weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons suggests that the likelihood of terrorist organizations using these weapons is contingent upon the specific type of weapon involved (“Weapons of…”). As such, in an effort to answer this question as comprehensively as possible, there is a clear impetus to consider each of the different types of weapons and that they pose to the public.
Chemical Weapons: Scholars examining the scope and breadth of chemical weapons define these devices as “weapons using the toxic properties of chemical substances rather than their explosive properties to produce physical or physiological effects on an enemy” (“Weapons of…”). Although these types of weapons have been used by both the U.S. government and terrorist groups, research demonstrates that in order to produce mass causalities from chemical weapons, terrorists would need a significant amount of chemical agent. In addition, in order to effectively release the chemicals, the terrorists would need to consider how to prevent exposure to themselves. Because of the amounts needed to produce significant causalities and the potential impact of the chemicals on the terrorist, it is unlikely that this weapon would be used by a terrorist group (“Weapons of…”).
Biological Weapons: Biological weapons are defined as a weapon that “disperses organisms, or micro-organisms to produce disease in humans, plants, and animals” (“Weapons of…”). Although biological weapons have been available for a number of years, terrorists would face notable challenges in using these weapons because they are difficult to disperse. Anthrax, for instance, is a powerful biological weapon. However, because terrorists cannot effectively create an aerosol version of this powder, dissemination of the virus for creating mass causalities is unlikely. Of all of the types of weapons that could be used for a terrorist attack, biological weapons are the least likely to be utilized (“Weapons of…”).
Radiological Weapons: Radiological weapons “combine a conventional explosive with some from of radioactive material” (“Weapons of…”). Although these types of bombs can have a significant impact on human health, experts note that the use of this weapon would limit causalities to a specific geographical area. “Such an improvised device does no produce a chain reaction or nuclear detonation; it merely uses the explosive to spread radioactive material across a localized area” (“Weapons of…”). Although there are specific limitations to the number of casualties that can be produced by this weapon, scholars argue that various terrorists organizations have demonstrated efficacy in using these weapons. As such, the threat of a terrorist organization using this type of weapon is quite substantial (“Weapons of…”).
Nuclear Weapons: Of all the weapons that could be used by terrorist organizations, nuclear weapons are the most dangerous. Scholars examining these weapons argue however that the technological barriers that exist when it comes to enriching the radioactive materials needed to create such a bomb often prohibit terrorist organizations from using these weapons. Despite this, the proliferation of nuclear arms in the last several years has drawn into question the ability of terrorist organizations to acquire nuclear materials. As more countries begin enriching uranium and plutonium to create electrical plants, there is considerable concern that terrorists will be able to access nuclear materials and use these weapons for an attack. Thus, with access to the right materials, the likelihood of terrorists using these weapons is quite high (“Weapons of…”).
2. With the likelihood of terrorist organizations using specific CBRN weapons elucidated it is now possible to consider the effects of these weapons if they are used. Again, it is helpful to consider each of the weapons individually as each type of weapon will have notably different impacts.
Chemical Weapons: Researchers examining chemical weapons argue that these weapons include materials such as “mustard, tabun, sarin (GB), and nerve gas (G and V agents)” (“Weapons of…”). In most instances, these agents interact with the nervous system to produce paralysis of the body and the respiratory system. The end result is death. Although these weapons can clearly create horrific causalities, these weapons are not easy to disseminate. As such, the overall impact of a chemical weapon release will be mitigated by the geographical area in which the agent is introduced.
Biological Weapons: Although there are a host of biological weapons that could be used for a terrorist attack, research demonstrates that there are a host of “common” agents that are often used. These include: anthrax, botulinum toxin, ricin and smallpox. Considering first the impact of anthrax, scholars report that anthrax takes between one and six days to produce effects on its victims. Symptoms include: fever, malaise, fatigue, and shortness of breath, which can result in death if antibiotic treatment is not provided. Botulinum toxin produces symptoms which appear 24 to 36 hours after exposure include paralysis, which results in death. Ricin produces symptoms within hours after exposure and can include fever and pulmonary edema. Once exposure has occurred, there is no treatment or cure. Smallpox is a highly contagious virus that can cause a severe rash and a high fever (“Weapons of…”).
