Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Low-Tech Terrorism


Low-Tech Terrorism


February 25, 2014

Bruce Hoffman [3]


AMONG THE MORE prescient analyses of the terrorist threats that the United States would face in the twenty-first century was a report published in September 1999 by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, better known as the Hart-Rudman commission. Named after its cochairs, former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, and evocatively titled New World Coming, it correctly predicted that mass-casualty terrorism would emerge as one of America’s preeminent security concerns in the next century.

“Already,” the report’s first page lamented, “the traditional functions of law, police work, and military power have begun to blur before our eyes as new threats arise.” It added, “Notable among these new threats is the prospect of an attack on U.S. cities by independent or state-supported terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.”


Although hijacked commercial aircraft deliberately flown into high-rise buildings were not the weapons of mass destruction that the commission had in mind, the catastrophic effects that this tactic achieved—obliterating New York City’s World Trade Center, slicing through several of the Pentagon’s concentric rings and killing nearly three thousand people—indisputably captured the gist of that prophetic assertion.


The report was also remarkably accurate in anticipating the terrorist organizational structures that would come to dominate the first dozen or so years of the new century. “Future terrorists will probably be even less hierarchically organized, and yet better net-worked, than they are today.

Their diffuse nature will make them more anonymous, yet their ability to coordinate mass effects on a global basis will increase,” the commission argued. Its vision of the motivations that would animate and subsequently fuel this violence was similarly revelatory. “The growing resentment against Western culture and values in some parts of the world,” along with “the fact that others often perceive the United States as exercising its power with arrogance and self-absorption,” was already “breeding a backlash” that would both continue and likely evolve into new and more insidious forms, the report asserted.


Some of the commission’s other visionary conclusions now read like a retrospective summary of the past decade. “The United States will be called upon frequently to intervene militarily in a time of uncertain alliances,”

says one, while another disconsolately warns that “even excellent intelligence will not prevent all surprises.” Today’s tragic events in Syria were also anticipated by one statement that addressed the growing likelihood of foreign crises “replete with atrocities and the deliberate terrorizing of civilian populations.”


Fortunately, the report’s most breathless prediction concerning the likelihood of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has not come to pass. But this is not for want of terrorists trying to obtain such capabilities. Indeed, prior to the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had embarked upon an ambitious quest to acquire and develop an array of such weapons that, had it been successful, would have altered to an unimaginable extent our most basic conceptions about national security and rendered moot debates over whether terrorism posed a potentially existential threat.


But just how effective have terrorist efforts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction actually been? The September 11, 2001, attacks were widely noted for their reliance on relatively low-tech weaponry—the conversion, in effect, of airplanes into missiles by using raw physical muscle and box cutters to hijack them. Since then, efforts to gain access to WMD have been unceasing. But examining those efforts results in some surprising conclusions. While there is no cause for complacency, they do suggest that terrorists face some inherent constraints that will be difficult for them to overcome. It is easier to proclaim the threat of mass terror than to perpetrate it.


THE TERRORIST ATTACKS attacks on September 11 completely recast global perceptions of threat and vulnerability. Long-standing assumptions that terrorists were more interested in publicity than in killing were dramatically swept aside in the rising crescendo of death and destruction.

The butcher’s bill that morning was without parallel in the annals of modern terrorism. Throughout the entirety of the twentieth century no more than fourteen terrorist incidents had killed more than a hundred people, and until September 11 no terrorist operation had ever killed more than five hundred people in a single attack. Viewed from another perspective, more than twice as many Americans perished within those excruciating 102 minutes than had been killed by terrorists since 1968—the year widely accepted as marking the advent of modern, international terrorism.


So massive and consequential a terrorist onslaught naturally gave rise to fears that a profound threshold in terrorist constraint and lethality had been crossed. Renewed fears and concerns were in turn generated that terrorists would now embrace an array of deadly nonconventional weapons in order to inflict even greater levels of death and destruction than had occurred that day. Attention focused specifically on terrorist use of WMD, and the so-called Cheney Doctrine emerged to shape America’s national-security strategy. The doctrine derived from former vice president Dick Cheney’s reported statement that “if there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” What the “one percent doctrine” meant in practice, according to one observer, was that “even if there’s just a one percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it’s a certainty.” Countering the threat of nonconventional-weapons proliferation—whether by rogue states arrayed in an “axis of evil” or by terrorists who might acquire such weapons from those same states or otherwise develop them on their own—thus became one of the central pillars of the Bush administration’s time in office.


