Chemical and Biological Weapons: Prospects and Priorities after September 11

By Harris, Elisa D. | Brookings Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Chemical and Biological Weapons: Prospects and Priorities after September 11


Harris, Elisa D., Brookings Review


Before the terrorist assaults of September 11 and the anthrax letter attacks that followed, U.S. officials often drew a distinction between the threat posed by national chemical and biological weapons programs and the threat posed by terrorists using chemical and biological weapons. The two threats were seen as separate problems, requiring separate solutions. In the intervening months, however, it has become clear that the two proliferation problems are closely linked, in that assistance from national programs is likely to be critical to terrorist efforts to acquire and use chemical or biological weapons successfully, particularly on a large scale. This underscores the urgency of pursuing nonproliferation measures that delegitimize such weapons and complicate the efforts of both nations and terrorist organizations to acquire them.

Redefining the Threat

According to U.S. government officials, about a dozen countries are believed to have chemical weapons programs and at least 13 are said to be pursuing biological weapons. These national programs pose a direct threat to U.S. military forces and to friends and allies in the two regions where proliferation has been most widespread--Northeast Asia and the Middle East. They also pose an indirect threat as a possible source of chemical and biological weapons expertise or materials to other national or terrorist programs.

In recent months, both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have called attention to the nexus between proliferation and terrorism, warning that countries that seek weapons of mass destruction and support international terrorism may assist terrorists in getting chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. This emphasis is on the mark. And it is borne out by last fall's anthrax attacks, which killed five people and injured some 17 others. As of May, the perpetrator of these attacks had not yet been apprehended. But the nature and quality of the anthrax--highly virulent and weapons-grade--contained in the letters sent to selected media outlets and members of Congress indicate it almost certainly originated in the U.S. biological defense program.

As the General Accounting Office concluded in a 1999 study, terrorists who lack assistance from a national program face daunting technical and operational hurdles in weaponizing and delivering chemical or biological weapons, especially on a large scale. During the early 1990s the Aum Shinrikyo's attempts at mass terror in Japan through chemical and biological weapons had only limited success despite $1 billion in assets and access to university-trained scientists. In April 1995, the doomsday cult released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway at the height of the morning rush hour, but killed only 12 people and injured 1,000. Nine other attacks using biological agents, including anthrax and botulinum toxin, failed to produce even a single casualty.

Absent assistance from a national chemical or biological weapons program, most terrorists are likely to continue to rely on lower-tech methods of attack involving industrial chemicals or common poisons. As a report to Congress by the Central Intelligence Agency last January made clear, terrorist groups are "most interested in chemicals such as cyanide salts to contaminate food and water supplies or to assassinate individuals." Such groups also have "expressed interest in many other toxic industrial chemicals ... and traditional chemical agents, including chlorine and phosgene," which are widely used in industry. Biological materials are of less interest, the report said, except for "small-scale poisonings or assassinations." The best-known instance of low-tech biological terrorism was the 1984 effort by the Rajneeshee cult to influence the outcome of a local election in Oregon by contaminating salad bars with salmonella. No one was killed, although 750 people were injured.

One cannot rule out the possibility that terrorists will obtain chemical or biological weapons on their own.

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