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WMD Worries Are Stoked by Hyperbole on Terrorist Menace

Weapons of mass destruction are difficult to make and materials are hard to come by.

October 30, 2005|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press Special Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan — After the warehouse raid in northern Jordan, the word from authorities horrified the people of Amman.

Terrorists linked to Al Qaeda had assembled a fearsome array of chemicals and planned a bombing that would send a 2-mile-wide "poison cloud" over this Middle East capital, killing as many as 80,000 people, military prosecutors said.

Osama bin Laden's foot soldiers had finally concocted a weapon of mass destruction.

A year later, in the hard light of scientific scrutiny, that sinister WMD scenario looks more fictional than factual.

"Eighty thousand! That would have been like Hiroshima. And that was an atomic bomb," says Samih Khreis, one of the alleged plotters' lawyers.

Defense attorneys aren't alone in scoffing at the WMD claim. International experts checking the suspects' supposed list of chemicals -- from the industrial compound ammonium to the explosive nitroglycerin -- say either the defendants or the Jordanian authorities -- or both -- have little inkling about what it takes to make a chemical weapon.

The compounds "may generate some toxic byproducts, but they're unlikely to result in significant deaths by poisoning," said Ron G. Manley of Britain, a former senior U.N. advisor on chemical weapons.

The poison cloud of Amman is another dubious episode in the story of the terrorist quest for doomsday arms, a dark vision that has become an axiom of today's counterterrorist strategy. Four years into the "global war on terror," half the Americans surveyed this summer said they worried "a lot" about the possibility of such a WMD attack, according to the U.S. polling firm Public Agenda.

Concerns emerged in the 1990s when the Soviet Union's collapse left nuclear and other arms vulnerable to theft. Worries grew as "recipes" for mass-casualty weapons flashed around the Internet. In 1998, Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden told Time magazine that acquiring such arms to defend Muslims "is a religious duty." Three years later in Afghanistan, the U.S. military found Al Qaeda documents, crude equipment and other evidence of chemical and biological experimentation.

Al Qaeda's intent is clear, says a key U.S. intelligence analyst.

"The intent is there and you can see it in the fatwas justifying the use" of WMD, Donald Van Duyn of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division said in a Washington interview.

One fatwa, or Muslim religious decree, issued by radical Saudi cleric Nasser Fahd in 2003 at Bin Laden's request, "authorized" the use of ultimate weapons "if the infidels can be repelled from the Muslims only by using such weapons."

"It may be only a matter of time before Al Qaeda or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons," CIA Director Porter J. Goss told U.S. senators earlier this year.

Amid all the warnings, boasts and chilling tales, however, the daunting difficulties of fielding such weapons usually go unmentioned -- along with Al Qaeda's lack of expertise and stable home base, the unreliability of Internet "formulas," and the progress made worldwide in locking down the raw materials of the most destructive arms.

Amman's is one of many stories of exaggerated threats or ill-conceived plans. Others include:

* British police last year arrested eight people on suspicion of plotting a bombing that would spread osmium tetroxide, a dangerous corrosive compound. But this volatile chemical would have burned up in any explosion, scientists say.

* The long-jailed Jose Padilla, an American Al Qaeda member accused of planning to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States, is said by U.S. officials to have hoped to use uranium. But uranium has low radioactivity and would have had no more impact than lead in a bomb, scientists say.

* Eight Algerian and Libyan defendants accused of "conspiracy to manufacture chemical weapons" were freed in London in April after authorities acknowledged that tests showed a substance found in one of their apartments was not highly lethal ricin, as had been alleged. Ricin, a plant extract effective as a poison dealt to individuals, was long ago dismissed by military arms-makers as an impractical mass-casualty weapon.

* American WMD specialists in Iraq reported that insurgents there last year recruited a Baghdad chemist to make the blistering agent mustard, a chemical weapon developed in World War I. They said he had the right ingredients but he still couldn't produce the compound.

The only known terrorist use of a chemical weapon occurred in 1995 in the Tokyo subway system, when Aum Shinrikyo cult members punctured plastic bags of sarin, unleashing nerve-agent vapor that affected thousands of commuters.

The cult, which includes scientists, is believed to have spent millions of dollars on the demanding, dangerous production process, but came up with only impure sarin. Twelve people were killed -- hardly a mass-fatality terrorist attack, specialists point out.

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