Sunday, February 03, 2008

AL QAEDA WMD BOOGEYMAN ABU KHABAB: Work of fiction in progress

"After a US airstrike leveled a small compound in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions in January 2006, President Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence officials announced that several senior al Qaeda operatives had been killed and that the top prize was an elusive Egyptian who was believed to be a chemical weapons expert," wrote Josh Meyer of the Los Angeles Times thrillingly here.

"But current and former US intelligence officials now believe that the Egyptian, Abu Khabab Masri, is alive and well -- and in charge of resurrecting al Qaeda's program to develop and obtain weapons of mass destruction," continued the newspaper.

What then followed was the usual insinuations and unbacked-up claims about capabilities said to be in the hands -- or almost in the hands -- of al Qaeda. Delivered chiefly by a string of anonymous sources and "experts" known to have no real expertise in the analysis of chemical and biological weaponry, the story raises questions about adherence to reality.

We'll get to the sources in a minute.

Initially, one quote emerges right after the jump in the paper edition, delivered by the only bona fide expert on the subject material.

"Some experts questioned how far al Qaeda could get in reconstituting a weapons program in the mountains of Pakistan," wrote Meyer.

""It's hard to get the industrial infrastructure together to do these things, and it's hard to get people that have the expertise to fashion these materials into weapons of mass destruction," John Parachini, an expert of chemical and biological weapons at Rand Corp., told the newspaper.

Following this was a sensational and scary claim, delivered by a non-expert on CBW, rebranded as someone who knows something.

Raphael Perl, a former international relations analyst for the Congressional Research Paper who heretofore has only been known as a deliverer of deadening and dry reports which tended to be on national policy on terror and the alleged links between drug trafficking and terrorists. Perl told the newspaper "that if [al Qaeda] doesn't have biological capability already, 'they are certainly not far from it.'"

As a bit of unsupported sensationalism, good editors might have considered regarding it more suspiciously, perhaps coming to the conclusion that it needed to be thrown out. After all, a quick Lexis search has told us, and many others, that since 9/11 there has been no shortage of those willing to make the blackest claims about al Qaeda's alleged ease with chemicals and biologicals. While the historical record has not been kind to them, this has never been an obstacle to furthering the practice.

Another "expert" called upon was Chris Quillen, "a former CIA analyst," to insist that whatever al Qaeda had lost in 2001, "they are back to that level at this point."

However, a qualifier was delivered.

"I am not saying the programs are great and ready for an attack tomorrow," said Quillen, published in a boxed out quote.

Quillen had written a paper on al Qaeda's chemical and biological weapons capabilities in 2007 entitled "Three Explanations for al-Qaeda's Lack of a CBRN Attack" for the Jamestown Foundation here.

The reasons given for lack of an attack were disruption, deterrence and patience -- the latter the usual trope on al Qaeda biding its time, waiting for just the right moment.

Quillen's paper contained two lapses, or rather claims, about al Qaeda capabilities not backed up by facts or science.

The first was the assertion that " ... Dhiren Barot (also known as Issa al-Hindi) was arrested in the United Kingdom in 2004, carrying relatively detailed plans for conducting a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) attack, but had not yet acquired the necessary materials."

Dhiren Barot's dirty bomb plans were not particularly detailed. From a scientific and practical standpoint they were the work of a crackpot.

Barot envisioned making a dirty bomb from thousands and thousands of smoke detectors, or alternatively, discarded exit signs, since the latter contain a miniscule amount of the radioisotope of hydrogen, tritium.

Your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow with a doctorate in chemistry analyzed Barot's plans in some detail, presenting to them to readers last year here and here.

The .pdfs from Barot's trial were archived at the Federation of American Scientists and could be viewed by anyone at anytime through the above links.

Why was Barot's dirty bomb plan the work of a stupid man?

Simple. There is not enough radioisotope in a smoke detector to pose a hazard. Smoke detectors contain only a miniscule amount of americium. This necessitates the theoretical accumulation of thousands and thousands and thousands of the things.

"In 2003, UK police arrested a group of Algerians with recipes and materials for creating ricin and cyanide, although stories conflict about whether any actual poisonous material was recovered," wrote Quillen in the same paper.

This statement comes two years after the publishing of quite a bit of information on the so-called London ricin gang. The actual recipes for poisons, as well as information from the evidence proffer filed on the case, were all published, notably at GlobalSecurity.Org.

What was seized were a handful of castor seeds in a jewelry tin and a paper laden with another handful or two of cherry stones. Stories do conflict about whether poisons were recovered. Those people who wished to imagine the London ricin ring as being more dangerous than it was always report that very nasty stuff was found. This is wrong but such reports tend to be written by the same people who conveniently forget to mention that for the trial, a jury acquitted everyone but a loner named Kamel Bourgass.

A reporter might not be expected to know this. Indeed it is difficult to follow the trail of truth when covering the weapons of mass destruction beat. The press record is bogged down with willful exaggeration, misinformation and lies.

