Assessing the Terrorist Threat: It’s deju vu, all over again

In July 2000, Dr. Ruth David and I hosted a homeland security conference at Wye River. Three senior FBI officials repeatedly told us to stop worrying about large-scale terrorists attacks on the US homeland. They told us terrorism is about individuals blowing up abortion clinics or mailing pipe bombs. I hadn’t thought about this story in several years, but on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, while reading a new report on terrorism, that story came back to mind.

On September 10th, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG) released a new report, Assessing the Terrorist Threat. Peter Bergen and Dr. Bruce Hoffman, two world-class experts on the political, economic, social, and psychological aspects of terrorism were the principal authors of the report. The study was sponsored by NSPG co-chairs Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean who formerly served as the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission.

While I agree with many aspects of Bergen and Hoffman’s assessment, I must confess some disappointment in their analysis of the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It did bring to mind Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Not only did they place chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons into a single category of destructive capacity, they also failed to distinguish the differences in technical competence required to design, build, and utilize such weapons. Unfortunately, these misconceptions are not uncommon inside the Beltway.

It is a bit ironic that just an hour before that report was released at the National Press Club, I was giving a speech a few blocks away about why senior leaders fail to understand the key issues associated with bioterrorism. These same concerns with the WMD issues in the report emerged by the time I finished reading the first three sentences of the Executive Summary.

“Al-Qaeda and allied groups continue to pose a threat to the United States. Although it is less severe than the catastrophic proportions of a 9/11-like attack, the threat today is more complex and more diverse than at any time over the past nine years. Al-Qaeda or its allies continue to have the capacity to kill dozens, or even hundreds, of Americans in a single attack.” (emphasis added)

While the attacks on 9/11 were tragic, the numbers of deaths did not reach the level of catastrophic, unless one would also classify the number of people who die from food poisoning in America each year (5,000) as catastrophic. And if we did determine nearly 3,000 deaths to be at the catastrophic level, how would we define the annual deaths from influenza (40,000) or medical mistakes (98,000)?

According to this report, “the capacity to kill dozens, or even hundreds” now limits 21st century terrorism threats to the organizational and technical competence of Timothy McVeigh and the attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I agree that the majority of threats we are likely to experience in the coming decade will be limited to this level of organizational and technical competence, but that is not the next 9/11 I worry about.

My primary concern with the report is not so much the fact that Bergen and Hoffman dismiss the threat of attacks with WMDs, it is the manner in which they addressed the issue.

Bergen and Hoffman included nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological in their description of WMDs. Virtually no analysis in the past decade has included radiological dispersal devices (RDDs) in any description of a WMD. An RDD or “dirty bomb” is an area denial weapon that could cause significant economic, psychological, sociological, and political disruptions. The threat to human life would be limited to the explosive device, perhaps on the scale of the Timothy McVeigh bomb—most certainly not capable of producing the catastrophic loss of life associated with a WMD.

Furthermore, most analyses of weapons of mass destruction in the past quarter century have excluded chemical weapons. While a nation-state’s use of extremely large quantities of chemical weapons could be viewed as a WMD, they are rarely, if ever, included as a WMD in the hands of terrorists. Chemical weapons, or more likely industrial chemicals released with the use of an explosive device such as a truck bomb, could cause hundreds or a few thousand deaths in an American city, but they are no way in the same category of nuclear or a sophisticated biological weapon.

One reason that many limit nuclear and biological weapons as the only two possible WMDs for terrorists is the fact a nuclear or biological weapon capable of killing a hundred thousand could be delivered to a city in a minivan. The first large-scale chemical attack in World War I—and one that could perhaps be described on the scale of a WMD—consisted of 160 tons of chlorine gas.

