Within the gamut of terrorism’s longtime familiar perils, the events of 11 September 2001 constituted a shift in the paradigm of the character of terrorist attacks: it is currently no longer a speculation whether terrorists are consciously willing to kill thousands of innocent people in the wake of their attacks. The equation Capabilities + Intentions = Probable Threat has now become less ambiguous, for 9/11 clearly demonstrated that the terrorists’ intentions to cause damage of epic proportions constitute a clear and present danger. In that respect, this paradigm shift is a “wake-up call” for facing the real threat of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN)-Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) terrorism. In the past, the essence of terrorism was to disseminate fear and make a political statement through violence. It was a political act designed to influence an audience, thus levels of violence were calculated so as to draw attention but not to be so high as to alienate supporters or trigger overwhelming response from authorities. That continues to be a main theme of “common” or “old-school” terrorism. However, in so-called postmodern or mega-terrorism, the aim is to maximize the number of casualties. This reflects a fundamental shift in the goal of terrorists, from trying to make a political statement through violence, to combining that pretext with the maximization of damage to the target as an additional or often primary goal. Such terrorists may be motivated by nihilistic ethnic or religious considerations, among others. A Department of Defense report suggested that as many as 25 countries have or are in the process of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. CIA Director George Tenet testified before the US congress that terrorists currently rely on conventional explosives by-and-large, but that a number of groups are seeking chemical, biological, radiological strike capacity (al-Qaida stands out as the most familiar example). Conversely, Dr. David Franz—former Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Institution for Infectious Diseases—argued that “an effective, mass-casualty producing attack would require either a fairly large, very technically competent, well funded terrorist program or state sponsorship.” Ominously, this strand of terrorism is no longer a question of will, but a matter of means and opportunity. On the other hand, the threat must be kept in perspective, based on the capabilities of the perpetrators and the abilities to mitigate the threat. Among types of WMD, chemical weapons are the ones previously most used in wars as in non-conventional terror attacks. Perhaps the most notorious case of a lethal chemical terror attack is the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo use of Sarin gas in Tokyo’s subway. Chemical terror incidents are characterized by the rapid onset of medical symptoms (minutes to hours) and usually easily observed marks (colored residue, dead foliage, pungent odor, and dead insect and animal life). In the case of biological weapons, rarely used in combat in comparison to chemical weapons, the onset of symptoms caused by many of the pathogens and toxins comes hours or even days after an exposure, with typically no palpable characteristic signatures. Because of the delayed symptoms of most biological attacks and the importance of weather conditions, especially winds, have in spreading the agents from the epicenter of the attack, as well as due to the movement of infected individuals, especially in a busy metropolitan setting and its transportation systems—the area affected and the number of victims may be greater than initially thought and would entail a costly lapse of time, in terms of detection and initial treatment. A high-grade biological agent dispersed in large enough quantities and efficiently, could, in some scenarios, prove to be calamitous: one report suggests that well dispersed Anthrax (in ideal weather conditions) could inflict 20% more casualties than a 12.5 Kiloton nuclear bomb, while another report suggests that 110kg of Anthrax could inflict as much damage on a densely populated metropolis, as a 1 megaton hydrogen bomb. With respect to radiological weapons, the problem of acknowledging that an attack has taken place is similar: Radiological materials are not recognizable by the senses, being colorless and odorless. Specialized equipment is required to determine the size of the effected area and whether the level of radioactivity poses an immediate or long-term health hazard. Due to the delayed onset of symptoms in a radiological incident and the role of wind conditions (as in biological weapons), the affected area may be very large. In the nuclear realm, ever since the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the deteriorating level of control, regulation and monitoring of nuclear facilities (weapon depots and reactors)—there has been ample cause for concern. The alarm grew as more and more countries defined by the West as “rogue” or “pariah” states (Iraq, Iran, North Korea) had either successfully produced nuclear weapons or are feverishly pursuing that goal. The recent development came in October 2002, when North Korea admitted it had developed and produced nuclear weapons, contrary to its consistent previous denials and guarantees. This concern is now coming to the fore in policy discussions and strategic brainstorming, receiving ever-growing attention from intelligence services and decision-makers. Trial testimony has revealed that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida training camps, for example, offered instruction in ‘urban warfare’ against ‘enemy installations’, including power plants. It is fair to assume, especially after the highly coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that bin Laden’s disciples/operatives have done their homework and must be considered as fully capable of contemplating an attack on nuclear plants for a maximizing effect, using conventional means (for instance, airplanes). More pertinent however, it is also clear that bin Laden was seeking to acquire nuclear fissile materials (plutonium or highly enriched uranium) and the technical know-how for building atomic bombs and what is euphemistically referred to as “dirty bombs” (devices that spread radioactive contamination via the detonation of conventional high-yield explosives). Notwithstanding that, top experts believe Al-Qaida has not realized this capability as of yet. The likelihood of CBRN-WMD terrorism has increased in the past decade and continues to do so due to a confluence of factors, most importantly the threat of sophisticated and suicidal terrorists who are not hindered by the prospect of mass killings and widespread destruction. When taking into account the willingness of individuals and groups to execute CBRN attacks on the one hand, and the vulnerability, leakage and “black market” access to and feasible production venues of CBRN materials on the other hand, the potential danger of nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological terrorist attacks taking place is not to be taken lightly. The possibility that nihilist groups (such as al-Qaida and its ilk) could acquire the hardware, means and know-how for the construction of a nuclear device, “dirty bombs”, chemical weapons or biological agents, is of particular concern. It is imperative to contend with this concern and provide the analysis of these odious threats (provided herein) and the optimal measures and readiness in countering them. Based on extensive research, which included the evaluation of hundreds of reported CBRN case studies (many of which were hoaxes), we have reached an assessment of the threat we are faced with in terms of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear terror. The threat is based on the motivation and capability of perpetrators to carry out such attacks and the consequences of a successful attack. The CBRN terrorism threat assessment herein discusses the capabilities and additional considerations required to pursue the means and execution of a terrorist attack using these four types of WMD. The purpose of this research is threefold: to lay out the dangers, obstacles to acquire and potential consequences of CBRN attacks; to identify trends and patterns in CBRN terrorism through the exploration of data of past cases; and to discuss the prospects of these kinds of attacks in the future. The major findings of this study are that the current motivation to carry out a CBRN incident has almost never been higher, but that the capability of a non-state entity to currently execute a CBRN incident with mass destruction consequence is still questionable.