In the case of Al Qaeda, at least, these fears were more than amply justified. That group’s interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon reportedly commenced as long ago as 1992—a mere four years after its creation. An attempt by an Al Qaeda agent to purchase uranium from South Africa was made either late the following year or early in 1994 without success. Osama bin Laden’s efforts to obtain nuclear material nonetheless continued, as evidenced by the arrest in Germany in 1998 of a trusted senior aide named Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, who was attempting to purchase enriched uranium. And that same year, the Al Qaeda leader issued a proclamation in the name of the “International Islamic Front for Fighting the Jews and Crusaders.” Titled “The Nuclear Bomb of Islam,” the proclamation declared that “it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God.” When asked several months later by a Pakistani journalist whether Al Qaeda was “in a position to develop chemical weapons and try to purchase nuclear material for weapons,” bin Laden replied: “I would say that acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty.”


Bin Laden’s continued interest in nuclear weaponry was also on display at the time of the September 11 attacks. Two Pakistani nuclear scientists named Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed spent three days that August at a secret Al Qaeda facility outside Kabul. Although their discussions with bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda officials also focused on the development and employment of chemical and biological weapons, Mahmood—the former director for nuclear power at Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission—claimed that bin Laden’s foremost interest was in developing a nuclear weapon.


The movement’s efforts in the biological-warfare realm, however, were far more advanced and appear to have begun in earnest with a memo written by al-Zawahiri on April 15, 1999, to Muhammad Atef, then deputy commander of Al Qaeda’s military committee. Citing articles published in Science, the Journal of Immunology and the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as information gleaned from authoritative books such as Tomorrow’s Weapons, Peace or Pestilence and Chemical Warfare, al-Zawahiri outlined in detail his thoughts on the priority to be given to developing a biological-weapons capability.


One of the specialists recruited for this purpose was a U.S.-trained Malaysian microbiologist named Yazid Sufaat. A former captain in the Malaysian army, Sufaat graduated from the California State University in

1987 with a degree in biological sciences. He later joined Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya (the “Islamic Group”), an Al Qaeda affiliate operating in Southeast Asia, and worked closely with its military operations chief, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, and with Hambali’s own Al Qaeda handler, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—the infamous KSM, architect of the September

11 attacks.


In January 2000, Sufaat played host to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who stayed in his Kuala Lumpur condominium.

Later that year, Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “twentieth hijacker,” who was sentenced in 2006 to life imprisonment by a federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, also stayed with Sufaat. Under KSM’s direction, Hambali and Sufaat set up shop at an Al Qaeda camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where their efforts focused on the weaponization of anthrax. Although the two made some progress, biowarfare experts believe that on the eve of September 11 Al Qaeda was still at least two to three years away from producing a sufficient quantity of anthrax to use as a weapon.


Meanwhile, a separate team of Al Qaeda operatives was engaged in a parallel research-and-development project to produce ricin and chemical-warfare agents at the movement’s Derunta camp, near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. As one senior U.S. intelligence officer who prefers to remain anonymous explained, “Al Qaeda’s WMD efforts weren’t part of a single program but rather multiple compartmentalized projects involving multiple scientists in multiple locations.”


The Derunta facility reportedly included laboratories and a school that trained handpicked terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Among this select group was Kamal Bourgass, an Algerian Al Qaeda operative who was convicted in British courts in 2004 and 2005 for the murder of a British police officer and of “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of poisons or explosives.” The school’s director was an Egyptian named Midhat Mursi—better known by his Al Qaeda nom de guerre, Abu Kebab—and among its instructors were a Pakistani microbiologist and Sufaat. When U.S.

military forces overran the camp in 2001, evidence of the progress achieved in developing chemical weapons as diverse as hydrogen cyanide, chlorine and phosgene was discovered. Mursi himself was killed in 2008 by a missile fired from a U.S. Predator drone.


