John V. Parachini
Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies
Before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations
Combating Terrorism: Assessing the Threat
October 20, 1999
I want to thank you, other committee members and your staff for inviting me to share my views on the threat posed by terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) and the General Accounting Office=s (GAO) recent report on the subject. I commend you and the committee for searching for a better understanding of the terrorist chemical and biological weapons threat to the United States.
Considerable governmental funding and energy has been applied to counter the danger of terrorists using unconventional weapons materials in the United States; however, considerably less effort seems to have been made to fully understand the nature of the threat. I am concerned that much of the momentum for this government wide effort to improve our capabilities to combat the threat of CBW terrorism, and to manage the consequences should an attack ever occur, has been based on worst-case scenarios. These worst-case scenarios tend to be shaped by perceptions of vulnerabilities and the availability of know-how and materials for perpetrating a CBW attack and do not take into account other key factors. A more comprehensive approach is needed to build scenarios that more accurately reflect the nature of the threat.
Now is an appropriate historical juncture to step back and make sure that the US government is acting and spending smart and not just talking and spending big. An essential first step towards this end is a thorough threat assessment that includes more than an assessment of vulnerabilities and the ease of acquiring certain weapons critical technologies. The threat of CBW terrorism is simply too serious to approach in any other fashion. In this regard, I praise the GAO=s repeated call for the relevant law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct thorough national threat assessments on a periodic basis. As I will note below, re-examining previous incidents can be very important as new information becomes available with the passage of time.
Our national vulnerabilities to a terrorist CBW attack and the technical possibilities of such an attack are just some of the aspects that should be considered when formulating a judgement about this unconventional terrorist threat. By emphasizing national vulnerabilities and technology proliferation that could reach the hands of terrorists, we naturally drift towards technological remedies to the terrorist CBW threat. Techno-optimism of Americans is one of our great national qualities. However, we must guard against looking for the technological silver bullet and ignoring other non-technological options to curb the problem. The dilemma of this terrorist challenge is that while the likelihood of terrorist use of unconventional weapons material is slim, the potential consequences could be catastrophic. The government must figure out how to assess the risk and allocate finite resources to meet the demands of the risk. Simply pouring resources, no matter how plentiful, in directions policy makers believe are appropriate without undertaking a thorough, systematic review, may very likely lead us to just spend money, not spend it wisely.
From 1993 until 1996 three terrorist incidents and a series of congressional hearings significantly shaped our national perception of the terrorist threat and the prospect that terrorists might resort to weapons of mass destruction. The World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and the Tokyo subway Sarin attack all signaled a new age of terrorism. Greater texture was given to all three of these events in a set of Senate hearings chaired by Senators Roth and Nunn of the Committee on Governmental Affairs.
In the period since these events and these important hearings, new information and more extensive analysis suggest that some of the findings in the hearings may have been premature. Thus, the combination of these unprecedented tragic incidents and the initial conclusions from these hearings, media coverage of these events and these hearings, statements by some members of the legislative and executive branches of government and national security experts, have led to a characterization of the CBW terrorist threat that may not necessarily square with several recent analyses that benefit from temporal distance from the events in questions. Given the significant departure from previous terrorist events, these incidents of the 1990s shaped our approach to the threat. Similarly, the senate hearings and the three volume report they generated were extremely valuable. However, the perception of the threat spawned by these sources has begun to outpace the facts. Once again, now is an appropriate time for the Congress, the executive branch, responsible authorities and scholars to re-examine our perceptions of the CBW terrorist threat in the United States.
Recent studies of the CBW terrorism issue by researchers at the RAND Corporation, the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, the University of Maryland, Harvard University and my colleagues at the Monterey Institute, to name just a few, are helping to establish a new and more complete understanding of the threat that should facilitate more appropriately tailored policy responses and spending patterns. Common to all these efforts is a determined effort to understand the perpetrators of these criminal acts, the facts of the cases and their implications for future counter terrorism and emergency response policy. Calibrating the threat of sub-national groups and individuals who might be motivated and capable of carrying out a terrorist attack with chemical and biological weapons will help focus law enforcement and intelligence resources on the most likely threats. Similarly, understanding the motivations and behavior patterns of the perpetrators of these attacks will help law enforcement authorities cull the hoaxes from cases of genuine concern. And finally, greater familiarity with the range of terrorist behavioral patterns, preferred types of weapons and delivery methods will aide in the development of the most effective medical countermeasures and consequence management activities should the unlikely event actually occur. At the moment, I fear, many governmental efforts to address the CBW terrorist threat may not be geared to the most likely threats.
