During a March 19 speech marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush warned of consequences for the early removal of U.S. forces from that country. These, he said, could include the possibility that a withdrawal would indirectly help al Qaeda acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to indicate that Iran was pursuing the development of weapons-grade uranium, a claim contrary to international inspection findings.
In his March 19 remarks, Bush stated that “an emboldened al Qaeda with access to Iraq’s oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations.”
It is not evident, however, that access to substantial additional funds would be an important factor in al Qaeda’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In regard to nuclear weapons, a 2006 unclassified intelligence report to Congress on WMD proliferation concluded that al Qaeda’s “key obstacle” in developing a nuclear device is acquiring sufficient fissile material. Al Qaeda has pursued a nuclear weapons capability since the early 1990s, but attempts to purchase the necessary material are believed to have been unsuccessful. Known attempts include cases in which the purchase was prevented by law enforcement authorities or in which the group bought material falsely sold as nuclear material.
Prior to the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda had more success in developing a limited biological and chemical weapons capability. According to the 2005 “Report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,” al Qaeda recruited individuals during the 1990s with sufficient technical expertise for rudimentary biological and chemical weapons programs. (See ACT, October 2006. )
The report described al Qaeda’s biological weapons work as “extensive” and “well-organized” and indicated that it was operated by “individuals with special training.” Similarly, the commission indicated that some al Qaeda members had know-how to produce and deploy “common chemical agents.” However, U.S. intelligence agencies were “doubtful” that the organization was capable of carrying out mass casualty attacks with advanced chemical agents.
The 2004 report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, informally known as the 9/11 Commission, stated that al Qaeda’s overall operations prior to the September 2001 attacks cost about $30 million each year, based almost entirely on donations. It is unclear how much of this funding was dedicated to the organization’s WMD pursuits.
Al Qaeda’s biological and chemical weapons programs were largely dismantled following U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan. A 2005 unclassified intelligence report to Congress on WMD proliferation indicated that there were no reliable reports of an active al Qaeda biological weapons program but judged that acquiring such weapons remained an important goal. The report stated that al Qaeda continued “possible chemical-related training” in Pakistan, but the commission had no evidence of a concerted program similar to al Qaeda’s pre-2001 pursuits.
Cheney Suggests That Iran Is Developing HEU
In addition to commenting on the WMD threat from al Qaeda, administration officials continue to highlight the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. During a March 24 ABC News interview, Cheney stated that Iran is “heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.”
However, a Feb. 22 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that Iran has enriched uranium to 3.8 percent uranium-235 (from natural concentrations of less than 1 percent), a typical level for nuclear power reactors. Weapons-grade enrichment requires a concentration of 90 percent or more of this fissile isotope.
Enrichment facilities can be used to produce any level of enrichment. However, a December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed with moderate confidence that, between 2010 and 2015, Iran will be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon. The U.S. intelligence community also judged with moderate confidence that Iran would not use its declared facilities to carry out such enrichment.