From today's Washington Times comes the disturbing news that terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi has obtained a nuclear device, or is preparing a so-called "dirty bomb," in preparation for an attack, probably against an American target.
How much credibility should we assign to such claims? That's difficult to say. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has published a series of reports on this subject in recent months, but so far, there's no smoking gun that would provide definitive proof of Zarqawi's nuclear/radiological capabilities, or his intentions.
Let's try to seperate the wheat from the chaff in this assessment. First, while acknowledging that there are mechanisms which could give Zarqawi a nuclear bomb, I still believe that possibility is remote, particularly since Zarqawi is currently under a lot of pressure in his new base of operations, Iraq. There is the possibility that Zarqawi might have "farmed out" the operation to subordinates outside Iraq, but (once again) we lack conclusive proof.
Regarding a dirty bomb, that's a more realistic possibility. It would be far easier to obtain radiological material, pack it in explosives, smuggle it to an American city, and detonate the device. And certainly, Zarqawi and his Al-Qaida allies have been thinking about this option for some time. But available information also tells us that terrorists have, so far, been unable to bring their plans to fruition. If Zarqawi has a dirty bomb, it reflects a substantial improvement in his logistical, transportation, and technological capabilties, despite a worsening situation in Iraq.
Bottom line: I think Zarqawi's "nuclear" or radiological options are still remote possibilities, but definitely within the realm of possibilities. And there's the rub. By merely exploring these options (or planting rumors among informers), Zarqawi forces the U.S. to devote considerable time and effort to run these reports to ground. Meanwhile, Zarqawi is free to plan other attacks, using more conventional means.
Its the new paradigm of national security. Since 9-11, we've been forced to confront a host of potential threats, no matter how remote they might be. Real or imagined, we cannot ignore the threat of nuclear or radiological attacks, and Zarqawi knows it. It's a highly effective tactic, and even if his WMD cupboard is bare, the terrorist leader will keep playing the nuclear and dirty bomb cards because they work.