Terrorists Unlikely to Use WMD in Mail Bomb Plots, Experts Say

(Nov. 3) -Security personnel guard a FedEx office last week in Sanaa, Yemen, after a pair of parcel bombs were found to have been sent from the country. Extremist groups are unlikely to attempt a mail bomb attack involving a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon, analysts said (Mohammad Huwais/Getty Images).
(Nov. 3) -Security personnel guard a FedEx office last week in Sanaa, Yemen, after a pair of parcel bombs were found to have been sent from the country. Extremist groups are unlikely to attempt a mail bomb attack involving a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon, analysts said (Mohammad Huwais/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are unlikely to incorporate elements of a weapon of mass destruction into devices similar to those recovered in last week's unsuccessful mail bomb plot, according to national security experts (see GSN, Oct. 28).

While it could prove easiest to employ a biological agent, such pathogens are often difficult to control and could ultimately fail to inflict the mass casualties extremist groups typically aim for, said Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"When it comes to biological, I'm more concerned about the infected passenger than I am the virus being put into a container and then shipped to the United States," Nelson told Global Security Newswire on Monday.

He and other experts said nuclear, radiological and chemical weapons each pose unique challenges that make them unappealing to terrorists for use in a potential parcel or cargo bomb strike. The groups could also face technological difficulties attempting to include WMD materials into a conventional explosive device, they argued.

"These groups are making the same risk-reward decisions that anyone would make," Nelson said. "'I have so much capability and so much capacity to plan an attack; I need to be successful because that capacity is limited. How am I going to get the best return on my investment?'"

U.S. law enforcement officials believe extremists operating in Yemen placed bombs in parcels sent to Chicago-based Jewish synagogues last week, though the devices might have been designed to detonate in midflight.

Authorities nabbed the explosives, which were hidden inside printer cartridges, in the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, but U.S. officials are concerned there may be more such parcels in the freight system.

One of the parcels discovered last week was sent to London through a United Parcel Service hub in Cologne, Germany, though it is unclear whether a company plane carried the package at any point during its trip.

FedEx contacted the FBI and the local authorities in Dubai after it learned that a suspicious package might be in its facility there.

Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups have long expressed an impulse to acquire unconventional weapons, according to Brian Katulis, senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress.

"I think there's enough evidence out there to cause concern," he told GSN on Monday. He cited the recent example of one man's alleged effort to obtain radiological "dirty bomb" materials in Canada for use against the New York City subway system (see GSN, July 8).

Katulis said he is "surprised" the United States has not sustained a successful terrorist strike that included a radiological, biological or chemical element. He credited the "aggressive posture" Washington and its allies have adopted against the globe's terror networks as the main reason why such an event has not occurred.

Terrorists are likely to find biological agents unappealing to use for an effort similar to the one thwarted last week because "if they want to do it they're going to go to the most populated area with the deadliest disease they can get their hands on to execute an attack," according to Nelson.

Likewise, a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, would not have the same impact if employed in midflight or at sea as it would if detonated in a densely populated urban area, he told GSN.

A chemical weapon would require large amounts of material in order to be effective, according to Randall Larsen, chief executive officer of the WMD Center in Washington.

"I just don't see how that's a real thing," he said yesterday during a telephone interview, adding that terrorists could instead exploit vulnerable U.S. stores of chemical materials rather than smuggle them into the country.

Nelson said the devices recovered last week technically could be considered chemical weapons because they would have employed small amounts of pentaerythritol trinitrate. However, extremists would not be expected to use deadlier agents such as a mustard blister gas in a scenario similar to the Yemen-based operation.

"I would probably disperse it in a different way that putting it in an airplane and hoping it gets into an office space or somewhere," Nelson said.

The security experts agreed that if a terrorist organization acquired a nuclear warhead it would not resort to using the freight system.

"If a group like al-Qaeda finally gets its hands on a nuclear weapon, it's the crown jewel. It's not going to stick it in a cargo container and hope that it gets to its intended destination," Nelson said.

"Would you take $20 million, put it in a shipping container, put a really good padlock on it and turn it loose in a global transportation system where five or six companies are going to control that container? No, you're never going to take your hands off it," Larsen added.

