A May 5 "intelligence brief" prepared by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official at the Pacific Regional Information Clearinghouse (PacClear) in Hawaii, warned Al Qaeda might try to cause the meltdown of certain vulnerable nuclear power plants in the US and Europe by replicating the failure of the electric supply that pumped cooling water to the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The plant’s primary and backup power supplies were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March, resulting in partial meltdowns of the plant’s reactors.
Only a week after the intelligence brief was circulated, federal officials dispatched a security alert notifying US power plant operators to raise the level of their security awareness.
According to the analysis in the “for official use only” intelligence brief, which was obtained by Homeland Security Today, “the earthquake and tsunami in Japan were ‘acts of nature,’ but a catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown could potentially be engineered by Al Qaeda” by replicating the cascading loss of electric power that knocked out the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s ability to cool its reactors’ fuel rods, which led to the partial meltdowns of the reactors, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Even today, highly radioactive fuel rods are fully exposed in the No. 1 reactor at the plant. The six-reactor complex has been bellowing radiation since March 11, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the "overall situation … remains very serious." On Thursday, plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said the amount of water leaking from the No. 1 reactor is more serious than previously believed, meaning it’s likely there is severe damage to the reactor.
The intelligence brief issued by PacClear, “Recreating Fukushima: A Possible Response to the Killing of Usama Bin Laden – The Nuclear Option,” cautioned that “the death of [O]sama Bin Laden may serve as an impetus to apply lessons learned from Fukushima to attack the United States or another Western country.”
Several senior counterterrorism officials told Homeland Security Today that despite the apparent amateurism of some Al Qaeda attacks and plots that were thwarted in recent years, “we still must remain cognizant of the fact that Al Qaeda is capable of sophisticated attacks,” one said, noting in the same breath that the terrorist organization “is now under increased pressure to avenge their leader’s murder at the hands of infidels with something spectacular.”
Indeed. Intelligence collected from Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan during the May 2 raid in which he was killed, has disclosed that he continued to urge his lieutenants to focus on carrying out another 9/11-scale attack on US soil that would kill many thousands – or more. The intelligence further showed that the terrorist leader remained obsessed with acquiring, and using, weapons of mass destruction.
"I consider Al Qaeda, now being pushed by Anwar Al Awlaki [the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, and a possible heir to Bin Laden], in the position to begin planning for a new ‘9/11 style’ attack using a weapon of mass destruction … not to say they will not continue their recruiting of ‘lone wolf’ types – I do believe the long term goal of Al Qaeda 2.0 to be a spectacular attack to the US infrastructure that would cause significant and permanent damage to a significant portion of the continental US," Homeland Security Today was told by former Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, author of, Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan – and the Path to Victory.
A successful attack resulting in a reactor meltdown could potentially cause hundreds of thousands of deaths from cancer, at a minimum.
The ensuing panic would probably be the most immediate danger.
Besides the immense clean-up costs and potential environmental damage, the economic blow to the nuclear power industry would be devastating worldwide.
It’s no secret that US authorities have uncovered numerous efforts by Al Qaeda to obtain nuclear weapons and radiological materials over the years.
“Although we know from their own statements as well as intelligence and security success in blocking a number of efforts, Al Qaeda has been determined to acquire deliverable weapons of mass destruction [WMD], including nuclear, for a long time,” veteran CIA operations officer and Islamist jihad expert, Clare Lopez, told Homeland Security Today.
The new intelligence brief pointed out that “the disaster in Fukushima may have provided the knowledge Al Qaeda needs to carry out such an operation” in lieu of possessing “a prepositioned [nuclear] weapon.”
"While the Al Qaeda organization may, or may not, possess either a nuclear device or radiological material," the brief stated, "the pressure on the organization to fulfill that threat is now enormous. If Al Qaeda does possess such a weapon, the danger is obvious. If, however, there is no such device or material in Al Qaeda’s control, then it is likely that Al Qaeda and [Bin Laden’s] supporters may attempt an attack comparable in scale that will at least be perceived as a ‘nuclear’ response to Bin Laden’s death.”
