The new nightmare
9/11: 5 YEARS ON
Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists.
WHILE the world’s attention has been focused on plots to bomb airplanes, trains and other public facilities, terror experts say that the next big attack could take a very different – and shocking – form.
Given the difficulties of planning and executing bombing attacks, following stepped-up security at airports and other points of entry into the country, terrorist masterminds might be looking for new, “low-tech, high-impact” ways to launch another attention-grabbing attack, say counter terrorism officials charged with stopping them.
Their biggest nightmare: weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) falling into the hands of people who are prepared to use them to kill and terrorise the world. These could take the form of nuclear weapons, or even primitive makeshift radiological devices, also known as “dirty bombs”.
There could also be silent killers like anthrax attacks and other biological weapons, the deadly effects of which are felt only days afterwards, as thousands of civilians fall victim and die, spreading fear among those who survive.
Mr Peter Verga, the Pentagon’s counter-terrorism czar, told The Straits Times in an interview: “There are several attack avenues for terrorists. But the thing that worries us the most is WMD in the hands of Al-Qaeda. It is something that we are tracking closely.”
The gravity of the problem is reflected in the increasing number of plots that involve WMDs.
Responding to this, the Bush administration set up a “nuclear surveillance programme” under the FBI and Energy Department’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team in 2002.
Since then, reports indicate that Washington has been running a top-secret programme to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the capital, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, to keep tabs on any effort to develop a terrorist nuclear bomb.
Several other cities are also being monitored.
More recently, the Homeland Security Department has bought modernised equipment to scan cargo at ports and border cities for nuclear material.
But terrorism experts argue that while such a devastating attack remains possible, it will be difficult for terrorist organisations to pull off, given the difficulties involved in securing fissile material and the complex engineering that making such a device might entail.
“It is within Al-Qaeda’s capabilities, but it is something that we see happening over the next three to five years,” said a US Special Forces source who has been closely involved in counter-terrorism operations. “It is not the most immediate concern.”
What is also keeping intelligence operatives awake at night is the threat of terror groups resorting to “silent killers” such as chemical or biological weapons, which are easier to obtain and disseminate.
Several cases uncovered in recent years give them reason for concern. In May 2002, the authorities here disrupted plans to blow up apartment buildings in the US. One of the alleged plotters, Jose Padilla, supposedly discussed the possibility of using a “dirty bomb”.
In 2003, a computer software engineer was convicted of possessing ricin, a poison extracted from castor beans. The amount was enough to kill about 5,000 people. Another was caught with sodium cyanide and chemicals for making poison gas.
Prompting further concern was the revelation by American journalist Ron Suskind that Al-Qaeda had developed a portable device that could be used to disperse cyanide gas.
The gas kills upon inhalation, and Mr Suskind claims in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine, that a cyanide attack on New York City’s subway system was within 45 days of occurring in June this year when Al-Qaeda’s deputy commander Ayman Al-Zawahiri called it off.
President George W. Bush added another case to the list on Wednesday, when he revealed that several people were arrested in the US recently for planning to set up a cell to create anthrax.
To counter these efforts, the Homeland Security Department is building a secret restricted laboratory to study infectious diseases such as smallpox and other pathogens that could be turned into weapons, five years after deadly anthrax-tainted letters were mailed to US political and media targets.
But security agencies are also hampered by the difficulty in gathering intelligence on such plans. Anthrax spores, for example, could be locally harvested without a need to bring them into the US. Biological agents could also be aerosolised for widespread dispersal.
Indeed, so easy is it to secure them that a growing number of Americans – not linked to Al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks – have been nabbed for possessing biological and chemical weapons, according to law enforcement officials.
Pointing to these dangers, the US Special Forces officer interviewed by The Straits Times noted that “intelligence was indicating that there was an appeal for low-technology means to achieve maximum public impact”.
He added: “A dirty bomb or a biological attack will cost them little in terms of manpower and money. But it will have a huge psychological impact on Americans, who will live in fear that they might have been infected.”