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Syrian Chemical Weapons and Al-Qaida

July 27, 2012 12:15 pm 0 comments

Chemical weapons collected after Libya's National Transitional Council declared full liberation of the country. Similar weapons are believed to be inside Syria. Photo: Giovanni Diffidenti.

During a nighttime raid in Amman on April 20, 2004, Jordanian security forces foiled a plot by al-Qaida to attack the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence, the Jordanian prime minister’s office and the U.S. Embassy with chemical weapons. Tons of chemical agents were seized that apparently had come from Syria. Jordanian officials estimated that the chemical attack could have killed 20,000 people.

One of the terrorists who was captured confessed on Jordanian television that he worked for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who had become the commander of al-Qaida in Iraq. Zarqawi was eliminated by the U.S. but his organization survived. Today it is dispatching its operatives to Syria to fight the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad.

There was an emerging chemical threat to Europe as well. In 2002, the French counterintelligence agency, DST, broke up an Algerian cell connected to the Zarqawi network that was intending to attack the subway system of Paris with chemical weapons.

The revelations about al-Qaida planning to use chemical weapons was not new. U.S. intelligence agencies had in their possession al-Qaida training manuals, which contained information on the production and deployment of chemical weapons. The al-Qaida network appeared to be prepared to use chemical weapons in the terrorist attacks it was planning in order to cause far greater numbers of casualties in comparison with a conventional terrorist attack.

Given this recent history, the concern in the West that Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons will end up in the hands of terrorist organizations is valid. There are two scenarios in which this transfer of chemical weapons could occur. According to one scenario, terrorist organizations simply overpower the Syrian units protecting the chemical weapons stockpiles. There has been a similar concern in the West that this could occur with the nuclear weapons of Pakistan with the weakening of its regime and the penetration of the Pakistani Army by jihadist elements.

There is also another scenario that the Syrians actually give their chemical weapons to an organization like Hezbollah, rather than al-Qaida, just as the regime collapses. Defeated regimes have been known to give away their strategic “crown jewels” during previous wars, sometimes temporarily for safekeeping and other times with no intention of getting the weapons back. In 1991, Saddam Hussein gave away the most advanced aircraft in the Iraqi Air Force to Iran, his former adversary, rather than letting them be destroyed on the ground by the U.S. Air Force.

Then in 2003, just before the outbreak of the Iraq War, the U.S. had satellite intelligence showing the heavy flow of truck traffic from Iraq into Syria. In late October 2003, James Clapper, who today serves as President Obama’s chief intelligence advisor, told The New York Times when he headed an American agency that was responsible for interpreting satellite imagery, that the truck convoys contained Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraq Study Group that reported to the head of the CIA and was given the task of finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, after the U.S. invasion, did not have sufficient information about the movement of Iraqi chemical weapons to Syria, though it concluded that the reports on this subject “were sufficiently credible to merit further investigation.” In 2005, just after he left his position as IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, told The New York Sun that Saddam Hussein had transferred chemical agents in Iraq to Syria, adding in a tone of criticism that no one went to Syria to find them.

This time it is less likely that the West will allow Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile to disappear, like in the Iraqi case. In early March, The Wall Street Journal reported that the armies of the U.S. and Jordan were developing joint plans to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal. It was noteworthy that Jordan’s King Abdullah specifically warned in a CNN interview on July 18 that Syrian chemical weapons might fall ” in the wrong hands,” adding that al-Qaida had a presence in parts of Syria already. He undoubtedly recalled Zarqawi’s 2004 operation in Amman. Clearly, if no action is taken to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, then it should come as no surprise if al-Qaida escalates with unconventional attacks in the heart of London, Madrid, Paris, or Berlin.

What also emerges from this review of the spread of chemical weapons to terrorist organizations in the Middle East is the critical importance of not having porous borders. It is not entirely clear where Zarqawi obtained tons of chemical weapons from in 2004, but what is known is that the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan were completely open. Anyone with a truck full of chemical or biological weapons — or a nuclear bomb in the future — could make his way across the desert and penetrate his neighbor’s territory.

The Saudis wisely just sealed their long border with Iraq. Israel’s heavy investment in new security fences along the border with Egyptian Sinai is also warranted in this new strategic environment. Equally justified is the stress given by Prime Minister Netanyahu to make the Jordan Valley into Israel’s line of defense in the east and not leaving the heart of Israel open to this new kind of non-conventional threat should it materialize here as well.

This post first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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