Case Studies of Terrorist Motivations and Behavioral Patterns
At the Monterey Institute of International Studies we are engaged in a multi-year effort to examine thoroughly the threat of terrorist use of unconventional weapons materials. Our research has focused on the motivations and behavioral patterns of terrorists who have actually used, threatened or tried to acquire chemical and biological weapons. The product of our first phase of research is a volume entitled Toxic Terror that will be published by MIT press in January. Edited by my colleague Dr. Jonathan Tucker, this volume includes 12 case studies of terrorist incidents in which chemical and biological weapons were or were alleged to have been involved. I contributed two case studies to this volume and I am currently managing the next phase of our research that involves 15 new case studies (See attachment of two sets of case studies).
In these case studies, each of the researchers apply the same set of questions to their particular cases such that we can systematically compare the cases. We focus our research on primary source materials. When possible, the case study authors interview the terrorists, people who know them, the arresting officials, and the prosecuting authorities. Similarly, the case study authors review the terrorists= published statements, writings, records from court proceedings and any other primary sources that may give some indication about what motivated them to seek these unconventional weapons materials, the dynamics of their organizations, how they decided upon their targets, what skills they needed to procure and deliver their weapons and what foiled their plans and led to their arrest. One of the primary objectives of our research has been to establish a baseline understanding of terrorist motivations and patterns of behavior concerning the acquisition and use of chemical and biological weapons.
We recognize that the history is not a perfect guide to the future, but without any understanding of the historical record, people are merely speculating about what actions terrorists might take. We intend to continue conducting case studies to hone our qualitative understanding and build up our data set. Additionally, parallel to this qualitative case study research, my Monterey Institute colleagues Jason Pate and Diana McCauley are leading a team in building a database of terrorist incidents with unconventional weapons materials that now includes more than 520 cases. The cumulative result of this quantitative and qualitative research is a baseline understanding rooted in a thorough examination of the historical record.
Some general observations emerge from this body of research. First, several of the cases commonly cited in the scholarly literature as incidents where terrorists sought to or succeeded in employing chemical or biological weapons turned out to be apocryphal. Upon further inspection, three of the twelve cases examined, which are frequently cited in the scholarly literature, lack sufficient evidence to be considered as actual incidents of CBW terrorism. This is an important finding because an inflated and flawed data set will lead us to falsely appraise the threat and may lead to imperfect policy prescriptions for addressing it.
Second, contrary to much of the popular discussion of terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons, employing chemical and biological weapons for terrorist purposes is technically complex. Procuring the proper materials, fashioning them into a weapon, maintaining an organization that avoids infiltration or detection, and finally, delivering the weapon to a meaningful target, is far more difficult than often portrayed in many Hollywood films, the popular press and as sometimes described by elected or appointed officials.
Third, according to the historical record, attacks with chemical and biological weapons are strikingly infrequent and the number of fatalities and casualties are far lower than those caused by conventional explosives. According to an analysis of 105 US incidents featured in the Monterey Institute database from 1900 to 1998, only one fatality resulted from a CBW terrorist attack. This incident involved a 1973 assassination of an Oakland, California school superintendent by the Symbionese Liberation Army. In the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, 12 people eventually died and several hundred people suffered injuries from exposure, not the figure of 5,000 that is frequently cited. More than 5,000 people went to hospitals following the attack, but only a fraction of those people actually suffered from exposure to chemical agent. In contrast, 6 people died and more than 1,000 were injured in the World Trade Center bombing. One-hundred sixty-eight people died in the Oklahoma City bombing and several hundred were injured. The bombings of the US embassies in Africa resulted in 252 deaths and over 5,000 injured. Thus, given how vulnerable we believe we are to terrorist CBW attacks, surprisingly few incidents have actually occurred and attacks with conventional explosives have proved to be far more deadly.
