WMD attack still a major threat: US


The nexus of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism still poses one of the gravest risks to the national security of the United States and its global partners, a US State Department report on the subject warns.

The Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 adds a successful major WMD terrorist attack could result in mass casualties and produce far-reaching economic and political consequences.

The threat includes chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological attack, the latter generally in the form of a “dirty” bomb. This is where terrorists set off bomb containing radioactive materials in the hope of spreading the contaminants over a wide area.  

The US National Strategy for Combating Terrorism “hinges on the six objectives”. They are:

·         Determine terrorists’ intentions, capabilities, and plans to develop or acquire WMD. Understand and assess the credibility of threat reporting and provide technical assessments of terrorists’ WMD capabilities.

·         Deny terrorists access to the materials, expertise, and other enabling capabilities required to develop WMD, with a particular focus on weapons-usable fissile materials, dangerous pathogens, and poisonous chemicals. Denial efforts extend to the methods of transport, sources of funds, and other capabilities that could facilitate the execution of a WMD attack. In addition to building upon existing initiatives to secure materials, develop innovative approaches that blend classic counterproliferation, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism efforts.

·         Deter terrorists from employing WMD. A new deterrence calculus seeks to deter terrorists, facilitators, and supporters from contemplating a WMD attack and, failing that, to dissuade them from actually conducting an attack. Traditional deterrence by punishment may not work because terrorists generally show a wanton disregard for the lives of innocents and, in some cases, for their own lives. Accordingly, develop a range of deterrence strategies that are tailored to the various WMD threats and the individual actors who facilitate or enable those threats. Employ diplomatic strategies that seek to address extremism and defuse volatile conditions in order to discourage consideration of WMD as a tool to address perceived injustices.

·         Detect and disrupt terrorists’ attempted movement of WMD-related materials, weapons, and personnel. Expand our global capability for detecting illicit materials, weapons, and personnel transiting abroad. Utilize global partnerships, international agreements, and ongoing border security and interdiction efforts to promote detection capabilities. Continue to work with countries to enact and enforce strict penalties for WMD trafficking and other suspect WMD-related activities.

·         Prevent a WMD-related terrorist attack and develop a response capability. Once the possibility of a WMD attack has been detected, work to contain, interdict, and eliminate the threat. Continue to develop requisite capabilities to eliminate the possibility of a WMD operation and to prevent a possible follow-on attack. Prepare ourselves for possible WMD incidents by developing capabilities to manage the range of consequences that may result from such an attack.

·         Define the nature and source of a terrorist-employed WMD device. Should a WMD terrorist attack occur, the rapid identification of the source and perpetrator of an attack would facilitate response efforts and may be critical in disrupting follow-on attacks. Work to maintain and improve our capability to determine responsibility for the intended or actual use of WMD via accurate attribution, using the rapid fusion of technical forensic data with intelligence and law enforcement information.

The US says chemical weapons represent a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of terrorists as demonstrated in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult in the Tokyo subway system. “Perpetrators of that attack used sharpened umbrellas to puncture plastic bags filled with the nerve agent sarin causing the sarin to spill out and evaporate – killing twelve and injuring thousands.”

Bioterrorism, another deadly threat, is the deliberate dispersal of pathogens through food, air, water, or living organisms to cause disease. “Developing a bioterrorism capability presents some scientific and operational challenges. However, the necessary technical capabilities are not beyond the expertise of motivated scientists with university-level training.” Even the use of a badly-designed weapon can have a limited health impact but cause significant disruption. A small-scale bioterrorism attack such as the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, which resulted in five Americans killed and an additional 17 individuals infected, had a substantial economic impact with the costs of decontamination, medical treatment for those exposed, decreased commercial activity, social distress, and lost productivity.

“Among present-day terrorist organizations, al-Qa`ida (al Qaeda, AQ) is believed to have made the greatest effort to acquire and develop a bioterrorism program. US forces discovered a partially built biological weapons laboratory near Kandahar after expelling the Taliban from Afghanistan. Although it was not conclusive that AQ succeeded in producing a biological weapon, the discovery demonstrated a concerted effort to acquire a biological weapons capability.”

The report also warns that some terrorists are seeking to acquire radioactive materials for use in a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or “dirty bomb”.

Radioactive materials are used widely in industrial, medical, and research applications and include devices used for power supply in remote locations, cancer therapy, food and blood irradiation, and radiography. Their widespread use in nearly every country makes these materials much more accessible than the fissile materials required for nuclear weapons. Most radioactive materials lack sufficient strength to present a significant public health risk once dispersed, while the materials posing the greatest hazard would require terrorists to have the expertise to handle them without exposure to incapacitating doses of radiation or detection during transit across international borders. Public panic and economic disruption caused by setting off an explosive radiological dispersal device, however, could be substantial, even if a weak radioactive source is used.

Some terrorist organisations, including AQ have openly stated their desire to acquire nuclear weapons, the report continues. “The diffusion of scientific and technical information regarding the assembly of nuclear weapons, some of which is now available on the Internet, has increased the risk that a terrorist organisation in possession of sufficient fissile material could develop its own crude nuclear weapon.”

Dual-use materials, equipment, research, and technologies of concern

The State Department adds that reducing the risk of terrorist acquisition of, access to, and use of dual-use materials, equipment, research, and technologies remains a critical challenge. “Terrorists have shown an interest in taking advantage of this trend when developing improvised devices. This challenge has only been compounded by the diffusion of dual-use information on the Internet and in academic venues. Attacks in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 involving improvised devices using chlorine cylinders, a dual-use chemical used in water treatment facilities, offered a notable example.”

The United States maintains dual-use export controls based on its multilateral commitments in the export control regimes, but also maintains unilateral controls on a wide range of dual-use items predominantly for antiterrorism reasons.

“In this era of commercial globalisation, control of exports is not limited to national borders, but also extends to US research universities, laboratories, and industry.

“The reduced domestic pool of qualified scientists and engineers has driven many US companies, universities and laboratories to recruit foreign nationals in order to remain competitive. The employment of talented foreign science and engineering staff or students carries the risk of WMD technology transfers by way of deemed exports,” the department warns.

“A deemed export is the release of information pertaining to the design and manufacturing of dual-use technology or source code to a foreign national within the confines of the United States borders. In accordance with the Export Administration Regulations, several USG departments and agencies support a national effort to better control foreign access to sensitive dual-use technologies to prevent unauthorised transfers.”