- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2000

The spectacular suicide attack on the USS Cole underscores once again the growing reality that modern terrorists are capable of carrying out "warfare-on-the-cheap" complex operations. This chilling reminder of America's vulnerability forces us to ponder the next phases of terrorism with grave concern.

In the short term, the United States has instituted "Threat Condition Delta" (the highest state of security alert) after specific threats of terrorist attacks directed against American civilian and military targets in the Middle East were identified. Out of this concern, U.S. Navy ships have stopped using the Suez Canal and Americans have been warned not to travel to the region.

One of the critical areas that requires particular consideration is "superterrorism" with tomorrow's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) biological, chemical and nuclear. These weapons are capable of producing from thousands to millions of casualties on a single attack and causing governmental disruption of major proportions, as well as unprecedented economic dislocations and widespread public panic.

Two factors suggest the likely development of more destructive forms of terrorism in the foreseeable future. First, changes in the political, social and economic environment could motivate terrorists to master the technology necessary to fabricate and use WMD. And second, bringing current conventional terrorism under substantial control through national and international legislation, increased security and enforcement measures, as well as pre-emptive and punitive strikes might, in fact, hasten the advent of unconventional types of terrorism.

Despite this stark assessment, there is disagreement in the academic and policy-making communities on the magnitude of the WMD terrorist threat. Some critics argue extensive government programs to prevent, detect and respond to WMD weapons exaggerate the threat and only raise the level of anxiety. Still, the likely consequences, especially for nuclear terrorism should it occur, are particularly significant. The worst-case scenario of large-scale casualties and destruction may be the only likely outcome of a nuclear terrorist's attack, unless there are concerted measures to intercede at an early stage.

For instance, a crude nuclear fission bomb fashioned from stolen nuclear material by a terrorist group with appropriate talent and planning would cause tens of thousands of fatalities and damage costing hundreds of millions of dollars if exploded in a major city. Or a stolen nuclear weapon could have even greater consequences.

Short of an actual explosion, nuclear terrorists have a wide range of other tactics, including making a credible threat or hoax to use a nuclear weapon, holding a stolen nuclear weapon for blackmail, exploding a radiological device to spread nuclear waste, launching a rocket attack on a nuclear reactor, or bringing a reactor to meltdown. Thus, Chechens buried radioactive material in a Moscow park in 1995, and, last September ,officials in Ukraine foiled a terrorist plot to overthrow the government and seize the operating nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

Indeed, thousands of nuclear weapons and hundreds of tons of nuclear materials stored in Russia are still at risk of being stolen or traded on the black market, even after an almost decade-long U.S.-financed effort initiated by Sens. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, and Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, to tackle the nuclear security problem. To survive, unemployed former Soviet weapons scientists are being tempted to sell their skills for making nuclear weapons and delivery systems to interested rogue states, such as Iran and Iraq, and to terrorist groups.

The intentions and actions of the al Qaida international network of Osama bin Laden is a prime example of the "new terrorism." As early as 1993, an affiliate terrorist group, Liberation Army 5th Battalion (which was involved in the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City), warned that its operatives would select U.S. nuclear targets. Last December, a close associate of bin Laden was indicted in a Manhattan federal court on charges of conspiring to buy enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and seeking links with Iran.

What, then, are the lessons for the next administration in the White House? First, so long as groups and governments oppose our values, policies and actions, Americans will continue to be at risk at home and abroad. Second, it is a fiction to assume terrorism will continue on a conventional level on land, sea and air. Third, the probability of threats involving WMD, particularly nuclear terrorism, will greatly surpass anything experienced thus far. Fourth, we must place the threat of both conventional and unconventional terrorism as a top priority of the United States, ranking alongside such issues as strategic arms control and national missile defense. And fifth, international cooperation focusing on implementation of existing counterterrorism multilateral agreements is crucial to long-term deterrence of terrorism.

Yonah Alexander is the director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington. Milton Hoenig is a nuclear physicist based in D.C.

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