Mursi’s death dealt another significant blow to Al Qaeda’s efforts to develop nonconventional weapons—but it did not end them. In fact, as the aforementioned senior U.S. intelligence officer recently commented, “Al Qaeda’s ongoing procurement efforts have been well-established for awhile now . . . They haven’t been highlighted in the U.S. media, but that isn’t the same as it not happening.” In 2010, for instance, credible intelligence surfaced that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—widely considered the movement’s most dangerous and capable affiliate—was deeply involved in the development of ricin, a bioweapon made from castor beans that the FBI has termed the third most toxic substance known, behind only plutonium and botulism.


Then, in May 2013, Turkish authorities seized two kilograms of sarin nerve gas—the same weapon used in the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system—and arrested twelve men linked to Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al Nusra Front.

Days later, another set of sarin-related arrests was made in Iraq of Al Qaeda operatives based in that country who were separately overseeing the production of sarin and mustard blistering agents at two or more locations.


Finally, Israel admitted in November 2013 that for the past three years it had been holding a senior Al Qaeda operative whose expertise was in biological warfare. “The revelations over his alleged biological weapons links,” one account noted of the operative’s detention, “come amid concerns that Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria are attempting to procure bioweapons—and may already have done so.”


Indeed, Syria’s ongoing civil war and the prominent position of two key Al Qaeda affiliates—Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—along with other sympathetic jihadi entities in that epic struggle, coupled with the potential access afforded to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, suggest that we have likely not heard the last of Al Qaeda’s ambitions to obtain nerve agents, poison gas and other harmful toxins for use as mass-casualty weapons.


NONETHELESS, A fundamental paradox appears to exist so far as terrorist capabilities involving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are concerned. As mesmerizingly attractive as these nonconventional weapons remain to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, they have also mostly proven frustratingly disappointing to whoever has tried to use them. Despite the extensive use of poison gas during World War I, for instance, this weapon accounted for only 5 percent of all casualties in that conflict.

Reportedly, it required some sixty pounds of mustard gas to produce even a single casualty. Even in more recent times, chemical weapons claimed the lives of less than 1 percent (five thousand) of the six hundred thousand Iranians who died in the Iran-Iraq war. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo succeeded in killing no more than thirteen people in its attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995. And, five years earlier, no fatalities resulted from a Tamil Tigers assault on a Sri Lankan armed forces base in East Kiran that employed chlorine gas. In fact, the wind changed and blew the gas back into the Tigers’ lines, thus aborting the attack.


Biological weapons have proven similarly difficult to deploy effectively.

Before and during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army carried out nearly a dozen attacks using a variety of germ agents—including cholera, dysentery, bubonic plague, anthrax and paratyphoid, disseminated through both air and water—against Chinese forces. Not once did these weapons decisively affect the outcome of a battle. And, in the 1942 assault on Chekiang, ten thousand Japanese soldiers themselves became ill, and nearly two thousand died, from exposure to these agents. “The Japanese program’s principal defect, a problem to all efforts so far,” the American terrorism expert David Rapoport concluded, was “an ineffective delivery system.”


The challenges inherent in using germs as weapons are borne out by the research conducted for more than a decade by Seth Carus, a researcher at the National Defense University. Carus has assembled perhaps the most comprehensive database of the use of biological agents by a wide variety of adversaries, including terrorists, government operatives, ordinary criminals and the mentally unstable. His exhaustive research reveals that no more than a total of ten people were killed and less than a thousand were made ill as a result of about two hundred incidents of bioterrorism or biocrime. Most of which, moreover, entailed the individual poisoning of specific people rather than widespread, indiscriminate attacks.


The formidable challenges of obtaining the material needed to construct a nuclear bomb, along with the fabrication and dissemination difficulties involving the use of noxious gases and biological agents, perhaps account for the operational conservatism long observed in terrorist tactics and weaponry. As politically radical or religiously fanatical as terrorists may be, they nonetheless to date have overwhelmingly seemed to prefer the tactical assurance of the comparatively modest effects achieved by the conventional weapons with which they are familiar, as opposed to the risk of failure inherent in the use of more exotic means of death and destruction.

Terrorists, as Brian Jenkins famously observed in 1985, thus continue to “appear to be more imitative than innovative.” Accordingly, what innovation does occur tends to take place in the realm of the clever adaptation or modification of existing tactics—such as turning hijacked passenger airliners into cruise missiles—or in the means and methods used to fabricate and detonate explosive devices, rather than in the use of some new or dramatically novel weapon.


