Myopic focus on alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria is wrongheaded, as it has been all along. The salient issue is whether the United States should intervene militarily on behalf of enemies of the United States — the “rebel” factions, in which ties to al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood run deep. If chemical weapons use, rather than American national security, is to be our obsession, however, it is worth remembering al Qaeda’s history in that regard.
In 1998, the Clinton Justice Department filed its initial indictment against Osama bin Laden for conspiring to carry out mass-damage attacks against American national defense facilities. Included was the allegation that:
At various times from at least as early as 1993 USAMA BIN LADEN and others known and unknown, made efforts to produce chemical weapons …
Th filing also claimed that al-Qaeda had reached “an understanding” with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein that included cooperation “on weapons development.”
Following the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Justice Department broadly expanded the indictment, adding numerous other al-Qaeda defendants and new charges. The new indictment charged that “[a]t various times from at least as early as 1993, the defendant USAMA BIN LADEN, and others known and unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of chemical weapons.” It further explained that a key bin Laden aide, Wadi el-Hage, had engaged in:
… international travels [that] concerned efforts to procure chemical weapons and their components on behalf of Usama Bin Laden and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim [another of al Qaeda’s founding members].
Because al-Qaeda was so committed to acquiring chemical weapons for the purpose of using them offensively against the United States and the West, chemical weapons became a central focus of Clinton administration counterterrorism — a focus that has been maintained in subsequent administrations. The 9/11 Commission Report details these efforts and the rationale behind them.
Thus, following the 1998 embassy bombings, the Commission recounted that President Clinton decided to authorize cruise missile strikes against the al Shifa facility in Sudan — ostensibly, a pharmaceutical plant — in order to “lessen the chance of Bin Laden’s having nerve gas for a later attack.” The Commission elaborated:
The CIA reported that a soil sample from the vicinity of the al Shifa plant had tested positive for EMPTA, a precursor chemical for VX, a nerve gas whose lone use was for mass killing. Two days before the embassy bombings, [Clinton White House counterterrorism adviser Richard] Clarke’s staff wrote that Bin Ladin “has invested in and almost certainly has access to VX produced at a plant in Sudan.” … [Clinton national security adviser Sandy] Berger has told us that he thought about what might happen if the decision went against hitting al Shifa, and nerve gas was used in a New York subway two weeks later. [Footnotes omitted.]
After the bombing, the Islamic supremacist government of Sudan — a notorious al-Qaeda enabler — steadfastly denied that anything nefarious had been going on at al Shifa. Nevertheless, the Commission reported: “President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Berger, [CIA director George] Tenet, and Clarke insisted to us that their judgment was right, pointing to the soil sample evidence.” The Commission added that Clinton seriously considered additional military action in 1999 because the government received “a flurry of ominous reports about chemical weapons training or development at the Derunta camp [al-Qaeda maintained in Afghanistan] and possible attempts to amass nuclear material at Herat [another al-Qaeda hub in Afghanistan].”