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A Silent Terror

28/03/1999 | by Multiple Authors  
By Leslie Susser and Yael Haran

Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Report

It's a warm Friday morning at a mall in downtown Tel Aviv. Due to a heightened fear of a terror attack before the imminent Israeli elections, security guards at the entrance are being extra diligent as they check the contents of shoppers' bags. Unobserved, a man in gray overalls scales the roof of the mall, and places a small, innocent-looking plastic container in the air-conditioning system's intake. Two days later, newspapers run a minor story on a flu epidemic. But then people start dying. Within a week, 4,000 have succumbed; postmortems reveal that theyhave been poisoned by anthrax bacteria, non-contagious but lethal in the tiniest quantities, that destroy the respiratory system. And it soon emerges that all 4,000 fatalities had been at the mall the previous Friday morning. There's nationwide panic. Medical centers are flooded with demands for vaccinations and antibiotics. Israel has fallen victim to the ultimate terror, a silent threat by extremists wielding not conventional explosives, but biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

By the following summer, most Israelis have been vaccinated against anthrax. Technologies to counter bio-terrorism have been supplied by the United States. Israelis are assured that, should there be another attack, systems are now in place to sound the alert, so that antibiotics can be supplied in time. Then, after arriving on a plane from New Delhi, a man in a business suit drops a bag containing an old deodorant dispenser into a trash can at Ben-Gurion International Airport's arrivals hall. An hour later, the timed release of wisps of VX gas, which causes death almost instantly on contact with the skin, kills hundreds of people, among them the first wave of security and emergency personnel. The airport is closed. Flights are diverted. Israel becomes a virtual island.

There are all kinds of, no less terrifying, nightmare scenarios. Although attacks of this nature have been extremely rare, there is rising global awareness of the menace of personally delivered chemical, biological or even nuclear terrorist devices. And that awareness is prompting a reassessment of security throughout the Western world.

Easy to transport across borders or through airports, chemical and biological (CB) agents cannot be detected by conventional security mechanisms, such as x-rays or metal-detectors. In early March, to underline this point, America's top expert on biological warfare, William Patrick III, carried a plastic bottle of powdered anthrax through security, undetected, into a congressional hearing on germ warfare. Although activating such weaponry is fraught with technical and other problems, the fear in counter-terror circles is that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists equipped with bio-chemical agents could attempt to use them against Israel or the United States. Technical support could be purchased from the now unemployed experts in the former Soviet Union or passed on for ideological motives by scientists from an increasingly beleaguered Iraq or from Iran, with or without their governments' approval.

Defensive measures


If anything, it is the Americans who feel more threatened. Ever since the chemical (sarin) attack by Japanese Aum Shinrikiyo terrorists in March 1995 killed 12 commuters in a Tokyo subway, they have been concerned at the prospect of a copy-cat spill-over onto American soil. Former CIA Director James Woolsey has described "germ terrorism" as the "single most dangerous threat" to America's national security in the foreseeable future, and warned that a major chemical attack could leave 50,000 Americans dead and a biological one, 500,000. (Even before then, during the 1991 Gulf War, major U.S. companies like Ford reportedly forbade their employees to travel by air, for fear that Saddam Hussein's agents might set free deadly anthrax spores in a crowded airport.)

Although Woolsey's figures may be exaggerated, President Bill Clinton is not taking any chances. In late January, he announced the injection of an extra $2.8 billion into the struggle to combat unconventional terrorism. That definition includes chemical, biological and nuclear terror, as well as computer terror (discussed in The Report's June 8, 1998 cover story). The money is going toward more R&D for detection devices -- both to thwart attackers and to quickly identify poisonous substances where attacks succeed, special training for emergency personnel, medical research, stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics on a city-by-city basis, and funding for a single federal coordinatingagency.

Israel is quietly following the American lead. Yehiam Sasson, the official in the prime minister's counter-terror office who focuses on the non-conventional threat, says it is being taken very seriously here, but declines to go into much detail. "The less potential enemies know what steps have been taken, the better," he says, ominously. But from the little he is prepared to disclose, it emerges that with proportionally far smaller budgets, Israel has set up a system similar to that in the U.S. In the event of a non-conventional terror attack, the police would be in overall charge, with a special unit coordinating emergency services. Civil defense units with sophisticated detection devices would be brought in to determine the precise agents used in the attack, and antibiotics would be distributed, if necessary, from nearby school buildings.