Therefore, the two weapons that are most commonly referred to as WMDs, except in this report, are nuclear and biological. This fact has not changed much since the 1993 report on weapons of mass destruction by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment up to and including the 2008 report released by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

I do agree with the assessment of Bergen and Hoffman that the current Al Qaeda structure, and for that matter, even the previous al Qaeda structure, make the use of an improvised nuclear device (IND) a very low probability, albeit, high consequence event. No terrorist organization is capable of producing plutonium or enriching uranium. They can only buy it or steal it. Even if a terrorist organization obtains a sufficient quantity of plutonium, it is not likely they could fashion an implosion device. On the other hand, a sophisticated terrorist organization that acquired a one-gallon milk jug sized quantity of highly enriched uranium could construct an IND.

Some nuclear weapons experts claim that there would still be high probability of a “fizzle” from one of these crude INDs. Even a nation-state, such as North Korea has had some experience with this phenomenon. However, one should note that a IND designed to provide a 8-10 kt explosion (two-thirds the size of the Hiroshima bomb) that fizzled due to poor design, and only provided a 1 kt yield, would be the equivalent of 400 of the bombs Timothy McVeigh parked in front of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. In other words, a crude terrorist-built IND that fizzled would still be a weapon of mass destruction.

While the terrorist’s use of sophisticated biological weapons on American cities is also in the category of low probability/high consequence, the probability of such an occurrence is far greater than that of the IND. This is my main critique of the Bergen and Hoffman threat assessment. The fact that they lump chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear into the same single category, suggests that they fail to recognize the extreme differences in lethal capacities of these four very different weapons, and of the capabilities of a small group of terrorists, even homegrown terrorists, with no links to a powerful, or once powerful, central al Qaeda organization.

Perhaps Hoffman and Bergen did not receive any of the briefings the WMD Commission received about numerous tests that have been repeatedly undertaken demonstrating what is possible with modern technology by a small team of individuals–only one of whom had a graduate-level education in microbiology.

When I first began studying bio warfare in 1994, my sole focus was on nation-states. The technology at that time required nation-state capabilities and a significant investment in infrastructure to develop and deploy a sophisticated biological weapon. However, in less than a decade, the revolution in biotechnology was beginning to change the threat picture. This was identified in a June 2001 Defense Science Board Report:

“…major impediments to the development of biological weapons – strain availability, weaponization technology, and delivery technology – have been largely eliminated in the last decade by the rapid global spread of biotechnology.”

Those outside the field of biology do not understand the enormous changes that are taking place. Most people have a reasonable understanding of the rate of change characterized by Moore’s Law in computers. What is not well understood is that the rate of change in the field of biotechnology is far greater. For those who missed it, polio virus was created in a test tube in 2003 by linking together pieces of DNA—non-living material. Polio is a simple virus consisting of 1,700 DNA base pairs. To demonstrate the pace of change in biotechnology, a few months ago the J. Craig Venter Institute announced a major leap forward in this technology when they produced a self-replicating organism consisting of more than one million base pairs and which “had a computer as a parent.”

(Note: for those in the biosecurity community, this is the point where reporters usually quote Milt Lietenberg saying, “I am not worried about people living in caves making sophisticated biological weapons.” For the record, neither am I. Mr. Lietenberg hasn’t worked in a laboratory since the 1960s. Much has changed since then, even though Mr. Lietenberg tends to deny it.)

What I am worried about is a small group of graduate or post-graduate trained microbiologists using off-the-shelf technology to produce a sophisticated biological weapon. Richard Danzig, former Secretary of the Navy and one of America’s top biodefense strategists, has estimated that there are more than a million such individuals capable of producing a true biological weapon of mass destruction—a weapon that could be delivered to a city in a briefcase.

That is what is missing from the NSPG report. Perhaps that is what why Dr. Hoffman hedged his bet just a bit in his interview with the Global Security Newswire.

“By any objective criteria a WMD attack … a true, mass casualty attack of catastrophic proportions, is less likely today than it might have been some years ago,” Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism specialist and co-author of the 42-page document, told Global Security Newswire today after a press conference unveiling the report.

“At the same time, on Sept. 10, 2001, I would have told you that a massive attack on lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol building is also unlikely,” he added.

Randall Larsen
September 11. 2010

About biosecureblog

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) -CEO, WMD Center -former Executive Director, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -former chairman, Department of Military Strategy and Operations, National War College
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