THE TERRORISTS have thus functioned mostly in a technological vacuum: either aloof or averse to the profound changes that have fundamentally altered the nature of modern warfare. Whereas technological progress has produced successively more complex, lethally effective and destructively accurate weapons systems that are deployed from a variety of air, land, sea—and space—platforms, terrorists continue to rely, as they have for more than a century, on the same two basic “weapons systems”: the gun and the bomb.

Admittedly, the guns used by terrorists today have larger ammunition capacities and more rapid rates of fire than the simple revolver the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich used in 1878 to assassinate the governor-general of St. Petersburg. Similarly, bombs today require smaller amounts of explosives that are exponentially more powerful and more easily concealed than the sticks of TNT with which the Fenian dynamiters terrorized London more than a century ago. But the fact remains that the vast majority of terrorist incidents continue to utilize the same two attack modes.


Why is this? There are perhaps two obvious explanations: ease and cost.

Indeed, as Leonardo da Vinci is said to have observed in a completely different era and context, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The same can be said about most terrorist—and insurgent—weapons and tactics today.


Improvised explosive devices (IED) and bombs constructed of commercially available, readily accessible homemade materials now account for the lion’s share of terrorist—and insurgent—attacks. The use of two crude bombs packed in ordinary pressure cookers that killed three people and injured nearly three hundred others at last April’s Boston Marathon is among the more recent cases in point. Others include the succession of peroxide-based bombs that featured in the July 2005 suicide attacks on London transport, the 2006 plot to blow up seven American and Canadian airliners while in flight from Heathrow Airport to various destinations in North America, and the 2009 attempt to replicate the London transport bombings on the New York City subway system.


The account of the construction of the bombs intended for the New York City attack presented in the book Enemies Within vividly illustrates this point.

Written by two Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the book describes how the would-be bomber, an Afghanistan-born, permanent U.S. resident named Najibullah Zazi, easily purchased the ingredients needed for the device’s construction and then, following the instructions given to him by his Al Qaeda handlers in Pakistan, created a crude but potentially devastatingly lethal weapon:


    For weeks he’d been visiting beauty supply stores, filling his carts with hydrogen peroxide and nail polish remover. At the Beauty Supply Warehouse, among the rows of wigs, braids, and extensions, the manager knew him as Jerry. He said his girlfriend owned hair salons. There was no reason to doubt him.


    On pharmacy shelves, in the little brown plastic bottles, hydrogen peroxide is a disinfectant, a sting-free way to clean scrapes. Beauty salons use a more concentrated version to bleach hair or activate hair dyes. At even higher concentrations, it burns the skin. It is not flammable on its own, but when it reacts with other chemicals, it quickly releases oxygen, creating an environment ripe for explosions. . . . Even with a cheap stove, it’s easy to simmer water out of hydrogen peroxide, leaving behind something more potent. It takes time, and he had plenty of that.


Preparing the explosive initiator was only slightly more complicated, but considerably more dangerous. Hence, Zazi had to be especially careful. “He added the muriatic acid and watched as the chemicals crystallized,” the account continues:


    The crystals are known as triacetone triperoxide, or TATP. A spark, electrical current, even a bit of friction can set off an explosion. . . .


    The white crystal compound had been popular among Palestinian terrorists. It was cheap and powerful, but its instability earned it the nickname “Mother of Satan”. . . .


    When he was done mixing, he rinsed the crystals with baking soda and water to make his creation more stable. He placed the finished product in a wide-rimmed glass jar about the size of a coffee tin and inspected his work.

There would be enough for three detonators. Three detonators inside three backpacks filled with a flammable mixture and ball bearings—the same type of weapon that left 52 dead in London in 2005. . . .


    He was ready for New York.


These types of improvised weapons are not only devastatingly effective but also remarkably inexpensive, further accounting for their popularity. For example, the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, which investigated the 2005 London transport attacks, concluded that the entire operation cost less than £8,000 to execute. This sum included the cost of a trip to Pakistan so that the cell leader and an accomplice could acquire the requisite bomb-making skills at a secret Al Qaeda training camp in that country’s North-West Frontier Province; the purchase of all the needed equipment and ingredients once they were back in Britain; the rental of an apartment in Leeds that they turned into a bomb factory; car rentals and the purchase of cell phones; and other incidentals.


