As military leaders devote increasing attention to neutralizing roadside bombs in Iraq, specialists caution that it would be a mistake to dismiss the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
These experts contend that terrorists are bent on using WMD against civilian populations in the United States and allied nations.
Many Americans have let down their guard after U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq failed to uncover WMD—which include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear explosive devices—experts told a recent conference in Tampa, Fla., sponsored by the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM.
Instead, they noted, the Defense Department is focusing now on defeating improvised explosive devices, the handmade conventional bombs that have been taking a heavy toll among U.S. and coalition service personnel and civilians in Iraq.
Officials at the special operations conference acknowledged the importance of the counter-IED project, but they warned military leaders not to downplay the threats posed by the possibility of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.
The devastation from such a weapon detonated in a major city would dwarf the impact of any single conventional IED, said Army Lt. Col. John Campbell, the chief of SOCOM’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear branch. And if terrorists are able to acquire a particularly destructive weapon, they are likely to use it, he said. “The threat is real, and we have to be prepared for it,” he said.
The United States needs to plan for every contingency and be willing to adapt to the unexpected, Campbell said. “Events like Hurricane Katrina show that the best plans don’t always work, and we have to be ready for that.”
More than four years after the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden “hasn’t resorted yet to [WMD],” Campbell said. “Why not?
“My personal opinion is that we have been chasing him so hard, he hasn’t had the opportunity,” he said. “We need to keep up the pressure.”
While U.S. and coalition troops did not uncover large stores of WMD in Iraq, they did find evidence that insurgent forces have been trying to develop unconventional weapons, said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen V. Reeves, the Defense Department’s joint program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. “In Fallujah, we found a chemical lab with stockpiles of potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide,” he told conferees.
Both are potentially fatal to anybody exposed to them and can be used to make a chemical bomb, Reeves said. Those devices “are remarkably simple to make and reasonably effective to use,” he said.
While Al Qaeda so far hasn’t been able to acquire and use such weapons, others have. During World War I, both Germany and Britain used poison gas on the battlefield.
In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein employed it against enemy troops in the Iran-Iraq war, and reportedly even against his own rebellious Kurdish civilians. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the deadly nerve agent, sarin, into the Tokyo subway system. In 2001, somebody mailed letters containing deadly anthrax bacteria to several news media offices and two U.S. senators. That case remains unsolved.
Many terrorist organizations wouldn’t use WMD if they got their hands on them, because doing so would undermine popular support for their cause, said Robert E. Neumann, who manages the EAI Corporation’s support program for SOCOM. “If the [Irish Republican Army] got a nuclear bomb, I’m sure they would turn it in,” he said, “Using it would not be in their interest.”
On the other hand, if Al Qaeda got such a bomb, “I’m absolutely convinced that they would find a symbolic target and hit it,” Neumann said. “All of their targets—the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the London subway system—have had a symbolic value. They want to send a message to themselves, their supporters and their god.”
A nuclear bomb, however, may be too difficult for organizations such as Al Qaeda to acquire, Campbell said. “I think they’ll take the easy way out,” he said.
“One of the biggest fears I have is that they’ll develop a chemical IED,” Campbell said. “We all know Saddam had chemical weapons. We have people in this room who have seen them.
“If you strap a piece of dynamite to an old, Soviet-era chemical warhead, which we have found in Iraq, you can have a profound psychological impact.”
The casualties from such an attack need not be high for the operation to succeed, Campbell said. He noted that five people died in the 2001 anthrax attacks and that 12 perished in the Tokyo sarin incident.
The terrorists “want to scare people,” Campbell said. “The crux of terrorism is to destroy their enemy’s morale. And there is something inherently evil about WMD that really frightens people.”
George Thompson, president of Chemical Compliance Systems Inc., of Lake Hopatcong, N.J., agreed. “You can imagine if they blow up one of our high schools,” he said. “How many parents would send their kids to school the next day?”
One weapon designed to cause panic is the so-called dirty bomb, said Kurt Westerman, a manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Global Radiological Threat Reduction. A dirty bomb is one that combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material.
If such a device were detonated, officials said, it would kill only a small number of people, but it could contaminate several city blocks, spreading fear at least initially and requiring a costly cleanup.
What worries Westerman’s agency—which is an arm of the U.S. Energy Department—is that the radioactive elements needed for a dirty bomb are widespread. “High-risk radiological materials exist in virtually every country,” he said. “There are thousands in the United States alone.”
Such materials, ranging from pocket-size to truck-size, are used at hospitals, research facilities, and industrial and construction sites. Examples include medical pacemakers, nuclear-powered gauge and calibration tools, and radioisotope thermoelectric generators.
