Where are the Terrorist WMD Attacks?
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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
President Obama has declared that terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) remain the greatest threat to the United States. According to a Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center white paper, President Obama stated, “If an organization like al-Qaeda got a weapon of mass destruction in its hands…just a few individuals could potentially kill tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands.”
The Department of State reported, “The nexus of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism poses one of the gravest potential risks to the national security of the United States and its global partners.” Furthermore, it claims “The U.S. Government places the highest priority…to meet the global challenge of WMD terrorism.”
President George W. Bush stated in a 2004 National Defense University speech: “The greatest threat before humanity today is the possibility of a secret and sudden attack with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.”
Terrorism Experts Say that Terrorist Interest in Weapons of Mass Destruction Is Growing
What do the experts on terrorism believe? The Central Intelligence Agency has said for years that terrorist interest in WMD weapons is growing. When former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked by the media what kept him up at night, Gates replied, “It’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.”
Dr. Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert and Boston University research professor, wrote that WMD “seem to be ideal for terrorists, who seek to inspire fear in a targeted audience.”
Why Has There Been No WMD Attack by Terrorists?
It has been over 15 years since such assessments about the use of WMD by terrorists began to be publicized. There still has been no major WMD attack by any terrorist group in the United States.
Interestingly, there is no internationally agreed definition of either terrorism or WMD.
The U.S. Code and the FBI define terrorism as the “unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
WMD is a term adopted from the former Soviet Union. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines WMD as “any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals; disease organisms; radiation or radioactivity; or explosion or fire.”
With chemical, biological and radioactive agents, their presence in any attack is not easily detected, making it difficult to determine when and where they were originally deployed.
The main issue with defining WMD is what determines “mass destruction?” Is it the number of people affected? The amount of damage to property caused? This aspect of WMD is highly subjective. In any case, perhaps WMD is not even relevant regarding terrorist goals.
Terrorist Groups More Focused on Publicity and Recruitment, Not Weapons
There are numerous terrorist groups recognized by the U.S. Department of State. These groups include al-Qaeda, ISIS, HAMAS, Hezbollah, Abu Nidal, Abu Sayyaf, Aum Shinrikyo, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the al-Nusrah Front.
These terrorist groups conduct attacks for two purposes: to gain publicity that demonstrates the ineffectiveness and illegitimacy of the ruling government and to recruit new members. The most effective terrorist attacks ever were conducted by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, against the U.S. Terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
These attacks provided weeks of primetime coverage on all the world’s major networks, showing the damage and destruction caused by the hijacked airliners. They killed over 3,000 people (including Muslims) and caused over $244 billion of damage. Each target was selectively chosen for its symbolic value.
Terrorists put on a big show for television audiences to instill as much fear, horror and panic as possible. Certainly, bombs, explosives and even airliners are effective in creating days, weeks or months of effective news coverage that helps terrorists accomplish their goal of widespread publicity.
After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, no major terrorist attacks with a widespread amount of property damage and human casualties have occurred in the U.S. There have been more than a dozen attacks in America since 2001, but they involved the killing of less than 50 people and relatively little damage.
The biggest terrorist attack over the past 15 years was on June 21, 2016. An American-born man living in Florida named Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS. Then, early on a Sunday morning he shot and killed 49 people and wounded another 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
The most recent terrorist attack occurred on September 19, 2016, when Ahmad Rahami set off a pipe bomb in Seaside, NJ, which did not injure anyone, and a pressure cooker bomb in Chelsea, NY, which injured 29 people.
This attack and the other dozen or so made a relatively minor impact on the American and world TV audience. The Boston Marathon attack probably had the longest coverage, but that coverage was much shorter than the 9/11 attacks. Fewer people were killed and injured and there was less property damage.
None of these terrorist attacks achieved the goal of terrorist organizations. They were “lone wolf” attacks that were not coordinated and financed by an overseas terrorist group.
Terrorists Unlikely to Use WMD Due to Risks
Out of these 13 domestic terrorist attacks over the past 15 years, none involved a weapon of mass destruction. Using WMD weapons is risky for terrorists because the weapons cannot be tested in advance. Also, the resulting effects are unknown.
So how effective would a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon be in comparison to shootings and bombings?