The cost-effectiveness of such homemade devices—and their appeal to terrorists—is of course not new. Decades ago, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) demonstrated the disproportionate effects and enormous damage that crude, inexpensive homemade explosive devices could achieve. In what was described as “the most powerful explosion in London since World War II,” a PIRA fertilizer bomb made with urea nitrate and diesel fuel exploded outside the Baltic Exchange in April 1992, killing three people, wounding ninety others, leaving a twelve-foot-wide crater—and causing $1.25 billion in damage. Exactly a year later, a similar bomb devastated the nearby Bishops Gate, killing one person and injuring more than forty others. Estimates put the damage of that blast at $1.5 billion.


Long a staple of PIRA operations, in the early 1990s fertilizer had cost the group on average 1 percent of a comparable amount of plastic explosive.

Although after adulteration fertilizer is admittedly far less powerful than plastic explosives, it also tends to cause more damage than plastic explosives because the energy of the blast is more sustained and less controlled.


Similarly, the homemade bomb used in the first attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 1993—consisting of urea nitrate derived from fertilizer but enhanced by three canisters of hydrogen gas to create a more powerful fuel-air explosion—produced a similarly impressive return on the terrorists’

investment. The device cost less than $400 to construct. Yet, it not only killed six people, injured more than a thousand others and gouged a 180-foot-wide crater six stories deep, but also caused an estimated $550 million in damages and lost revenue to the businesses housed there. The seaborne suicide-bomb attack seven years later on the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer anchored in Aden, Yemen, reportedly cost Al Qaeda no more than

$10,000 to execute. But, in addition to claiming the lives of seventeen American sailors and wounding thirty-nine others, it cost the U.S. Navy $250 million to repair the damage caused to the vessel.


THIS TREND toward the increased use of IEDs has had its most consequential and pernicious effects in Iraq and Afghanistan during our prolonged deployments there. As Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army officer and current Boston University professor, has written, “No matter how badly battered and beaten, the ‘terrorists’” on these and other recent battlefields were not “intimidated, remained unrepentant, and kept coming back for more, devising tactics against which forces optimized for conventional combat did not have a ready response.” He adds, “The term invented for this was ‘asymmetric conflict,’ loosely translated as war against adversaries who won’t fight the way we want them to.”


In Iraq and Afghanistan, both terrorists and insurgents alike have waged low-risk wars of attrition against American, British, allied and host military forces using a variety of IEDs with triggering devices as simple as garage-door openers, cordless phones and car key fobs to confound, if not hobble, among the most technologically advanced militaries in the history of mankind. “The richest, most-trained army got beat by dudes in manjammies and A.K.’s,” an American soldier observed to a New York Times reporter of one such bloody engagement in Afghanistan five years ago.


Indeed, terrorists and insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated the effectiveness of even poorly or modestly armed nonstate adversaries in confronting superior, conventional military forces and waging a deadly war of attrition designed in part to undermine popular support and resolve back home for these prolonged deployments. Equally worrisome, these battle environments have become spawning grounds for continued and future

violence: real-life training camps for jihadis and hands-on laboratories for the research and development of new and ever more deadly terrorist and insurgent tactics and techniques. “How do you stop foes who kill with devices built for the price of a pizza?” was the question posed by a Newsweek cover story about IEDs in 2007. “Maybe the question is,” it continued, “can you stop them?”


At one point, IEDs were responsible for nearly two-thirds of military fatalities caused by terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and a quarter of the military fatalities in Afghanistan. According to one authoritative account, there was an IED incident every fifteen minutes in Iraq during 2006. And, after the number of IED attacks had doubled in Afghanistan during 2009, this tactic accounted for three-quarters of military casualties in some areas.


These explosive devices often were constructed using either scavenged artillery or mortar shells, with military or commercial ordnance, or from entirely homemade ingredients. They were then buried beneath roadways, concealed among roadside refuse, hidden in animal carcasses or telephone poles, camouflaged into curbsides or secreted along the guard rails on the shoulders of roadways, put in boxes, or disguised as rocks or bricks strewn by the side of the road. As military vehicle armor improved, the bomb makers adapted and adjusted to these new force-protection measures and began to design and place IEDs in elevated positions, attaching them to road signs or trees, in order to impact the vehicles’ unarmored upper structure.


The method of detonation has also varied as U.S., allied and host forces have adapted to insurgent tactics. Command-wire detonators were replaced by radio-signal triggering devices such as cell phones and garage-door openers.