“Surely, the determination to strike, and especially now after the killing of [Bin Laden], remains intense,” Lopez said.
And “the scenario described [in the PacClear alert] is completely believable,” maintained Charles Faddis, a 20-year career covert CIA operations officer who headed the National Counterterrorism Center’s WMD terrorism unit when he retired several years ago. “All you have to do to cause a meltdown is kill the cooling system. Cutting the power would do that. So would blowing up the pumps or rupturing the right pipes.”
Author of, Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of Homeland Security, which discussed at length the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to terrorist attacks, Faddis stressed to Homeland Security Today that “security at nuclear plants is not adequate, and there are no moves afoot to improve it. Nothing has changed in the last few years.”
Faddis also outlined his concerns about the security and vulnerability of US nuclear power facilities in an op-ed he wrote in March 2010.
Similarly, US State Department cables leaked to Wikileaks revealed that US officials have been concerned that Japan has not provided adequate security at its nuclear power plants to defend against potential terrorist attacks, Asahi Shimbun reported Tuesday.
The intelligence briefing stated that “the disaster in Fukushima may have provided the knowledge Al Qaeda needs to carry out such an operation. The global focus on the disaster in Japan has made the vulnerabilities of our aging nuclear infrastructure painfully apparent. In the past, preparations to defend a nuclear facility mostly focused on protecting the reactor vessel from breach.”
The briefing pointed out that “studies commissioned after the 9/11 attacks were mostly concerned with the capability of an airplane strike in effecting such a breach,” but “the March 11th earthquake and tsunami demonstrated that simply turning the power off [with] some reactor designs can result in a catastrophic failure within a matter of hours …”
“[I]t is conceivable," the briefing stated, "that Al Qaeda may attempt to recreate this series of failures at another nuclear facility in the West as a way of fulfilling their pledge of a ‘nuclear’ revenge,” which is a reference to Bin Laden’s May 1998 endorsement of the use of nuclear weapons against the US and its allies. In a statement called, "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam," which was issued under the auspices of the "International Islamic Front for Fighting the Jews and Crusaders,” Bin Laden stated "it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God."
Earlier that year, in February, Bin Laden and his number two, Ayman Al Zawahiri, had endorsed a fatwa, published in the Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, that stated Muslims should kill Americans – including civilians – anywhere in the world where they can be found.
Then, towards the end of 2004, Michael Scheuer, the former CIA officer who headed the Agency’s Bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, revealed that on May 21, 2003, a prominent Saudi cleric had issued a formal fatwa that authorized Bin Laden and other terrorist leaders to use weapons of mass destruction against the US and its allies.
The intelligence brief on a potential Al Qaeda threat to Western nuclear power plants began by pointing out that “statements under interrogation by the imprisoned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed put Al Qaeda on record as threatening to detonate a nuclear weapon presently hidden in a Western country if [O]sama Bin Laden were to be captured or killed.”
While noting that KSM, as the confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks is colloquially referred to by intelligence officials, had made these threats “some eight years ago” following his March, 2003 capture outside of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, they were “not widely disseminated until its [public] release as part of the [recent] Wikileaks disclosures.”
Mohammed told his CIA interrogators that Al Qaeda would unleash a “nuclear hell storm” in the event that Bin Laden was killed or captured by the US.
While KSM mentioned possible “attacks on nuclear power plants” in his manifold interrogation sessions, (some 186 of which apparently included waterboarding), KSM also ominously claimed that the terrorist strike “teams” that would carry out these attacks “were not necessarily [to be] Arab or Middle Eastern in appearance,” according to the "Secret" 2006 Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GITMO) assessment of KSM, also recently made public by WikiLeaks.
