While news that 380 tons of conventional explosives are missing from a former Iraqi military installation has made headlines, less attention is being paid to evidence that Iraqi scientists are using their skills to try to produce chemical and biological weapons for Iraqi insurgents. Even more worrisome is the possibility that these scientists could provide international terrorist groups operating in Iraq with chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons capabilities.
The end of Saddam Hussein's rule and the iron-fisted control that he wielded over Iraq's weapons and weapons development programs left Iraq's weapons scientists out of work and facing an uncertain future. As a result, insurgent groups have been working to recruit these scientists to join in their fight.
After an exhaustive 15-month investigation, the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, led by Charles Duelfer, reported recently that it found no evidence that Saddam had chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons — or active programs to create such weapons — at the time of the U.S. invasion. But the group also said that insurgents in Iraq have been pursuing chemical and biological capabilities for use against U.S. forces since the invasion. Some of the insurgents may also have developed connections with foreign terrorist groups operating in Iraq, the report said. These findings could have profound consequences.
The Iraq Survey Group reported that its experts on chemical weapons, or CW, and counterterrorism "uncovered and tracked down an active insurgent group that had been using former regime CW experts to attempt to create and use CW for use against the coalition." In another case, a group of Iraqi scientists without weapons expertise have been trying to produce the poison ricin to use in mortar shells, as well as deadly tabun and mustard chemical agents, the group said. This band of scientists, dubbed the Al Abud network, was broken up by coalition forces before it could succeed.
With the network's destruction, Duelfer assured Congress that he was "convinced we successfully contained a problem before it matured into a major threat." But other groups are also reported to be trying to acquire chemical and biological weapons.
In another worrisome development, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Oct. 1 that sophisticated equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons was missing in Iraq. The next week, the CIA's special adviser on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction reported that Iraqi weapons scientists were working with insurgents to develop chemical weapons.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many experts feared that rogue states and terrorists might acquire chemical, biological or nuclear capabilities. But proliferation from the former Soviet Union has been far less significant over the past decade than initially feared. Recent research we conducted suggests that a series of significant barriers have made it very difficult for those seeking such weapons to connect with weapons scientists or people with access to materials in the former Soviet Union. Important disincentives have also discouraged those in the Russian weapons complexes from making illicit transfers. In short, what has saved us so far has been the terrorists' inability to get close to weapons scientists and others with access to critical materials.
But many of the barriers and disincentives that stemmed the flow of weapons, materials and knowledge from the former Soviet Union are barely present in today's Iraq. A key difference between the two countries is that international terrorists with an interest in acquiring unconventional weapons now operate in Iraq. Moreover, Iraq's lawlessness makes it easier for terrorists to recruit unemployed scientists.
Although the Al Abud network was disrupted before it could succeed, unless coalition forces and the Iraqi government can improve security conditions inside and on the country's borders and effectively control former Iraqi weapons scientists, terrorist groups can get what they want.
A critical task for U.S., Iraqi and international authorities is to secure materials and equipment that could be used in chemical, nuclear or biological weapons. Equally important are programs that bolster the barriers and disincentives for former Iraqi weapons scientists and technicians who could help terrorists or rogue states acquire these deadly capabilities. That approach is similar to the one the United States took with the former Soviet Union. While there are many priority actions in Iraq, this should be one of the most important.
David E. Mosher and John V. Parachini are policy analysts at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on November 15, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.