Home inFocus Would Iran Provide A Nuclear Weapon to Terrorists?

Would Iran Provide A Nuclear Weapon to Terrorists?

Joel Himelfarb and Steven Emerson Winter 2009

The United States seeks to negotiate an end to Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons. U.S. and European officials have laid out scenarios whereby Iran could potentially threaten the surrounding Arab states, Israel, or even Europe with missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. But there is strikingly little discussion among policymakers about the possibility Iran might share nuclear weapons with one of the many terrorist organizations it supports.


When this worst-case scenario is raised, analysts usually focus on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group founded in the early 1980s by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. However, al-Qaeda has a far more extensive history of seeking to acquire these weapons, and as the 9/11 Report stated, Osama bin Laden’s network retains nominal yet murky ties with Iran. Despite a history of distrust and feuding between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Tehran and al-Qaeda share common enemies in the United States and Israel. This has yielded cooperation in recent years.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted some of the major U.S. terror cases of the 1990s, outlined in detail in National Review Online the cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda. McCarthy points to the case of Ali Mohamed, a shadowy Egyptian who eventually immigrated to the United States and served in the U.S. Army. Unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence, Mohammed was also a senior al-Qaeda trainer and served as bin Laden’s personal bodyguard. At bin Laden’s direction, Mohammed conducted surveillance of various potential bombing targets including the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

When he pled guilty in 2000 to participating in al-Qaeda’s war against the United States, Mohammed cited the existence of “contacts between al-Qaeda and al-Jihad organization [Egyptian Islamic Jihad, headed by Zawahiri], on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between [Imad Mugniyeh], Hezbollah’s chief, and bin Laden.”

Mohammed further stated that Hezbollah provided explosives training for al-Qaeda and al-Jihad. Iran, in turn, supplied al-Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to “supply explosives disguised to look like rocks.”

Mohammed’s disclosure should not have come as a surprise. When the U.S. indicted bin Laden in 1998, the Justice Department charged that he had called for al-Qaeda to “put aside its differences with Shi’ite Muslim terrorist organizations, including the government of Iran and its affiliated terrorist group Hezbollah, to cooperate against the perceived common enemy, the United States and its allies.”

The indictment added, “Al-Qaeda also forged alliances… with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.”

When it released its final report in 2004, the 9/11 Commission noted that, “senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as intelligence and security.”

That instruction at Hezbollah facilities included al-Qaeda’s top military committee members. One of those who received training from Hezbollah, McCarthy noted, was Saif al-Adel, al-Qaeda’s chief of military operations and a “driving force” behind the 1998 Africa embassy bombings. He was also tied to the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000, and was believed to have trained some of the September 11 hijackers.

Al-Qaeda’s Record

Now that the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran has been established, it is important to understand that al-Qaeda has stated clearly that it seeks to use weapons of mass destruction on the United States.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (www.nti.org), a group headed by media mogul Ted Turner and former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, notes there is evidence dating back to the early 1990s of al-Qaeda’s effort to obtain a nuclear device and recruit people with nuclear weapons expertise. For example, the U.S. government’s indictment of bin Laden for the 1998 Africa embassy bombings alleges that at various times dating back to 1992, the al-Qaeda boss joined with a senior aide, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, and others “to obtain the components of nuclear weapons.” The document also charges that in 1993 the group attempted to purchase highly-enriched uranium in Sudan.

Al-Qaeda continued its efforts to obtain WMD and nuclear know-how throughout the 1990s. Then, in 2000, a Russian National Security Council official announced that al-Qaeda’s Taliban allies had sought to recruit a nuclear expert from a Russian facility.

Shortly before September 11, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri met with two senior Pakistani nuclear weapons experts who were Taliban supporters. Although they denied providing bin Laden with any useful information, the Pakistani experts admitted to The Washington Post in December 2001 that they provided detailed technical information in violation of Pakistani security laws.

Even after being driven from his base in Afghanistan, bin Laden has continued his quest for nuclear weapons. In 2004, captured al-Qaeda operative Sharif al-Masri told interrogators that al-Qaeda seeks to acquire nuclear materials in Europe and move them to Mexico, and from there, across the border into the United States. In 2005, two jihadists were arrested in Germany trying to obtain uranium. One of them was an Iraqi who had trained in al-Qaeda’s camps and was associated with September 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh.

While we do not know the extent to which bin Laden’s network has achieved success, the Obama Administration is on record as stating that al-Qaeda continues to try to acquire nuclear weapons technology and know-how.

