Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 22, 2011

The End of Al Qaeda’s WMD Threat

Filed under: WMD — by Alan Wolfe on August 22, 2011

After the 9/11 incident, nearly ten years ago, there was a great deal of concern about the possibility that transnational terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, would seek out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to use in its next big attack. There was no real evidence of that capability other than a video tape of a confined dog being killed by an unknown chemical (probably hydrogen cyanide) and documents obtained in Afghanistan that purported to show al Qaeda interest in anthrax. The evidence underlying much of the threat seemed to start with Osama bin Laden’s famous proclamation in 1998 that using WMD was his Islamic duty and the accepted hypothesis that all terrorists want to maximize the number of deaths they can cause.

Despite attempts to link al Qaeda’s intent to obtain a WMD with any real capability, the much feared terrorist nuclear attacks against US cities never occurred.

Despite plans to build a gas-dispersal system called “the mubtakkar” that generated hydrogen cyanide, it never happened.

Despite efforts to develop anthrax as a weapon against the West, it seems that making anthrax and botulinum toxin isn’t as easy as many “WMD terrorism experts” claimed.

Despite a decade of continued terrorist incidents against the West, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties every year, we have yet to see a mass casualty incident caused by a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon.

That hasn’t stopped journalists from breathlessly reporting the possibility of a future attack, no matter how beaten down al Qaeda is today.

On August 13th, New York Times journalists Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reported on the concern by unnamed American counterterrorism officials that al Qaeda’s affiliate branch in Yemen may be attempting to purchase large quantities of castor beans for the purpose of making ricin. These terrorists plan to pack ricin cakes around small amounts of explosive, with the intent of exploding these devices in public places.  This concern was raised to President Obama and his top national security aides sometime in the last year, so they say.

And here’s the ironic part – anyone with any basic understanding of ricin and biology would know that this form of attack would utterly fail to kill any significant number of people (excepting those standing right next to the explosive, perhaps). That obvious point didn’t stop this “news” from being repeated in many major news stations and newspapers.

In late July, Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, spoke at a conference in Aspen, Colorado.  He said that al Qaeda was likely to switch to small scale attacks, but might continue to seek out chemical and biological hazards such as ricin.

“Is it going to kill many people? No. Is it going to scare people? Yes,” he said.

And unfortunately, he’s right – people will be frightened because the media will trumpet that terrorists used a “WMD” to cause casualties. But the incident, if it ever happens, won’t be that significant. Only the FBI believes that small quantities of chemical and biological hazards are “WMD.”

George Smith, a national security journalist who runs the blog “Dick Destiny,” has followed the irrational fears concerning the potential use of ricin as a terrorist weapon. In one of his latest posts, he addresses many of the challenges in developing and successfully employing a “ricin bomb.”

A long long time ago the US military tried. And the only result was an infamous patent for the purfication of ricin. Since the work was done long before scientists understood protein chemistry (full disclosure: DD’s Ph.D. is in protein chemistry) reading it leads a current scientist fluent in the field to realize it actually destroyed ricin. (A longer discussion of the patent, which stemmed from a very old US military project to develop a ricin weapon, is here. Most, if not all, of the people involved in it are probably dead of old age by now.)

Ricin is a protein. And proteins don’t like lots of things — like heat, harsh handling, many solvents, being taken out of their natural environment, and … well I won’t go into the rest right here.

And the old US ricin patent used all the things that are hard on proteins. Which perhaps has something to do with why ricin bombs have never been made.

George Smith also accurately notes the challenge in talking to counterterrorism officials (or law enforcement) who know nothing about advanced chemistry or biology. They don’t understand that it is not, in fact, easy to develop ricin in quantities to cause mass casualties. It does not, in fact, absorb through the skin, and it’s very hard to aerosolize ricin (if you’re trying to get people to ingest ricin).

If you want to assassinate someone with ricin, sure, it’s been done at least once in history, but you have to inject the ricin into the victim’s blood stream to be effective. You’d think that the utter lack of success by any disgruntled individual or prospective terrorist to use ricin might have tipped off the general terrorist community by now.

But they shouldn’t feel bad. We still have the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security touting their “homeland security scenarios” that feature terrorists using nerve agents, mustard agent, pneumonic plague, aerosolized anthrax, and nuclear bombs to cause mass casualties. You know, all the really dangerous weapons that they can’t seem to obtain.

The utter absence of any intelligence or evidence to point to any attempts of any terrorist group in the world developing this capability has never stopped our bureaucracies from planning for the worst case scenario. It wouldn’t be such a problem if our government wasn’t spending billions of dollars on countermeasures for threats we will never see in our lifetime. It’s not like we have any financial challenges today.

I, personally, am encouraged by the New York Times article. I hope that this al Qaeda affiliate buys tons of castor beans. The financial records for this purchase ought to be a good lead for counterterrorism officials to track them down. And every dollar they use to buy castor beans means one less dollar for improvised explosive devices and RPGs.

