails and glass in it.”

(PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing in Syria: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War)

The reality in Syria is more complicated. The prospect of Assad’s weapons falling into anti-American hands is real enough for the U.S. to be watching very, very closely. But it’s probably not threatening enough — at least not yet — to justify the kind of full-scale ground invasion that might be required to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Syria is believed to have tons of chemical weapons, including the nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as cyanide and mustard gas, which are stored at as many as 20 different sites around the country. The good news is that those sites are some of the most secure in the country. “You’ve seen the regime consolidating forces around these facilities,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Moreover, any chemical facilities that slip from the regime’s control might be secured by moderate rebel fighters who have received special U.S.-backed training in securing such sites.

(MORE: Syria’s Lurking Terror: A History of Sarin Gas)

But there’s no guarantee that the radical jihadis of al-Nusra won’t overtake a chemical site, especially if the Assad regime and its military infrastructure should collapse. Fortunately, Syria’s stockpile was designed for large-scale military use — particularly for missile or bomber attacks on Israel — and not for the portability and simplicity that would appeal to terrorists. “You can’t just run down the street and throw it into a building,” says White, the Washington Institute analyst. Many of Syria’s weapons are “binary,” or stored as two separate ingredients that must be combined before lethal use. A nerve-gas shell, for instance, typically features two compartments that break open from the force of the shell’s firing; the shell’s rotation then mixes the ingredients into a sinister cocktail. Without special training and equipment, it would be exceedingly difficult to extract chemicals from such weapons and put them to effective use. Anyone who tried might die before getting very far.

That doesn’t mean Syria’s chemicals are useless to terrorists. Not all its weapons are binary, likely including blistering agents like mustard gas. And even binary shells or warheads detonated with crude explosives, rather than delivered by the missiles or planes for which they were designed, could have a lethal effect. Unskilled terrorists can also seek help: “The key would be to get the Syrians trained to use the weapons to defect to Nusra,” says Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert with the Brookings Institution. Would-be terrorists could also take a Syrian chemical expert hostage, or find friendly assistance from outside the country.

(MORE: The Thick Red Line: White House Cautious on Chemical-Weapons Use in Syria)

Disturbing as that sounds, it’s worth noting that many analysts are skeptical that terrorists can use chemical weapons to kill on a grand scale. Some doubt that chemical weapons should even be included with biological and nuclear weapons under the “weapons of mass destruction” rubric. An advanced military could gas people by the thousands, but terrorists might be stymied by factors like wind and moisture, or crude delivery methods. There’s even doubt about whether al-Qaeda would want to attempt a large-scale chemical attack at all: before his death Osama bin Laden cautioned al-Qaeda members in Yemen over the use of “poison,” warning them to study the likely “political and media reaction” to such attacks.

And yet, radical terrorists may yet find the chemical weapons impossible to resist. A Japanese cult group’s 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway killed 12 and sickened another thousand people, a toll far worse than the carnage on Boston’s Boylston Street last month. Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that old-fashioned bombs aren’t exactly a pleasant alternative to poison gas: “Seeing people with their guts open doesn’t necessarily make you like conventional weapons,” he says. But chemical weapons carry a uniquely terrifying taboo. The dread evoked by the sight of people “thrashing around on the floor like a fish out of water,” as one Tokyo witness put it, might trigger massive panic in an American, European or Israeli city. Hopefully the day won’t come when Barack Obama is forced to weigh that prospect against a major American military action to prevent it.

MORE: Syria’s Civil War: The Mystery Behind a Deadly Chemical Attack

30 comments
davidknowles2
davidknowles2

The more interesting question is what do we do if they already got access to the chemical weapons. 

asg
asg

The United States and Israel have also armed and funded Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iran to carry out bombings and assassinations for years.

NATO powers also openly armed and funded the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic FIghting Group to topple Colonel Gaddafi in 2011.
It was also recently revealed that the State Department hired Al-Qaeda-linked militants to “defend” the diplomatic mission in Benghazi that was later attacked.

asg
asg

It's not Assad's weapons that are falling into Al -Qaeda's hands...its the weapons the US are giving them!!!!!!!!!

The “rebels” in Syria that the U.S. has been arming and otherwise supporting are Al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood. 
Specifically, the American government gave chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein which he then used on Iran and on his own Kurdish population.
The American government attempted to blame Iran for the chemical weapons attack on Iraq’s Kurds … just as the U.S. is trying to blame the Syrian government for the attacks in Syria.