These devices were remote wired up to one hundred meters from the IED detonator to obviate jamming measures. More recently, infrared lasers have been used as explosive initiators. One or more artillery shells rigged with blasting caps and improvised shrapnel (consisting of bits of concrete, nuts, bolts, screws, tacks, ball bearings, etc.) have been the most commonly used, but the makeshift devices have also gradually become larger as multinational forces added more armor to their vehicles, with evidence from insurgent propaganda videos of aviation bombs of 500 lb. being used as IEDs. In some cases, these improvised devices are detonated serially—in “daisy chain”

explosions—designed to mow down quick-reaction forces converging on the scene following the initial blast and first wave of casualties.


By 2011, the U.S. Defense Department had spent nearly $20 billion on IED countermeasures—including new technologies, programs, and enhanced and constantly updated training. A “massive new military bureaucracy” had to be created to oversee this effort and itself was forced to create “unconventional processes for introducing new programs,” as a 2010 New America Foundation report put it. Yet, as the British Army found in its war against Jewish terrorists in Palestine seventy years ago, there is no easy or lasting solution to this threat. IED attacks had in fact become so pervasive in Palestine that in December 1946 British Army headquarters in Jerusalem issued a meticulously detailed thirty-five-page pamphlet, complete with photographs and diagrams, describing these weapons, their emplacement and their lethal effects. Even so, as military commanders and civilian authorities alike acknowledged at the time, IEDs were then as now virtually impossible to defend against completely.


Perhaps the most novel and innovative use of IEDs, however, has been when they have been paired with toxic chemicals. Much as the Iraq conflict has served as a proving ground for other terrorist weapons and tactics, it has also served this purpose with chemical weapons. Between 2007 and 2010, more than a dozen major truck-bomb attacks occurred in Iraq involving conventional explosions paired with chlorine gas.


The most serious incident, however, was one that was foiled by Jordanian authorities in April 2004. It involved the toxic release of chemicals into a crowded urban environment and was orchestrated by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder and leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Amman plot entailed the use of some twenty tons of chemicals and explosives to target simultaneously the prime minister’s office, the General Intelligence Department’s headquarters and the U.S. embassy. Although the main purpose of the coordinated operations was to conduct forced-entry attacks by suicide bombers against these three heavily protected, high-value targets, an ancillary intention is believed to have been the infliction of mass casualties on the surrounding areas by the noxious chemical agents deliberately released in the blasts. An estimated eighty thousand people, Jordanian authorities claim, would have been killed or seriously injured in the operation.


The above attacks in Iraq and the foiled incident in Amman all underscore the potential for terrorists to attack a domestic industrial chemical facility with a truck bomb or other large explosive device, with the purpose of triggering the release of toxic chemicals. In this respect, the effects of prior industrial accidents involving chemicals may exert a profound influence over terrorists. In 2005, for instance, a train crash and derailment in South Carolina released some sixty tons of liquefied chlorine into the air, killing nine people and injuring 250 others. Considerably more tragic, of course, was the 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide chemical facility in Bhopal, India. Some forty tons of methyl isocyanate were accidentally released into the environment and killed nearly four thousand people living around the plant. Methyl isocyanate is one of the more toxic chemicals used in industry, with a toxicity that is only a few percent less than that of sarin.


THE WAR ON terrorism today generates little interest and even less enthusiasm. A decade of prolonged military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan has drained both the treasuries and willpower of the United States, Great Britain and many other countries, as well as the ardor and commitment that attended the commencement of this global struggle over a dozen years ago. The killings of leading Al Qaeda figures such as bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki—along with some forty other senior commanders and hundreds of the group’s fighters—have sufficiently diminished the threat of terrorism to our war-weary, economically preoccupied nations.


But before we simply conclude that the threat from either Al Qaeda or terrorism has disappeared, it would be prudent to pause and reflect on the expansive dimensions of Al Qaeda’s WMD research-and-development efforts—and also to consider the continuing developments on the opposite end of the technological spectrum that have likewise transformed the threat against conventionally superior militaries and even against superpowers. Like it or not, the war on terrorism continues, abetted by the technological advances of our adversaries and thus far mercifully countered by our own technological prowess—and all the more so by our unyielding vigilance.


Bruce Hoffman is a contributing editor to The National Interest, a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, and a professor and director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

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