The U.S. government has not yet seen any indications of an al-Qaida plot to exact revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden by using weapons of mass destruction, a top counterterrorism official said Tuesday morning.
"We do believe that al-Qaida would like to retaliate for the death of bin Laden," said Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator. However, he said, "we have not seen any specific indications of particular plots [against the West], especially involving weapons of mass destruction."
Bin Laden was killed during a May 1 U.S. commando raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Secret U.S. documents released in April by the transparency organization WikiLeaks revealed that key al-Qaida detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have warned that terrorists would unleash a "nuclear hellstorm" if bin Laden were killed or captured.
One senior al-Qaida operative asserted that the organization had hidden a nuclear weapon in Europe that could be detonated following such an event, the London Telegraph reported on April 25, just one week prior to the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's hideout north of Islamabad.
Other WMD schemes discussed by terrorists have included spreading cyanide through air-conditioning ducts in public buildings across the United States, according to the leaked documents.
Speaking to defense reporters at a breakfast roundtable, Benjamin said he was "not familiar with the warnings" about a specific plot to avenge bin Laden's assassination by using nuclear devices or other weapons of mass destruction.
He did say, though, that the Obama administration is watching "very, very carefully" for any indications of a retaliation plan against the United States or its European allies, and continues to worry about the potential for a WMD attack.
"Although I've always said that an aspiration to possess and use weapons of mass destruction is a constitutive part of al-Qaida's identity, of its sense of what it's about, we're not aware of any conspiracy -- we see no indications of conspiracies in Europe involving WMD now," said Benjamin, a onetime journalist who served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.
Following bin Laden's demise, perhaps the most troubling risk is that an individual radical might be plotting a violent attack -- a scenario that offers fewer chances for intelligence agencies to detect the plan.
"You have to reckon that there is a greater chance that an enraged individual might try to act on his own. There is the possibility of a lone-wolf attack," Benjamin said. "And those are clearly harder to collect [intelligence] on."
Violent extremists have carried out a number of attacks in Pakistan described as acts of vengeance for the loss of the infamous al-Qaida leader, including a protracted Taliban offensive last month against a naval air base in Karachi.