Editor’s note: Written by the best-selling author of “Unfit for Command,” Jerome Corsi, “Atomic Iran,” WND Books’ latest release, presents clear and convincing evidence of Iran’s goal to acquire nuclear weapons and the risk such a scenario poses to the U.S. and the West. In this excerpt from his blockbuster, Corsi explains how easy it is for terrorist sleeper cells to get into and operate within the U.S. and discusses some of the possible weapons they could use against Americans.
Until the moment American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, few people in the United States worried that there might be lethal terrorist sleeper cells living among them. By 9:03:11 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, most people who watched the tragedy unfold on television realized that they were witnessing a terrorist attack, not an airplane accident.
The horrifying sights of the building exploding in fireballs, the smoke billowing miles into the air, people jumping to their deaths from the high floors are images that were burned that morning into the American consciousness like virtually no other image in the country’s history.
At 9:37:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, few had any doubt that terrorists had attacked us on our own soil. Then United Airlines Flight 93 went down in a rural field in Somerset County, Pa., at 10:15 a.m., and the country knew to say a prayer that the Capitol or the White House had not been hit.
A major point of this book is that the tragedy of 9-11 might well be small in light of what the terrorists have planned for America. If the mad mullahs can pull it off, the sight of a nuclear cloud roiling over New York or Washington, D.C., would dwarf the glee they derived from our misery over the 9-11 attacks.
Most likely a nuclear terrorist attack in a major U.S. city would come just as 9-11 came – unannounced and unanticipated. A sleeper cell like the 19 terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon may be living with us right now, unseen, below the surface, ready to strike when the order is given. It is frightening to think that people who are living among us now as apparently ordinary citizens are secretly planning when, where and how to explode a nuclear weapon in one of our major cities.
Why sleeper-cell terrorists are hard to find
America has porous borders. One problem is that those borders are so large. Our northern border with Canada stretches more than 4,000 miles; our southern border with Mexico runs about half that length, some 2,000 miles. The second problem is that long stretches of both borders are unpopulated and not regularly patrolled, except possibly by aircraft from above.
Every year, nearly 300,000 immigrants are admitted from Canada, a country that typically does not detain those claiming refuge status. Every year some 10,000 immigrants with questionable backgrounds disappear into Canada’s ethnic communities. Government authorities estimate that there are somewhere between 9 million and 12 million illegal aliens living today in the continental United States. In reality, there is no way of knowing the precise number. Most illegal immigrants live quiet lives in ethnic communities where no one knows exactly how they got into the country.
U.S. authorities have no doubt there are terrorist sleeper cells in our midst. In 2002 the FBI concluded in an internal review that somewhere between 50 and 100 Hamas and Hezbollah operatives had infiltrated into America. The FBI believed these operatives “were in America working on fund-raising and logistics, and they had received terrorist and military training from Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East, giving Hamas and Hezbollah the capability of launching terrorist strikes.”
In 2004 the FBI suggested that al-Qaida sleeper cells were believed to be operating in 40 states, awaiting orders and funding for new attacks on U.S. soil. The bureau believed that these agents were being funded “by millions of dollars solicited by an extensive network of bogus charities and foundations,” with the cells using “Muslim communities as cover and places to raise cash and recruit sympathizers.” U.S. law-enforcement authorities claimed to have satellite photos and communications intercepts that documented between 60 and 70 camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Pakistan. Still, finding sleeper-cell terrorists is very difficult, especially with the presumption of innocence and extensive legal rights and civil liberties granted suspects under U.S. law.
Scott Wheeler, an investigative reporter writing on the Internet, demonstrated the problems inherent in uncovering terrorist sleeper cells. Wheeler became interested in the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR), a group identified as a Muslim think tank based in Springfield, Va. He quoted a George Mason University professor who claimed that the UASR was a “front organization for a terrorist group,” a “phony organization” that was part of a “shell game of international terrorism.” Wheeler noted that many meetings at the UASR started at midnight, with participants emerging to use their cell phones in the parking lot, as if to avoid government counterterrorism units that may have hidden listening devices inside the building.