Based on this initial set of case studies contained in Toxic Terror, we identified six common characteristics. Some of these characteristics are common to many groups, and others begin to etch a profile that law enforcement, emergency response and intelligence officials should consider carefully as they were grapple with the threat and consequences of terrorist use of chemical or biological weapons. The six characteristics we identified are: charismatic leadership, no external constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, a sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defense aggression. Of these six characteristics, the two that were present in all of the cases of actual CBW use warrant thorough examination: no outside constituency and a sense of paranoia and grandiosity.
Cults, loners and splinter groups are by their very nature often isolated from society. Lacking outside constituencies, these types of terrorist entities operate without any moderating influences. The Aum Shrinrikyo, R.I.S.E., the Rasneeshees and the Christian Identity group, the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), are all groups or individuals that fit this pattern. Another characteristic of these groups is their apocalytic vision. They lived in the confines of their own organization or self created world without the social constraints of society. They believed that they were superior to others who operated outside their world vision. When challenged, these groups all asserted defensive aggression. In the case of the Aum Shrinrikyo, they conducted their attack on the train lines crossing central Tokyo right near the main police station just as law enforcement authorities were closing in on them. All of these behavioral traits served to melt away the normal social restraints that keep people for employing chemical and biological weapons to get their way in the world.
In the cases examined in Toxic Terror, key group members exhibited a sense of paranoia and grandiosity. The sense of paranoia caused group members to act impulsively with little regard for the consequences of their actions. The sense of grandiosity allowed members to believe they could survive any adverse physical or social implications of their actions. Perceiving themselves as superior, they believed themselves above the earthly implications of causing indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Moreover, by inflicting mass death on others they affirmed in their minds their power and superiority. This is a very dangerous, self-reinforcing cycle. Fortunately, as noted before, the people who think this way tend to be amateur terrorists unable to harness the technical complexity of chemical and biological weapons and maintain effective group cohesion to fulfill their twisted vision. While the rise of groups interested in using chemical and biological weapons has increased in the 1990s, they have distinctive limitations that tend to hamper their capabilities to undertake the technically daunting task of a chemical or biological weapons attack.
The groups and individuals studied reveal another notable feature of the terrorist who seeks to inflict mass casualties: they tend to be amateur terrorists whose chemical or biological weapons attacks are ill-conceived and ineffective. Several of the case studies in Toxic Terror illustrate this point. For example, the 1970s eco-terrorist group R.I.S.E. planned to wipe out the entire planet with several different microbial pathogens and then repopulate the world with their own genes. They eventually scaled back their attack to contaminating the urban water supplies in the Chicago area. The plot was thwarted when group members informed the FBI. In another case during the mid 1980s, Covenant, the Sword and the Arms of the Lord (CSA) believed it could overthrow the US government and facilitate the return of the Messiah. They acquired 30 gallons of potassium cyanide that they planned to put into urban water supplies believing that God would direct the poison to kill only nonbelievers, minorities and non-whites living in big cities. The FBI penetrated the group before they could attempt to carry out their scheme. And finally, in the World Trade Center bombing, one of conspirators returned to the rental car company to obtain the deposit on the van used in the bombing. Turned away on his first attempt, the individual returned again, but this time under cover FBI agents arrested him. The amateurishness of these cults and lone individual actors tends to be a self-limiting factor on their capabilities. While these groups are difficult for law enforcement authorities to penetrate, the historical record also suggests that their practices limit their ability to conduct the type of attack we most fear.
All of these characteristics distinguished the terrorist groups inclined to employ unconventional weapons materials from the traditional terrorist groups of the past. Traditional ethno-nationalist/separatist and ideological terrorist groups eschewed unconventional weapons, because as Brian Jenkins insightfully noted a decade ago, terrorists Afind it unnecessary to kill many, as long as killing a few suffices for their purposes.@ Moreover, traditional terrorist groups targeted symbolic targets, killed specific persons they blamed for exploitation and oppression, and modulated their activities to garner attention without sapping the support they sought from current or potential followers. In some cases, terrorist operatives viewed themselves as governments in exile. They could not afford or did not wish to completely alienate domestic constituents or international benefactors. In the case of cults and lone individuals, however, the restraints imposed by external constituencies do not exist.