JerryShih-ChiehKu
JerryShih-ChiehKu

After reading Seymour Hersh's 2007 article "The Redirection", reading about Flynt and Hilary Leveret's book "Going to Tehran" (former national security advisors for Bush/Clinton), and Michael Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris" (former CIA agent in charge of hunting Bin Laden), it seems like the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance is playing a dangerous game. They appear to want to contain and weaken the Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Syria and are willing to use Al Qaeda to do it. To me it would make more sense and be more respectful of the victims of 9/11 to destroy Al Qaeda first. The Shia groups like Hezbollah and Iran's government are enemies of Zionist Israel and Saudi Arabia's monarchy but that is their fight, not America's, in my opinion. 

It's amazing how our leaders are willing to use air strikes against Al Qaeda around the world, violating many nations' sovereignty to do it, all in the name of self defense and the war on terror. But when Al Qaeda goes into Syria, Obama apparently looks the other way.

I think Al Qaeda itself is a WMD. Al Qaeda is a chemical weapon and we're OK with it spreading into Syria and Iraq like an airborne and lethal virus. It seems like the main reason may be to defend Saudi Arabia and Israel, even if that means teaming up with Al Qaeda.

JeremyCordon
JeremyCordon

By the way, there is evidence that Al-Qaeda already has chemical weapons and is using them against Syrians if you read the Newyorktimes. 


JeremyCordon
JeremyCordon

Okay, if Al-Qaeda ends up with chemical weapons then we have no one to blame but our government for sending them tens of millions of dollars in aid to do just that. We probably wouldn't need to worry about Al-Qaeda so much if we just stopped funding them in both Libya and Syria.

drudown
drudown

Hmm.

I vividly remember people like Crowley postulating "what if Saddam gives his WMDs to Al Qaeda" prior to the US invading Iraq under false pretenses.

$4 trillion later (and counting)...we wish our leaders had used diplomacy.

Just this: if having any kinds of weapons justifies costly occupations, then the US should enjoin the sale of arms and drones to Arab states.

"After the event, even the fool is wise." - Viscount Symonds

frawhj
frawhj

Unfortunately, the US government is supporting rebels who may well be associated with Al Quaeda, certainly the Islamic extremist militias who are terrorizing moderate Muslims and minority groups, including Syrian Christians who are also moderate and toleran. We should be doing everything we can to support everyone that calls for a free Syria, free for all Syrians. While we are at it, where is the US government outcry over the kidnapping of the two Syrian Bishops?  Does anybody in Washington really have a clue?

curt3rd
curt3rd

How thick is that red line Obama was talking about?

Snaproll
Snaproll

If we're worried about the security of Syrian chem weapons, why are we backing the Rebels ? Should be backing the government.

HazeAndDrizzle
HazeAndDrizzle

They age rapidly, they are hard to deploy, and atmospheric conditions are so hard to predict that not even the Nazis bothered using their vast horde of chemical weapons. They could cause a nuisance attack in principle that would case the media to go wild, thereby rewarding the attackers. But no way they can get into the weapons of mass murder. Gas could get nowhere near the NRA approved killing of 30,000 Americans per year, or 2.1 million over 70 year life span. Gas weapons are nothing compared to a permissive gun culture with little restraint. Let's keep the risks in perspective.

lowellbarnes
lowellbarnes

The question should be, "Are any hands the right hands for chemical weapons?"

jaczar36
jaczar36

Who in the hell is Michael Crowley? I could make up a scenario for ANY event. What if al Qaeda got nukes, what if N.Korea developed a sophisticated missile system, what if Iran assembled 20 nkes, what if Michael Crowley got a REAL job?

JakePannel
JakePannel

So far the US is the only one saying Assad used the weapons....UN says it was the rebels who used the chemical weapons...Here we go again., WAR without knowing what the hell really happened....Is Obama going to get us into another 10 year war with no out come.

VMIKID
VMIKID

The genie is out of the bottle, the question is how much to the terrorist have and how do we control the message?

destor23
destor23

The UN's war crimes investigators haven't concluded that chemical weapons were used at all, much less which side used them.  If the rebels, some of whom have ties to Al-Qaeda, used them first, then we might as well face that terrorists already have access to these weapons.  Which really should be no surprise, in a world this big.

rrebel13
rrebel13

The US has nothing to worry about al-Queda using chemical weapons in this country.