For the Times, Abu Khabab is set up as something of a scientific superman. Khabab was good at explosives and said to be potentially working on a nuclear device.

"Abu Khabab also developed 'contact poisons' that could be rubbed on a door knob or some other common area and experimented with adding crushed glass to the mixture to help get it into a potential victim's bloodstream, a former WMD case officer [anonymous, of course] at the CIA said," reported the newspaper.

The contact poison to be rubbed on door knobs harkens back to the alleged plan of Kamel Bourgass, the only person convicted in the London ricin case. A real chemical weapons expert testified at the trial that such a plan would not have worked. Ricin isn't a contact poison.

Because information on al Qaeda capabilities has been so twisted in the mainstream, it's fair to look at new claims, when they arrive, with a jaundiced eye. The CIA is far from a flawless font of intelligence and it is reasonable to wonder if analysts within it get mixed up by their own old wives' tales.

As for crushed glass being useful in poisoning, it is -- in fact -- an actual old wives' tale. See here at Snopes for some documentation.

"If you really want to use glass as a murder weapon, your best bet is to pick up a shard and stab your victim with it," someone writes.

Following this nonsense about Abu Khabab, the WMD boogeyman with many capabilities, comes one downer.

"He's full of crap," another anonymous "CIA case officer" told the newspaper.

Before the story is over the old legend of the mubtakkar is also tossed in our faces.

Keep in mind that al Qaeda boogeymen are somewhat like Sax Rohmer's insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.

Nothing is beyond such evil wizards -- contact poisons, a nuclear device, a dirty bomb, crushed glass, biological weaponry and even, The Mubtakkar, the cyanide-bomb that was never used. (Alert readers will note Dr. Fu Manchu's reputation wasn't quite as great as the one surrounding al Qaeda boogeymen. At the end of every novel, Sax Rohmer always let the intrepid Nayland Smith win the day.)

As dispensed by the Times, the legend of the mubtakkar goes that an al Qaeda strike team had been dispatched to New York for deployment in the subway. At the last moment the plot was stayed by Ayman al-Zawahiri who, allegedly, had something bigger in mind. What the bigger something was is never defined.

The mubtakkar was big news for a week in 2006 because it was used to push a journalist selling his book -- Ron Suskind and "The One Percent Doctrine," a tome about the war on terror.

At the time, Suskind couldn't get the details of his story right. The reporter had overlooked or been unaware of the fact that the Department of Homeland Security had widely distributed a photograph of a cyanide bomb it had recreated from a jihadist drawing.

This bomb did not closely match the description in his book. And about two years ago DD blog published photos of the actual thing and an analysis, all which can be read here, here and here.

The ongoing thinking at the time was that such a weapon wouldn't have worked, certainly not in the way described by the author. The more easily persuaded members of the mainstream press familiar with it only in a second-hand fashion swallowed the exciting story of terror averted by whim -- hook, line and sinker.

"Several officials suspect Abu Khabab played a role in [the mubtakkar's] development," reported the Los Angeles Times.

The Times has delivered another story from the war on terror, one in which an al Qaeda boogeyman, Abu Khabab, is served up for consideration. Common sense and a little knowledge of science would indicate it unlikely that such a person would have all the capabilities required to engineer the weapons projects attributed to him. It is known that the development of biological and chemical weapons in state run programs calls for, at the very least, two distinct sets of science and engineering skills. For example, the synthesis of poisonous compounds is not at all the same as the isolation and cultivation of pathogenic microorganisms.

So it is difficult to understand the motivation, the driver, behind the story in the Sunday Times. It passes no tests for adherence to common sense. It appears as scary and forbidding news but it does not read as reasonable.

Is it supposed to be an indication of the quality of US intelligence from Pakistan?

Rumors about someone, perhaps alive -- maybe dead, skilled in chemical and biological weapons production, some of the information seemingly based on old wives' tales? Confirmation achieved by anonymous sources, former CIA analysts with motives in telling such a story left unexplained but backed up by other "experts" not known for any particularly special knowledge in chemical or biological weaponry?

The cyanide bomb that never showed up. Now again attributed to new al Qaeda boogeyman.


The Mubtakkar of Death. June 2006.

Improvised cyanide munition -- photo distributed by DHS.

Improvised cyanide munition -- continued.


Anonymous Dunc said...

So it is difficult to understand the motivation, the driver, behind the story in the Sunday Times.

Dude, it's perfectly straightforward. It increases their circulation, and therefore it increases the value of their advertising, which is their real business. Truth has got nothing to do with it. Newspapers are no more concerned or connected with reality than World Wrestling Entertainment are. The idea that they are is just an aspect of their marketing - and clearly a very successful one at that.

Every time you find yourself asking these questions, just repeat the following mantra until the affliction subsides: "Newspapers are just advertising vehicles, exactly like Wife Swap and Big Brother."

6:50 AM  

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