Jeffrey LewisNIE on Terrorism

Well, the NIE on terrorism is out.

The NIE confirms, in very broad language, that Al Qaeda would like to make the biggest boom:

We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

That confirms the basic worry at the core of my terror farm article that Peter Zimmerman and I wrote for Foreign Policy (“Bomb in the Backyard,” November/December 2006): Although making a nuclear weapons wouldn’t be easy, it isn’t hard enough for me to feel safe.

I had concluded—based on Al Qaeda’s past incompetence in acquiring nuclear material and information—that radicalized professionals, after fissile material, are the hardest component for Al Qaeda to find.

The involvement of a doctor and an engineer in the recent attacks in the UK, however, make me worry that Bin Laden might “find his Oppenheimer” after all.

“It’s not that surprising for doctors and engineers to be involved in political Islamist movements—both of the violent and the more moderate sort,” one professor who studies such things told Hassan Fattah of the New York Times, “Fundamentalist-type attitudes are relatively common among people in applied science in the Muslim world. The conception has been that modern science is developed outside, and we need to bring it into our societies without it corrupting our culture.”

Frickin’ great.

3 Pages Devoted to Tradecraft

I would also note that only two of the seven pages are dedicated to the key judgments. The remainder of the document is a valuable discussion of National Intelligence Estimates—what they are, how they are produced, etc.—and how to read estimative language.

I applaud the IC for attempting to educate policymakers and other intelligence consumers about how to read the estimate critically, if they read it at all.

Sadly, I have my doubts—now that Bob Graham has moved to greener pastures—that many in the US Congress will read the two pages of key judgments, let alone the really important stuff about process. (Intelsuss has an amazing fascination with who read the NIE, when, what the lighting conditions were …)


  1. Brigitte N. (History)

    Found your site via NYT today, share WMD-in-the-hands-of-al-Qaeda-like groups, individuals. And, yes, very good background info on NIEs.

  2. Anonymous

    I find the use of the word “material” instead of “weapons” in the CBRN sentence fascinating. “Weapons” would have been the previous, more obvious term used.

    I’m curious as to peoples’ thoughts on what this means (if anything) regarding whether AQ is going after actual weapons vice material or whether it is in any way a judgment of whether AQ is likely to suceed (it may suggest not).

  3. Jon

    I don’t think the WMD blurb in the NIE was by any means revelatory. More like, yeah, duh, if you ask me. Also about a week before Dr. Tom Fingar told the House Armed Services Committee during a briefing that while al-Qaeda was still pursuing WMD capabilities an attack with conventional explosives was much more likely.

    Don’t they always include a line like this in briefings and testimony? “Al-Qaeda is still pursuing WMD, etc. etc.”

  4. Sock Puppet of the Great Satan (History)

    The fact the declassified portion of the NIE is so bland either means the intel community is having a hard time to come to a consensus on terrorism (which might be a good thing, as it might indicate that balance of influence in the intel community is more diffuse post-DNI than before; or it could be a bad thing, indicating that the problem is so amorphous that the opinions within the intel community are more a reflection of one’s own emotional temperature than data). Either that, or all the actually substantive stuff can’t be declassified.

  5. J. (History)

    Going along with anon’s comment, I think the term “materials” was very carefully and correctly chosen. Easy to get/manufacture small amounts of CBRN hazards that can cause panic but few casualties. Much, much harder to develop weapon systems that can in fact (and not just in Hollywood) cause mass casualties.

    Bottom line – don’t get excited because a few scientists or doctors are joining the jihad. They don’t have the experience or talent to create weapons, just hazards.

  6. MEC (History)

    It is my understanding that for a non-state actor to inflict as much damage as possible, they really need to obtain a complete device, otherwise the acquired ‘material’ would be used for a ‘dirty-bomb,’ which is still very lethal.

    My question is this: is there a path that these al Qaeda types prefer?

  7. CKR (History)

    Yes – the preferred path for all terrorists is ANFO. Easy to get, easy to use.

    The lethality of a dirty bomb would mostly be in the chemical explosives used, particularly if the radioactive material were U-235 or plutonium. The greatest damage would be in the magnification of its effects by the media and the resulting panic.

    It’s just not that easy to make a nuclear weapon; there is a great deal of know-how involved, starting with the differences between a radiological dispersal device and a fission-based device. Ask North Korea how easy it is.