As Wheeler probed, he found that the UASR had questionable connections. The group was founded by Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas operative discussed in the previous chapter, a Palestinian by birth who is now a fugitive living in Syria under federal indictment for his involvement in the Holy Land Foundation Islamic charity scandal. According to a report in the Washington Post, Marzook participated in a real-estate scheme designed to defraud affluent Muslims into buying development homes in Prince George County, just 10 miles from the White House, with the result that the development company partly owned by Marzook went bankrupt while all proceeds were siphoned off to fund Hamas terrorist activities overseas.
Wheeler was also suspicious that the UASR’s current head, Ahmed Yousef, had ties to Hamas. Yousef gave an interview to a Middle Eastern magazine in which he claimed that 9-11 was a Jewish plot: “No one could have captured the pictures [of the 9-11 attacks] so perfectly except for the cameras in the hands of several Mossad agents, who were near the scene of events and succeeded in filming the scene so that it will always serve Zionism to remind the world of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ crimes against America.” Why would Mossad do this? As Yousef explained, Mossad had “a grand scheme – and right-wing forces may have participated in it, and evangelical Christians agreed to it. All of them agreed that this scheme should be carried out in this way to push America into war.”
Yet inevitably those suspected of being sleeper-cell terrorists hire attorneys who claim that their clients are being discriminated against simply because they are Muslims. Wheeler had uncovered interesting circumstantial evidence, but he did not have enough proof to support the claim that the UASR was a terrorist front organization.
Even with the extensive tools allowed law-enforcement officials under legislation passed since 9-11, legal barriers still impede law-enforcement efforts to find sleeper-cell terrorists. Consider the case of Dhiren Barot, a suspected al-Qaida operative who spent time in New Jersey in 2000 and 2001. The FBI was trying to track whether any of Barot’s associates remained in the area when a federal court ruled that a key investigative tool of the FBI was no longer available. Specifically, the court decided that the use of a special subpoena known as a national security letter was unconstitutional. When the FBI tracked companies that Barot had been involved with through e-mails, the court ruling prohibited the agents from getting key customer information without judicial review.
Nor do the Patriot Act powers solve the problem. Federal terrorist investigators still must play by rules, and the rules as interpreted by the courts still typically specify that the suspect’s rights are paramount. Our system of criminal laws is designed to err on the side of presumed innocence.
In a society as open as ours, there are hundreds of mosques in which zealous preaching could convey a message intended to convert or recruit terrorist prospects, as well as hundreds of Muslim charities whose fund-raising purposes may be questioned as illegitimate. Then there are religious and ethnic support organizations whose purposes might be suspect. But after decades of liberal court rulings dealing with civil rights, any attempt at religious or ethnic profiling is an unacceptable practice for law-enforcement officers. Profiling is even frowned upon even when marginally suggested by editorialists or pundits.
During the 2004 presidential campaign Vice President Dick Cheney made comments that suggested the administration was taking the threat of nuclear terrorism seriously: “The biggest threat we face now as a nation is the possibility of terrorists ending up in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever been used against us – biological agents or a nuclear weapon or a chemical weapon of some kind – to be able to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.”
From a terrorist’s point of view, it may still be relatively easy to slip into America unnoticed. Who among us doubts that if the 9-11 terrorists had possessed a nuclear weapon, they would have used it?
Do terrorists have suitcase nuclear bombs?
On Sept. 7, 1997, former Russian National Security Adviser Alexander Lebed created a worldwide sensation when he was interviewed on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” He claimed that 100 of 250 suitcase-sized nuclear bombs were missing and no longer in the control of the Russian military. The suitcase bombs described by Lebed are small but powerful. Said to measure 24-by-16-by-8 inches, each suitcase bomb was capable of killing up to 100,000 people if detonated in a major U.S. city during business hours. The Russians predictably denied that the suitcase nukes existed. But if the suitcase nukes hypothetically existed, the Russians insisted they were all accounted for.