Thus, based on our examination of the historical record, only a small number of groups or individuals were actually motivated to employ chemical or biological weapons, and most of them were unable to surmount the formidable technical hurdles to be produce a mass casualty event. Truly determined individuals or groups will turn to conventional high explosives when their efforts to employ chemical or biological weapons stall. Those groups or individuals who continue to pursue unconventional weapons materials because of a particular fascination with poisons or diseases, fortunately, may be limited by their capabilities. Hoaxes and small scale attacks with chemical and biological weapons are much more manageable for these groups and therefore are much more likely. This finding is important for appropriately calibrating emergency response efforts and guiding our attention to search for indicators that help distinguish hoaxes from threats that require serious attention.
Assessment of Chemical and Biological Terrorist Threat to the United States Homeland
Several themes currently guide much of our thinking on the CBW terrorist threat to the United States. In the 1990s we have learned that the former Soviet Union, Iraq and South Africa operated clandestine programs to develop unconventional weapons capabilities that turned out to be much larger than commonly known. Based on this pattern, it is reasonable to speculate whether we understand the magnitude of unconventional weapons programs of states like North Korea, Syria, or Libya, to name but a few countries of concern. Thus, by inferences some policy makers and analysts worry about individuals who defect from former or current state CBW programs to aide terrorist organizations.
In the cases of the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia, and South Africa, there is acute concern that either materials or know-how from these former programs could be illicitly transferred to sub-national terrorist groups. Senator Richard G. Lugar, co-author of the Nunn-Lugar legislation recently argued that AAs a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian command and control society, a vast supermarket of weapons and materials of mass destruction has become accessible.@ The implication of Senator Lugar=s statement is that one should worry that potential proliferant states or terrorists might exploit this Asupermarket.@ This problem is all the more dangerous if it is also combined with the trafficking of unconventional weapons know-how. For example, there have been reports of Iranians trying to recruit former Soviet BW scientists. Similarly, there are reports that the former head of the clandestine South African chemical and biological program, Walter Basson, traveled to Libya and may have also offered his services to other countries such as Iraq and Syria. Fortunately, there is no open source evidence to date indicating that unconventional weapon materials or know-how has reached the hands of sub-national groups. There are a few reports of people in these programs having contact with officials in other countries that could contribute to the development of unconventional weapons capabilities, but even in these few instances, the publicly available evidence is slim. There is no question that the potential proliferation of weapons materials and know-how from the former Soviet weapons complex presents a serious proliferation challenge. Yet, there is no open source evidence indicating that terrorists have exploited the turmoil in Russia or other former Soviet republics to obtain chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery.
Several factors mitigate against the dangers defectors from former and current state CBW programs might present for terrorist acquisition of CBW capabilities. In the case of the biological weapons scientists of the former Soviet Union, those who have emigrated from Russia have gone to the United States, Great Britain, Israel and Germany to seek jobs in the commercial economies of these countries. For the most part, there is no open source information indicating that they have not gone to Iraq, Libya, Syria or North Korea to sell their weapons expertise. The adverse economic conditions that might lead us to imagine former Soviet BW scientists selling themselves to states or groups have led these individuals to countries with vibrant commercial sectors. Another factor weighing against these former scientists selling their expertise to potential adversaries is the deeply ingrained security culture in which they operated for many years. Weapons scientists entrusted with developing weapons to defend their country do not immediately shed many years of training to offer such valued secrets to the highest bidder. Additionally, US and international programs to address the problem of brain drain from former weapons laboratories may also stem the immigration of scientists to nations of proliferation or terrorism concern. And finally, many of these scientists have family and cultural ties that make living in Russia more desirable than Damascus, Pyongyang and Tripoli. While the potential of Abrain drain@exists, the few troubling cases that have occurred involved individuals in contact with state officials, not terrorists. Thus, while the clandestine programs of a few countries, particularly Russia, present clear proliferation dangers, the problem has thus far not been as acute as many have feared. There is no evidence indicating that terrorists have successfully taken advantage of the so-called supermarket of materials and human talents presumed to be available in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Hence, we should re-evaluate how important possible proliferation from the former Soviet Union might be for the terrorist threat of CBW use here in the United States. This is not to suggest that there is no CBW terrorist threat in the United States, but rather that we should not assume that aspects of CBW proliferation from the former Soviet Union show up as components in the threat of CBW terrorist in the United States. The historical record indicates that the CBW terrorist threat in the United States is driven by its own forces with its own unique set of characteristics. If we gauge our American counter terrorism and emergency response efforts according to what we fear may be leaking from the former Soviet Union, we may be miss casting the nature of the terrorist threat here in the United States.