“These materials are not adequately secured, and that poses an immediate and urgent proliferation and terrorist threat,” Westerman warned.
The job of preventing terrorists from getting their hands on such materials has been assigned to a number of U.S. military units and federal agencies.
In 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the Special Operations Command to take the military lead in the global war on terrorism. “We’re the pointy end of the spear,” said Army Lt. Gen. Dell l. Daily, director of SOCOM’s Center for Special Operations, which coordinates the command’s efforts with other U.S. and allied military units and agencies.
One SOCOM assignment is to find and seize terrorist WMD devices, laboratories and factories where they may be made, and training facilities where terrorists learn to use them.
The command has had little to say about its operations. However, it has been reported widely that special-operations units led the fruitless searches for WMD in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also have participated in an ongoing series of maritime-interdiction exercises around the world, where U.S. and allied naval forces train to board and seize merchant ships suspected of transporting WMD-related materials.
The Energy Department has been working since 1993 to improve international controls of nuclear and radiological material, Westerman said. In 2004, the department consolidated its efforts into a single organization, the Office of Radiological Threat Reduction, which has initiated programs in 40 countries. Within the United States alone, more than 11,000 sealed radiological devices have been recovered. Worldwide, more than 500,000 of such devices are not properly secured, Westerman said. “People tell us you’ll never recover them all, and that’s true. But if we leave the easy fruit out there, the bad guys will get it, and we’ll never know it until it’s too late.”
Westerman’s office is required to get permission from other governments to work inside their borders, and that’s not always easy to get, he said. For example: “North Korea is not going to invite us in any time soon.”
On the other hand, some countries, surprisingly, are cooperating, Westerman said. “Yemen, Egypt and Jordan all invited us in.”
If an enemy were to launch a WMD attack against a target within the United States, the National Guard would play a major role in providing disaster assistance to state and local governments, said Col. Thomas D. Hook, National Guard advisor to the Joint Force Headquarters—National Capital Region.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Guard has established WMD civil support teams in 32 states around the country, he said. “Twelve more will be set up in the next few months,” he said. “Eventually, every state, territory and the District of Columbia will have one.”
Civil support teams are 22-member units trained and equipped to respond in the aftermath of a WMD attack or another major disaster.
The Guard also has created 12 larger units, called chemical, biological, nuclear or high-yield explosive enhanced response force packages, assigned to assist the civil support units.
These 100-member teams are placed strategically across the United States, Hook said. Their role is to help the civil support teams locate and decontaminate disaster victims in a relatively short time.
The Air Force, Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard have established small, portable, expeditionary aeromedical rapid-response teams across the country to provide medical support for a wide spectrum of overseas and homeland-defense missions, Hook said. These teams can be transported by helicopter into disaster zones and provide medical care for up to 500 people for five to seven days.
In addition, the Guard in 2003 established joint force headquarters in each state, merging Army and Air National Guard offices with adjutant generals’ facilities. This permits a coordinated disaster response that cuts across local, state, federal and military lines in ways that were not possible before, Hook said.
The concept proved its value in 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck wide swaths of the Gulf Coast, Hook said. The headquarters in each state helped coordinate the work of 70,000 National Guard and active-duty troops who deployed to the Gulf region in the aftermath of the storms, he said.
Similar coordination is needed in the efforts to secure nuclear and radiological materials, Westerman said. In addition to his agency—the National Nuclear Security Administration—and SOCOM, major players include the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“It seems like every time I go out, I run into these other agencies,” Westerman said. “I didn’t know they were going to be there, and they didn’t know I was coming. The host country’s officials think we’re nuts. We need to do a better job of coordinating what we do.”
That may be beginning to happen. In 2004, Rumsfeld assigned responsibility for coordinating the Defense Department’s efforts to combat weapons of mass destruction to the U.S. Strategic Command.
To fulfill this mission, STRATCOM—based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.—has partnered with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. In January, STRATCOM opened a Center for Combating WMD at DTRA’s new 317,00 square-foot headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va.
The center advises combatant commanders on ways to prevent the acquisition, development or use of WMD and associated technology. It provides 24-hour WMD global surveillance and delivers feedback needed by war fighters and first responders, explained Air Force Col. Kermit Neal, chief of the facility’s situational awareness division.
“The objective here is, one, to prevent the startup of WMDs, two, if that doesn’t work, prevent their use, and, three, if that doesn’t work either, institute consequence management,” STRATCOM commander Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright told visitors at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Meanwhile, one immediate ramification of these changes for the defense industry is that SOCOM no longer intends to hold its annual conference focusing on WMD. Instead, it plans to encourage STRATCOM to host the meeting.