According to the “Secret” Sept. 10, 2008 JTF-GTMO recommendation that former Al Qaeda operational chief, Abu Al Libi, continue to be detained under Department of Defense (DOD) control that was also leaked to Wikileaks, “Al Libi has knowledge of Al Qaeda possibly possessing a nuclear bomb. Al Qaeda associate Sharif Al Masri stated in June or July 2004, upon encountering difficulties in moving the nuclear bomb, [Al Libi] commented if Al Qaeda was able to move the bomb, Al Qaeda would find operatives to use it …”
Fortunately, as it turned out, Al Libi also “told Sharif Al Masri that Al Qaeda currently had no operatives in the US. The operatives would be Europeans of Arab or Asian descent. The device was reportedly located in Europe. Sharif Al Masri reported [that Al Libi] would know about the bomb and its exact location,” though he was in Pakistani custody by May 2, 2005.
“Sharif Al Masri believes if UBL were to be captured or killed, the bomb would be detonated in the US, [Al Libi] would be one of those able to give the order.”
But Faddis doubts that Al Libi’s nuclear plot ever got that far: “I doubt they have a prepositioned [nuclear] weapon. If they had one, they would have used it.”
Lopez agreed, saying, “it seems likely they would have deployed such capability by now if they’d been successful” in acquiring a nuclear bomb. “I think it unlikely that Al Qaeda unilaterally has been able to acquire and deploy, ready to strike, a nuclear or even dirty bomb capability in the West.”
Other past and present senior federal counterterrorism authorities saidthey concur with Faddis and Lopez.
According to Shaffer, “there have been approximately seven credible attempts by the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to gain access to the Pakistani nuclear program – that is they have attempted to steal a viable/complete nuclear weapon.”
“Therefore, based on this level of effort, the likelihood of Al Qaeda already having one ‘in place’ is highly unlikely,” surmised the veteran Afghan intelligence specialist. ”But their desire to obtain a weapon or weapons is real and will continue.”
The PacClear intelligence brief pointed out that “the root cause of the Fukushima meltdowns was a lack of electrical power to keep the all important cooling systems online. It is important to understand that a functioning nuclear power station of the Fukushima design relies on outside power sources for this.”
There were three tiers of redundant power protection for the Fukushima nuclear power plant: the outside power grid, which was brought down by the earthquake; the diesel generators, which were knocked offline by the tsunami; and the battery backup power, which expired after eight hours.
“After all power was lost and pumps stopped circulating, the radioactive rods began to overheat and melt down, causing one of the worst nuclear disasters in history,” the PacClear briefing noted.
Continuing, the brief stated that “an air strike by a small general aviation plane or truck bomb aimed specifically at the electrical power, perhaps coupled with a Mumbai style disruption, might be sufficient to interrupt power long enough for a meltdown to begin. Blueprints and detailed descriptions and pictures are widely available on the internet in the aftermath of Fukushima …”
But "even if [an] attack did not succeed in damaging the plant,” the PacClear circular warned, “the economic damage that would result from the mere perception of another incident would be severe to both the nuclear industry and the overall economy as frightened investors again pull their money back. It should be remembered that the number one target of Al Qaeda as articulated by Bin Laden is the West’s economic strength.”
A spokesman for Britain’s Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), which polices the UK’s nuclear facilities, told the Christian Science Monitor “we are confident of the security of our [nuclear power plant] sites.”
Disturbingly, a year ago when former New Jersey resident Sharif Mobley, who holds dual Yemeni-American citizenship, tried to shoot his way out of a hospital in San’a, Yemen, killing one guard and wounding another in an escape attempt following his arrest in a roundup of suspected AQAP operatives, it was revealed that he’d worked at three US nuclear power plants from 2002 to 2008.
According to reports, people who knew Mobley said he openly espoused jihadist ideology during the period he worked in the nuclear power industry, raising serious questions about whether security authorities ever investigated his radicalization. Mobley passed federal background security investigations in 2008, but apparently his unconcealed radicalization was either missed, or of no concern to security investigators, officials said.
Mobley reputedly had extensive contact with AQAP leader Anwar Al Awlaki. According to US intelligence authorities familiar with the Yemini investigation, Mobley had direct, on-going communication with Al Awlaki. Yemini security officials declared that Mobley was "an Al Qaeda member involved in several terrorist attacks.”
