Today's Terrorists Would like to Conduct Chemical and Biological Attacks
Witschel, Georg, European Affairs
Since the 1980s, there have been only four significant terrorist acts involving the use of biological or chemical weapons. The best known were carried out by the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group, which killed 19 people in two Japanese cities (Matsumoto in 1994 and Tokyo in 1995) by spreading the nerve gas Sarin in subway trains. Aum also worked on various biological agents and tried to disperse anthrax in Tokyo. It is also known that Al Qaeda members tried to acquire biological agents in the former Soviet Union, and there is ample evidence that Al Qaeda tried to develop and produce chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces advancing into Afghan cities found computer files left behind by Al Qaeda members and a laboratory under construction during the Enduring Freedom campaign in 2001/2002. In October 2001, five U.S. citizens died from exposure to anthrax contained in letters sent through the mail, although the perpetrator remains unknown and a terrorist background has not yet been proven. Given that the attacks so far represent only a minimal fraction of the overall number of terrorist acts in the last 20 years, why are we so concerned? There are a number of reasons why we should be.
The likelihood that modern terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction is increased by their desire to inflict high numbers of casualties. Unlike most of the more "traditional" social-revolutionary and ethno-national terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s, groups like Al Qaeda do not differentiate between victims among the general population and selected targets such as political or military leaders. The victims themselves have no particular importance for the terrorists, except as part of a communication strategy. In fact, an attack against a large number of civilians may have an even bigger impact in terms of terrorizing the population and disrupting political and economic stability than attacks on so-called "hard targets," such as political leadership structures or the military. In other words, from the terrorists5 point of view, an attack is most "successful" when it kills the greatest number of people.
So far, most major terrorist attacks have been committed with conventional means, particularly bombs and improvised explosive devices. September 11 represented a new qualitative development because civilian airliners were turned into deadly, high-energy weapons. There is, however, no doubt that using chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) weapons in an attack would help to further terrorist objectives, either by causing mass casualties and/or by instilling even greater terror because of the particular nature of these weapons. Even if such an attack produced lower casualties than a conventional explosion, the perception of the particularly inhuman character of such devices, the fear of their contents and their possible long-term consequences (such as contamination or the spread of mass diseases) gives such attacks a new, frightening dimension and would probably cause widespread panic.
It is precisely this new dimension that is desirable from a terrorist's point of view, since terrorists need to sustain a high, possibly escalating level of violence to achieve their targets. Targeted states and societies tend to be able to cope with certain levels of violence. In addition, in most countries, comprehensive security measures have been introduced to prevent conventional terrorist attacks. "More of the same" often increases the resilience of a society facing such attacks instead of breaking its resolve. The coercive effects of terrorist acts increase considerably, however, with a sustained high rate of incidence, high casualties and particularly escalation, including the use of new kinds of attacks.
Factors that generally limit the usefulness of CBR weapons for armed forces, such as the risk to their own forces, the contamination of territory to be occupied or defended and the threat of retaliation, do not apply to terrorists, at least not to suicide terrorists. …