WMDs Redux

No, I’m not talking about déjà vu all over again in Iran (like Iraq) or Syria (like Libya), although no one should be shocked when either or both of those happen. I’m talking about 29-year-old Moroccan Amine El Khalifi, who is accused of an attempted suicide bombing of the U.S. Capitol. Among other things, El Khalifi is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against government property.

Normally, the term “weapon of mass destruction” — or as it is more commonly known in our post-9/11 lexicon, WMD — refers to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Of the three, only a nuclear weapon is truly a weapon of mass destruction in that even a single low-yield nuke has the capability to kill thousands of people and destroy physical structures over a wide area (click here to see the effects of a 10-kiloton weapon detonated in a U.S. city). A biological weapon using a contagious pathogen could kill scores of people (the Dark Winter exercise simulated a terrorist attack using smallpox and projected that upward of 1 million people could die as the disease spread and vaccine supply was exhausted) — but over the course of time, not in a single instant like a nuclear weapon. (The movie Contagion fairly realistically portrays how a lethal disease could spread and how difficult it would be to contain.) An industrial accident such as the Bhopal disaster in 1984 can cause massive casualties (the official immediate death toll was over 2,000 people, and upward of 20,000 deaths are attributed to the accident), but an actual chemical weapon would likely not be on the scale of Bhopal, where 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked.

So which of the insidious WMDs was El Khalifi going to use?

A bomb vest and a gun. That’s right. A bomb vest and a gun apparently now constitute a weapon of mass destruction. And how many people was El Khalifi intending to kill? Allegedly, El Khalifi said he would “be happy killing 30 people.” So while El Khalifi may be a terrorist, the notion that he was attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction is ludicrous. Indeed, this is on par with the case of Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to blow up a car bomb rigged with propane tanks. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on 10 charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Like Shahzad, had El Khalifi been able to set off a bomb and shoot people, he would have caused destruction, but it would hardly have been massive on the scale that the term “WMD” implies. Ditto for Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber.

The offense that El Khalifi is charged with is “use of weapons of mass destruction” as defined in Title 18, Section 2332A of the U.S. Code. It mentions chemical, biological, and radioactive weapons as weapons of mass destruction. It also says that a weapon of mass destruction is “any destructive device as defined in Section 921 of this title.” So what are those other destructive devices? Among other things, firearms. I wonder if the U.S. citizens who own an estimated 270 million firearms know that they possess weapons of mass destruction? And while we’re at it, maybe we should add these countries to the list of WMD threats: India (the world’s second largest civilian gun arsenal after the United States), China, Germany, France, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil, and Russia. On a per capita basis, these countries might constitute WMD threats: Yemen, Finland, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, and Austria.

So why are firearms considered a weapon of mass destruction? Apparently because this allows the government to extract the maximum punishment if it gets a conviction. According to 18 USC §2332A, “A person who, without lawful authority, uses, threatens, or attempts or conspires to use, a weapon of mass destruction … shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, and if death results, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.”

So El Khalifi is faced with the prospect of life in prison, the same fate that befell both Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. This despite the fact that authorities say the public was never in any danger. Huh? How can a would-be terrorist not endanger the public?

Unlike Reid and Abdulmutallab, El Khalifi was the subject of an FBI sting operation. El Khalifi was duped into believing that undercover FBI agents were al-Qaeda operatives. These agents helped El Khalifi test a bomb in a West Virginia quarry in January. And for his planned attack on the U.S. Capitol the FBI gave El Khalifi an inoperable MAC-10 machine pistol and a dud suicide bomb vest. The available evidence certainly suggests that El Khalifi was determined to kill people in a terrorist attack and willing to die himself doing so. However, one can’t help but wonder whether, if left to his own devices, he would have been able to do anything.

But even if this isn’t a case of entrapment, it’s certainly not a case of weapons of mass destruction.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.