Terrorists Seek the Big Bang

April 1, 2002

The danger that international terrorists would use deadly chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons for attacks increased after the Sept. 11 strikes in the United States, said intelligence experts who based their assessments on discoveries made during Operation Enduring Freedom military actions in Afghanistan.

The Central Intelligence Agency provided the clearest warning of this trend in its late January “721 Report” to Congress. For the first time, this semiannual report addressed terrorism carried out using weapons made from Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear arms.

In the past, the CIA limited the 721 Report–so called after the section in the Fiscal 1997 intelligence authorization act that requires a current assessment on Weapons of Mass Destruction acquisition–to identification of key arms transfers among rogue nations by suppliers such as Russia, China, and North Korea.

Instead the most recent report carried an entire section on CBRN terrorism. “The threat of terrorists using Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) materials appears to be rising–particularly since the 11 September attacks,” it stated.

The report also suggested, though, that terrorists probably would prefer conventional weapons over unconventional WMD. It said, “Several of the 30 designated foreign terrorist organizations and other nonstate actors worldwide have expressed interest in CBRN–although terrorists probably will continue to favor proven conventional tactics, such as bombings and shootings.”

Despite that caveat, the 721 Report went on to describe evidence of the growing threat.

According to the report, the danger of an unconventional-weapons terror attack stems partly from the increasing amount of information and technology that is available to terrorist groups from sources such as the Internet. Moreover, Russia, which continues to face dire economic straits, looked to its defense, biotechnology, and nuclear industries to provide exports, thus offering an opportunity for terrorists to gain WMD materials and technology.

Modus Operandi

CIA director George J. Tenet told Congress during an annual hearing that the danger of new al Qaeda and other terrorist attacks is growing.

“We assess that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups will continue to plan to attack this country and its interests abroad,” Tenet said. “Their modus operandi is to have multiple attack plans in the works simultaneously and to have al Qaeda cells in place to conduct them.”

The targets, he said, include high-profile government or private facilities, famous landmarks, and US infrastructure elements, such as airports, bridges, harbors, and dams. They also might strike at high-profile sporting events that would, said Tenet, “fit the terrorists’ interest in striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention.”

Al Qaeda, Tenet emphasized, could launch attacks against US targets using its secret cells already in place in major cities in Europe and the Middle East. As for al Qaeda’s WMD threat, he said, “One of our highest concerns is their stated readiness to attempt unconventional attacks against us.”

“Terrorist groups worldwide have ready access to information on chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons via the Internet, and we know that al Qaeda was working to acquire some of the most dangerous chemical agents and toxins,” stated Tenet.

Long Time Coming

US intelligence agencies have known since the early 1990s that Osama bin Laden actively sought to develop chemical and biological arms in his al Qaeda organizations. Intelligence officials also said that he had a long-standing interest in acquiring nuclear materials.

“Osama bin Laden and groups aligned with him have shown interest in staging unconventional attacks, and bin Laden has sought CBRN materials and resources to further this goal,” the 721 Report stated. Bin Laden and his organization have made “public statements about unconventional weapons, which could be an attempt to justify the use of such weapons.”

According to the CIA, a senior bin Laden associate who was put on trial in Egypt in 1999 said his group already possessed chemical and biological arms.

Terrorists have shown the most interest in the rudimentary chemical weapons, such as cyanide salts that could be used to contaminate food and water supplies or to conduct assassinations of targeted people, the report noted. “Terrorist groups also have expressed interest in many other toxic industrial chemicals–most of which are relatively easy to acquire and handle–and traditional chemical agents, including chlorine and phosgene, and some groups have discussed nerve agents,” it said.

According to the report, the agency believes the terrorists have less interest in biological agents that produce small-scale poisonings than in those that would affect the largest number of people.

One former CIA official said al Qaeda was working hard on biological arms. “There’s a lot of evidence al Qaeda had a very sophisticated program to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction, particularly biological weapons,” said Vincent Cannistraro, who headed CIA counterterrorism operations in the late 1990s. “We don’t have a full measure of what level it’s reached, but the program was very advanced.”