Chemical warfare agents are man-made, super-toxic chemicals that can be dispersed as a gas, vapor, liquid, aerosol (a suspension of microscopic droplets), or absorbed onto a fine powder to create “dusty” agents. Basic classes of chemical agents include choking agents that damage lung tissue (e.g., chlorine, phosgene), blood agents that interfere with cellular respiration (e.g., hydrogen cyanide), blister agents that cause severe chemical burns to the skin and lungs (e.g., mustard gas), and nerve agents (e.g., VX, Sarin). The use of chemical weapons offers many advantages to terrorists. These include the limited capacity of detecting such weapons, the relatively low cost required to develop them, their frightening image and psychological effect on the population, and potential damage (under optimal conditions- i.e., type and quantity of agent, dispersion and weather). Chemical weapons have long been considered ”the poor man’s atomic bomb” for their relative low cost and ease of manufacture compared to an atomic bomb.
In general, terrorists thrive on the shock factor of their activities, and chemical warfare exhibits a high degree of immediate shock factor. Therefore, the use of chemical weapons might “enhance” many terrorist groups’ images (“immortalizing” them in history, as they see it) and provides and extra incentive to the ambition to wreak mass-scale casualties and havoc. This is arguably especially true for nihilistic groups such as al-Qaida. US government sources, among others, note that Osama Bin Laden has shown a strong interest in WMD and that U.S. intelligence detected chemical weapon tests by Bin Laden’s associates (as seen in the Al-Qaida tapes shown on CNN in summer 2002). The overall efficiency of CW agents, combined with all of the previously mentioned advantages, makes a frighteningly inexpensive, undetectable, and efficient weapon—agreat motivator for those contemplating acts of mass-murder.
The lack of available detection technology makes CW agents ideal to transport and conceal due to their clandestine nature. They can either be purchased from an illegal source, such as from a former Soviet state or a sympathetic third world country, or legally purchased as industrial chemicals and later employed in an attack. Many industrial chemicals are closely related to chemical weapons; in fact, several industrial chemicals were even employed as chemical weapons during World War I. Chlorine and Phosgene were both used extensively by Germany, Britain and France. Although these substances are far less lethal than the nerve agents, they are quite common and have many legitimate industrial applications (Ammonia is another example). Even more worrisome is that an entire class of industrial chemicals of a highly toxic nature: Organophosphates (also the class of chemicals to which Sarin and VX belong) are commonly used as insecticides and include Parathion, an insecticide notorious for the hazards it poses to those who use it. The lethal doses required for the industrial chemicals of this class are in general ten to fifty times higher than those of the military agents. Many of these industrial agents are well-suited for use as a weapon, and their legitimate uses make it particularly difficult to regulate them: general chemical compounds suitable for use as a weapon are abundant and easily available, regardless of the method used to acquire them. Once a terrorist group has decided to use chemical weapons and obtained them, the final hurdle is effectively using them (dissemination) without causing harm to the user. In this age of increasing education and booming technology, it is easier that in the past to find the necessary technical and mechanical assistance for such endeavor, although the barriers themselves are not to be discounted. Consequences The gassing of the Tokyo subway with the nerve agent Sarin by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995 was perhaps the clearest example of the specter and gave renewed credence to the threat of CW terrorism. Aum was an unprecedented terrorist group -both in terms of the technological sophistication and the wealth at its disposal—and its Tokyo attack represented the culmination of an elaborate five-year effort to develop viable chemical and biological weapons capability. The cult had acquired enough of the chemical agent to kill more than a million people, and a Russian-made helicopter with a chemical sprayer. They recruited scientists from Japan’s leading schools and abroad, while spending millions of dollars exploring nuclear, biological and chemical agents. Yet the attack, which took place during rush hour in one of the busiest cities in the world, caused 12 deaths. This actual failure to inflict mass-scale casualties is indicative of the enormous obstacles that are inherent in weaponizing and dispersing chemical agents over wide areas and affect large numbers of people (something that applies equally to biological organisms—Aum’s attempts to disseminate anthrax slurries and botulinum toxin were equally unsuccessful). Despite this, the attack underscored intelligence failures, the relative ease with which materials can be acquired and the dangers of underestimating the imagination of terrorists. Supposedly, the group only needed a few extra hours to remix some fresh nerve agent or to have more efficiently disseminated the Sarin they had used, to have potentially killed thousands. It could be argued though, and the authors are inclined to support this view, that the Aum case may ironically be a source for optimism, in that such a well-organized and multi-resourced group was not able to execute an attack of mass destruction and that more than seven years have elapsed since that attack, with no other such unconventional incident occurring. Additionally, recent reports that terrorists planned to disseminate hydrogen cyanide in London’s subway, serves a source for great concern. On the other hand, the fact that lethal nerve agents (such as VX and Sarin) were not obtained by the perpetrators may imply something concerning the current capability level of the said terrorists and their cronies. To sum up, a chemical weapons attack can be potentially very harmful, depending on a matrix of location, population affected, weather conditions, material employed, dispersal techniques, civil authorities’ biohazard capabilities and the public’s education/readiness. That range is very wide – from a few injured/dead to as many as thousands and upwards.