Ironically, the ongoing threat of non-conventional missile strikes by Iraq has put Israel in a stronger position to meet a chemical or biological terror attack. The main difference between missile terror and CB attack is the means of delivery; a missile carries a larger payload, personal delivery is more accurate, but the substances are the same. The defensive measures taken for the public as a whole against CB-carrying missiles -- the universal distribution of gas masks and the stockpiling of antibiotics -- hold good for a terror attack too. But there's one more critical distinction: No one would know to put on a gas mask for a terror CB attack until after the killer material was released into the air.

How serious is the threat?

Sasson is careful to point out that the precautions are being taken even though there is absolutely no indication that any Palestinian terrorist group has even taken a decision in principle to use CB agents against Israel. But, he says, "the time frame between taking a decision and being in a position to carry it out could be very short." Iraq and Iran are both believed to have stockpiles of biological and chemical agents. And there is an ongoing fear of the sale or theft of such material in the former Soviet Union, which maintained the world's leading CB research and production program, Biopreparat, until the start of the 1990s. And so, says Sasson, "we have to be ready now."

Despite Sasson's assurances, there is some evidence that Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizballah have at least been considering low-level CB warfare against Israel, and may have even acquired some agents and expertise.

Nasser Asad al-Tamimi, an Islamic Jihad leader who died last year, said in Amman shortly before his death that CB was "the way to win the holy war." Around the same time, ex-CIA director Woolsey cited reports that Hizballah operatives had acquired CB with the help of two Swiss businessmen. Captured Hamas activist Mohammed Salah, under interrogation in Israel in 1993, confessed that he and Musa Marzuk, the then-head of Hamas operations in the U.S., sought recruits in America with CB expertise. "We chose them ... also according to their expertise, which were: chemistry, physics, poisons, military material and computers ... For example, in chemistry we asked him what is your specialization? Or what is your level ... toxins chemistry. Can you prepare poisons?" Salah's confession was introduced in the proceedings of Marzuk's 1995 deportation trial in the U.S. and quoted in testimony by Steven Emerson, the maker of the film "Jihad in America," an exposé of Islamic fundamentalist activities in the U.S., at a congressional hearing in February last year.

Emerson told the Report that, as far as he knows, there was no evidence of any serious CB operational intent by Hamas until 1997, when Israeli intelligence picked up signs of training and planning. One piece of new evidence was the purchase of potential CB components from Israeli hospitals by Palestinian medical staff ostensibly for research, but, according to Emerson, for Hamas. Moreover, says Emerson, after smashing a Hamas cell in Hebron in 1998, Israeli agents found computer records of plans to use chemical and biological agents to contaminate food and water. The Report could obtain no independent Israeli confirmation of this last claim.

Dany Shoham, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University's BESA Institute for Strategic Studies, recalls several small-scale contamination incidents by Palestinians between 1978 and 1993 -- including the poisoning of oranges with injected mercury in 1978, which led to several deaths; several failed attempts to contaminate water supplies; and minor contaminations of baby-food at a Haifa market and coffee at an army base. He lists them in a 1998 paper for the Ariel Center for Policy Research entitled "Chemical and Biological Terrorism: An intensifying profile of a non-conventional threat," in which he emphasizes the ease with which CB terror can be carried out.

Interviewed in his Tel Aviv office, Shoham suggests that the greatest threat to Israel is posed by the Afghanistan-based arch terrorist and fundamentalist, Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian billionaire held responsible for the bombings of the American embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam last August. Bin Laden has made no secret of his readiness to use CB weapons, declaring last year that he had "a religious duty" to acquire them. But would he use them against Israel?

Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the Herzliyah-based International Policy Institute for Counter-terror, thinks not. "Bin Laden's obsession is with the United States and Saudi Arabia, not Israel." Although he has called for the liberation of Moslem holy places in Israel, Karmon says that he only stepped up his anti-Zionist rhetoric when criticized for being too soft on Israel."