The danger also was highlighted by Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He said that, although terrorists are likely to favor continued “proven” conventional weapons over Weapons of Mass Destruction in the near term, “several groups, especially al Qaeda, have pursued CBRN capabilities, and the threat from terrorist use of these materials will continue.”

“Many of the technologies associated with the development of CBRN weapons–especially chemical and biological agents–have legitimate civil applications and are classified as dual use,” Wilson said in a prepared statement for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “The increased availability of these technologies, coupled with the relative ease of producing some chemical or biological agents, makes them attractive to terrorist groups intent on causing panic or inflicting larger numbers of casualties.”

Terrorists have noticed the intense psychological impact caused by the recent anthrax cases in the United States, Wilson said.

The Bigger Fear

The big fear among intelligence officials focused on the danger of a devastating explosion from a nuclear weapon.

Specific information on terrorists’ acquisition of nuclear arms has been limited. According to the CIA report, “We have no credible reporting on terrorists successfully acquiring nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make them.”

The agency warned, however, that there are sizeable “gaps” in US intelligence on the subject.

Bin Laden, the supposed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, stated in public speeches that he views the acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a “religious duty.”

One government witness in the trial of four men who were convicted of supporting al Qaeda’s bombing in 1998 of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya testified that al Qaeda has tried to obtain fissile material–the fuel for a nuclear explosion–since the early 1990s.

Even more startling is a discovery made after Enduring Freedom kicked off on Oct. 7. In an abandoned al Qaeda safe house in Kabul, the CIA retrieved documents showing “rudimentary diagrams of nuclear weapons,” the 721 Report stated. “These diagrams, while crude, describe essential components–uranium and high explosives–common to nuclear weapons,” it added.

An internal alert sent to US government agencies in January warned that Islamic terrorists were planning spectacular attacks meant to rival the devastation of Sept. 11.

The detailed warning said the numerous targets included US nuclear power plants and US Energy Department nuclear weapons facilities. The warning outlined several possible attack scenarios. Among them:

A bombing or airline attack on a nuclear power plant or other US nuclear facility, such as a weapons storage depot, designed to cause mass casualties and spread deadly radiological debris.

A bombing against a US warship in Bahrain, headquarters of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and where some 20 ships are based. The attack would be similar to the October 2000 suicide bombing attack on USS Cole.

Another airliner attack on a building using a hijacked commercial jet.

A vehicle bombing in Yemen. Authorities in Yemen, acting on intelligence gathered by the United States in Afghanistan, recently found an explosives-laden vehicle intended for use as a car bomb against the US Embassy in San’a.

The alert prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to beef up security at nuclear plants. The tighter security included limiting access to nuclear power plants, increasing training for security guards at facilities, and increasing the coordination between state and federal officials. The NRC also ordered all vehicles, both cars and trucks, that approach the nation’s 103 commercial operating nuclear power plants to be stopped and checked at greater distances from the facilities’ gates.

“The commission has decided to issue orders to require prudent interim compensatory measures because the generalized high-level threat environment has persisted longer than expected,” the NRC said in a statement.

The NRC said it is requiring plant employees to observe new restrictions on where they can go within a facility, and the commission planned to increase screening and identification checks of employees and the numerous contractor personnel who work at and operate the facilities.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure that all the plants have the highest level of protection, by ordering them to implement security measures that incorporate some of the findings of this ongoing security review,” said NRC spokesman Victor Dricks.

NRC officials said privately that all the plants were put on a heightened state of alert after Sept. 11. But the commission gave no orders to tighten security until February.

Defense officials said intelligence obtained through Enduring Freedom helped thwart three terrorist attacks and led to the arrests of terrorists in Singapore and Yemen. A third operation is still “being rolled up,” one official said.

Asked about the danger of a mass destruction terrorist attack, Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said: “We remain on alert.” The Homeland Security office has issued several warnings for nuclear power facilities, utilities, and water treatment plants to be alert for an attack.

Building a Nuke

Some arms control analysts believe the odds that bin Laden and al Qaeda would obtain a nuclear weapon or a radiological weapon–a bomb that enhances its lethality by spreading nuclear material, such as stolen nuclear waste–are low but not zero.

Terrorists can get their hands on nuclear weapons by building one from scratch, by acquiring one on the black market, or by theft.

