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.