Problems for the terrorists


Karmon and Boaz Ganor, director of the Herzliyah counter-terror institute, argue that potential terrorrist use of the CB route is far more problematic than might seem at first glance. There are political obstacles: Classic terrorism seeks to influence political behavior and opinion, and major CB attacks could be self-defeating. Lesser attacks, with limited casualties, would not be very different in their impact from conventional terror -- but would probably provoke much tougher retaliatory measures because of a perception of dangerous new red lines being crossed. States with CB technology might be reluctant to pass it on, for fear of being held hostage themselves by the terrorists, and for fear of massive international retaliation if their involvement were to be traced.

There are technical problems too -- without expertise and advanced facilities, CB substances are difficult to control and weaponize, raising the likelihood of "work accidents." Furthermore, Ganor points out that since Israelis and Palestinians live in close proximity, Islamic extremists launching a contagious biological attack, with, say, a smallpox virus, could well infect their own people or, with anthrax, which can remain active for years as spores, contaminate land they hope to conquer. In a recent paper on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, UCLA-based researcher Michael Nacht argues that, because of the extra-training involved and the uncertain results, CB might not be a cost-effective terrorist option.

The war on CB terror


Israeli defense officials, politicians and researchers agree that at present, theprobability of a terrorist CB attack is low; but because the potential impact is so horrendous, all support the cluster of precautionary moves that are being taken to deal with the threat. Ganor speaks of a four-pronged policy based, apart from civil defense, on intelligence, international cooperation and deterrence.

Intelligence: Because substances are so difficult to detect, high-grade intelligence on terrorist capabilities, intentions and concrete plans is at a premium. Sasson says close international intelligence cooperation on CB terror is being fostered -- especially between Israel and the U.S. The exchanges are frequent, open and mutually beneficial. The issue was on the agenda when Meir Dagan, the prime minister's adviser on terror, visited the U.S. in early March to discuss a wide-range of terror-related issues.

International cooperation: As a signal of the international community's readiness to act in concert against CB terror, Ganor urges a tightening of international conventions against the spread of chemical and biological weapons. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, for example, has no protocol for inspection and no requirement to declare facilities that could be used to manufacture lethal substances.

Sasson adds that Israel is closely watching American efforts to develop new detection devices and medications and would certainly find the necessary resources to acquire the finished products. "Our efforts to combat the CB threat will not be hampered by budgetary constraints," he pledges.

Deterrence: In the state versus state non-conventional equation, deterrence plays a major role. But in the case of CB terror, Shoham points out, it is highly problematic. "The terrorists would probably not want to be traced, and they would stand a very good chance of succeeding." Without knowing who was responsible, it would be extremely difficult to know whom to retaliate against. Sasson, though recognizing this problem, makes it clear that any such attack would constitute the breaking of a taboo, and that, sooner or later, Israel's response would be "commensurate." Likud Knesset member Gidon Ezra, a former deputy director of the Shin-Bet, believes deterrence is still highly relevant -- because "without state help, no terrorist organization would be able to bring off such an attack, and, let me tell you, any state that touches this, that will be the end of them."

Nacht concurs: "It must be made clear to such leaders that the assets they hold most dear -- including their palace guards and their chief command and control facilities as well as their military forces and their sources of income -- will be destroyed in the event of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) use."

Although the fear of CB terror is hardly an issue in Israeli politics, it is among the factors cited by politicians in determining their stance on Palestinian peacemaking.

For the Likud's Ezra, the CB terror threat is one of the reasons he opposes a Palestinian state. Israel, he says, needs to fully "control the substances that go into the Palestinian areas."

Labor's Efraim Sneh, for his part, says that the only long term way of "drying up the terrorist swamp" is through a successful peace process, in which Israel and Yasser Arafat's PA, with American help, together fight lingering terrorism of all kinds."

As with the political dispute over how best to thwart suicide bombings, it seems, so too with the argument over how to stop the man in the gray overalls and the businessman from Delhi.


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