Once terrorists get their hands on weapons of mass destruction
Many argue that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of states are essential for peace and security in the world. The question arises due to the fact that it is increasingly more likely that WMDs will be in the hands of non-state actors such as terrorists. This essay will divide the question into three sub-sections. The first section will deal with whether it is realistic or feasible that terrorists will gain weapons of mass destruction, which includes biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
The second section: whether terrorist groups would actually want WMDs and if they did acquire them would they actually use them. The third section: with the assumption that terrorists will get their hands on WMDs, whether or not it is inevitable that it will result in the loss of major world cities such as New York or London. For this essay, a ‘loss’ of a city will constitute as: the significant damage of core infrastructure and the significant number of deaths.
This essay will argue that chemical weapons are the only WMD that is truly attainable by terrorists at present but will be joined by biological weapons and nuclear weapons in the future. However, even when attained by terrorists, it is unlikely that it will mean the inevitable destruction of such cities as New York and London, except in the case of Al Qaeda which has moved terrorism to the next level. The acquisition of biological weapons is very much feasible, and after September 11th has brought about scary scenarios.
For example, a terrorist infected with smallpox, taking a commercial flight to America and infecting everyone he comes into contact with, creating an epidemic. Advances in biotechnology have overcome many of the old problems in handling and preserving biological agents, and many are generously available for scientific research. Biological weapons combine maximum destructiveness with easy availability and so seem a perfect choice for terrorists. “Despite the minimal technical obstacles to biological weapons acquisition, actual use of biological weapons has been exceedingly rare” (Falkenrath 1998: pp 16).
However, though it is easy to attain biological agents there are several key steps involved in developing bacteria or a virus into a weapon: acquiring an active strain and growing it, preparing it into a form of dissemination, and developing an appropriate delivery device. Even if all this is achieved by terrorists, the viruses or bacteria can easily be degraded by the environmental conditions, where minor variations in the formulation of the agents can kill the organism or render them inactive.
It may not be a coincidence that the US and Soviet governments spent decades and billions of dollars on all these steps for their biological weapons programs and still encountered many problems along the way (Bennett, Spring 2004: pp 20, 26-28). Only very few terrorist organisations have the time and resources to develop large amounts of biological weapons, such as Aum Shinrikyo, and more presently Al-Qaeda, who have shown a great amount of interest in biological weapons.
Nevertheless, there is a significant difference in showing interest and creating a biological weapons programme. The acquisition of chemical weapons is by far most the easiest of the three, with a wide range of terrorist groups being able to attain minimal chemical weapons capability. The technology to make such weapons is widely spread throughout the world since it is used in basic pharmaceutical and industrial production. The chemical agents could also be bought over the internet or through mail order (Bennett Spring 2004: pp 29-30).
They are also more easily usable as chemical weapons do not require sophisticated dispersal methods and unlike biological weapons, chemical agents do not die or become inactivated through poor dissemination (Falkenrath 1998: pp107). It has also been the most used by terrorists in the past, for example in northern Sri Lanka 1990; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked a Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) with chlorine gas, injuring more than 60 military personnel. There was also the attack on the Tokyo subway with liquid sarin in 1995 by Aum Shinrikyo (Parachini Autumn 2003: pp 39-40).
Nuclear weapons are by far the most difficult to attain for terrorists. There are three ways that terrorists could obtain a nuclear weapon. Firstly they could steal it. This is a colossal feat in itself to steal one from one of the storage sites of the nuclear weapon states. But if somehow achieved then they will have to have access to the information on how to override the multiple safeguard features of an advanced nuclear device (Steinhausler 2003: pp792). Secondly, they could buy it on the black market from a country in the former Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact.
Many have written about ‘loose nukes’ and the supposedly poorly secured and poorly controlled nuclear weapons but the remarkable fact is that “… not a single former Soviet nuclear weapon has been found in another country or in an international arms bazaar” (Frost, Spring 2005: pp 180). Lastly they could build it themselves, which while many such as Falkenrath write it is achievable. Falkenrath states “… exceptionally capable non-state actors could build a highly destructive 10-kilotonne weapon in several months at a cost of a few hundred dollars – assuming they had access to sufficient quantities of fissile material.
However, the assumption he makes in having sufficient amounts of fissile material is severely unrealistic. To obtain sufficient fissile materials would be extremely difficult, if not impossible (Frost, Spring 2004: pp181). The most feasible method of creating a nuclear weapon effect without actually attaining one is by attacking power plants. This can be done by driving a truck of explosives into a power plant or far better to use a passenger jet full of fuel, which even the very robust power plant buildings are not designed to withstand (Bennett, Spring 2004: pp 44).