Then, on Jan. 24, 2000, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., brought a mock-up of a suitcase nuclear bomb to a congressional hearing on Russian espionage. Burton displayed the suitcase bomb to the congressional committee and to the press. The startling photos of the prototype suitcase bomb made headlines around the globe. At the hearing, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., elicited testimony from Stanislav Lunev, an ex-Soviet colonel who defected to the United States in 1992 after he had worked for more than 10 years in the United States as an intelligence operative. Lunev claimed he had collected information on the U.S. president and senior U.S. political and military leaders so they could be targeted for assassination in the event of war. As part of this mission, Lunev claimed to have obtained from the Soviet Union several suitcase nuclear bombs that were prepositioned in the United States and stored in hiding places where they could be concealed until needed.
Subsequent research verified that the Soviet Union did produce suitcase nuclear bombs, just as the United States had developed small tactical nuclear weapons of the Davy Crockett type and what were known as “backpack” nuclear weapons. Typically, these weapons have a relatively small yield, in the range of one kiloton; additionally, the suitcase nuclear bombs had a relatively short life span, with key components required to be replaced approximately every six months.
By 2002 international experts studying suitcase nuclear bombs had examined Soviet records comprehensively. Their conclusion doubted that any of these munitions had been lost: “Thus, the hypothesis that a number of portable nuclear devices remained outside Russia or were stolen during the transfer to Russia does not appear convincing. Both the circumstances of that transfer and the likelihood that reasonably complete records exist (even though they might be divided among several holders) lead to a conclusion that former republics of the Soviet Union are an unlikely source of unaccounted for suitcase nukes.”
Still, reports that terrorists have acquired suitcase nukes persist. On March 22, 2004, Osama bin Laden’s authorized biographer, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, reasserted to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that al-Qaida had purchased suitcase nuclear bombs. Mir said the claim was made by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a November 2001 interview:
“Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri laughed and he said, ‘Mr. Mir, if you have $30 million, go to the black market in central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist, and a lot of … smart briefcase bombs are available. They have contacted us, we sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other central Asian states and they negotiated, and we purchased some suitcase bombs.”
The Russians would like us to believe that all suitcase nukes have been found and are safely accounted for. Probably too there are some in our government who want us to think that suitcase nukes were always low yield and difficult to maintain at operational levels, so there was no need for worry. Yet, thinking cynically, but perhaps realistically, where there is a lot of cash available and where criminals are involved, weapons that exist can usually be purchased, even if they are supposedly safely hidden away.
Moreover, if al-Qaida, or any other terrorist organization for that matter, has a suitcase nuke and is waiting for a good opportunity to use it, the likelihood is that the terrorists could also buy the nuclear talent needed to keep the weapon operational. Since 1997 there has been constant speculation by credible authorities that suitcase nukes exist and that terrorists like al-Qaida are in the market for them. Unfortunately, the only definitive proof we could get that would end the debate would be the same type of catastrophic proof we got on 9-11. As we have noted before, terrorists pursue weapons, and they like to use them when they get them.
How do the mullahs fit into this particular equation? In July 2004 a report surfaced on the Internet that government terrorism officials were privately admitting concerns that Hamas was merging with elements of al-Qaida to carry out military strikes against the United States. While certain philosophical differences may divide Hamas and al-Qaida, the two groups have begun cooperating tactically in the global holy war, operating under the banner “International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” according to the government officials who warned about more attacks on U.S. soil.
A dirty bomb is not really a nuclear bomb. Instead, a dirty bomb uses a conventional explosion to disperse deadly radiation. Technically, dirty bombs are considered “radiological dispersion devices.” Some designs call for devices that simply emit radiation without requiring an explosion to produce the deadly result. This variation is known as a “radiation emission device.” For this discussion, we are going to focus on devices that involve explosions, and we will code-name the device a radiation explosive device (RED).
On Dec. 21, 2004, just four days before Christmas, the United States elevated the terror threat level to orange, and Department of Energy scientists were dispatched to Washington, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Baltimore in response to credible intelligence reports that al-Qaida was planning to launch a dirty-bomb attack in one of those cities. On the same day, the Department of Homeland Security sent out large fixed radiation detectors and hundreds of paper-size radiation detectors to police departments across the nation, including the cities of Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Detroit.
