- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2008

A recurring question at the forefront of most intelligence agencies since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks concerns the ongoing efforts by terrorist groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological and mostly nuclear.

Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons all come with advantages and disadvantages [-] for the terrorist, that is.

Of the three sorts, biological weapons might be the easiest to reproduce safely in a lab, assuming one knows what to do. A biological agent, as a weapon of mass destruction or a terror weapon, is the least expensive as well as the easiest to disseminate. A biological agent does not need a delivery mechanism and can be transported by one person. It can pass undetected through customs and border guards, given that it is odorless and colorless.

All that is needed to spread an epidemic of botulism, for example, or mad cow disease is to hang around a truck stop for a few hours until a semi pulling a load of cattle on its way to market drives in. Wait until the driver leaves his load unattended, then scrub a previously infected rag around the railings and the mouths of a few of the cattle, and let nature do the rest. The disadvantage, for the terrorist, is that the person carrying the rag is likely to become infected. However, with no shortage of jihadists queuing up to become “martyrs,” finding two or three volunteers willing to die a horrible, slow and excruciatingly painful death should be no problem.

From a financial and cost-effective perspective, biological agents remain the cheapest and, in all probability, the most likely agents of mass destruction to become available to terrorist groups.

In their haste to leave training camps and bases of operation in Afghanistan in the wake of rapidly advancing U.S. forces, al Qaeda agents left behind piles of documents, including videotapes showing tests and the effects of chemical agents on animals.

Chemical weapons are more cumbersome to produce, require larger amounts to cause enough damage to leave a psychological scar and require a delivery mechanism such as an artillery shell.

A biological agent can cause far more deaths than a nuclear weapon, because it is not limited geographically, unlike a nuclear bomb. For example, an infected truck driver in Omaha, Neb., infects an Army sergeant he meets in a diner outside Tulsa, Okla.

The sergeant travels by plane to New York, where he changes planes, boarding one bound for Frankfurt, Germany. Again, he changes planes, this time flying to Kuwait, where he joins up with several members of his unit heading into Iraq. Along the way, the sergeant has infected scores of people at every airport between Omaha and Baghdad.

Those people in turn would have traveled on to Australia, South America, Canada, European cities and other parts of the world. Within a few days, people from Sydney, Australia, to Seattle could start dying.

A nuclear device, on the other hand, would devastate the immediate area and, depending on its size, contaminate everything in a radius of several miles, but the damage would be confined to the immediate area of detonation, plus the fallout zone. In addition, depending on the wind direction and speed, radioactive particles could be carried hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. But the image of a nuclear blast carries greater impact psychologically.

Brian Michael Jenkins, who has just released a book titled “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?” writes, “There is no doubt that the idea of nuclear weapons may appeal to terrorists.” However, Mr. Jenkins stresses: “Nuclear terror can also have another insidious effect, one that imperils our very democracy. Terrorism does pose a terrible danger, but our fear of real and imagined threats must not persuade us to diminish our freedoms or our core values. There is no tradeoff between security and liberty. One does not exist without the other.”

As Mr. Jenkins points out, it is important to differentiate between real and existing threats. A perfect illustration is his description of al Qaeda: “Al Qaeda may have succeeded in becoming the world’s first terrorist nuclear power without possessing a single nuclear weapon.”

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