That would be like biting the hand that feeds you since they work for the US and we supply most of their weapons and supplies.

kolagunta
kolagunta

The west should disengage from the Muslim world, without further loss of time. This applies to even the Afpak area. This sudden disengagement will be a shock treatment to the Muslim world, whose main problem is the Shia Sunni animosity, fanned by the cynical intervention of the US and West from the early 20th century. Leave the theatre to allow the two to settle scores. Terror is mainly a Sunni occupation ( Alquaida, Salafis, and their ofshoots) which has grown mainly due to state sponsorship and indirect funding by the US and West. Once you decide to disengage you should stop all aid and srms supply to the conflict zone. Starved of resources the fight will be settled fast. You cannot help collateral damage but that is the price the Muslim world has to pay for getting back into the peace loving group of nations. 

Bullsgt
Bullsgt

The political realities of Syria is small compared to the larger issue. An almost certain future.

There are two truths in this world with regards to a countries stability and weapons that cause large scale destruction.

No country is immune to civil war, not one! And people will figure out how to use weapons for their own personal ends.
The weapons are already made, people know how to make more. People will always blame others for their misfortune.They will always strive to right a wrong done or a wrong perceived no matter the consciences to others.
These are the realities we and our children face. It is just a matter of time. How sad!

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

The danger is real and imminent. The chance of 1 out of 20 stockpiles falling into the hands of El-Qaeda is large enough to initiate preventive measures. These do not necessarily mean having American booths on the Syrian ground, but imposing a no-flight zone by itself is not effective, as it will only increase the ability of terrorist groups to attack and capture the gas ammunition. All the suspected facilities, manufacturing, storage and weaponizing the agents, must be destroyed by a surprise air bombing, using precision stand-off missiles. A well planned operation will not neutralize any complete facility in one go, but the exposed deadly ingredients will keep the marauders away for awhile and force the responsible parties to come with a safe solution to the political question: How to disinfect a country torn between a ruthless dictator and leaderless opposition.

NivasiSyed
NivasiSyed

It would be more wise wake up eraly and do something before worst happenning to whole world . I dont know who is going to come rescue this whole mankind. At last I pray to All mighty Allah keep mercy on us ameen.

azmalhome
azmalhome

The violence is a biggest  sin in Islam religion.

Quran Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:27    Who break the covenant of Allah after contracting it and sever that which Allah has ordered to be joined and cause corruption on earth. It is those who are the losers.

Don’t do such thing, that’s harmful for you and others. It’s a biggest important story in Islam religion. But most of people know that, it’s truth to everybody that, A violence fetch a lot of trouble in our peaceful social.it never feel  who involve  to do the violence .because ghost(Satan) enter in them vein…

Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:7     Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.

Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:59     O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.

Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:169  He only orders you to evil and immorality and to say about Allah what you do not know.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/category/violence-is-biggest-sin-in-islam-religion/

CecilioDecolongon
CecilioDecolongon

Syria: We have chemical weapons to secure, so leave us alone!

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@curt3rd 

Pretty thin; Assad hasn't been proven to have used Chemical Weapons yet.  Keep up.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@jaczar36 


Crowley is just another MSM hand wringer stirring up the pot. More than chemical weapons, a wave of suicide bombers in our schoolyards, malls and movie theaters would be enough for such a government crack down, that any complaints  of having your "freedoms" being taken away with gun background checks would be the equivalent of chump change. As it is, security agencies are already monitoring your phone  calls and what websites you visit. Big Brother is alive and well, in fact, VERY well.

drudown
drudown

@VMIKID 

Objection; assumes facts not in evidence; calls for speculation.

HazeAndDrizzle
HazeAndDrizzle

@kolagunta Nothing like pseudo-history. Suicide bombing was perfect as a tactic in Lebanon by Shiites.They have a much more aggressive tradition of martyrdom than Sunnis. But nobody kills kill Christians. The Americans took out at least a quarter million people in Iraq and 2 million in Vietnam. Both led to defeats where only our enemies gained. The North in Vietnam, and the Iranian Shiite hold over modern Iraq.

jayZ
jayZ

For the only country in the middle east to stock pile WMD you sure advocate every other countrys rights not to have them quite vociferously.Precision bombing just like Gaza guess the 42 syrian soldiers killed dont count only captured Israeli ones do.Disinfect your thoughts your expansion is based on blood.Al Quaeda till they were killing Russians were your Mujahids.Now your pets become a global problem and the world has to pay for it.Wonder if DOW chemical were the premier suppliers ,as in Iraq,here too?   

NivasiSyed
NivasiSyed

How other world leave you in this matter because it is concern to life and death to other pooples if chemical wepons misused or used there will lot of and very huge lose of mankind . I pray to Allah not happen anything worst us and give us your mercy. Ameen.