Radiological Weapons: Radiological bombs contain traditional radioactive materials that are dispersed through the detonation of a conventional bomb. While those directly exposed to the radiation may experience radiation sickness and increased rates of specific cancers, experts argue that the most notable threat produced by the dirty bomb is psychological. A dirty bomb can create considerable destruction that can be difficult to remediate. Further these bombs, once detonated can have a detrimental impact on the environment for years after the explosion (“Weapons of…”).
Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear weapons appear to have the most potential to impact society. In the immediate vicinity of the blast site, individuals will be immediately vaporized. For those living outside of the immediate blast area, a host of medical maladies can result, including radiation sickness, which will result in death. Further out from the epicenter of the blast, individuals may be subject to a host of disease as environmental radiation erodes the immune system, making it difficult for the individual to ward of common diseases.
While the data provided above details the specific physical impacts that may result as a consequence of a CBRN weapon attack, it is evident that there are a host of psychological, social and economic impacts that would result as well. A terrorist attack like the one that occurred on September 11, 2001 would disrupt vital social and economic processes that affect all citizens across the globe. In addition, a terrorist attack would have substantial psychological implications as citizens come to terms with the destruction and loss of human life. This process undermines the safety and security of individual citizens and creates considerable social tension that can be difficult to mitigate.
3. The data on CBRN weapons provided thus far clearly indicates that there are substantial limitations to these devices. Even when materials are available, these weapons can be difficult to construct, transport and use in a manner that would create mass causalities. When placed in this perspective, the most notable question that arises is “What value would CBRN weapons have for a terrorist organization?” While the answers to this question are clearly dependent on the motivations of the terrorist organization, they demonstrate the psychological element of terrorism that is inherent to this practice.
To illustrate this point, one only needs to consider the terrorist organization that has selected to use a weapon of mass destruction to make a political or ideological statement. Given the limitations of these devices, it is reasonable to assume that the terrorist organization will not be able to create mass causalities. However, if the weapon is used at a time a place that is not suspect, the end result will be the creation of fear. When the terrorist organization is successful, it not only makes its presence known, it also highlights vulnerabilities that make every person afraid that the same thing will happen in the future. It is this fear that is at the center of terrorist activities.
The fear that is created as a result of a terrorist attack has the propensity to prompt widespread changes in society. In addition to creating a culture of fear, individuals may choose not to engage in certain activities or events in an effort to avoid the threat of terrorism. As a result of this specific action, economic activity declines. Given that approximately 70% of the GPD in the U.S. is contingent upon consumer spending, a decline in this area will clearly have ramifications for the economic health of the country. The recession that occurred in 2001 was exacerbated by the September 11th terrorist attacks, demonstrating this point.
Based on this data, it becomes evident that the value of a weapon of mass destruction to a terrorist is not in the casualties that are produced as a result of the initial attack. Rather the value is derived from the outcomes that are achieved in the aftermath of the event. This is one of the reasons why President Bush encouraged American citizens to continue their lives after the attack. By continuing with a “business as usual” attitude, the terrorists would not have a long-term psychological impact on American society, culture and economic development.
While the long-term psychological impact appears to be the most prominent value that a weapon of mass destruction has for a terrorist, it seems reasonable to argue that these weapons also serve as a means for terrorist groups to have their political voices heard. Terrorist attacks bring to light the activities, beliefs and values of a specific terrorist group. Although many in the U.S. were familiar with Osama bin Laden before 9/11, his implication in the terrorist attacks made him and Al-Qaeda household names. In this context, bin Laden was able to bring to light the organization’s hatred of the United States and the organization’s political agenda for the entire international community. The publicity gained from terrorist events clearly has value for terrorist groups.
4. Given the importance and value of terrorist activities to terrorist organizations, it seems reasonable to argue that efforts to combat terrorism must address these pressing issues in a manner that is both meaningful and purposeful. With this in mind, it is now possible to consider the current intelligence system and its strengths and weaknesses for dealing with terrorism. A careful review of this system will demonstrate areas in which improvements are needed to ensure comprehensive homeland security.
Considering first the strengths of intelligence gathering and homeland security, research in this area suggests that in the months and years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has improved its ability to collect and gather intelligence. In the direct aftermath of the attack, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which called for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Under this agency, intelligence gathering was to be improved by providing all federal law enforcement agencies with the ability to communicate with one another. In addition, DHS was to coordinate the efforts of state and local law enforcement agencies to help improve access to critical data that could be used to prevent another terrorist attack.
