By Rizwan Asghar
February 19, 2015
Now that the debate about the threats of nuclear terrorism has experienced a resurgence in the United States, many nuclear experts are discussing the likely impact of a terrorist-detonated nuclear weapon on the volatile global politics.
In the nuclear non-proliferation field, there exists a consensus among experts that the game changing impacts of a single ‘mushroom cloud’ would pose a fundamental challenge to the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states, raising concerns about the ability of modern-day governments to provide security to their citizens.
In 2002, Al Qaeda-linked terrorists hatched a plan of a chemical attack on the New York City subway using a cyanide gas dispersal device, but Ayman Zawahiri cancelled the plan at the eleventh hour because he wanted the next attack against the US to be one involving nuclear weapons. The threat is further compounded by the fact that Al-Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions are uncompromising and stronger than ever before.
In 2008, Zawahiri published his book ‘Exoneration’, as an attempt to justify the use or threat of nuclear weapons. In his book, the Al-Qaeda leader offers a detailed argument that use of nuclear weapons should be judged on the original intent to defend Islam rather than on consequences in terms of the destruction that may ensue. In his view, a nuclear attack is now justifiable in order to win the war that Al-Qaeda declared on 9/11. In advancing a religious justification for the intended nuclear attack, Zawahiri quotes a famous saying of Nasir al-Fahd: “There is no doubt that the greatest enemy of Islam and Muslims at this time is the Americans.”
Many journalists and intelligence officials have expressed the apprehension that just like Osama bin Laden’s fatwa in 1998 foreshadowed the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri’s treatise has set the clock ticking for a nuclear attack on US soil. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, claimed in 2011 that “Al-Qaeda is an event on a larger scale than the 9/11 attack.” After the death of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda seems more focused on the nuclear option in order to pave the way for the ‘transition in the final stage of conflict’.
Zawahiri’s book has also prompted some American experts to engage in a debate on Islamic legality of the use of nuclear weapons. Zawahiri’s book has particularly drawn strong criticism from the Muslim world. Many well-known Islamic scholars and clerics have openly dismissed arguments given by Zawahiri for a nuclear attack aimed at killing four million Americans. In 2010, Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti of Egypt, gave a detailed ‘anti-nuclear’ fatwa rejecting all arguments given by the Al-Qaeda leader in his book. Nuclear weapons are not just ordinary weapons for use in war. They pose some fundamental moral issues that make their use unacceptable.
In South Asia, Pakistani religious scholar Dr Tahirul Qadri gave a fatwa against Al-Qaeda’s defence of nuclear use. Dr Qadri states that Islam does not permit terrorist explosions and the massacre of innocent civilians under any circumstances. Islam opposes the use of such barbaric instruments of death like weapons of mass destruction, he said. Indiscriminate killings must be avoided in times of war.
The Holy Quran clearly sets certain limits during the conduct of war: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.” (2:190) Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said: “A believer remains within the scope of his religion as long as he doesn’t kill another person illegally… even in times of war, Muslims are not allowed to kill anybody save the one who is indulged in face-to-face confrontation with them. They are not allowed to kill women, old persons, children, or even a monk in his religious seclusion.”
Even some religious clerics who have indirectly attempted to advocate the use of nuclear weapons during the past few years are of the view that these weapons can be used only in response to a nuclear attack against innocent civilians and there is no moral ground for using them against non-combatants. Former militant cleric Salman Al-Odeh also opposed Zawahiri’s fatwa in 2009 and urged him to stop killing innocent Muslims. He said Al-Qaeda had killed more Muslims than non-Muslims.
During wars, Islam enjoins on all believers to apply a minimum level of force to achieve the objective and distinction has to be made between the innocent and the guilty. During all wars fought during the life of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), Muslims were told to avoid killing non-combatants.
In response to these views, Al-Qaeda has claimed that Islam sanctions retaliation and that this principle can further be extended to the use of nuclear weapons. However this argument has no solid grounds because the US has not attacked any Muslim country with nuclear weapons. And nuclear weapons don’t serve to isolate the target and kill a few individuals; their power lies in their capability for mass destruction on a much wider scale.
Among the majority of the Muslim countries, there is a complete consensus on the issue that Islam forbids use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. But, despite a lack of clear religious support, Al-Qaeda is stronger than ever before, contrary to the claims of many western analysts. After the serious mishandling of the Syrian crisis by the international community, Al-Qaeda’s power has increased in the Middle East. While the group’s central leadership has suffered significant losses, Zawahiri has managed to expand the Al-Qaeda network and maintain his influence through affiliate groups present across the world.