“Al-Qaeda is still there in the region, ever dangerous and publicly asking people to attack the U.S. and publicly asking nuclear engineers to give them nuclear secrets from Pakistan,” Richard Holbrooke, the Special U.S. Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said on September 16.

The Calculus

Terrorism analysts in Washington need to be asking: Under what circumstances might Iran decide to up the ante and transfer WMD technology to terrorist organizations?

Diplomats typically dismiss the possibility. They acknowledge that this would be a terrible thing, but express doubt that Iran would take such a drastic step for two reasons.

First, they argue that Tehran itself is uncomfortable at the prospect of terrorists acquiring such weapons. Second, they argue that the Iranian leadership understands that if a nuclear weapon is transferred to al-Qaeda and used to attack the United States or any of its allies, the retaliation would be overwhelming.

To be sure, analysts should not underestimate the importance of American power as a deterrent. But it is equally important to understand that, with Iran, deterrence has its limits. No nation today has as extensive a record of supporting terrorism as Iran, and Western policies in place until now have utterly failed to deter Iran from facilitating terrorism using conventional weapons.

U.S. deterrence has been eroded by Iran’s perception of American weakness, and by the fact that the Iranian regime has been able to foment terrorism and violence against the United States and the West for more than 30 years and get away with it. Deterrence is further weakened by the instability of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems not to fear conflict with the West.

The Hezbollah Scenario

Iran could also provide a nuclear weapon to any of its proxy terrorist organizations in conflict with Israel. Indeed, Iran could see this is an insurance policy. In the event that Israel launches a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Tehran may conclude that it has nothing to lose by turning nuclear technology over to terrorists—notably Hezbollah.

Iran already has smuggling routes to the group. Recently, it smuggled massive quantities of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, in an attempt to help it to rebuild the weapons arsenal destroyed by Israel during the 2006 war. As a result of that smuggling, Hezbollah now has more than three times the number of missiles it had at the start of that war. Israeli military officials acknowledged in November that Hezbollah now has Iranian-made Fajr rockets that reach Tel Aviv and possibly Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona.

The Israelis are doing their best to stop the flow of weapons. On November 3, Israeli commandos intercepted an arms shipment on its way from Iran to Hezbollah. The weapons were transported aboard the MV Francop, a cargo ship flying the Antiguan flag. Hidden aboard the civilian vessel were three-dozen shipping containers holding weaponry for Hezbollah. At 500 tons, the Francop was carrying a quantity of armaments at least 10 times as large as that aboard the Karine-A, a ship that Iran loaded up with 50 tons of advanced weaponry for Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority in Gaza. It was captured by Israel in January 2002.

In the Francop case, the weapons seized aboard the ship included 3,000 recoilless gun shells, 9,000 mortar bombs, and more than half a million rounds of small-arms ammunition. Also found aboard the ship were 2,800 rockets. English- and Farsi- language markings on the polyethylene sacks containing the munitions proved that Iran’s National Petrochemical Company produced the sacks.

In January 2009, Cypriot authorities captured a shipment of anti-tank weapons, artillery and rocket-manufacturing materials for manufacturing rockets on a Cypriot ship leased by an Iranian firm. Intelligence officials believe the weaponry was bound for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

In May 2007, the Kurdish PKK terror group derailed an Iranian train in southeastern Turkey carrying rocket launchers, mortar shells, and light arms to Syria (possibly destined for Hezbollah.) In December 2003 and January 2004, after humanitarian assistance was flown into southern Iran for earthquake victims, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards used the return flights to Damascus to smuggle arms to Hezbollah.

These are the instances in which weapons were captured. There are untold numbers of Iranian shipments that get through. The question that analysts must now answer is: could a nuclear weapon get through, too?

The late Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, took this possibility seriously. Under the right circumstances, Tehran might attempt to transfer WMD to Hezbollah, or perhaps other terror groups, such as Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In interviews with The Washington Times and The New York Times not long before his death in 2007, Leventhal said it was not beyond the realm of possibility that Hezbollah could try to smuggle a crude nuclear device via a ship or truck and deliver it to a highly populated Israeli city. According to Leventhal, if the fissile device functioned poorly, it would result in an explosion with the power of 1,000 tons of TNT, resulting in radiation contamination and a “catastrophic” number of casualties. If such a device functioned properly, it could result in an explosion with the power of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT—roughly equivalent to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.

The Iranian Nuclear Threat

The dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon are many. While the dangers of the conventional missile threat have been made clear, the danger of an Iranian bomb in the hands of terrorist organizations requires further analysis. The free world dismisses such threats at its own peril.

Steven Emerson is the executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). Joel Himelfarb is a senior writer at IPT.