Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 30, 2011

Increases in High Tech Aren’t Creating More WMDs

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on August 30, 2011

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.


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Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 30, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

Interesting post but lacking in nuance, you seem to be mixing/confusing two separate issues: proliferation and terrorism, as well as ignoring the inherent differences/goals for particular terrorist groups.

What is your case that technological advances do not aid proliferation? What about the AQ Khan network? Plans for enrichment technology (and the bomb itself) can be traded as easily as the precise machined parts now able to be produced in non-nuclear nations.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age the bomb required difficult to acquire domestic mastership of specific technologies (U.S.), usually combined with some help (U.S. to UK, USSR stealing U.S. information, USSR providing China with essentials, France helping Israel, etc.). Pakistan presented a new case, while receiving some help from China they also procured vital parts from the international market place. Khan took this to a new level by providing a basic turnkey enrichment capability to those who would pay-the parts produced in non-nuclear states.

So the advance of technology (in this case the spread of precise machine production) and trade (the ability to transfer these good through any number of ports to avoid export controls) did amount to an increase in WMDs.

While in the biological arena we haven’t yet seen a similar case come to fruition, those with actual laboratory experience don’t seem to doubt the conclusions you deride.

There hasn’t been a nuclear terrorist attempt, though it is well documented that Al Qaeda has searched for the materials. There has been biological attacks, though you are quick to dismiss the most serious as an insider case. And while the Japanese Sarin attack could have been more effectively carried out, the fact remains it occurred.

A true nuclear or bio attack at the level of concern has not happened. That is true. Yet you have not provided any argument to support your assertion that “we ought to recognize by now that terrorists cannot develop a true WMD capability.” Instead you offer the evidence that since it hasn’t happened it cannot. Not so convincing…

In addition, you fail to take into account the different nature/goals of terrorist groups. While holding up the Mumbai attacks as a harbinger of future operations (as have many since they occurred, but another similar attack has yet to occur…) you don’t take into consideration that the group believed to be behind the attack is at least somewhat influenced by Pakistani intelligence. There are many arguments as to why they take certain actions while refraining from aiming to cross unmentioned red lines.

P.S. My recollection is that the term “Very Serious People” was coined to mock those who unconditionally supported the invasion of Iraq. I’m not so sure why anyone should consider the arguments of someone proud not to be serious about a topic such as terrorism…

Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 30, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

And while he certainly does not need me to defend him, Broad only mentioned the word “terrorism” once in his New York Times article as an aside. The quote you pulled out referenced proliferation among states and not terrorism–so it has nothing to with your “doomsday” framework. Almost that entire piece was about the concern of arms control veterans about the impact of a new enrichment technology that could make it harder to identify clandestine STATE programs.

The reporter of an article has no control over the headline…

Comment by Alan Wolfe

August 31, 2011 @ 6:47 am

Arnold, you seem to think that I’m deliberately baiting you and I assure you that is not the case. When I use the term “Very Serious People,” I am referring to those pundits/politicians who like to wax elequantly about the impending doom but who do not offer any realistic way to deal with the issue. See, I call those who unconditionally supported the invasion of Iraq “chickenhawks” and “idealistic fools,” I don’t even grant them the title of “Very Serious People.” There is a disease within the Beltway, though, where people get paid to spout off without doing any real analysis or offering any solutions. Maybe you just haven’t bumped into them.

I do take exception to your criticism that I am “mixing” two different issues of proliferation and terrorism. Far from it. That’s been the case to date of the Very Serious People. Take a look at Graham Allison or Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, or even any State Dept arms control official (especially this administration). They ROUTINELY connect the challenges of proliferation and WMD terrorism. I don’t agree with that, but you’d be a fool to not have noticed this language.

Instead, you choose to deliberately ignore the challenges of a sub-state group trying to achieve technological capabilities and production capabilities generally reserved to nation-states that can leverage considerable resources, dedicate facilities to technology development, and recruit the best scientists. I have no doubt that nation-states can, in time, develop WMD capabilities. However, if you take any lesson from Iran and N. Korea, it’s that this is not an insignificant burden. With AQ Khan, you should recognize that even he had standards, and that he was not dealing with terrorists. Read the Danzig study again and ask yourself why Aum Shinrikyo couldn’t develop BW agents or nuclear weapons.