“Here’s the thing,” Faddis had previously told Homeland Security Today, “all this discussion about whether or not [Mobley] worked in an area which allowed him access to nuclear fuel is missing the point. All the pumps and controls for the cooling system are outside the concrete containment. They can be destroyed relatively easily. You get a car bomb or even a team with satchel charges inside, and they can do the job.”
“So, the whole issueis penetrating the external security of the plant. You don’t have to get inside the containment,” Faddis said, adding, “one key element to penetrating security would be having someone who had been inside the plant and knew where the guards were, how many there were, how they were armed, etc. This guy would know all of that in spades given his extended access. In short, this is a very big deal and a very bad sign, and we ought to take heed and get our act together when it comes to the defense of nuclear power plants.”
Despite the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants that Faddis and the Government Accountability Office pointed out in recent years, Lopez said “I think it’s much more likely that spontaneous, uncoordinated and less complex revenge attacks may be launched in the near future than that a complex attack vs. Western nuclear facilities would be ready to go any time soon.”
“The primary response may not be immediate, just close enough to be viewed as a direct response,” the PacClear intelligence brief stated. “Failing that, a significant date in the history of either Al Qaeda or [a] nuclear calamity might be chosen.”
The brief added “it is more likely that Salafist supporters, inspired by the death of Bin Laden, will attempt to carry out attacks on their own. As this report was written, five young Bangladeshi men were arrested outside of Britain’s largest nuclear facility, only hours after the death of Bin Laden was announced … The young men in question have since been released, but a satisfactory explanation of their intent and actions has not.”
According to reports, the five men – all in their 20s and from London – were arrested May 2 on suspicion of terrorism while taking photos near the Sellafield nuclear power plant in northeastern England. They were held under a 2000 British anti-terrorism law that allows police to arrest suspects without a warrant and hold them for up to 48 hours without charge.
According to a spokesperson for the North West Counter Terrorism Unit, which led the investigation of the men, “officers have conducted a thorough investigation and a decision has been made to release the five men without charge,” London’s The Sun reported.
Still, in such light, the 2008 JTF-GITMO detainee assessment of Abu Al Libi offers yet more worrisome operational indicators, particularly his close contacts over the years in the United Kingdom, and his vigorous and varied recruiting efforts, which were reported to include US-resident Somalis, Muslim Indians and at least one UK-resident Jamaican operative.
Lopez asked whether there’s “a reasonable mid-longer-term threat” to nuclear power plants as described in the alert. “Yes, I do think so,” she concluded, adding, “although I’m no expert on nuclear facilities site security, it’s at least my impression that they’re pretty well-secured from many different perspectives…”
“Even given the massive multiple hits that the Japanese facility took (earthquake, tsunami, multiple points of failure)," Lopez said, "they still managed to avoid the most catastrophic of consequences. I’m hopeful that we and the Europeans would, too” in the event that terrorists were able to carry out the sort of frightening scenario that was outlined in the PacClear alert.
Some outside observers see in the new intelligence bulletin nothing but further scare-mongering related to the upcoming budgetary battles on Capitol Hill. “A nice fantasy,” quipped one slightly cynical non-profit nuclear industry watchdog, off the record.
Yet, perhaps it will be Osama Bin Laden who gets the last laugh.
When asked by a Pakistani journalist if he had nuclear weapons on October 7, 2001, Bin Laden’s four word response was: "Go to next question…"
As Lopez has repeatedly stressed, Al Qaeda will not cease in its efforts to strike the US in spectacular ways.
Co-reporter on this story, Scott Malone is a multiple Emmy and Peabody award-winning investigative journalist and former senior editor of NavySEALs.com. He currently runs the website’s counterterrorism newsletter spin-off, “BlackNET Intelligence Channel.” Malone wrote the April 2008 Homeland Security Today cover report, “Beware the Clones.”