Subject to optimal dissemination conditions, biological weapons are more destructive than chemical weapons, including nerve gas. Under certain circumstances, biological weapons can be as devastating as nuclear ones — a few military-grade, efficiently disseminated kilograms of anthrax can kill as many people as a Hiroshima-size nuclear attack. Of particular concern is the threat of biological agents clandestinely dispersed by terrorists. For all the horrific damage caused on September 11th via the rather unconventional use of conventional means, a biological incident would be several times worse. Biological weapons can range in lethality, from salmonella used to temporarily incapacitate to bubonic plague engineered for mass casualties or even pneumonic plague. Biological weapons include Ricin, which an individual may use to assassinate a single targeted official/VIP, as well as pathogens such as Smallpox, with high transmissibility and broad potential impact. Biological agents may be used to kill or disable humans (more likely) or to attack plants or animals to harm a nation’s economy (less probable). Given that broad scope, biological attacks have already taken place and continue to be a probability for the foreseeable future.
Why would anyone wish to use biological weapons? A leading entity with a motive to perpetrate a biological attack could be a rogue state (as an act of clandestine warfare). The very strength of a superpower may provide an incentive for adversaries to challenge it unconventionally. If a rogue regime were to mount such an unconventional asymmetric attack, it might choose biological weapons because of their extreme destructive potential is concentrated in a relatively small and difficult to trace package, with virtually no detectable sensor signature. Because of the agent’s incubation period, the perpetrators might be gone before anyone knew that an attack had been made. Finally, biological agents, unlike ballistic missiles, lend themselves to clandestine dissemination. Warfare itself may be becoming more total and losing much of its political character in some situations. Biological weapons, which kill people but leave infrastructure intact, could become the “poor man’s neutron bomb.” From a motivational perspective, such agents offer a psychologically powerful tool to instigate disorder and mayhem. Biological agents and infectious diseases are not well understood, and their use would bring about the panic, dislocation and mass casualties that characterize modern terrorism. Any group seeking to escalate violence, achieve maximum notoriety or prestige, or seriously impair a superpower, would see biological warfare as a useful instrument.
From a capability perspective, there are several operational reasons biological agents are desirable (providing the technical hurdles are surmounted): Covert delivery averts attribution, postpones retaliation, and the delayed nature of the outbreak of an attack facilitates the escape of the perpetrators. Such weapons are relatively cheap, easy to hid, and extremely lethal, and as previously mentioned, biological agents can be as or more lethal than a nuclear bomb (a World Health Organization study indicated that five-hundred kilograms of anthrax powder, delivered by airplane over a city of 500,000 residents under favorable weather conditions, could produce 95,000 deaths). Science has enhanced the potency of pathogens, made them more stable in delivery, and more resistant to antibiotics, which could increase lethality and allow their use under less than ideal weather conditions. But again, this is much more pertinent to those actors that can actually manufacture and effectively disseminate biological weapons, i.e., states and not terrorists. Fortunately, few groups have such resources. But were a state to provide assistance or completed products to a non-state actor, the chance of a biological disaster is much higher. Clandestine, inadvertent or indirect assistance should not be entirely ignored. The dual nature of biological processes used in agriculture, medicinal products, breweries and pharmaceutical firms, will diffuse competence and technical skills and complicate the detection of illicit programs or suspicious activity. Ongoing developments in commercial biotechnology, biomaterials and genetic engineering will stimulate vast new developments and advances, but also complicate security concerns and unintended consequences. Even conventional terrorism tends to escalate levels of violence to keep garnering attention. The threat of biological weapons imparts high levels of fear that may make them desirable to perpetrators who wish to terrorize, even more than kill. Threats have to become increasingly credible after the initial shock of specious threats has diminished. Even a minor biological attack, made to demonstrate credibility, could have a disproportionate impact. Thus, a certain subset of terrorists may be motivated to commit mass casualty terrorism, including biological terrorism. Reliable and effective biological weapons are not, contrary to common belief, readily adaptable to “cookbook”-type recipes that can be implemented by novices. Nevertheless, technical expertise and sophistication vis-?-vis biological processes are more common than in the past. Moreover, technical expertise is required to produce high-quality, military-grade biological weapons and reliable means of disseminating them, especially in terrorist applications. There is a substantial difference between the theory and practice of bioterrorism. The technical obstacles associated with the use and dissemination of biological agents are considerable and should not be underestimated. The central technical problems for bioterrorism arise when the objective is to cause mass casualties through the aerosolization of an agent. A complicated process, aerosolization is subject to factors that are difficult to assess. For example, most of the “wet” agents (as much as 99 percent) die during the spraying process. In contrast, a dry agent is relatively simple to disseminate, but most experts agree producing it is a dangerous process almost certainly beyond the capabilities of non-state actors. Biological agents disseminated through the air must be released in particles 1-5 microns in size so as to be retained in the lungs. Particles larger than 10 microns fall out of the air relatively quickly. Moreover, the size of the dose required for inducing illness climbs substantially as the size of the particles grows. Producing aerosol particles of the wrong size might reduce an attack to complete ineffectiveness. In addition, the particles must be released in the correct location to have the desired effect.  Hence, to actually be able to improve their chances if inflicting mass casualties, a dry form of powder (with small enough particles) has to be produced/acquired by the terrorists. On the one hand, these fine powders are difficult to produce. Yet on the other hand, aerosolization and effective dispersal mechanisms are improving (although dissemination is the biggest impediment), as the terrorists themselves become more knowledgeable and potentially capable of executing mass-casualty biological weapons. News reports that al-Qaida was exploring using crop-duster planes, should be seen as an alarming notice. Making biological weapons requires sample cultures, the means to grow, purify, and stabilize them and the means to reliably disseminate them. All these tasks pose substantial but not insurmountable challenges. There are over 1,500 biological culture “libraries” worldwide, as well as numerous research institutions that maintain sample cultures. Biological production and weapon-producing facilities can be small, inexpensive, and even inconspicuous (which is where the weight of good intelligence capabilities for detecting them is crucial). Equipment to develop BW may have legitimate commercial and research purposes, as well as nefarious ones. Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons do not require unique ingredients that are themselves subject to stringent arms control treaties (the Biological Weapons Convention only prohibits USE, not research or production). However, as noted, there is a great degree of difficulty is achieving the required efficient dissemination capability for the infliction of mass-scale casualties. Cost is not much of an issue for advanced groups, since the equipment used to produce such weapons is not unique, expensive or difficult to acquire. A well-stocked bio-weapon facility can be built for as little as $2M and experts believe simpler BW can be produced for less than $1M. This is not beyond the capacity of some terrorist groups. However, pulling together all these resources and creating the multidisciplinary team of technical personnel needed in various fields (biology, aerosolization physics, etc.) to produce enough agents, stabilize, store and weaponize, not to mention effectively disseminating them, is a formidable challenge. Experts hold it to be the main reason why this capacity is currently out of the reach of non-state actors.