You say that I don’t do a good enough job profiling the different terrorist groups and their motivations. Again, I suggest to you that this is actually the problem of the Very Serious People who use general terms to suggest any terrorist group in the world is capable of brewing up military-style chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. They don’t say, oh, hey, we’re just worried about religiously-driven, apocalyptic cults like Aum and al Qaeda. No, we get to hear the “doom and gloom” message that the threat is imminent, “within the next five years” (a statement that is repeated every five years, after nothing happens).

I base my observations on the facts (see NCTC reports on annual terrorism trends) and intelligence assessments. When the facts change, so will my opinion.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

August 31, 2011 @ 6:50 am

PS spare me your defense of William Broad, the willing collaborator to Judy “WMDs in Iraq” Miller in writing the book “GERMS.” He knew what he was doing. Or did you miss this sentence?

“But critics fear that if the work succeeds and the secret gets out, rogue states and terrorists could make bomb fuel in much smaller plants that are difficult to detect.”

Comment by Alan Wolfe

August 31, 2011 @ 7:40 am

And FWIW, this is a blog post, not a dissertation, not a thesis, not a book. I can’t give you the in-depth analysis you seek behind my statements, but others have laid the groundwork. Consider this pre-9/11 assessment, which is still valid today.


“The discussion of this subject in the United States, beginning around 1996 following the disclosure of the 1990 to 1994 efforts by the Japanese Aum group to produce BW agents, and its use of the chemical agent Sarin in 1995, has been characterized by gross exaggeration, hype, misinformation, and, at times, even simple ignorance. It was overwhelmingly dominated by two clichés which were repeated ad infinitum: “It is not a matter of whether, just when,” and “The nation will face within five years….” Five years have in fact now passed. Brian Jenkins (whose consulting group apparently staffed the July 2000 Report of the National Commission on Terrorism) characterized the discussion that ensued as “fact free analysis,” and that in the absence of a validated threat, anxieties had been converted into conclusions. At a conference held by the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute on April 29-30, 1999 (the first of two two-day meetings under the rubric of “Bioterrorism in the United States: Calibrating the Threat”), Jenkins pointed out that when terrorist acts which could be relatively easily achieved, such as aircraft hijackings or product tamperings first appeared as means used by terrorists, the rate of these events increased sharply year by year within five years. But the Aum experience has so far proved to be a single data point, and not the beginning of a trend.

Instead, what we have seen are many hundreds of hoaxes. Hoaxes are not BW, they are not “anthrax,” and they are not “BW events.” Nor are they terrorist consideration of the use of BW (or as phrased in the Defense Science Board Summer Study of 1997, demonstrations of “…the breadth of weaponry available” to terrorist groups), and they should not be counted in statistical compendia as such. A hoax is a hoax, and nothing else.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 1, 2011 @ 3:17 am

So perhaps WMD defined as Weapons of Mass Disruption might identify certain technologies that are capable of inflicting great pain on any modern technologically based society–telecommunications for example? Weather control?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 2, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

Another WMD is Mad Cow disease! Prions everywhere. No comprehensive USA testing.

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Comment by Alan Wolfe

September 5, 2011 @ 8:13 am

Brian Jenkins speaks, you listen.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, a CIA source called Dragonfire reported that al-Qaeda terrorists had smuggled a nuclear weapon into New York. The source turned out to be wrong, but in the shadow of 9/11, al-Qaeda’s nuclear capabilities became an obsession. Despite North Korea’s demonstrated possession of nuclear weapons and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, in 2008, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden identified al-Qaeda as the agency’s “number one nuclear concern.”

Yet, while everyone agrees that al-Qaeda’s leaders have nuclear aspirations, there is zero evidence that the organization has ever had any nuclear capabilities. Fear has made al-Qaeda the world’s top terrorist nuclear power, yet it possesses not a single nuke. This is a lesson in how terrorism works.

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