TCS Daily

Toxic Terror Tick Tock

By Joe Katzman - March 28, 2003 12:00 AM

"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.... The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
- President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, Jan. 29, 2002

George Bush's post-9/11 State of the Union Address set out the basic rationale for America's current war, in which Iraq is simply one campaign. Concern over the nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has been an ongoing theme of American foreign policy and diplomacy. As war rages in Iraq, however, the question is whether Saddam-supported terrorists can target western countries right now with the same weapons Saddam has been building and stockpiling.

Ties to Terror

A recent wave of arrests in Europe suggests they've already tried. Islamist terrorists have been discovered in Britain, France, and Spain in possession of the deadly toxin ricin. The links lead straight to Algerian extremists with known links to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the very al-Qaeda mastermind whose Iraqi home address was noted in Colin Powell's U.N. Security Council speech. As Mansoor Ijaz notes:

"Interestingly, the discoveries of Ricin in Europe come after Zarqawi visited at least one of the cells in early November last year. And not just any cell. He was allegedly transported... into France... where he spent the month of Ramadan teaching Algerian radicals how to make the toxic poison for which there is no known antidote. French police interrogations have revealed that the same Algerians arrested in Paris traveled to Barcelona, where later another al-Qaeda cell was rooted out."

Other links between Saddam and al-Qaeda have been documented, including the Ansar-al-Islam group now under attack now by Kurds and U.S. Special Forces in northern Iraq. In addition, Laurie Mylroie makes a persuasive case that Saddam is linked to the 1993 World Trade Center attack, which attempted to use a large amount of cyanide in addition to the explosives in the truck bomb. One of the bombers still lives in Iraq, where he was interviewed by 60 Minutes recently. Fortunately, the cyanide gas burnt up in the heat of the explosion and the blast did not buckle the central support column. "Only" six people died. That time.

Clearly, the necessary connections are there. So are some of the necessary capabilities.

Bio-Chemical Terror?

The incidents in Paris, London, Spain, and New York are not the first time terrorists have attempted to use chemical or biological weapons (CBW) as part of their arsenal. Palestinian terrorists have already used chemical weapons like rat poison with their suicide bombs. The cyanide bomb at the Netanya Passover Massacre, which was based on spreading a gas, failed because of a technical mishap. The Islamist terrorists of Hamas have vowed to take the next step, however, and acquire full-fledged chemical warfare capabilities.

Israel isn't the only country to have experienced this phenomenon. The Aum Shinrikyo cult released the nerve gas Sarin into the Japanese subway, an attack that was merely the capstone to as many as a dozen unsuccessful chemical and biological attacks from 1990-1995 [1]. Approximately 3796 people were affected and 12 died, largely because the delivery system was simplistic and the sarin impure.[2]

And the infamous anthrax letters aren't the only instance of bio-terrorism in the U.S. In 1984, Oregonian followers of the Bhagwan Shree Ranjeesh poisoned an unfriendly town by introducing the salmonella typhimurium virus at a local salad bar. By the end of the outbreak, there were 751 confirmed cases of salmonella. Miraculously, no-one died.[1] That time.

None of these exactly qualify as a mega-terror incident on the scale of Sept. 11, let alone Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears. Nevertheless, could these past incidents point to future terrorist opportunities?

Past Failure, Future Failure?

Thus far, the record of chemical and bio-terror is actually rather unimpressive. The weapons take real technical skill to manufacture safely, and especially to "weaponize" into a form that is highly potent, disperses widely, and causes significant casualties. Simpler strategies using just explosives and nails are far more reliable, and their physical effects more severe. Witness Oklahoma City, or the death toll from suicide bombers in Israel over the past few years.

This record of past failure does not, however, translate into the certainty of future failure. When modern terrorism was first introduced on an international level by the Palestinian movement in the 1970s, the death tolls were low. As expertise was gained and terrorists learned to aim higher, methods were refined and the death tolls changed for the worse. Simple scenarios could do the same for chemical and biological terror. After all, the first World Trade Center attack failed, too.

Anthrax, especially the weaponized version seen in the letter to Sen. Tom Daschle, would make a very effective terror weapon if used in a subway. Indeed, U.S. scientists conducted this very experiment with harmless bacteria back in 1966. Federal officials are also concerned about a botulinum attack, an agent already believed to be part of Saddam's biological arsenal and ,a target=_blank href=>possibly al-Qaeda's as well. Tampering with the food distribution system would be the most likely method of distribution.

The most chilling scenarios, however, involve the kind of work done in the Soviet Union on genetically engineered "chimera viruses", achievements increasingly within reach of states with a serious bioweapons program. In June of 1995, Bill Patrick explained to a closed door official seminar how a germ attack could be conducted in a large office building and infect up to 50% of its population using easily available materials.[1] Throw in a terrorist culture that already believes in suicide as a positive good, however, and the term "suicide bomber" takes on a whole new meaning. Such terrorists would need no equipment other than a highly contagious and lethal pathogen with a slight onset delay - in effect, the terrorist is the bomb.

In all probability, that last scenario is still several years away. Nevertheless, the threat of suicidal terrorists armed by rogue states is chillingly clear. That threat has already affected our policy toward Saddam Hussein, and may have changed the way we've conducted the War on Terror's Iraqi campaign.