The second section deals with whether terrorists actually want to acquire WMDs, and if so and have them, if they actually would use them to destroy New York or London. In a broad scope, established terrorist organisations appear consistently uninterested in acquiring WMDs. There are virtually no reports and even less evidence, linking established terrorist groups such as – the Basque ETA, the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigade, the Fatah faction of the PLO – with interest in WMDs. However many consider that the dominance of the US military around the world has led some terrorists to believe the only solution is to acquire WMDs.
This does not necessarily mean if terrorist groups, if acquired WMDs, would use them. There has been WMD proliferation amongst states, but rarely used. This is due to WMDs being seen as instruments of deterrence rather than that of war. This could also apply to terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, who could deter the United States from interfering in the Middle East and assisting Israel. This would be far more effective than actually using them on New York because that action would most likely just bring about a very hard retaliation to the group from the international community as well as the US and cause stronger government countermeasures.
However, the theory of increasing coercive power with WMDs is most improbable as it is unlikely that the US will make major political concessions such as ending support of Israel over terrorist threats. Groups that knowingly kill large numbers of innocents are most likely to be perceived as mad mass murderers and not the honourable crusaders that traditional terrorists present themselves to be. This only applies to groups that adopt rational strategies to achieve political aims.
Unfortunately religious terrorists, such as Al Qaeda, may not engage in this logic and use religion as moral justification of mass killing as seen in September 11th (Falkenrath 1998: pp 44, 49, 51, 53). The third section deals with, assuming that terrorist groups have acquired WMDs and also want to use them on cities such as New York and London, whether they would be effective enough to make us ‘lose’ such cities. If terrorists used a biological weapon such as anthrax, if well executed and went unnoticed and therefore treatment started on day six then every 50, 000 affected 32, 875 would die at a cost of up to $237 (Falkenrath 1998: pp155).
However, history has shown us that biological attacks are rarely successful. Aum Shinrikyo, which had considerable financial resources, front companies, and members with scientific talents, failed in all ten of its biological attacks (Parachini, Autumn 2003: pp45). It can be argued that even if the attack was successful then the city would still not be ‘lost’ as the infrastructure would be unaffected. If terrorists used chemical weapons, they would have to use extremely large amounts to cause mass fatalities and generally seen as a useless tool of mass destruction and would not cause the ‘loss’ of any major cities.
Successful delivery of chemical weapons, which includes getting the right balance of the chemical agent and retaining long enough for inhalation to occur, is very difficult as chemical agents are extremely susceptible to weather conditions. In 2002, there were 20 instances in which terrorists acquired chemical agents with the intent of using them as a weapon of mass destruction; the problem was the chemicals chosen lacked the potential to inflict mass casualties. Aum Shinrikyo was able to synthesise sarin due to its vast resources, which cost near $30 million with all the state of the art facilities and year long development.
However, the end result subway attack in Tokyo and earlier attack in Matsumoto caused just twelve deaths (Bennett, Spring 2004: pp29, 32). If terrorists detonated a nuclear weapon, or even managed to fly a passenger jet into a nuclear power plant which would still cause a nuclear explosion, this would devastate any city. A nuclear explosion would create blast waves and extend for a mile or further destroying buildings and sending debris through the air at high speeds.
A heat source would be created inflicting lethal burns out to one-pus miles and creates an immediate and lasting radioactivity along with starting large scale fires (Bennett, Spring 2004: pp36). A bomb with the explosive power of 10,000 tons of TNT set off in Manhattan could kill half a million people and cause $1 trillion in direct economic damage. Disturbingly, “… over 6 million containers pass through US ports annually but only 2% are ever searched… ” (Steinhausler 2003: pp791).
With nuclear weapons now small enough to fit in a briefcase and fairly undetectable will cause concern that it is likely that if terrorists would like to smuggle in a WMD they easily can. In conclusion, the only WMD that terrorists can get their hands on are chemical weapons and for rich groups biological weapons. However at present nuclear weapons can not be realistically attained by any group. However, while chemical weapons are deemed unable to cause mass casualties, and biological weapons too difficult to make an efficient weapon from, only nuclear weapons can cause the loss of such cities such as New York and London.
This may explain why terrorist groups choose conventional weapons as their weapon of choice at present. It is evident that many of the barriers to acquiring nuclear and biological weapons are increasingly deteriorating. Although the majority of terrorist groups do not actually want to acquire WMDs and if they had them would not use them, the new era of extremist, religious terrorism in the form of Al Qaeda means if terrorists get hold of nuclear weapons then it will be a matter of time before we lose New York or London.
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