Good news, bad news

Experts say that terrorists will probably strike again, soon, but that biological and chemical attacks are still unlikely.

By Max Garrone

Published September 15, 2001 12:21AM (EDT)

In the wake of Tuesday's bombings the Federal Aviation Administration has introduced a raft of new security measures, while pundits advocate even more draconian measures. But will any of them work? What will terrorists do next and how can we prepare ourselves?

Short of instituting a totalitarian regime, it's impossible to secure ourselves from all threats, says Ivan Eland, Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. "Someone on TV last night was saying cut off curb-side check-in, and I'm thinking, 'Why not shut down airports all together?' Because terrorists can shift their tactics at a moment's notice."

Eland says terrorists have effectively exploited temporary weaknesses in American security. "Terrorists used to hijack planes, then they went to truck bombings like in Beruit [in 1983]. Then you saw all these pilings and concrete pots appear in front of buildings and embassies are being moved further back from the road so terrorists are moving away from truck bombs, now they're going back to hijacking ... Terrorism is like a river in that it flows around rocks, logs and the like. This was a very creative plan brilliantly executed. It's absolutely horrendous. There's nothing worse than a person competent at doing a bad thing, but who knows what other things they're applying their creativity to?"

Tuesday's devestating reminder of America's vulnerability to terrorist attacks has raised concerns about future biological, chemical or even nuclear attacks. Since the end of the Cold War the specter of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction has been a growing subject of concern for security experts, but to date the only terrorist attack to utilize such weapons was Aum Shinri Kyo attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 11 and injured more than 5,000 with the nerve gas Sarin.

Gary Ackerman, research associate at the Monterey Institute's Chemical and Biological Weapons Noproliferation Progam, says terrorists and their sponsoring regimes have been very interested in obtaining chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons in order to increase their destructive potential. But, Ackerman says, they may not be able to use these weapons of mass destruction effectively: "Many of these groups mention these weapons, but whether they've succeeded is another question. I don't think that they have a functional nuclear weapon, but they probably have some of the components."

Nuclear weapons are difficult to procure because they require a sizable amount of plutonium-enriched uranium, a substance only produced by the nuclear powers. But chemical and biological weapons are relatively easy to produce, Ackerman says.

"Chemical weapons are not that difficult to manufacture in small amounts that might kill thousands of people," he says. But the real problem for terrorists is transporting and dispersing the chemical weapon effectively. "If I have a bowl of Sarin in a room, the people in the room would die, but to disperse it over a large area like a city is really difficult. It took states like U.S. and Russia a long time to figure out how to make aerosol weapons. In Tokyo they used a crude method. They used a diluted version of Sarin because they were worried about killing their own people. If it was more concentrated, we would have probably had a couple hundred or thousand dead instead of 11 dead and more than 5,000 injured. It's a crude method that can work."

But even the Aum Shinri Kyo found it very difficult to develop the Sarin gas to carry out its attack. According to Ackerman, the Aum Shinri Kyo "had many scientists and resources dedicated to manufacturing Sarin over many years and they tried to disperse it in public nine times. They really never got it right as a mass destruction weapon. That shows that it's not that easy to get the weapon going. To produce the agent is relatively easy, but to cause mass casualties is more difficult."

According to Ackerman, biological weapons are "not as simple as it would seem, but also not as difficult." The big problem for terrorists with biological weapons is construction and delivery. Ackerman says, "If they have someone who has a degree in microbiology, they could grow a biological agent in a small lab. You can pick up anthrax and a lot of these agents in a lot of places in the world but it would take months or years to grow enough of the agent to cause mass casualties. Not any one with a backyard brewery could do it, because a person has to be skilled in making the agent and have access to high-quality equipment -- but that's not too difficult. Ultimately, delivery is the big issue."

Many germs die when exposed to sunlight, others are quickly dispersed by wind, so that their effectiveness would be compromised in the event of an attack. Still, Ackerman says, "if you let off a mass agent, especially a contagious one, it could do a lot of damage no matter the dispersal method."

The real fear, Ackerman and Eland agree, is from more conventional attacks like the ones we saw Tuesday. Ultimately terrorists already have plenty of conventional weapons at their disposal that are cheap, easy to produce and yield the same amount of casualties. "The easiest thing to do is still to use a conventional bomb or weapon," Ackerman says.

How can we defend ourselves? "The main weapon against terrorism is intelligence," Ackerman says. "Once you know who they are and where they are, stopping them isn't that difficult."

Over the past three days the American intelligence community has been roundly criticized for missing Tuesday's bombing, but Eland says gaining good intelligence information will continue to be America's greatest challenge. "It's very difficult to penetrate terrorist organizations," he says. "The CIA has had some successes, like when they stopped the millennium bombing plot. They get criticized when there's a problem, but stopping terrorists is extraordinarily difficult. Terrorists are shady groups that compartmentalize their cells in order to make sure that if one is captured the whole group won't go down ... They have the offensive so they have the opportunity to pick the time, place and method of attack. Governments are big, lumbering and slow to react."

And getting that intelligence may mean compromising civil liberties. "It's not only issue that experts or politicians have to deal with. These things will affect every American citizen," says Ackerman. "Am I willing to have army personnel in every mall for safety? That's a fundamental social question for America. You can only do so much before you close the door on an open society."

Barring good intelligence information, Eland says, another component of the war against terrorism must be psychological. "Immediately it's an intractable problem, but in the long term you need to look at what motivates the people and try to take that away," he says. "Remove the root of their motivation. In the long term we have to think about what motivates these groups to target America. The United States is the target of 47 percent of these groups -- that's almost half of all terrorism in the world. The United States is half a world away from these guys, with no direct wars with them or hostile neighbors to aggravate, and yet we have all these terrorists aiming their attacks at us. In the long term, we need to get inside the terrorists' heads."

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

MORE FROM Max Garrone

Related Topics ------------------------------------------