The Dog That Hasn't Barked

In light of all this information, it's reasonable to ask why we haven't seen chemical or biological attacks during the Iraqi campaign. Saddam has the weapons, the motive, and apparently the connections. So where are the attacks?

Fortunately Saddam is under significant handicaps should he wish to use a bio-terrorism or chemical terrorism strategy right now outside of Iraq. One handicap is the fact that Saddam has worked quite hard to avoid building an intelligence organization smart and flexible enough for sophisticated operations abroad. Such an agency would be a potential threat to his rule, which is Saddam's first priority at all times. Relationships with terrorist organizations might fill this gap, but they're based on patronage and rewards as opposed to the organic relationship that exists on all levels between, say, Iran and Hezbolllah. This certainly does not preclude their use, but it does complicate the task of finding volunteers. Especially at a time when Saddam himself sits squarely in America's sights, and clearly lacks the nuclear weapons necessary to deter the allies from destroying his regime.

It would have been a different story if Saddam had been given time to acquire nuclear weapons, and the U.S. had shown weakness by refusing to take on his regime after the Sept. 11 attacks. Fortunately, President Bush meant what he said in his State of the Union speech.

The allied war plan has also worked hard on a number of levels to thwart a mega-terrorism strategy. Diplomatic preparations and delay have imposed costs, but they also gave intelligence agencies breathing space in which to find and track Iraqi agents, while cultivating agents on the ground in Iraq who might be able to tip the allies off about potential terrorist threats. U.N. Inspectors were marginally useful in stopping Iraq's program, but contributed to a sense of being watched that may have made the Ba'athist regime more cautious. The diplomatic games also held out hope to Saddam that he could actually win in the U.N., a belief that would significantly raise the perceived risks of being caught supplying terrorists with banned weapons. It would have been child's play for Zarqawi to have ricin or worse brought to the Algerians, for instance, but instead he taught them to manufacture a less effective agent locally from easy to acquire supplies. This is highly suggestive of a cautious patron, especially when so much more was possible.

Note, too, that the allied attack followed swiftly once it became clear that there would be no salvation in diplomacy. There would be no air campaign that gave Saddam time to prepare battlefield or terrorist surprises in earnest - just a combined ground-air campaign that immediately warned off potential collaborators, made the deployment of battlefield Weapon of Mass Destruction a hasty and difficult affair, and put the very survival of Iraq's regime in immediate doubt by striking deep into the country. Hamas and Hezbollah may take Saddam's money, but they also live in Lebanon under the watchful eye of a Syrian patron who can see what's going on. The Assad regime has no intention of being next on America's list, and it has already demonstrated how it punishes internal elements that threaten it.

Faced with such pressure, international terror attacks become significantly less likely. Even the nightmare "cosa nostra" scenario of Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian cooperation articulated by Michael Ledeen - using suicide terrorists with biological and chemical weapons on Iraqi soil - has thus far failed to materialize. Iran would be the critical linchpin, and thus far they seem to be declining that play. Syria, meanwhile, has been given some reason over the last year or so to believe it can cut a deal and survive as is in the new environment. That belief may even be true, at least until Iran and North Korea are settled issues. While biochemical terrorism by Saddam's Fedayeen or even resident al-Qaeda units is still possible, its effect will be far less than the scenario contemplated by Ledeen.

Allied diplomacy can count few successes over the past year, but this may be one.

The Sleeping Dragon

While the Iraqi campaign is unlikely to see substantial acts of biochemical terror in America or the U.K. - this time - that does not mean the threat will disappear with the removal of Saddam. Iran in particular lacks some of Saddam's important weaknesses, possessing an active set of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and close, deep links with terrorist organizations who may well be inclined to sacrifice themselves for the Islamic revolution's welfare.

North Korea's programs are well known, its military doctrine calls for extensive "second front" activity to the rear of the battlefield, and its Special Forces have consistently shown both determination and fanatical willingness to fight to the death in multiple incursions since the 1954 cease-fire. Given their doctrine of collapsing South Korea's defense in depth, both straightforward chemical attack and biochemical terrorism can be expected in future conflicts. Nor are these the only global flashpoints where clashes of this nature are possible. Each will require its own counter-strategy.

Finally, there is the logic of increasingly accessible agents of mass terror combined with increasingly powerful criminal and criminal-political organizations. Neal Pollard of the Terrorism Research Center and National Review's Jonah Goldberg have jokingly suggested that future opponents may look more like James Bond's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. than Saddam Hussein - and they may not be far off the mark.

Combating these future threats will take more than simple vigilance, for perfect defenses are impossible in a free society. Some defensive moves will be required, along the lines of Winds of Change.NET's 10-point Bioterror Readiness Platform and related measures. In general, however, President Bush is right: The most sophisticated tools of terror and destruction are still the property of nation states. A campaign to destroy those regimes that combine a commitment to terrorism with possession of these tools will buy us much-needed time, and give us the opportunity we need to map out new approaches to survival in a new and dangerous world.

Joe Katzman leads the international team at Winds of Change.NET, a daily weblog whose motto is "Liberty. Discovery. Humanity. Victory."

[1] Broad, Engleberg & Miller, Germs Simon and Schuster: NY ©2001.

[2] "Expert Panel Discusses Bioterrorism Threat, Preparedness in U.S.," The NIH Record, U.S. National Institute of Health. April 20, 1999. Vol. LI, No. 8

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