In addition to those challenges, terrorists could also face significant technological difficulties constructing a weapon that would successfully integrate an unconventional weapon, said Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

"The challenge is less fashioning it into something that you can stick into a printer and stick into a piece of cargo; the challenge is actually building a device to begin with that is actually going to work," he told GSN.

Emphasis on Cargo Screening

There has been an increased emphasis on screening people and luggage on passenger planes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The issue has become a focus for some members of Congress and was addressed in a recent analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Given the combination of public and private dollars, it is impossible to know how much has been spent on the nation's screening efforts, experts contend.

Last week's U.S.-bound planes would not have been subject to the government's Certified Cargo Screening Program. The program is intended to help meet the congressionally mandated 100 percent screening of cargo on passenger aircraft by August 2010.

The effort certifies cargo screening facilities located in the United States but it only examines freight on passenger flights. The packages involved in last week's incident may not have been scrutinized because they were not likely to be stowed on a passenger airplane.

The program, managed by the Transportation Security Administration, came under fire in June when government auditors issued a report that found the procedures mandated under the initiative were performed on about 75 percent of shipments flown on passenger flights.

Yesterday, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and transportation security subcommittee Chairwoman Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas) sent a letter asking the accountability office to conduct an "assessment of the progress and challenges" associated with screening U.S.-bound freight.

In a statement made last week, TSA chief John Pistole said the agency had procedures in place before last week's incident to screen 100 percent of "high-risk" cargo on inbound passenger planes.

He noted that the agency and Customs and Border Protection had immediately deployed a team of inspectors to Yemen to help the government there with its freight screening efforts.

The TSA administrator is in Yemen today to meet with government officials there and receive a briefing from investigators, according to an agency press release. Pistole yesterday spoke at an aviation conference in Germany where he called for more sophisticated detection systems and improved search activities, among other threat-detection enhancements, the Los Angeles Times reported.

United Parcel Service spokesman Dan McMackin declined to provide details about the company's screening practices but said it takes a "multilayered approach to ensure security" that involves routinely working with law enforcement agencies around the globe.

A spokesman for FedEx did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

"The whole idea of using technology to scan for nuclear weapons is a gross waste of money, particularly when you say let's do 100 percent of it," according to Larsen.

Instead, the government should devote funds to locating and securing loose nuclear material around the world, he said. Washington should also invest in additional research and pursue new, more "active" nuclear and radiological detection devices, he added.

Other experts also played down the importance of existing cargo screening efforts.

"At the end of the day, screening is not the solution. As we saw even with this incident, it wasn't screening techniques that stopped this, it was pinpoint, accurate intelligence," according to Nelson, referring to reports that the explosives were snared thanks to a tip from a Saudi Arabia intelligence official.

He predicted that a possible solution would involve a layered approach that featured partnerships between the federal government and the shipping industry.

Finlay said the government could be close to reaching the limit of what it can mandate industry to do to scrutinize its shipments. He added that most of the domestic screening undertaken to comply with the mandate has been done voluntarily by the air cargo companies and freight handlers.

"If you sit down with the president of ... UPS and ask is there any more you can do to screen your cargo, the answer will be, 'No, we're doing absolutely everything we can and profit margins are so slim right that anything more they would vanish,'" he said.

"If we institute screening to a level that makes it more cumbersome for things to be shipped, or if we put a price tag on technology to screen cargo that makes air travel or air transportation cost prohibitive, then the terrorists have achieved their goals and we have now become unsuccessful," Nelson told GSN.

Katulis agreed that the United States and its allies would have to accept some level of risk when it comes to worldwide travel and shipping.

"There's no fool-proof system we can design to completely eradicate all the threats if we want to maintain a system of open, global commerce," he said. "We're going to have to assume some sort of risk and this plot indicates that there are dangerous networks that continue to probe vulnerabilities in the global system."

"It's a cat and mouse game that I foresee continuing forever," Katulis added.

November 3, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are unlikely to incorporate elements of a weapon of mass destruction into devices similar to those recovered in last week's unsuccessful mail bomb plot, according to national security experts (see GSN, Oct. 28).