Many sources are available to obtain the radioactive material needed to construct a dirty bomb. One good candidate is cesium-137, a highly radioactive substance that is commonly used in heavy industry. While uranium is at the top of the list of radioactive materials available in illicit trafficking, “cesium-137 is the second-most common with 53 seizures between 1993 and 1998, which contributed to 22.6 percent of all radioactive material seizures.” Authorities estimate that there are more than 8,000 sources of industrial radiation available today in America, involving a wide range of different chemicals and an equally wide range of applications from medical technology to food irradiation.
An analysis of half-life and radioactivity, as well as a realistic evaluation of how portable and dispersible a radioactive substance really is, leads to a conclusion that “only a small fraction of the existing millions of sources pose a high security risk.” Still, the challenge of protecting radioactive materials is huge, simply because there are tens of thousands of sites worldwide from which terrorists could steal or buy the radioactive materials they would need to make a dirty bomb.
Detonating radioactive material would cause fallout and contamination that would cause radiation sickness in many of those exposed. Serious illness, even death, could result, depending upon the amount and intensity of the radioactive material released and the health or susceptibility to radiation poisoning of those persons exposed to the hazard. Physical areas impacted by the dirty bomb would need to be quarantined and detoxified before they could be used again. The cleanup process could be long and expensive; some structures might be so toxic that destroying them might be the only solution.
A terrorist attack using a RED would produce chaos and fear; however, the number of actual casualties might be relatively small. We can imagine a coordinated attack where a group of terrorists planned simultaneous or near-simultaneous dirty-bomb explosions within one city, with the aim of shutting down the city, at least temporarily, and intensifying the shock-and-fear value of the attack by successfully pulling off multiple coordinated attacks.
Combine the RED with the suicide car-bomb methodology. Five terrorists driving automobiles with a RED in the trunk could effectively shut down a city as large as Manhattan, produce a number of deaths and induce fear that would be felt around the nation for weeks, if not months, simply as a result of the media “feeding frenzy” coverage that would be certain to result. One terrorist could be assigned to explode the RED at a specified time in the Lincoln Tunnel. The second terrorist car bomb could stop on the George Washington Bridge, detonating the RED at or near the center of the bridge. Either of these bombs, if sufficiently large, might also cause significant structural damage to the tunnel or the bridge, causing enough debris to clog the tunnel and enough impact to collapse either the whole bridge or a major section of it.
A third car could explode in the heart of Midtown, at one of the busiest intersections, such as Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. A fourth car-bomb explosion could be targeted for the Wall Street area, perhaps designating the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street as ground zero. The fifth car could be assigned a destination of Times Square, at Forty-second Street. Having five car bombs explode like this on any given day in New York City would bring the town to a sudden halt, kill hundreds of people, contaminate parts of the city for months if not years, and cause massive fear that other attacks could be scheduled to follow either in New York City again or in any other major U.S. metropolis: Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco.
While these scenarios appeal to the terrorist mind, there are practical difficulties. Not only is stealing the required radioactive material difficult, the terrorists handling the substances might become seriously poisoned in the process. Assembling the RED would require technical skills and a safe laboratory environment to prevent further radiation contamination. Last, while the impact of the RED might be psychologically great, the true amount of death and destruction the explosion would produce is relatively small to terrorists who are dreaming of detonating nuclear weapons within our major cities.
For these reasons, the threat of dirty bombs is real, though we should not assume that a dirty bomb would be the weapon of choice, especially not for a group of skilled terrorists who would have the backing of a nuclear-armed rogue state such as Iran. The mad mullahs and their terrorist associates would, if possible, opt for a much more deadly scenario, one that could truly bring the civilized world to its knees in the space of one day. If serious terrorists are going to spend their time devising attacks, the terror masters directing them will move to the most feasible attack that can cause the maximum amount of damage. Why bother with anything less? That’s how the terror masters can be expected to think.
Tomorrow: Corsi explains the weapon of choice for terrorists on American soil: the improvised nuclear device.
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