The danger is real
The danger is real because some groups are not only capable of acquiring NBC weapons, but also interested in causing mass casualties and willing to use those weapons for this particular purpose. The actual attempts made by individuals or groups to acquire and use NBC components reveal not only the presence but also the imminence of danger.
Above all, the perception of real and growing danger is clearly revealed in the tremendous number of published studies on terrorism, and is reflected in the declarations of important American officials and well-informed politicians. Consider, for example, what Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Fred Iklé wrote in March, 1997: “Alas, America’s future enemies…might use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, not only on the ‘ regional’ battlefield that Pentagon planners assign to them, but also in that unanticipated region of warfare- the United States itself.”
The danger is growing
(A) To begin with, groups or individuals are becoming more capable of acquiring, transporting, fabricating, hiding and using NBC components or weapons. In fact, “NBC weapons are becoming more accessible to a wider range of groups” . Recent studies indicate that “the acquisition of several types of improvised NBC weapons is actually growing easier, as the material, equipment, and expertise necessary for a successful effort – some not very hard to get in the first place – become more readily and widely available to non-state actors” . This increase in potential NBC capabilities is partly “ a bi-product of economic, educational, and technological progress”.
(B) In the second place, the number of capable groups having the interest in causing mass casualties and the intention to acquire and use NBC weapons for this specific purpose is increasing . The 1995 Tokyo Subway attack by members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo is a significant indication of this growing trend. Commenting on the frightening implications of this terrorist incident, Senator Sam Nunn declared in the U.S. Congress that “this attack signals the world has entered a new era” . In this connection, one analyst has written: “American apprehensions, reflected in dramatic congressional hearings, grew with the use of poison gas in Tokyo subways by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. The possibility that the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons might be added to the terrorist arsenal is chilling” .
(C) Another indication of the rapid growth of danger is the fact that “non-state violence appears to be growing more lethal: mass-casualty terrorist events are becoming more frequent, and the percentage of terrorist attacks that result in fatalities is increasing” . In the past, traditional terrorist groups were more interested in publicity than in inflicting mass casualties . To use Brian Jenkins’s famous words, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead” . To Jenkins, therefore, a terrorist act does not aim at killing for the sake of killing, but at sending a message to a wide audience. As he succinctly puts it: “Terrorism is theatre” .
These basic assumptions that Jenkins makes upon terrorism may not be applicable, however, to the new terrorists who intentionally aim at inflicting massive casualties. The nature of terrorism is changing in so far as the new terrorist structure and operational style are concerned . As one important study puts it, “the classic conceptual model of a terrorist organization – that of an established group with limited political aims, a strategy of controlled violence for achieving them, and an interest in self-preservation – appears to be breaking down. New groups are emerging with hazier objectives, shorter life spans, and a more direct interest in violence for its own sake, often for reasons rooted in religious fundamentalism or political radicalism”.
New terrorists have a decentralized structure with no well-defined command and control system . They are, in fact, “ad hoc collections of like-minded individuals who come together for specific purposes, sometimes to commit a single attack” . This makes them more capable of effectively eluding police surveillance. As some researchers put it, “Non-state actors are improving their ability to hide faster than states are improving their ability to seek”.
They are better able to operate undetected because they have at their disposal highly-developed communications and transportation systems, and because they have the skill of using modern technology very efficiently . In fact, the information revolution that brought about the computer and the Internet has, according to a leading expert on terrorism, “opened up possibilities for terrorists that did not exist before” . In this respect, FBI Director Louis Freeh notes that “the widespread use of robust unbreakable encryption ultimately will devastate our ability to fight crime and prevent terrorism. Unbreakable encryption will allow drug lords, spies, terrorists and even violent gangs to communicate about their crimes and their conspiracies with impunity” .
(D) Closely related to the rapid growth of danger is the quantitative and qualitative increase of religiously motivated terrorist groups. That religious violence is becoming more prevalent and more lethal, is a fact that has been recognized by many analysts and researchers . Of the various factors that account for terrorism’s increased lethality in recent years, one researcher suggests that “the most significant is perhaps the dramatic proliferation of terrorist groups motivated by a religious imperative” . This growing religious violence is essentially, however, an outward expression of an underlying political motive. As one writer puts it: “Religious terrorism is most likely to emerge when a spiritual cause coincides, and is reinforced by, major political developments that affect whole communities” . The same writer suggests that religious violence may be triggered by “nationalism resulting from a people’s lack of a homeland, as in the Palestinian case” .
Thus, the political motives behind the growth of religious violence cannot and should not be ignored. This fact leads the observer to ask and important question: Is it a coincidence that the United States, as the predominant power in world affairs, has been the main target of this increasing religious terrorism?
(E) The ascendance of the United States as the only superpower, with worldwide involvement, makes it an increasingly attractive target of covert NBC attack. Many analysts feel that “the risk of mass casualty terrorism against U.S. targets is growing most rapidly” in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, a region in which U.S. presence and influence are great. They point out that “certain strands of Islam, particularly some elements of radical Shi’ism are profoundly hostile to what some Islamists perceive as the dominance of the Muslim lands by foreign powers, especially the United States. Radicalized by a long colonial history, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the 1990-91 Gulf War, significant numbers of Muslims see the U.S. regional presence and influence as fundamentally incompatible with Islamic fait...”. In short, “the ascendance of Western culture and U.S. power in the post-Cold War international system is making the United States and its allies increasingly attractive as targets of terrorism”.
