The attack on Osama bin Laden is a magnificent triumph for American intelligence and for the men and women of our military who planned and carried out this daring operation. It is a testament to the persistence and training of our forces and demonstrates to the world that the arm of American justice is long.
This is a victory not only for the United States, but for all those who have been victims of al Qaeda’s terror over the years. This terrorism has claimed the lives of far more Muslims than Americans around the world. Our war is not against Islam; it is against a tiny faction of murderous extremists.
This important achievement is not the end of the war. We must remain vigilant and continue to press to eliminate al Qaeda cells. Bin Laden was a major inspiration for the hatred of Americans, but that venom is still held by others. Everyone in al Qaeda personally swore allegiance to him, so this is a major blow to al Qaeda. I am hopeful there may be upheavals in the organization we can exploit.
We also must be alert for a counterattack or revenge operation. Al Qaeda has decentralized over the years and has spawned independent terrorist cells with no direct operational links to the organization itself. There is a risk that some bin Laden-inspired group may try to lash out in dramatic fashion.
The most dramatic, of course, would be the detonation of a nuclear device or some other weapon of mass destruction. More than 10 years ago, bin Laden declared, “Acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons is a religious duty.” Our top military leaders have said that the biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So far, experts believe al Qaeda has been unsuccessful in its efforts to acquire nuclear material or a working nuclear device, and its few crude attempts at using chemical or biological agents have been ineffectual. That does not mean we should let down our guard.
The United States should continue with the Nunn-Lugar program, which conducts an ongoing effort to eliminate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in Russia, the other former Soviet states and other countries where they are discovered. In recent years, for instance, Nunn-Lugar helped eliminate a Soviet-era chemical-weapons cache discovered in Albania, and after Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi agreed to give up his incipient nuclear-weapons program in 2004, an analogous operation helped secure the nuclear material and safely transport it to the United States, out of harm’s way.
We also should step up our efforts to contain and control biological weapons and dangerous pathogens, particularly in Africa. That’s because Africa has a unique combination of naturally occurring dangerous diseases, poorly secured laboratories and research centers where those pathogens are collected for public health study, and simmering Islamist terrorist activity that thrives in the region’s many poorly governed spaces.
If misused, this material can be turned against targets anywhere in the world, converted into horrible weapons much more easily than nuclear material. Few terrorists may have the technical expertise of bioweaponeers in the old Soviet Union, but even crude methods can produce terror and chaos with random outbreaks of deadly diseases.
Our nation’s capital already has been the target of one bioweapons attack. The anthrax spores mailed in late 2001 to Washington’s Hart Senate Office Building and elsewhere killed five people, infected 17 others and disrupted the Capitol complex for three months.
I have highlighted the bioterrorism threat from Africa and worked to increase cooperation between our experts and the African countries. Important steps already have been made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Army Medical Research Units, which have established good working relationships in a number of countries. The next key step is to address the security problems at the laboratories through the Nunn-Lugar program.
Our military and intelligence personnel deserve high praise for killing bin Laden, but the fact that it took nearly 10 years illustrates the difficulty in containing and capturing individual terrorists. That makes it all the more important that we do everything we can to deprive terrorists of access to deadly materials that could be used to carry out a devastating attack in the United States.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.