Hypothetically, terrorist groups—depending on their level of sophistication and resources—may achieve the capability to build broad-impact biological weapons. The writers’ view is that currently, terror groups do not have the capability to disseminate broad-impact biological weapons, but that this situation may not last for long. Many nations have the capability to make biological weapons, should they decide to do so. Some eighteen countries are believed to have done so, including the former Soviet Union and several nations the US State Department lists as supporting terrorism.
Unlike nuclear weapons and the related technology, a very small portion of the threat reduction effort in post-USSR Russia was devoted to containing biological weapons. The scope of the biological weapons program was vast and undetected. By the early 1990’s, Russian labs had weaponized plague, smallpox, anthrax, equine encephalitis, tularemia, and brucellosis. They explored the deadly Ebola virus and variations of Marburg hemorrhagic fever. Russian scientists also worked on genetically modified viral strains to make them more deadly and resistant to vaccines. According to defectors, the USSR produced twenty tons of plague, the same of smallpox, and almost one hundred tons of anthrax. The security of these biological materials and the production knowledge behind them is extremely questionable. Sources suggest Iran and Iraq recruited assistance for biological projects from Russia, that former Soviet Union personnel are marketing their skills in Europe and that North Korea may have smallpox samples. Curtailed programs such as the one in South Africa, may have been diffused to other states or to the highest bidder. However, no open source states that any possible products of these state-rub programs have reached terrorists’ hands and leaves it as a matter for speculation for the open-source researcher. A recent event that strengthens this assessment is the uncovering of a terror cell in Europe that planned to disseminate Ricin, a relatively easily accessible biological agent and much less lethal than smallpox and other types of very lethal biological agents.
The disparity between threat assessments—which are often unfocused or emphasize single factors—and contingency preparedness efforts, can be partly accounted for by deficient methodologies of threat assessing, which fails to take into account all of the factors that make up the threat that is being assessed. For example, some threat assessments focus on the motivation and goals of terrorists or the potential effects of a WMD attack, yet they fail to designate which scenarios are more plausible or address their likelihood in comparison to other scenarios. Consider, for example, a terrorist attack involving smallpox, which is often cited as the worst-case scenario, for several reasons: First, smallpox is a highly contagious disease. Second, the population has little or no immunity to the disease. Third, even with large stockpiles of smallpox vaccine, given our highly mobile modern lifestyle, it would be difficult to contain an outbreak – naturally occurring or deliberate. This threat, however, should be kept in perspective. The catastrophic effects of a smallpox attack notwithstanding, the probability of such an attack is low, especially compared to other scenarios. Smallpox, as a naturally occurring disease has been eradicated. Second, the virus that causes smallpox is openly known to exist in only two high-security laboratories (one in the US and the other in Russia, although it has been recently reported that France and North Korea possess samples of the virus as well). Hence, it would be extremely difficult for terrorists to acquire the virus. Moreover, the effects of a smallpox attack would be virtually uncontrollable and, therefore, could also affect the terrorists and their supporting constituencies. Reviewing all these factors, we conclude that a smallpox attack is a potential contingency, even, perhaps, the most damaging potential BW contingency, but the probability of occurrence is not high. Nevertheless, smallpox has received the lion’s share of attention and has drawn attention away from the wide range of other agents that could be used (botulinum, Ricin). Rather than solely focusing on vulnerability to a particular organism or looking to history to determine what is to come, policy makers must recognize that the bioterrorism threat is not one-dimensional. Four key elements of the threat should be considered: the Who (the actor), the What (the agent), the Where (the target), and the How (mode of attack). The impact of a bioterrorist attack will be determined by the interaction of these components. The more casualties bioterrorists seek to inflict, the more difficult it will be for them to assemble the necessary combination of these components. Hence, it is rational to believe that the level of probability declines as the level of desired casualties increases, because the mode of attack becomes more challenging. Mostly due to the often-insurmountable list of technical difficulties, a catastrophic-scale bioterrorist incident is currently not a high contingency. Only the release of a very contagious or very high-quality agent by a highly efficient dissemination technique could result in thousands or more casualties. In reality, the number of pathways open to terrorists resulting in catastrophic numbers of casualties is limited, and those that do exist are technically challenging. In contrast, based on the case studies we examined and the levels of capability, it is apparent that the number of technical pathways for the production of a low to mid-level BW incident is higher, less technically challenging and more suited to the motivations and constraints of traditional concepts of terrorism. The “WMD-terrorist” is thus left with relatively few, very challenging contingencies for inflicting mass casualties.
