One man's quest to keep nukes away from Al Qaeda
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA counterterrorism expert, lays out his ideas on how to prevent the spread of nuclear materials on the black market – including the controversial 'Armageddon test.'
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Mr. Mowatt-Larssen was working as the Central Intelligence Agency's top counterterrorism expert on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – a post CIA director George Tenet had appointed him to after 9/11 since the US knew so little about Al Qaeda's capabilities. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled George Tenet's name.] The agency found out that in August 2001 – even before the World Trade Center attacks – Mr. bin Laden and one of his lieutenants had met in Afghanistan with Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a gas-centrifuge expert in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
"For me, the galvanizing moment was probably when I found out that Mahmood ... was sitting around a campfire with bin Laden describing how to build a nuclear bomb," Mowatt-Larssen says. "I realized ... we're dealing with something we hadn't even been contemplating was possible" – a systematic plan by a terrorist to build a nuclear weapon.
Since then, Mowatt-Larssen has spent most of his days in various roles – including four years as the CIA's top WMD sleuth – trying to follow the terrorist trail and prevent rogue elements from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Today the former CIA agent who spent most of his nearly three-decade career in the shadows is speaking out more freely from his perch in academia about the looming terrorist nuclear threat. His overarching conclusion: The US is behind in the cat-and-mouse game to keep nuclear materials out of the reach of terrorists. While he doesn't think a nuclear attack on US soil is inevitable, neither does he find it impossible. Far from it.
More than anything, he thinks the international community needs to cooperate more to prevent bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, increasingly available on the black market, from falling into terrorists' hands. He is even promoting the controversial idea of establishing a clandestine group to acquire weapons-grade material and smuggle it into the US, as a way to goad the country into taking the threat seriously.
"I've got a conviction that the terrorists are ahead of us on this and that we've got to close the gap," says the veteran intelligence officer. "Not so much on their capability of producing a nuclear weapon, but their intent – certainly their intent is strong."
MOWATT-LARSSEN IS SOMETHING of a Renaissance man in spy clothing. He speaks four languages, including fluent Russian, and is a skilled pianist and former paratrooper. He's tall, with a shock of white hair. His office at Harvard University is spare. [Editor's note: The original version said Mowatt-Larssen teaches at Harvard. He is a scholar there.] Photographs of his wife and three children grace his desk, while books on subjects ranging from the history of nuclear intelligence to physics for the lay person jostle for space on shelves with stacks of personal notebooks on WMD.