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Time to Reconsider A Myth About al Qaeda

"The Al Qaeda videotape shows a small white dog tied up inside a glass cage," writes famous reporter Peter Bergen for the New Republic.

The dog is being killed in a gruesome test.

"This experiment almost certainly occurred at the Derunta training camp near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, conducted by an Egyptian with the nom de jihad of 'Abu Khabab.' In the late 1990s, under the direction of Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Abu Khabab set up the terrorist group's WMD research program, which was given the innocuous codename 'Yogurt.' Abu Khabab taught hundreds of militants how to deploy poisonous chemicals, such as ricin and cyanide gas. The Egyptian WMD expert also explored the possible uses of radioactive materials ... "

It's a story to give one pause, a lead-in to Bergen and a colleague's discussion of the US's Predator drone assassination campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But for it to have resonance for the discussion, that killing 'Abu Khabab' with a Predator drone strike eliminated a fiend highly skilled in chemical weaponry, one must buy into the idea that al Qaeda actually had a capability in chemical and biological weapons due to him.

But readers have learned that when it comes to the war on terror, and what the enemy is said to be able to do, much is exaggerated.

Indeed, many will remember videotape of a small dog being gassed in a room, recovered during the invasion of Afghanistan. Played hundreds of times during news shows, you would have had to be living without power and water out in the hills to have missed it.

However, since then, al Qaeda has shown zero capability in the area of chemical and biological weapons. What has been shown, again and again by this author on the web, is that they have had aspirations and lots of rubbish documents, all amounting to nothing. Practically speaking, if 'Abu Khabab' indeed had been training "hundreds of militants how to deploy poisonous chemicals, such as ricin and cyanide gas," he would have had to have been the world's worst teacher, an unmitigated failure and fool.

For examples of the lack of jihadist and al Qaeda 'capabilities,' we have many to choose from, furnished in documentation from terror trials and recovered from websites advocating violent jihad. This example is a famous well-publicized laugher purporting to show a man's evil training in poisoning techniques. Most of it was copied from a stupid and useless but very mean-spirited book originally published in the United States, called "The Poisoner's Handbook," discussed here.

And here is another convicted al Qaeda man's files on making a dirty bomb. The plans reveal incompetent wishes to make radiological weapons from smoke detectors, possibly wristwatches, and used exit signs.

A discussion of al Qaeda's somewhat less-than-successful stab at making a cyanide gas bomb is here, along with a theoretical diagram and mock-up recreated by the US government And, since the New Republic essay mentions 'Abu Khabab' teaching terrorists how to make ricin, one can look at the direct evidence from the London ricin case, one in which there was no ricin -- just castor seeds -- here.

If this is still not enough to convince, consider even more al Qaeda-generated poison recipes, recovered from various terrorism trials, here. Keep in mind, these are not examples of successful training. They are, more precisely, examples of men who don't know anything about the subject they're interested in -- poisoning -- copying anything that comes to hand, not recognizing that what they're working over is impractical rubbish.

In the context of reporting from the war on terror, the NR essay does not expose a new problem. During the Bush years, the administration, policy-makers and the mainstream media regularly exaggerated the capability of the enemy. The scary al Qaeda boogieman was a constant in the news, particularly with regards to exotic methods of killing. This persisted in spite of substantial efforts by reasonable experts familiar with seized al Qaeda materials to get out the word that a capability in poisoning, or the making of chemical and biological weapons, was not there.

There are and were many reasons for this state of affairs. In the London ricin case, written about recently here, suppression of evidence, 'information' gained by torture, and its use as a convenient item about al Qaeda in the argument for war with Iraq, were all contributors.

Another endemic problem is the great interest in the news media for a scary claim and a corresponding disinterest in promptly and prominently correcting the matter when the claim is shown to be held in great doubt. Gossip, bad information, myths and received wisdoms which are not so wise, hang on in everything from newspaper databases to policy documents, where they are often cited again and again. And while the Bush administration's claims about WMDs in Iraq were eventually pulled apart, the same cannot be said about the widespread and stubborn belief that al Qaeda has chemical and biological weapons, or a program which will grant it ease in making them.

And it was only late last year that the great body of evidence on this subject finally compelled the authors of "World at Risk," the report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, to concede: "We accept the validity of intelligence estimates about the current rudimentary nature of terrorist capabilities in the area . . ."

In science, if one is going to make extraordinary claims, one needs to back them up with extraordinarily substantial evidence. For most of the time during the war on terror, this statement has not been in effect. Despite old video of a dog being cruelly poisoned, there is no extraordinarily substantial evidence that a man named 'Abu Khabab' was a real chemical weapons expert who trained hundreds of terrorists in this black art. But there is quite a bit of empirical material to indicate al Qaeda had no real chemical weapons experts or capability when 'Abu Khabab' was killed.

So while it is possible to argue the pros and cons of a campaign of assassinations carried out by Predator drones, employing the argument that it was useful in eliminating a chemical weapons expert, leads down a road already well-travelled: Coming up with a reason for actions on the basis of bad information.

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