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WMD Terrorism Threat Persists, Report Says

(May. 1) -French soldiers conduct a WMD interdiction exercise in 2007. The U.S. State Department warned in a report yesterday that WMD terrorism remains a major threat (Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images). (May. 1) -French soldiers conduct a WMD interdiction exercise in 2007. The U.S. State Department warned in a report yesterday that WMD terrorism remains a major threat (Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images).

The threat that extremists might acquire and use an unconventional weapons remains a significant danger to the United States, the U.S. State Department said yesterday in its annual report on terrorism (see GSN, May 1, 2008).

"The nexus of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism poses one of the gravest risks to the national security of the United States and its global partners," according to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2008. "A successful major WMD terrorist attack could result in mass casualties and produce far-reaching economic and political consequences."

The report addresses four "material threats" -- chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear.

"Today’s chemical terrorism threat ranges from the potential acquisition and use of chemical warfare agents and military delivery systems, to the production and use of toxic industrial chemicals and improvised dissemination systems, such as those used in the 1995 attack conducted by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway system," the report says (see GSN, April 22).

"Terrorists also have sought to acquire and use commercially available materials, such as poisons and toxic industrial chemicals. The growth and sophistication of the worldwide chemical industry, including the development of complex synthetic and dual-use materials, may make the task of preventing and protecting against this threat more difficult," it adds. "Preventing chemical terrorism is particularly challenging as terrorists can, with relative ease, use toxic industrial chemicals and other commonly available chemical agents and materials as low-cost alternatives to traditional chemical weapons and delivery systems, though likely with more limited effects."

The report notes the December 2008 finding by the the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism regarding the likelihood of a biological attack within the next five years (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2008).

While developing a biological weapon would require some scientific capability, the material could be found in nature or vulnerable laboratories and the "necessary technical capabilities are not beyond the expertise of motivated scientists with university-level training." Even a limited strike, such as the 2001 anthrax mailings, could have a significant economic and demoralizing effect, the report says.

"Among present-day terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda (AQ) is believed to have made the greatest effort to acquire and develop a bioterrorism program," the report says. "U.S. forces discovered a partially built biological weapons laboratory near Kandahar after expelling the Taliban from Afghanistan. Although it was not conclusive that AQ succeeded in producing a biological weapon, the discovery demonstrated a concerted effort to acquire a biological weapons capability."

The widespread used of radioactive substances for medicine and other civilian purposes creates an opening for terrorists to acquire material for a radiological "dirty bomb," according to the report.

Most radioactive materials lack sufficient strength to present a significant public health risk once dispersed, while the materials posing the greatest hazard would require terrorists to have the expertise to handle them without exposure to incapacitating doses of radiation or detection during transit across international borders," it says. "Public panic and economic disruption caused by setting off an explosive radiological dispersal device, however, could be substantial, even if a weak radioactive source is used."

Al-Qaeda and other organizations have made it clear that they hope to obtain a nuclear weapon, the State Department said. Their aspiration could be aided by scientific and technical information found online and by potential nuclear proliferators such as North Korea.

"Terrorists may, however, seek to link up with a variety of facilitators to develop their own nuclear capability," the report says. "These facilitators include black market proliferators or transnational criminal networks that may seek to profit from the sale of nuclear material, a weaponized device, or technical knowledge gathered from nuclear experts currently or formerly involved in a national nuclear program."

The United States and its partners conduct a number of programs aimed at securing unconventional weapons materials and preventing them from being smuggled into or out of nations. These include the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

U.S. priorities in this sector include preventing terrorists from acquiring the material or know-how needed to produce a weapons of mass destruction; developing deterrence strategies to dissuade extremists from using such as weapon; strengthening capabilities to interdict a weapon in transit; and determining who provided terrorists with a weapon.

"The threat of terrorists acquiring and using WMD poses one of the greatest security challenges facing the United States and the international community today," the report says. " During the past year, the [U.S. government] has built on a range of activities and launched new efforts to prevent, protect against, and respond to the threat or use of WMD. Together with partner nations and international organizations, the United States will continue to take the initiative to reduce the global risk of WMD terrorism."

The report also lists Iran as "the most significant state sponsor of terrorism," also placing Cuba, Sudan and Syria on the list, and designates al-Qaeda as the "greatest terrorist threat to the United States."

"Al-Qaeda and associated networks continued to lose ground, both structurally and in the court of world public opinion, but remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2008," the report says. "AQ has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leadership, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri. Worldwide efforts to counter terrorist financing have resulted in AQ appealing for money in its last few messages" (U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 30).

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