Vulnerability of the United States
One of the most significant and conspicuous features of American urban life is the megalopolis, a vast and crowded area where people “live, work, and travel in close proximity” . Such crowded open centers provide the terrorists with a very wide array of possible mass-casualty targets. “Should one target become difficult, a multitude of other targets are available”.
The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by Islamic militants within the U.S, and the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by right-wing American radicals, are two significant domestic incidents that show the reality of the danger and the vulnerability of American society. As one American researcher puts it: “the bombing of the World Trade Center and of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City have demonstrated the vulnerability to political violence within our own borders and by our own citizens. They have also shown that the damage is likely to grow. Each involved a massive explosion in a densely populated area using easily obtained materials.”
In contrast, the security forces have very limited options for protection, for they cannot protect all possible targets. Thus, no matter what security measures the authorities may take, there is no perfect defense or immunity.
Other factors that make American society more vulnerable are: the highly advanced and sophisticated communication systems available to terrorists; the wide variety of transportation means that the attackers may use; the difficulty of fully controlling the border and long coast line, and the flow of goods and movement of people, within the country.
The vulnerability may also depend, as said earlier, on its heterogeneous, multi-ethnic and multi-religious social structure. Within such a structural context, if a society is a real melting pot, there exist no serious problem. If, however, it is a mosaic of suspicious and hostile communities, then it is highly vulnerable.
Again, another factor of vulnerability may come from its culture and way of life. On the one hand, the spirit of individualism makes people isolated from one another, a fact that helps terrorist groups to operate unnoticed . On the other hand, the legal protection of individual civil liberties makes it easy for terrorists to move about without being detected by the police. As one researcher puts it, in the United States “…people are free to move without notifying anyone in advance, and to do more or less as they please in their homes and businesses with constitutionally protected rights against arbitrary search and arrest”.
Further more, covert NBC attacks in crowded metropolitan areas have far-reaching effects, not only on the present but also on the future. In fact, a successful NBC attack against civilian target would be like an earthquake that shatters everything; for the material and human damage resulting from such an attack would eventually shatter not only the foundations of the state, but also the cornerstones of society. No doubt, the catastrophic consequences that the experts on NBC terrorism point out are so inter-dependant that they may be described as a chain reaction. Whether the attackers used nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, catastrophe is shocking and tragic in its dimensions. This is mainly because a terrorist operation that occurs within a few seconds may turn upside down a person’s relations, whether its relation to nature or to other persons as well. More important perhaps, the tragic shock may lead to a reconsideration of that person’s relationship with himself, to the reappraisal of his hierarchy of values, and to a different view of his position in time and space. The first and most obvious consequence of a successful attack with NBC weapons would be the enormous amount of casualties in human life . In a covert NBC attack, it is estimated that the number of victims killed by blast, heat or poisoning might exceed 100,000 souls. Equally horrifying is the fact that the potential number of sick, wounded, or incapacitated people who survive such an attack may be far more shocking than one can imagine. In addition, a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction can cause immediate and long-term environmental damage. The area affected by the attack may become uninhabitable for a long time. By contaminating the air, water and soil, and NBC attack may change nature from a friend to an enemy. The radioactive waste resulting from a nuclear attack and the poisons that are silently disseminated in a biological or chemical attack are so dangerous and lethal that they threaten the natural habitat, causing disease or death in not only human but also animal and plant populations . The contaminating effect of these poisons has been aptly expressed by one writer: “They contaminate the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Ingestion and nourishment, normally linked to life, become linked to defilement and death”.
Equally terrifying are the devastating psychological effects that an attack with weapons of mass destruction may produce. Such an attack against a civilian population would trigger “a panic far in excess of the real effects of the weapons”.
This panic would lead an enormous number of extremely terrified people to behave in an involuntary, exaggerated and irrational manner. More dangerous at the psychological level is the panic triggered by an attack with biological weapons, because a biological attack may not be immediately identifiable, the authorities may find it very difficult to specify the area it contaminates, or to limit its geographic extent.
This devastating panic may also spread among the government personnel in charge of rescue. Firefighters, policemen and other emergency personnel may forget their training and follow their instinct . When they panic, these rescuers may themselves be injured. They may even flee and refuse to carry out their duties.
At the economic level, the damage caused by and NBC attack may be enormous. In the infected area, the damage will affect the infrastructure and all means of production an distribution. The overall damage to the national economy will also be tremendous due to loss of productivity resulting from the death or injury of workers, the contamination of work places, and the general paralysis of the nation’s economy.
At the socio-political level, society could be destabilized, for citizens could lose confidence in the government and question its ability to provide security for the people.
Citizens may also look with fear and suspicion at other citizens who belong to different ethnic or religious groups . The Government may also discriminate against sizable minority groups, a fact that may result in “alienating significant portions of the population” . In addition, the government might curtail civil liberties, and this may substantially change the American way of life . At the international level, an NBC attack against targets within the United States may weaken America’s prestige and position in the world. It may undermine the reputation and credibility of the United States among its allies.
In all likelihood, however, the United States may decide to strike back in order to show its citizens, friends and allies “that it is far from powerless, that it is not as vulnerable as it has been made to seem.”