We need to encourage more acts of social Darwinism like this.



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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 22, 2011 @ 12:56 am

Terrific post! And since WMD was a MAJOR justification for DHS perhaps we shall see this position reflected in the forthcoming GAO analysis of DHS assignments and efforts on September 10th.

Comment by TwShiloh

August 22, 2011 @ 7:51 am

Great stuff….

Of course, you missed the part where al-Qaida was going to develop a mosquitoe-borne ricin delivery system. I hear insect training camps are being set up in Yemen as we speak.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 22, 2011 @ 8:07 am

Did I mention that DHS and DOE have classified any report purporting to reveal WMD not a threat?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 22, 2011 @ 8:20 am

Agree with you regarding ricin, but you misinterpreted the Belfer paper to which you linked.

Mowatt-Larssen, who has access to all the intelligence and a team of analysts while in government, wrote that report to show AQ’s intent and serious effort, not make a case for definitive capability. So concern was based on more than a dog, a video, and an assumption…

Off fishing …

Comment by Alan Wolfe

August 22, 2011 @ 9:01 am

Mowatt-Larssen is an alarmist who is in fact making the case that AQ wants to obtain a definitive WMD capability, and as a result, he believes the government needs to overreact to the terrorists’ intent. He’s part of the problem, not the solution.

“The post – 9/11 successes against the Taliban in Afghanistan yielded volumes of information that completely changed our view of al-Qa’ida’s nuclear program. We learned that al-Qa’ida wants weapons to use, not a program to sustain and build a stockpile, as most states would. The nuclear threats that surfaced in June 2002 and continued through the fall of 2003 demonstrated that al-Qa’ida’s desire for a nuclear capability may have survived their removal from their Afghanistan safehaven.”

And again, I don’t propose that we completely disregard the possibility that AQ might get CBR hazards or that a “loose nuke” might appear. Rather, we need to take the threat in the context of all threats, and manage our resources and training accordingly. Hyperventilating over WMD threats that don’t exist doesn’t help us. Developing a capability for state/local emergency responders to recognize and respond to small, single events involving CBR material is both reasonable and achieveable.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 22, 2011 @ 11:08 am

I would use the URL posted below as a starting point and suggest a fundamental flaw in the WMD approach and the approach to other terrorist threats. It is clear that whatever the WMD threat is there is confusion and overlap. Other terrorist threats apparently have had more successful responses.

Go to: http://www.fas.or/spp/starwars/program/wmd_970131.html

Comment by thepoisongarden

August 23, 2011 @ 6:52 am

The one point where I disagree with George Smith is that I’m not sure you need to know ‘about advanced chemistry or biology’ to understand that ricin isn’t the threat it gets portrayed to be.

First of all, I’d assume the security services have access to people who do understand these subjects and can tell them. But, in any case, anyone with common sense can apply the ‘Jerry Maquire Test’. Just say ‘Show me the bodies’ and you realise there are very, very few.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were a deliberate disinformation campaign aimed at misdirecting the activities of potential terrorists but the USA is spending large sums funding the development of a vaccine against ricin.

Comment by Term Limits & The Enemy

August 23, 2011 @ 9:10 am

It takes courage to retain the Life as we know it here in America which is quickly eroding for a host of reasons which are primarily political ineptness among those from top down who pledged their servive to the public and have made it all about their election, their lust for power —

By this portrayal of partisan ways and the lack of courage in addressing the real issues affecting this beloved Republic – namely, spending and spending more than we have — We only depict a nation bankrupt not only in these trillions in debt, yes, trillions, however as importantly in our ineptness, our weakness, our vulnerability, our lack of patriotism hearing few radio stations playing the national anthem for instance —

We are lour worst enemies in promoting our image as the most charitable people on earth, willing to send our youth for at least a few generations to far distant shlore to assist those oppressed – yet, We are in Libya, however why not in Syria ? We marched through Iraq, hoowever thousands have been killed by their own governments by the “Brutes of Tehran” and the Syrian intelligence cold bloded murders — Hpw many years – 8 years in Iraq/Afghan, whta politics are being played out? The backroom discussions in Iran, in Pakistan down in the palace basement and all our ranting and raving…we only inspire those who truly seek our demise — Use the technology we have been so Blessed to use not only to pinpoint the enemy by drone attack, hoowever using the internet and showing just how much monies this government by and for the pelople have spent per nation since the end day WWII globally…We ned a public relations program as well as an elected body of representatives willing to show courage….

I have said it many times before and again, I reiterate it — term limits on every elected position from local, state and federal — this must be changed and creating these political long term political positions must cease —

Far too many special interest groups and far to0 much waste — We are our worst enemies and while we should never underestimate our enemies, it is truly time to recruit the best willing to serve their nation!

Christopher Tingus

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