A second theme of concern about terrorism in the 1990s that raises our concern about the possible use of CBW by terrorists is the emergence of terrorist groups with access to vast resources. The Aum Shinrikyo and Osama bin Laden=s al Qaida organization are the main examples of entities fitting this concern. The Aum Shinrikyo operated a number of front companies, possessed assets running from the hundreds of millions to as much as one billion dollars, purchased helicopters from Russia, trained pilots in the United States, and sought to procure unconventional weapons materials from Russia, Australia, Sri Lanka, Zaire and North Korea. The organization had considerable scientific talent among its members. Japanese police eventually discovered that the Cult amassed a number of chemical agents. Similarly, Osmaa Bin Laden provides his al Qaida organization with support from his fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, commands what some believe to be the most effective fighting brigade in the Taliban=s struggle to control the territory of Afghanistan, and as the bombings of American embassies in Africa proved, has a transnational reach that can inflict significant casualties and effect tremendous physical damage throughout a large theater of operations. Despite these tremendous resources at their disposal, it is worth noting the difficulty each group had in acquiring and/or conducting CBW attacks. The Aum Shinrikyo repeatedly tried to develop a biological weapons capability, but failed. Their chemical weapons attack on the Tokyo subway crossed a threshold for use of unconventional weapons use, but it inflicted far fewer casualties than the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing and the US embassy bombings in Africa. Similarly, according to US official statements, bin Laden made various attempts to acquire a chemical weapons capability. To date, however, there is no open source evidence that he has succeeded in his quest. Thus, while the advent of groups inclined to perpetrate terrorist attacks using CBW is a trend worth monitoring closely, the threat should not be overdrawn. Both cases reveal significant barriers that even groups with vast resources have trouble surmounting and as the bombing of US embassies in Africa indicate, other deadly alternatives are readily available to meet their objectives.
The third threat theme that warrants mention actually falls outside the scope of what this committee directed the GAO to consider in its report, namely a state-sponsored terrorist attack. In an era when the United States is the pre-eminent global power, considering asymmetrical attacks against the US homeland and forces abroad by state-sponsored operatives is important. While state-sponsored terrorist attacks would greatly reduce the technical hurdles terrorists might face in perpetrating a chemical and biological weapons attack against the United States homeland, a number of factors mitigate against the likelihood of such attack. First, there is no evidence in recent years of state-sponsored attacks on the United States homeland with chemical or biological weapons. State-sponsored terrorist attacks of chemical and biological weapons have been very rare and have usually engaged special-operations forces, not sub-national terrorist groups. When engaged in high risk, clandestine attacks, states do not want to lose control of the operation, which might be a danger when employing free lance terrorists. Additionally, states rightly fear the potential severe retaliation they might suffer if their activities where ever discovered. Retaliation against a state that sponsored a terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons would likely be treated as an attack perpetrated by the sponsoring state. Risking retaliation undoubtedly would make even the most rebellious national leadership reluctant to cross the threshold from conventional high explosives to unconventional weapons materials. Thus, even if the GAO were directed to consider the possibility of state-sponsored terrorist attacks against the United States, my assessment is that while the consequences of such an attack are potentially significant, the probability of such an attack is extremely low.