Although buying plutonium on the black market is difficult, some experts say it could be done, especially from Russia. But a plutonium bomb is difficult to construct and requires precision machine tools to fashion a conventional explosion to implode a ball of plutonium for the nuclear blast.

Bomb-grade uranium would be easier for terrorists to get. For instance, the South Africans built six uranium bombs. The bombs used a gun design that fired a slug of uranium down a barrel into another uranium slug. The problem for terrorists would be in acquiring enough–about 120 pounds–to make a gun-type nuclear bomb.

An al Qaeda operative named Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl testified in an American court during the trial of four men who were convicted of supporting al Qaeda’s terrorist bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that he sought to purchase uranium for $1.5 million in 1993. He made the attempt in Khartoum where he spotted a cylinder that was said to contain bomb-grade uranium from South Africa. Al-Fadl said he did not know if the deal was concluded.

Buying nuclear arms outright is not likely, say some experts. For instance, Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi for years tried to buy nuclear weapons and failed.

Yet, in 1997, Gen. Alexander Lebed, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s national security advisor, stated publicly that the Russians could not account for 100 suitcase-sized tactical nuclear weapons. Later, Russian officials said none of the arms appeared to be missing from stockpiles.

A radiological weapon is easier to produce. The problem is that transporting such a weapon is difficult because the protection needed to shield the users from radiation makes it impractical.

The danger is that terrorists will find a sanctuary that will allow them to set up the proper laboratories to build nuclear weapons.

The More Insidious Threat

However, the American Medical Association believes the potentially greater disaster would spring from biological weapons in the hands of terrorists. In a warning about the dangers of germ weapon attacks, an AMA statement said that it “recognizes the growing threat that biological weapons might be used to cause devastating epidemics that could spread internationally.”

“All countries are potentially at risk,” the association said. “The release of organisms causing smallpox, plague, anthrax, or other diseases could prove catastrophic in terms of the resulting illnesses and deaths, compounded by the panic such outbreaks would generate. At the same time, there is a growing potential for production of new microbial agents, as expertise in biotechnology grows and methods for genetic manipulation of organisms become simpler.”

The AMA called for stepping up efforts to prepare for a biological weapons attack. “Unlike the use of nuclear, chemical, and conventional weapons, the consequences of a biological attack are likely to be insidious,” the group said.

“Their impact might continue with secondary and tertiary transmission of the agent, weeks or months after the initial epidemic,” said the AMA. “The consequences of a successful biological attack, especially if the infection were readily communicable, could far exceed those of a chemical or even a nuclear event. Given the ease of travel and increasing globalization, an outbreak anywhere in the world could be a threat to all nations.”

In fact, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told a Senate subcommittee last October that attacks with biological weapons could cause major epidemics. “Biological agents are easy to conceal,” he said. “A small amount may be sufficient to harm large populations and cause epidemics over a broad geographic region.”

He added that disease can also spread as a result of contagious attack and “in the most worrisome scenario of a surreptitious attack, the first responders are likely to be health professionals in emergency rooms, physician offices, outpatient clinics, public health settings, and other health care activities rather than the traditional first responders.”

In November, Thompson announced that his department had awarded a $428 million contract to produce 155 million doses of smallpox vaccine by the end of 2002.

“While the probability of an intentional release of the smallpox virus is low, the risk does exist and we must be prepared,” Thompson said. “Expanding our stockpile so there is a smallpox vaccine for every American if needed prepares us to respond aggressively to minimize the spread of the disease should an outbreak occur. Additionally, we hope that increasing our smallpox vaccine stockpile would serve as a deterrent to those who might consider using smallpox as a weapon against us.”

DIA director Wilson noted that the global security environment changed with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the US war against terrorism.

“On 11 September the asymmetric threat became real–and strategic,” Wilson stated. “We are in a new struggle–for our way of life and our vision of the global future. Our adversaries see things the same way. They think the United States is the ‘center of gravity’ for an emerging world order that undermines their beliefs, values, interests, and culture. They need to eliminate our global power, leadership, and influence or–in their eyes–be overwhelmed by it.”

Bill Gertz is a defense and national security reporter for the Washington Times and author of the book The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America (Regnery). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Last Flight of Wang Wei,” appeared in the July 2001 issue.