Chemical weapons, for example, require either toxic industrial chemicals or nerve agents. Both are vulnerable to temperature, wind, sunlight and moisture. They would need to be used indoors to optimize effectiveness, limiting their ability to affect a large population and attract publicity.
Weaponizing chemicals is also a problem. While acquiring chemicals is relatively easy for terrorists, weaponizing them requires an advanced laboratory with people who have expertise in chemistry. And once a chemical weapon has been detonated, depending on whether the weapon is persistent or non-persistent, it could be 10 minutes to weeks before the effects are evident.
The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo launched a classic terrorist chemical attack in the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. Members of this terrorist group released sarin gas and anthrax spores on several trains, killing only 13 people – not thousands — as they planned. This terrorist group had the scientists and the laboratory to develop effective chemical weapons, yet still failed to achieve the terror it hoped to cause.
Biological Weapon Use
With biological weapons, the agents required to manufacture a weapon can be obtained or grown with relative ease. However, the biggest challenge regarding this type of weapon is its ability to be spread and infect as many people as possible.
Even if a terrorist group produced a biological weapon in a high-tech laboratory (to which terrorist groups are unlikely to have access), the challenges to accomplish a mass infection are significant.
Each biological weapon would have obstacles facing its transmission to a large group. Diseases have different characteristics. For example, anthrax is not contagious from person to person, unlike smallpox, which is highly contagious through the air.
Diseases usually have an incubation period of 12-14 days before their symptoms manifest themselves. There would be a long time span until medical experts determined that a biological terrorist attack took place. There would be an additional delay before the perpetrators of the attack were identified and caught.
The difficulty of developing biological weapons, the lack of immediate publicity from the news media and the issue of no credit for their attacks makes the option of a biological weapon tenuous at best.
Nuclear Weapon Use
Nuclear weapons have both traditional and non-traditional versions. Manufacturing a traditional nuclear weapon requires a lot of expertise, high-tech facilities, scientists and resources.
No one believes any terrorist group today could actually develop its own nuclear weapon. The far bigger concern is that a terrorist group could acquire nuclear weapons by either stealing or buying them.
However, significant problems still exist with using a traditional nuclear bomb for an attack. Nuclear bombs weigh several tons, making them difficult to store and transport. Nuclear bombs also have significant safeguards and self-destruction mechanisms built into them, so actually detonating a nuclear bomb would be a problem.
Non-traditional nuclear bombs, such the radiological weapon commonly known as the “dirty bomb,” are much easier to acquire and deploy. Radiological material is available in most societies today, if one knows where to look.
For instance, hospitals usually have some amount of radioactive cesium. If a terrorist group clandestinely acquired the right amount of cesium, it could detonate a conventional bomb to spread radioactive cesium throughout a given area, contaminating it with radiation for decades.
The level of radiation, however, would not be sufficient enough to kill most people, but it would cause exposed people to have radiation sickness. However, once any bomb goes off somewhere, few people think about radiation until people are diagnosed with radiation poisoning.
Because the intent of a terrorist attack is to create fear and panic via news sources, none of these types of WMD weapons are really suitable for terrorist use. The damage and loss of life they cause is minimal compared to conventional explosives.
Conventional Bombs Have More Advantages for Terrorists
Bombs, however, have more value to terrorists than other weapons of mass destruction. They are relatively cheap and easy to construct. They are low technology compared to other types of WMD. And they offer a variety of detonating options to suit the target.
The CIA reports that it is likely that terrorist organizations will continue to use conventional explosives over WMD. Dr. Gavin Cameron, a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, stated that while “the threat posed by chemical and biological agents cannot be wholly dismissed, the more immediate terrorist danger to the United States continues to come from the use of conventional weapons.”
Terrorist Use of WMD Remains Unlikely in Future
The United States has done a lot to deal with the threat of terrorists using non-conventional WMD over the past 15 years. Some of this effort may have thwarted or even deterred potential terrorist attacks using these weapons.
However, given the technical challenges, the required expertise, the immense manufacturing and deployment costs and the low opportunity for media exposure, the primary reason we have not seen the use of these weapons over the past decade is that terrorist groups have decided to forego using them in favor of more newsworthy conventional explosive weapons.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.