WASHINGTON – The United States has spent billions of dollars to prevent terrorists from obtaining a weapon of mass destruction even as the bombings in Boston further show that a nuclear weapon or lethal bioagent is not necessary for causing significant harm.
Organized group plots against the U.S. homeland since Sept. 11, 2001 have all involved conventional means of attack. Beyond that have been a handful of instances in which individuals used the postal system to deliver disease materials -- notably this week’s ricin letters to President Obama and at least one senator and the 2001 anthrax mailings.
Terrorism experts offer a range of reasons for why al-Qaida or other violent militants have never met their goal of carrying out a biological, chemical, nuclear or radiological attack on the United States or another nation. These include:
-- substantive efforts by the United States and partner nations to secure the most lethal WMD materials;
-- improved border security and visa checks that deny entry to possible foreign-born terrorists;
-- a lack of imagination and drive on the part of would-be terrorists to pursue the kind of novel but technically difficult attacks that could lead to widespread dispersal of unconventional materials;
-- a general haplessness on the part of the native-born U.S. extremists who have pursued WMD attacks, specifically involving weaponized pathogens;
-- elimination of most of al-Qaida’s original leadership, notably those members with the most experience orchestrating large-scale attacks abroad; and
-- the Arab Spring uprisings have likely drawn down the pool of terrorists with the proper training and focus to organize WMD attacks abroad as they have opted instead to join movements to overthrow governments in places such as Syria and Yemen.
“We killed a lot of people. That was one thing,” said Randall Larsen, founding director of the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, referring to the deaths in recent years of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and any number of his direct or philosophical adherents.
Bin Laden is known to have exhorted his followers to seek weapons of mass destruction for use in attacks against the West. Leading al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki of the group’s Yemen affiliate, who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike, used his Inspire magazine to encourage sympathizers to develop and carry out their own chemical and biological attacks.
In the last decade, the technological means to carry out new kinds of improvised WMD attacks such as those involving laboratory-engineered pathogens has become much more available. However, it can take some time for bad actors to recognize how these new technologies can open the doorway to heretofore unseen massively disruptive terrorist attacks, according to Larsen.
Passenger airplanes were flying across the United States for decades before any terrorists realized that they would make a highly destructive improvised weapon when flown at high speeds into skyscrapers filled with thousands of people, Larsen noted.
A 2012 analysis by terrorism experts at the New America Foundation detailed a number of disrupted unconventional weapon plots against the country that counterintuitively were much more likely to involve home-grown antigovernment groups and lone-wolf actors than Muslim extremists. "In the past decade, there is no evidence that jihadist extremists in the United States have acquired or attempted to acquire material to construct CBRN weapons," according to authors Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland.
They documented a number of failed domestic plots, often involving cyanide or ricin. Only former Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins was suspected of successfully carrying out such an effort, killing five people with anthrax spores in 2001. Ivins committed suicide before charges were filed.
“Right-wing and left-wing extremist groups and individuals have been far more likely to acquire toxins and to assemble the makings of radiological weapons than al-Qaida sympathizers,” they said.
Larsen in a Tuesday interview said he remains fearful of the day when extremists realize that they can carry out biowarfare attacks with only a college-level understanding of microbiology, some relatively inexpensive laboratory equipment, and naturally occurring pathogens.
“What I worry about are young undergraduate and graduate-level microbiologists who become radicalized and become terrorists,” he said. “If you are working in a laboratory every day, you have the skills to make a serious, serious weapon. All of the pathogens we worry about, with the exception of [the smallpox] virus, all of the rest of them are easy to get from nature.”
The congressionally established Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in late 2008 released a report that found a greater than 50-50 chance that a WMD attack would take place somewhere in the world before 2013 is over. The commission also found that a biological attack was much more likely to occur than a nuclear incident.
Larsen, who played a leading role on the commission, stands by its findings. “The bio thing gets easier every day because of the biotechnical revolution.”
“Our concern is once a terrorist organization demonstrates how powerful a bioweapon can be and how relatively easy it can be to do,” it could eventually become “relatively common” to see biological attacks in certain parts of the world on a weekly basis, he said.
The United States over the last four years has led a global effort to safeguard vulnerable nuclear materials against diversion to terrorists. Security efforts laud the effort, but say work remains.
The components for carrying out a chemical or radiological attack are also still available, according to Larsen. While the United States and the few other possessor states do a good job of guarding their stockpiles of chemical warfare materials, many industrial plants continue to be vulnerable to an attack aimed at dispersing toxic chemical substances into surrounding residential areas.
“We already have the chemical weapons sitting in our cities in large quantities. They just need to blow them up,” said Larsen, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.
Likewise, the radiological elements frequently found unsecured in hospitals, construction zones, and waste dumps could be combined with conventional explosives to create a “dirty bomb.” While such a weapon would probably not cause a high number of deaths, it could produce significant environmental damage and economic loss. It would also be far easier to build than even an improvised nuclear device.
“I am surprised we have not seen a dirty bomb. That is relatively easy to do,” Larsen said.
The U.S. government has lowered levels of funding for a number of WMD prevention and response programs. Federal grants to local and state governments to improve their public health response capabilities have taken a particular hit as has funding to programs aimed at detecting the presence of smuggled nuclear and radiological materials.
“It’s very challenging to figure out how to resource” anti-WMD prevention and response properly, said David Schanzer, who heads the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Even though there is a considerably lower probability of a WMD attack versus a conventional strike, the much higher consequences necessitate continued U.S. investment in prevention and preparation, interviewed experts agreed.
“I think it is prudent for governments around the world to be investing in WMD prevention regardless of whether that’s the preferred mode of current-day terrorists,” Schanzer said.
The payoff for the kinds of investments needed, such as vaccines for diseases that only rarely occur in nature, might not become obvious to the public until there is a terrorist attack, according to Schanzer.