International Experts Assess Non-conventional Terrorism Threat
Defense Daily; HERZLIYA, Israel--Experts from the U.S. and Israel met here last month to discuss the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) terrorism and ways to defend against an array of scenarios, with opinions ranging on the likelihood of different types of attacks.
"It still couldn't be easier to launch a terrorist attack in this fashion," Leonard Cole, a bio-terrorism expert from Rutgers University says about a biological weapon scenario similar to the anthrax event that paralyzed parts of the U.S. in 2001. As the U.S. then learned this lesson, so too did its potential adversaries, he adds.
Cole was a panelist on the subject at the annual conference on terrorism's global impact hosted by the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
Cole says biological threats are different compared to nuclear and chemical ones because such agents can reproduce and become more dangerous over time instead of dissipating.
He points to a Pentagon study earlier this year that says more than 10 countries have or are developing a biological warfare capability, including several on the list for supporting terror or, like Russia, that are countries "of special concern." This means there are stockpiles of agents including those in Category A that can be easily disseminated and cause high mortality, mass casualties and panic, he says.
Recent progress in biology is also cause for concern. Cole says that developments this decade including nano-drugs that affect gene expression, interfering RNA molecules and the synthesis of the Polio and Spanish Flu viruses are things that could be used to cure disease, or in the wrong hands, cause unexpected epidemics.
Pre-treatment against bio-terrorism is largely a guessing game, as there is often no cross-protection for various strains from specifically prepared vaccines.
While Category A agents might not be readily available to terrorists, others like anthrax are endemic in parts of the world, Israeli biological warfare expert Yehosua Gozes says.
"These are easy to get, and easy to prepare the spores for inhalation and easy to store for long periods of time," Gozes says. And substances such as anthrax are as powerful as they are cheap. "For about three dollars, one could prepare a weapon capable of causing 50 percent casualties over a square kilometer...compare that to the many thousands of dollars needed to prepare an equivalent conventional, chemical or nuclear weapon."
Biological attacks are usually detected when there is a sick person, and by then it is too late, Gozes says.
More than 30 cities in the U.S. have started using air samplers to collect and detect agents when swabbed or their filters are checked in a laboratory, Gozes says. Sensors capable of detecting agents in real time currently cost about $100,000, making them cost-prohibitive for the type of deployment needed to detect biological agents before an outbreak starts, which could be anywhere, he adds.
Where Deterrence Works
Still, the discussions on non-conventional terrorism were not all doom and gloom.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Israel's Bar Ilan University, says that state sponsorship when it comes to non-conventional terrorism, is not the problem many people think it is, and that in most cases deterrence can still work.
"Clearly, there is less room for misunderstanding when it comes to mass casualty situations, because countries will respond to those massively," Steinberg says. But with non-conventional weapons and their use by proxies, the likelihood of state sponsorship breaks down rapidly because states know the weapons will be tracked back to them, he adds.
Leaving the earlier stated concerns with biological weapons aside, Steinberg says that chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists were nowhere near a problem on the scale of other types of WMD, and terrorists stealing a nuclear weapon or gathering enough material to make one are very low probability events. Limited resources could be better spent guarding against greater threats, he adds.
And while a state passing such WMD to terrorists is ultimately the same as the state being undeterred from carrying out the attack itself, which is unlikely, Steinberg argued that even non-state actors could still be deterred. "For most groups...perhaps excluding independent radical fringe elements, the core issues and interests are still there...and the process works the same." Finding those interests and refining and managing deterrence options with respect to terrorist organizations is something that should definitely become more of a priority, Steinberg adds.
Peter Probst, director of programs at the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, agrees that the almost certain backtracking of most WMD material should lessen the concern about rogue states and their support of non-conventional terrorism.
Probst also says that the chances of most NBC attacks people envision when they think of terrorists perpetrating a WMD incident are low and "still like the perfect storm."
Rather, attention should be fixed on what he called "weapons in place" that could be used as improvised WMD in ways that are low tech and very high impact. Terrorists are looking for ways to exploit dual use materials and facilities in ways most people "have barely imagined...it's all over the web sites" of terrorists and jihadis, he says.
Probst says a lot of energy is spent worrying about terrorists developing elaborate chemical weapons or using cargo containers to sneak material into the U.S. "Why would they bother? They have the 9/11 model."
The real focus should be on nuclear sites in the U.S. including spent fuel pools (potential super dirty bombs) and other "dirty little secrets" such as water supplies and urban rail bridges over which roll tanks filled with chlorine and other deadly chemicals every day, Probst adds. "These are the things that could begin a catastrophic chain of events...that is rarely examined as we tend to look only at the immediate effects."