Myopic focus on alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria is wrongheaded, as it has been all along. The salient issue is whether the United States should intervene militarily on behalf of enemies of the United States — the “rebel” factions, in which ties to al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood run deep. If chemical weapons use, rather than American national security, is to be our obsession, however, it is worth remembering al Qaeda’s history in that regard.
In 1998, the Clinton Justice Department filed its initial indictment against Osama bin Laden for conspiring to carry out mass-damage attacks against American national defense facilities. Included was the allegation that:
At various times from at least as early as 1993, USAMA BIN LADEN and others known and unknown made efforts to produce chemical weapons …
The filing also claimed that al-Qaeda had reached “an understanding” with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein that included cooperation “on weapons development.”
Following the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Justice Department broadly expanded the indictment, adding numerous other al-Qaeda defendants and new charges. The new indictment charged that “[a]t various times from at least as early as 1993, the defendant USAMA BIN LADEN, and others known and unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of chemical weapons.” It further explained that a key bin Laden aide, Wadi el-Hage, had engaged in:
… international travels [that] concerned efforts to procure chemical weapons and their components on behalf of Usama Bin Laden and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim [another of al Qaeda’s founding members].
Because al-Qaeda was so committed to acquiring chemical weapons for the purpose of using them offensively against the United States and the West, chemical weapons became a central focus of Clinton administration counterterrorism — a focus that has been maintained in subsequent administrations. The 9/11 Commission Report details these efforts and the rationale behind them.
Thus, following the 1998 embassy bombings, the Commission recounted that President Clinton decided to authorize cruise missile strikes against the al Shifa facility in Sudan — ostensibly, a pharmaceutical plant — in order to “lessen the chance of Bin Laden’s having nerve gas for a later attack.” The Commission elaborated:
The CIA reported that a soil sample from the vicinity of the al Shifa plant had tested positive for EMPTA, a precursor chemical for VX, a nerve gas whose lone use was for mass killing. Two days before the embassy bombings, [Clinton White House counterterrorism adviser Richard] Clarke’s staff wrote that Bin Ladin “has invested in and almost certainly has access to VX produced at a plant in Sudan.” … [Clinton national security adviser Sandy] Berger has told us that he thought about what might happen if the decision went against hitting al Shifa, and nerve gas was used in a New York subway two weeks later. [Footnotes omitted.]
After the bombing, the Islamic supremacist government of Sudan — a notorious al-Qaeda enabler — steadfastly denied that anything nefarious had been going on at al Shifa. Nevertheless, the Commission reported: “President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Berger, [CIA director George] Tenet, and Clarke insisted to us that their judgment was right, pointing to the soil sample evidence.” The Commission added that Clinton seriously considered additional military action in 1999 because the government received “a flurry of ominous reports about chemical weapons training or development at the Derunta camp [al-Qaeda maintained in Afghanistan] and possible attempts to amass nuclear material at Herat [another al-Qaeda hub in Afghanistan].”
Al-Qaeda’s efforts to acquire, manufacture, and eventually use chemical weapons have never ceased. A report from just three months ago by Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal is especially useful:
The Iraqi military announced today that it arrested five members of an al Qaeda cell that was seeking to manufacture chemical weapons, including sarin nerve gas, and plotting to conduct attacks within Iraq, Europe, and North America.
The Defense Ministry announced that it arrested the five members of the al Qaeda in Iraq cell and raided two factories in Baghdad that were used to research and manufacture the deadly chemical agents. The arrests were made with the help of undisclosed foreign intelligence services.
The chemical weapons cell was seeking to produce sarin as well as mustard blistering agents. The group had acquired some of the precursor chemicals as well as the formulas needed to manufacture the agents.
According to the Defense Ministry’s spokesman, the cell was plotting to use remotely-piloted model aircraft to spray some of the chemical weapons sometime next week as Shia mourners commemorated the death of Imam Kadhum.
The cell also had contacts with a network that would have attempted to smuggle the chemical weapons for use in the United States, Canada, and Europe, the Defense Ministry said.
The report of an al Qaeda cell in possession of chemical agents is the second from the Middle East in the past two days. Yesterday, Turkish newspapers reported that members of an Al Nusrah Front cell were in possession of sarin gas, and were planning to conduct attacks at the Incirlik Air Base in Adana, and in Gaziantep, a city near Turkey’s border with Syria. Other reports said that the Al Nusrah Front cell was planning to use the deadly nerve gas inside Syria. The reports have not been confirmed by the Turkish government.
The Al Nusrah Front for the People in the Levant is al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The group was formed by al Qaeda in Iraq, and its leader has openly sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir. The Al Nusrah Front is one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates. More that 10,000 fighters are estimated to be in its ranks, and the group is said to be absorbing entire units from the so-called secular Free Syrian Army.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has attempted to construct crude chemical weapons in the past, and has employed such weapons on the battlefield. In 2007, al Qaeda in Iraqlaunched more than a dozen chlorine suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad, Anbar province, and Diyala province. The chlorine gas strikes killed 32 Iraqis and poisoned over 600 more.
In Syria, the Al Nusrah Front is suspected of launching a chlorine gas attack in March of this year. Twenty-six Syrians, including 16 Syrian soldiers, were killed in the attack.
Al Qaeda has long sought to place chemical weapons in its arsenal. In 2002, CNN found videos of al Qaeda experimenting with chemical weapons at the Darunta camp near the city of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. The video showed al Qaeda members experimenting with a gas thought to be sarin or another nerve agent on dogs. Formulas to make sarin were also found at the camp.
Again, I believe the concentration on chemical weapons, including President Obama’s credibility-crippling recklessness in labeling their use a “red line,” misses the point — at best. It diverts attention from the issue the interventionists do not want to discuss: the fact that al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood would be the chief beneficiaries of U.S. attacks against Assad’s regime, the fact that the toppling of Assad could very well be even worse for American national security than Assad himself has been.
But if we are going to make this a debate about chemical weapons, is it not worth factoring in that Assad’s opposition includes elements that have been seeking to use chemical weapons against the United States for more than two decades? That al-Qaeda recently and repeatedly used chemical weapons in Iraq? And that — as Bill Roggio notes — al Nusrah, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is suspected of using chemical weapons in Syria just six months ago?