There’s a popular meme going around the defense and homeland security communities these days.
It’s been popular to note that the growth of the global economy – being able to buy almost anything from anywhere in the world – combined with the spread of science and technology to common laypersons has resulted in an increased threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction(WMD). There hasn’t been any specific terrorist group that has demonstrated this to be true, but people worry. In a time when the number of nations researching nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is (at worst) remaining steady and in some cases, going down, the Very Serious People insist that this is no time to let up one’s guard.
This is not a new argument.
Scientists and engineers who work in the nuclear technologies field, along with arms control advocates and some defense analysts, have been predicting that terrorists could build their own nuclear weapon since at least the 1970s.
Once the general public understood the basics of how certain uranium and plutonium isotopes acted when a critical mass was created, certainly any aspiring, bright engineer could explain how to build a nuclear bomb. Well, there was that one critical issue about actually obtaining the fissile material required for the bomb, but that’s just a detail, right? Or those terrorists would steal a bomb from a poorly guarded government facility, just like in any one of dozens of Hollywood movies, television dramas, or best-selling fiction novels.
William Broad of the New York Times has highlighted this fear in a recent article that addressed advances in laser technology that enables a new process by which one enriches uranium for the purposes of creating nuclear fuel for reactors.
But wait! If General Electrics, a multi-billion dollar corporation that has invested years of research into this field, can create a production plant that uses lasers to quickly enrich uranium, isn’t it likely that terrorists will soon be buying lasers and developing fissile-grade uranium in their garages?
“We’re on the verge of a new route to the bomb,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who advised President Bill Clinton and now teaches at Princeton. “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.”
And of course, this kind of doomsday mentality is not limited to nuclear technology.
Those watching the biotechnology revolution are as equally depressed about the possibility that terrorists could use advances in life sciences to turn benign organisms into pandemic disease outbreaks.
Yes, non-state actors could develop genetically-altered diseases that will target their enemies, and but spare the faithful. Surely the SARS epidemic, spread of HIV, and H1N1 attacks have shown everyone how vulnerable we are to the dangers of biology. You might be surprised by how many hits you can get on Google with the terms “biotechnology and bioterrorism.” It’s a popular title. This report’s authors warn: “Even as legitimate biomedical researchers develop defences against biological pathogens, bad actors could in turn engineer countermeasures in a kind of directed version of the way natural pathogens evolve resistance to anti-microbial drugs.”
And even the chemical industry isn’t safe anymore, despite decades of regulation and oversight.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), responsible for overseeing the elimination of chemical weapons owned by a handful of nations, is concerned that it’s not going to have a job after 2017. But wait!
The growth of the chemical industry, spurred by the economic growth of developing nations, creates the possibility that chemicals used as precursors for chemical warfare agents may be available to non-state actors. New discoveries in science and technological equipment allow scientists to continue to blur the difference between biology and chemistry.
The State Department has this to say in its latest annual terrorism report:
“Today’s chemical terrorism threat ranges from the potential acquisition and dissemination of chemical warfare agents with military delivery systems to the production and use of toxic industrial chemicals or improvised dissemination systems for chemical agents,” the report says. “The growth and sophistication of the worldwide chemical industry, including the development of complex synthetic and dual-use materials, makes the task of preventing and protecting against this threat more difficult.”
Ironically, of the nearly 50,000 victims of terrorism in 2010 (cited in the State Department report), not one was caused by CBRN hazards. That’s not to say that terrorist organizations today are not influenced by the spread of technology or the global economy.
It’s just not happening in the way that these experts think it is.
Take a look at the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.
— In addition to city maps and CD images of their targets, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had detailed layouts of the Taj Hotel’s interior.
— They used inflatable rubber boats to get from a fishing trawler to the city.
— Their armaments included AK-56 automatic rifles – Chinese versions of the popular Russian AK-47 – as well as 9-mm pistols, hand grenades, and improvised explosive devices.
— They carried cell phones and Blackberries to communicate through the attack.
— Their group could have obtained night vision goggles, GPS gear, and Kevlar vests.
This is the terrorist profile for the future.
While many people are more than willing to darkly warn about the threat of WMD becoming more real because of the global economy and spread of technology, in fact, the terrorists are much more practical than to chase materials that are too exotic to develop and too dangerous to safely handle. They innovate, they adapt, using currently available commercial equipment and weapons to overcome state and local law enforcement officials. So although the fashionable thing today is to talk about how to monitor and track CBRN hazards on the global economy (that’s impossible) or use strict government measures, similar to those exercised for arms control, to limit the spread of information (good luck with that), we’re wasting time and energy as the most likely threat – terrorists armed with conventional weapons and modern technology – continues to grow.
This is not to say that we should ignore the threat of CBRN hazards.
But we ought to recognize by now that terrorists cannot develop a true WMD capability and will seek out the more easily available CBR materials – gases such as hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, chlorine; ricin toxin and botulinum toxin; cesium and colbalt isotopes. We need our state and local emergency responders to understand the threat when it does pop up, understanding that not all biological attacks will be anthrax, not all chemical attacks will be sarin nerve agent, and not all radiological attacks will be 10-kt nuclear devices.
The CBRN threat is manageable, today and in the future, as long as we use common sense.