It would be comforting to conclude that bioterrorism is beyond the pale of any terrorist cell’s resources or technical capability. However, possible leaks of technology or hardware from states with bio-warfare programs and the 21st century’s looming biotechnological advances produce very different dynamics with potentially grim ramifications. Its low cost and high impact may make it attractive. Despite the abovementioned concerning the prospects of a catastrophic bioterrorist attack, there is still ample cause for concern. We do not know how “massive” an attack would have to be to overwhelm the response system, instill fear and panic, or cause serious political or economic fallout. The uncertainties surrounding bioterrorism will remain, and although terrorists have yet to demonstrate the sophistication required to carry out large-scale attacks with biological weapons, the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have shown willingness and confirmed the dedication of terrorists to inflict mass casualties and the basic inability of counter-terrorism agencies and experts to match their imagination. Meanwhile, the rapid development of biotechnology and the diffusion of expertise in this field may lower the technical bar over time. Vulnerability and motivation, two prerequisites of bioterrorism, exist. Unquestionably, the only factor that is holding them back is lack of capability. We believe that such an attack is currently beyond the capabilities of non-state actors as standalone perpetrators(i.e., without the assistance of state actors). This assessment is based, inter alia, on the premise that if terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida possessed the required capability, an attack would have already taken place, because vulnerable targets and motivation are clearly evident. Notwithstanding, the lack of capability can change rapidly, and thus so can the level of the threat. WMD attacks/attempts by such groups in the proximate future would undoubtedly attract publicity and inflict casualties, but will not, in most likelihood, cause extreme damage because of the technological barrier which precludes effective large-scale attacks, as explained above. Conventional attacks remain far easier and more probable. In conclusion, mass-scale biological terror attacks are not of the highest probability in the immediate term, but complacency is unwarranted as time unfurls and the specter of this potential terrorism increases.
”Dirty bombs,” known also as radiation dispersal devices (RDD), are weapons that use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, thereby augmenting the injury and property damage caused by the explosion. This type of a device lacks the complex nuclear-fission chain reaction that makes a nuclear bomb a weapon of unique devastating proportions. A radiological weapon can come in the form of a conventional explosive such as dynamite, packaged with radioactive material that scatters when the bomb goes off.
There is no record of a dirty bomb attack to this day. However, in May 2002 the United States arrested an alleged al-Qaida terrorist for plotting to build and use a dirty bomb—a clear sign that the motivation to use a dirty bomb is high. Also, according to a U.N. report, Iraq tested a one-ton radiological bomb in 1987 but gave up on the idea because the radiation levels it generated were not deadly enough.
The know-how required for the construction of a dirty bomb is not much more than the one needed to make a conventional bomb. No special assembly is required: the regular explosive would simply disperse the radioactive material packed into the bomb. The hard part is acquiring the high-grade radioactive material (e.g., Cesium-137, Americium-241, Strontium-90, Iridium-192). It is precisely the relative ease of constructing such weapons that makes them a particularly worrisome threat. Even so, expertise matters. Not all dirty bombs are equally dangerous: the cruder the weapon, the less damage caused. Whether terrorists could handle, construct and detonate high-grade radioactive material without fatally injuring themselves first, is still a matter for speculation, although the working premise must be that it will be possible in the future. Many types of radioactive materials with military, industrial, or medical applications could be used in a dirty bomb. Weapons-grade plutonium or uranium, as well as freshly spent nuclear fuel, would be the most deadly but are also the hardest to obtain and handle. Medical supplies such as radium or certain cesium isotopes, used in cancer treatments and X-ray machines could be used, although they generally would be less dangerous. As little as a measuring cup’s worth of radioactive material would be needed, but experts say that such small amounts would be unlikely to cause severe harm, especially if scattered over a wide area. The Washington Post reported in March 2002 that the Bush administration’s consensus view was that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network probably had such often-stolen radioactive contaminants as strontium-90 and cesium-137, which could be used to make a dirty bomb. Additionally, there were recent British reports that assess that crude RDD bombs have actually been built. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes that virtually every country has radioactive substances that could be used to make dirty bombs and warns that some countries do not guard these materials adequately. Of particular concern are facilities in developing countries but the problem is not limited to that part of world.
