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