The CBW terrorist threat to the United States needs to be reconsidered. Current counter terrorism and emergency response activities should be recast according to a new assessment of the CBW terrorist threat to the United States that is not unduly influenced by assessments of the threat that were prevalent when a number of the current programs were initiated. This is not to suggest that these programs were miscast in the first place or that the United States does not need to undertake a variety of new activities to counter this emerging threat and prepare to respond to its consequences should it occur. Rather, now is a good time in the evolution of a national effort to augment national, state and local capabilities to address the CBW terrorist threat to take a fresh look at the threat. Special effort should be made to avoid simply affirming old notions of the terrorist threat to the American homeland. The Aum Shinrikyo incident provides a poignant example of how old notions of threats can restrict our scope of vision causing us to miss important new threats. On numerous occasions the Aum Shinrikyo publicly threatened to kill the US president, threatened to use Sarin gas and threaten to attack major international meetings in the pacific region. The former head of the Central Intelligence Agency=s Nonproliferation Center said in open congressional testimony that the Aum Shinrikyo did not register as a terrorist entity of concern. At that time the CIA focused its energies on terrorism on different parts of the world and failed to see a religious group in an allied state moving to cross the threshold of terrorist behavior. Admittedly, anticipating the Aum Shinrikyo was not easy. But the CIA was not helped by its outdated perception of the threat. We must position our intellectual capabilities such that we constantly re-evaluate our terms of reference when assessing the threat of WMD terrorism against the American homeland.
Comments on GAO Report on Combating Terrorism
The main thrust of the GAO=s report ACombating Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessments of Chemical and Biological Attacks@ is on balance a constructive contribution to improving the US government=s evaluation of the terrorist threat to use CBW in the United States. A comprehensive threat and risk assessment can establish a benchmark for evaluating counter terrorism and emergency response spending decisions across the full range of federal government programs. Making decisions without any commonly agreed upon threat and risk assessment curries the chance that important resource allocation decisions will be based on current beliefs and not on a well grounded understanding of the problem at hand. The apparent over reliance on worst-case scenarios shaped primarily by vulnerability assessment rather than an assessment that factors in the technical complexities, motivations of terrorists and their patterns of behavior seems to be precisely the sort of approach we should avoid.
Different government agencies use different methodologies to evaluate the missions they perform. Calling for a comprehensive national threat and risk assessment can be valuable as a common reference point for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. However, within a comprehensive assessment there must be some appreciation for how different agencies with different missions perform mission assessments in different ways. Law enforcement and intelligence collection and analysis are very different government functions. Thus, a common threat and risk assessment, including both foreign and domestic components, that the entire federal government takes as a baseline understanding to guide all departments and agencies would be extremely valuable. This comprehensive threat and risk assessment should encompass the assessments performed by different departments and agencies. Forcing all the relevant government players to follow one approach is a prescription for error. Forging a common assessment while allowing a plurality of approaches to continue throughout the government will provide a better threat and risk assessment product.
While the GAO report appropriately points to the importance of a comprehensive threat and risk assessment for guiding government funds to address the threat of terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons, the report suffers from too narrow a consideration of the factors that should compose such an assessment. While a thorough examination of the technical ease of terrorist to conduct an attack with chemical or biological weapons is an essential part of a comprehensive assessment, a better understanding of the motivations and behavioral patterns of terrorists disposed to use unconventional weapons materials must also be a component of such an assessment.
Drawing on a wider set of talents than just weapons specialists and scientists might also have improved the GAO=s analysis. Engaging psychologists, criminologists, and political scientists to thoroughly examine the historical record of CBW terrorist incidents in the United States may provide some insight into more accurate incident casualty rates and the types of agents and delivery methods that terrorists have used in the past. By merely looking at the scientific aspects of the problem, GAO and the Congress denies its self a richer appreciation of the threat.
And finally, while I recognize that the GAO and the departments and agencies engage in considerable interchange during the process of these reports. This interchange undoubtedly improves the product that the Congress receives. However, there is the danger that at some point the Congress receives a negotiated product that is not necessarily as sharp and sharp-edged as it may desire. While I do not have any suggestions on how to avoid this problem, I would like to note that I sense that this particular product is the result of considerable GAO and executive branch dialogue.