The potential capacity for an RDD to cause significant harm is strongly reliant on the type of radioactive material used and the means by which it is dispersed. Other important variables in this “potential impact equation” include location of the explosive device and the prevailing weather conditions. The ‘dirty bomb’ kills or injures through the initial blast of the conventional explosive and by airborne radiation and contamination emitted by the material’s particles—hence the term “dirty.” Such bombs could vary in size, from a miniature device to something as big as a truck bomb. The degree of damage caused by a dirty bomb greatly depends on the type and amount of radioactive and conventional explosive material in the bomb, the particles’ size (small chunks or fine ‘dust’), as well as such factors as wind, the size and number of the buildings in the area attacked and the ballistics at detonation. In one particularly cruel scenario—the detonation of a truck bomb containing several kilograms of spent nuclear fuel—the actual harsh physical health threat might be confined to a radius of a few city blocks plus areas under a narrow wind-carried cloud, this according to the Center for Defense Information. But in the aftermath of September 11th, scientists are conducting more detailed evaluations and they emphasize that such calculations are extremely complicated due to the wide array of the aforementioned conditions at the time of the explosion (including emergency services’ response capability). People in the immediate vicinity would in all likelihood die from the force of the conventional explosion itself (conventional bombs and suicide-bomb attacks). Some survivors of the blast might die of radiation poisoning in the weeks afterward. Those farther away from the explosion may experience radiation sickness in the subsequent days and weeks, but with a fair chance of recovery. Over time, cancer cases among the affected populace in the affected area would rise by up to 10%. Some pundits contend that the explosion of a dirty bomb containing one kilogram of plutonium in the center of an average size metropolis, could ultimately lead to about 150 cancer cases directly attributable to the blast. A dirty bomb is not only a weapon of mass destruction but also a weapon that can cause mass disruption, augmenting its conventional potential for physical damage by dispersing radioactive material into the air, carried further away by the wind. In its capacity to cause terror and disruption versus its ability to inflict heavy casualties, the dirty bomb is far superior to conventional explosive devices. Depending on the sophistication of the bomb, wind conditions and the speed with which the area of the attack was evacuated, the direct number of casualties may not be substantially greater than a conventional explosion, though the long-term casualties—mostly as a result of radiation-induced cancer—can be substantial. Yet the widespread panic over radioactivity and evacuation measures and the ensuing diagnosis of people who unknowingly came in contact with the radioactive elements and consequently became ill, could snarl a city and bring it to a virtual halt. Moreover, the area actually struck by the bomb would be off-limits for at least several months during cleanup efforts and the pursuant monitoring, which could paralyze a local economy and reinforce public fears about being near a radioactive area, well after it has been cleaned up and marked “safe” by the authorities. A relatively crude device set off in a large building might require at least several months of intense cleanup efforts, with a price tag of perhaps tens of millions of dollars. To top that off, public fear would probably not die down easily. Expert opinion holds it could be hard to assess exactly where and when (could be years) the radioactivity had returned to safe levels. Yet the bottom line is that with efficient cleanup measures, the disruption caused by a small or moderately sized dirty bomb in the affected area, could eventually (weeks to months) render it safe again. For that to happen, several points must be addressed: * Figuring out where the radiation cloud was likely to drift, how to warn the people in its path and how to get everyone else to stay put so they did not jam the roads desperately needed by rescues and those trying to get away from the cloud (premium information and communications are cardinal). * Treating the casualties that may number hundreds or even thousands. Again, decontaminating people is possible but very difficult (there is a real danger of contaminating the first-on-the-scene responders, their equipment and hospitals and medical personnel, before the full scope of radiation dispersal is known). <>In the longer term—restoring the area to normal use. Cleaning an area back to “zero radiation” is unlikely. A cleanup effort that reduces radiation to a level so low that almost no one is affected might nonetheless cause some more-vulnerable people with health problems in the long term. Much of it is psychological: people will probably prefer not to “take a chance” visiting, shopping, living or working in the previously affected area even after cleanup, condemning whole sections of the city and suburbs to isolation and dereliction for years to come—bringing the disruptive nature of the RDD to full scale (economic implications).
Clearly, some terrorists would consider detonating such a bomb in the most central part of the city/area/event being targeted, so as to neutralize the “epicenter” of activity and cause maximal logistical damage on all levels. But unless the radioactive material is heavily shielded, it can be detected. And if it is heavily shielded, the shielding will reduce the power of the explosion and the distribution of the material. In fact, of all types of major CBRN terrorist attacks, this is the one modern technology is most likely to be able to detect/catch early on (provided these means are purchased and implemented on time). The eventual use of a low level RDD by a terrorist is probably inevitable, yet it can be tackled quite efficiently with security measures and preparations made in advance.
As previously noted, the fundamental shift in the goals of contemporary, nihilist fundamentalist terrorists such as al-Qaida, compared with the “traditional” modus operandi of terrorists of past, is crucial in the context of WMD. And since no other weapon of mass destruction is as “appealing” as nuclear weapons—being a symbol of power, more than anything else—WMD terrorists will undoubtedly contemplate and attempt to acquire a nuclear device in the future. Once in their hands, groups of al-Qaida’s ilk will also have little qualms about using it. Essentially, possession would probably lead to use.
For a terrorist group to obtain a nuclear weapon, two principal channels exist: build a device from scratch or somehow procure or steal a ready-made one or its key components. Neither of these is likely. Of all the possibilities, constructing a bomb from scratch, without state assistance, is the most unlikely. “So remote,” in the words of a senior nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “that it can be essentially ruled out.” The chief obstacle lies not only in producing the nuclear fuel—either bomb-grade uranium or plutonium—but also the requirements for testing and securing safe havens for the terrorists. Unlike uranium, a much smaller quantity of plutonium is required to form a critical mass. Yet to make enough of it for a workable bomb, a reactor is needed. Could terrorists buy one? Where would they build it? Could such a structure go undetected by satellites and other intelligence tools? That is all very implausible indeed. If making nuclear-bomb fuel is out of the question, why not just steal it, or buy it on the black market? Consider plutonium: if terrorists did manage to procure some weapon-grade plutonium, would their problems be over? Far from it: plutonium works only in an “implosion”-type bomb, which is about ten times more difficult to build than the more simple uranium bomb used at Hiroshima. Among a litany of specialized requirements is an experienced designer, a number of other specialists and a testing program. Hence, the terrorist’s chances of getting an implosion bomb to work are very low. An alternative to stealing plutonium is bomb-grade uranium. The problem with buying bomb-grade uranium is that one would need a great deal of it—around 50kg for a gun-type bomb—and nothing near that amount has turned up in the black market. Even when considering a country like Pakistan, the only possibility for terrorists to lay their hands on that country’s uranium would be if its government fell under the control of sympathizers. Given that Pakistan’s army is by far the most effective and stable organization in the country, there is not much chance of that happening. Russia, again, is the terrorists’ best bet and therefore a potential target. It has tons of bomb-grade uranium left over from the cold war and, in addition to bombs, has used this material to fuel nuclear submarines and research reactors. With a reported history of smuggling attempts, there are definite prospects in Russia. If terrorists could strike the main deposit and get enough uranium for a bomb, they would be on their way. But it would still be a long journey: designing and building the bomb is anything but a trivial undertaking, as is recruiting the suitably skilled technician/s for the task. The main risk for terrorists is getting caught. Finding an isolated location for minimal risk of detection also would not be easy. Stealing or buying a complete bomb would circumvent the aforementioned obstacles. But this option presents other pitfalls which are even greater: all countries, including Russia and Pakistan (with US assistance), make ever greater efforts to safeguard their warheads and materials, and even rogue states—if they should get the bomb (as North Korea appears to staunchly pursue)—would be highly likely to do the same. Countries employ security measures specifically designed to prevent theft. Warheads are typically stored in highly restricted bunkers. Terrorists would have a very hard time trying to take over one of these and even if successful, it would be much harder to leave with the contents in hand. [Notwithstanding this, nuclear terrorism cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. In the long run, nuclear terrorism—the explosion of a nuclear bomb, the use of fissionable material as a radioactive poison, or the seizure and sabotage of nuclear facilities—is plausible. Nuclear materials for commercial purposes will increasingly be shipped by land, sea, and air. The possibility of hijacking shipments to build nuclear weapons or RDD’s is no longer the theme for Hollywood thrillers, but is a real prospect for terrorists. Fears of such dangers were expressed in connection with Japan’s shipment of plutonium on the high seas in 1992. But more realistic fears were felt after the fall of the USSR and the weakening security of existing nuclear storage facilities in the CIS. All these factors indicate that terrorists might find these tactics particularly desirable for future operations.]
As witnessed by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 the consequences are horrific. Depending on the yield of the nuclear device (Kilotons to Megatons) and the number of people exposed to and thus either killed or injured from burns and radiation—both immediate and longer term effects such as cancer – the numbers can be anywhere from a few thousands to hundreds of thousands and even millions. Clearly, any nuclear attack in a modern city will invariably cripple a nation, at least temporarily. In this case there are no low-end versus high-end consequences. Rather, the only acceptable consequence is the non-occurrence of such an attack. In sum, we maintain that the prospect of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon and detonating it in the near future is remote.
The problem with WMD risk assessments – be it chemical, biological or nuclear – is that history is often shaped by extreme events that occur without warning and which are only explainable long after the event. No one looking at the history of the 20th Century has any reason to assume that sudden catastrophic events will not occur in the 21st Century. As Yoggi Bera reportedly observed, “it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. Having said that, the motivation is evident and the only missing ingredient is capability. The range and means of attacks is so broad and complex that it is extremely difficult to choose one end of the spectrum and stipulate that it should take first priority. Low-to-moderate level terrorist attacks, using conventional explosives or limited amount of chemical weapons, are more likely on a day-to-day basis than mass destruction CBRN attacks. There is little about recent history, however, that says mass-destruction terrorism is unlikely to have a growing probability in the future, or that the sudden and “irrational” escalation of conflicts does not take place in spite of the costs and risks to the escalator. Put simply, there is no definite, full-proof way to prioritize which method of CBRN attack will be used in the future. Thus, the assessments made herein are based on methodology, databases and experts’ analyses, but are by their nature, assessments. The threat posed by chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons is both extremely diverse and vague, notwithstanding the high technical barriers. The uncertainties affecting each category of weapon are compounded by the fact that sophisticated attackers can use mixes or “cocktails” of different weapons or sequence attacks to expose responders to sequential attacks. As a result, any analysis of methods of attack confirms the fact that there are no real rules to the game. Attacks can range from empty threats or ineffective weapons to attacks that can achieve high lethality. Many of the world’s top experts and analysts believe that it is practically impossible to prioritize or to give a risk assessment. Certain types of CBRN attacks that have gained attention among the terrorism community and that are examined in this project: The first is an attack against water supplies, reservoirs, etc. This sort of attack has been discounted in most studies given that the required amount of chemical needed for a CW attack would be enormous and that the water purification features might render most BW attacks ineffective. Aerosol distribution via a ground or airplane—mounted sprayer has dominated much of the discussion of BW agents, particularly since September 11, 2001. Many experts believe that such dispensers would have to be modified to achieve the correct particle size for effective dissemination. This scenario holds true for automobiles and boats. Third, dissemination of CW and/or BW on a small scale within a building, via its ventilation system, is viewed as a probable type of attack. Finally, for nuclear terrorism, an oft–noted attack scenario is that of a shipping container loaded with a weapon, enters a seaport and is detonated. Other scenarios envisage improvised chemical or radiological devices by, for instance, sabotaging or attacking particular industrial facilities or nuclear power plants. In addition, food and/or beverage contamination and dissemination of biological and/or chemical agents via the postal service are also feasible scenarios. Based on the case studies that were reviewed and analyzed, it is apparent that the actual biological and chemical incidents that occurred did not result in the catastrophic consequences that experts assess are theoretically feasible in efficient BW/CW attacks. The only real way to know if the experts’ assessment of agent lethality is accurate is for an efficient attack to actually take place. We would obviously be more than happy not to find out.
Although the number of cases involving use of CBRN materials and the number of casualties increased, the year 2000, (which is the year consisting of the most updated data for the purposes of this study), did not see a rapid rise in the number of terrorist and criminal incidents involving these materials, in comparison with the previous years, in spite of ominous predictions. The trend of moderate growth in the number of incidents continued, with fewer than 200 incidents reported worldwide. The United States is still the primary focus of incidents involving CBRN agents. In other areas, ongoing trends persisted. In terms of agents used, the year 2000 followed the general pattern of a predominance of chemical over biological agents. Also, most of the incidents recorded were perpetrated with “household” agents, which carry a low probability of inflicting massive casualties. As far as the perpetrators are concerned, past patterns were preserved, with a large percentage remaining incognito and lone actors dominating the set of known perpetrators. In the past, lone actors have acted principally with criminal intent, and 2000 was no exception. The data and case studies evaluated reflect a trend towards the increased use of CBRN materials by sub-national actors. Nevertheless, the data also suggests that primarily “low-end” agents, delivery systems, and incidents characterize the current threat of CBRN terrorism. What next? Key variables can have immense implications on the future of CBRN terrorism. Since telling the future is beyond the realm of our capacity, these factors are complex and multifaceted, but nonetheless should be taken into account when planning a policy vis-?-vis WMD terrorism. Among these are: The question of Iraq Currently, there are only two contingencies: * Iraq is attacked and Saddam Hussein’s regime is toppled. * The war is circumvented and Saddam remains in power. The corollaries to a strike on Iraq have and are being discussed extensively, in the form of Op-Ed pieces and articles in magazines, IR journals etc. The jury is still out on this and only time will pronounce which school of though was right. Generally speaking, these schools are divergent on the shape of the ripple effects of this fundamental change in the geopolitical power structure of the Middle East may have both in the Mideast and globally (e.g., the oil market; Arab and Muslim animosity towards the United States and the West; North Korea and its WMD, etc.). For example, toppling Saddam could increase the prospect of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida (but also potentially new ones—Arab and Muslim groups that seek to redeem a humiliated Muslim regime), working feverishly to acquire WMD and use them. On the other hand, Saddam’s departure from the stage could have just the opposite effects. The same concerns and projected scenarios for the future can also be applicable in case Saddam remains in power, (e.g., an enraged and vengeful Saddam deciding to provide CBRN means to proxy terror groups, versus a Saddam that “keeps to himself” and eschews from provocations.
This group’s decentralized structure – whereby independently operational cells around the world often mobilize and act on their own without Bin-Laden’s direct knowledge or direction – will prove very challenging for the US and other actors in the “war on terrorism”, both in intelligence collection and in proactive counter-terrorism preemptive and preventative operations. This campaign will undoubtedly prove to be a lengthy one, with an ever-going prospect of newer groups and sub-groups forming and disbanding ad hoc. In that context, it is safe to assume that al-Qaida and its offshoots and potential allies (e.g., Chechen elements), will continue to pursue the acquisition of CBRN capabilities. As previously explained, acquisition in this case will in all probability lead to use.
Both a major escalation and a breakthrough in the peace process vis-?-vis the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflicts could have potentially negative effect by increasing the threat level of terrorist attacks: Should the current situation escalate and the conflict become bloodier and wider in scope (for example, Hizballah attacks on Israel and possible Israeli reprisal in Lebanon and Syria; a wave of suicide-bomber attacks and subsequent Israeli clampdown and deeper presence in the Territories), it is quite plausible that terror groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizballah would put more emphasis on striking Israel and American targets abroad. That could include the use of CBRN means. As long as the capability of efficient dissemination is low the probability of a mass-destruction chemical or biological attack is not high, but since the motivation of nihilistic groups who enjoy financial assistance is high, the said level of threat will not remain stagnant. We argue that in the near to medium-range future, the probability of small-scale attacks of limited damage is the more likely type of CBRN terrorism, as larger conventional strikes on “soft targets” with many casualties continues to be the trademark of terrorists. Recommendations for mitigating threat The lessons learnt from the 1995 Tokyo sarin attacks were that a special force needed to be created and that on-scene decontamination was essential to prevent cross-contamination with responders and medical staff. Also, quick response and action is essential in mitigating the contamination and casualty-rate after an attack has occurred. In order to better prepare for the CBRN threat, at least some (if not all) of these suggestions should be considered: Enhancing Border Security Improve national inter-agency cooperation and information sharing (e.g., create a “Border Security” database for collection and sharing of all information on immigration and border control). * Improving and applying more stringent security procedures and standards. * Expand and revamp the Navy/Coast Guard capabilities and training. * Revamp air-defense and control capabilities. * Defining the role of the armed forces and other state security entities vis-?-vis border security measures. * Equip border patrol apparatuses with advanced detection and warning technologies for use in border points (e.g., Geiger-counters in border crossings for cars and trucks on land and ships in ports; thermal observation and detection hardware for border patrol units) and training for the users. Enhancing HAZMAT response and preparedness and Emergency Medical Rescue capabilities * Establishment and/or enlargement of rapid-deployment HAZMAT teams. * Develop models for health and medical responses on a variety of CBRN emergency scenarios. * Ongoing training and exercises in HAZMAT contamination scenarios (make them more realistic, robust and frequent). * Enhance detection capabilities of Biological and Chemical contaminants. * Increase awareness/education on the symptoms of Biological agents for doctors, so as to improve fast detection and diagnosis abilities. * Specialized training for medical and other public health professionals. * Increased regular training for paramedics etc. (enlarging the available manpower as well). * Conduct public education programs (in schools, mass media etc.). * Increase stockpiles of available vaccines, antibiotics and pharmaceutical means. * Engage the pharmaceutical and private sector in education and prevention. Other * Evaluate the CBRN awareness and abilities within national intelligence and law-enforcement community, with the necessary steps to be decided upon and implemented. * Identify “loopholes” where state-entity responsibility is ambiguous and address it. * Increased security and control on labs, plants, hospitals, universities etc. that use radioactive and other hazardous materials. * Increase security and periodical checks on chemical plants refineries etc.