The changes to federal law enforcement agencies created under the Patriot Act were among the most sweeping in the history of the Untied States. Although the changes have been difficult, the reality is that because of this shift, the federal government has at its disposal the technology and resources needed to investigate credible threats to national security. One could effectively argue that because no further terrorist attacks occurred after September 11, the DHS and all law enforcement agencies have been effective in both intelligence gathering and in preventing another terrorist attack.
Although the development and implementation of the DHS and the Patriot Act were focused on improving outcomes for intelligence gathering and improving homeland security, a review of what has been noted about these changes suggests that there have been some unintended outcomes. In particular, critics of the Patriot Act charge that the legislation, while facilitating the collection of important intelligence data, has promoted the executive branch to overstep its boundaries and infringe on civil liberties. Specifically, critics charge that the legislation enables law enforcement officials to gain important intelligence information by circumventing established law. This is apparent in the fact that with proper authorization, federal law enforcement agents investigating a suspected terrorist do not have to obtain a warrant to search for information or obtain a wiretap (Thornburgh, 802-3).
With the usurpation of basic legal and civil rights is one issue that has been raised in the context of the new intelligence system, a review of the situation also indicates that problems in the Department of Homeland Security remain a pervasive issue that can significantly impede the ability of the federal government to collect intelligence and ward of a terrorist attack. In particular, the creation of the DHS was such a substantial undertaking for the federal government that it will take several years before the organization has the administrative infrastructure needed to operate efficiently. During this time, federal agents working in the organization must face a myriad of challenges, including a basic lack of structure that may make it difficult for the organization to effectively carry out its duties. Thus, while efforts have been made to improve intelligence system, improvements are clearly needed.
5. An examination of terrorist organizations operating across the globe indicates that there are a number of operations that could have a potential impact on the United States. However, based on the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ability of Al-Qaeda to effectively infiltrate the U.S., it seems reasonable to argue that the most notable threat of terrorism comes from Al-Qaeda and related Islamic fundamentalist groups that have aligned with Al-Qaeda. In addition to the fact that the organization has developed a deep hatred of the United States, it has developed an extensive network all across the globe. As such, this organization is capable of targeting U.S. institutions on the homeland and abroad.
The most pressing issue in this case is the overall disdain and hatred that Islamic fundamentalists have developed for citizens of the United States. When examining messages from Osama bin Laden and various Al-Qaeda operatives, it is evident that these groups believe that all U.S. citizens are unworthy of their place and position in society. This group has become completely detached from a larger collectivist society and is no longer willing to become part of a larger international democracy. Further, this group appears to have no reservations about the consequences of its actions. Members of Al-Qaeda are actively willing to sacrifice their lives in order to advance Islamic fundamentalism.
Although Islamic fundamentalists represent a notable threat to the United States, the RAND Corporation argues that there are other groups that pose a unique threat to the U.S. And its international presence. In particular, this organization notes the following organizations:
Nepalese Maoists: According to the RAND organization, this group does not directly attack the U.S. However, it attacks Nepalese targets that are associated with U.S. interests. This has a destabilizing effect on Nepal and America’s ability to maintain international security (“The dynamic…,” 9).
The PLO, Spain’s Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA): the RAND Corporation argues that these organizations maintain informal ties with Al-Qaeda and enable this organization to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. And its allies (“The dynamic…, 10).
Lashkare-Toiba (LeT): This Pakistani terrorist group does not directly attack the United States. However, this organization attacks U.S. interest and allies, making it difficult for the government to effectively maintain international security (“The dynamic…” 10).
FARC: FARC or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia operate in Colombia and consistently attack American targets in the country. Although organizations such as FARC do not represent a substantial threat to the American homeland, they do impact American operations and destabilize international security (“The dynamic…, 11).
Based on the data provided by the RAND Corporation, it is evident that terrorist groups can create a number of notable vulnerabilities for the United States. In addition to directly attacking the homeland, these organizations also attack U.S. interests and allies abroad. In this context, these organizations have a destabilizing impact on the international community, making it difficult for all Western countries to protect their interests.
6. Considering the targets that could be used by terrorist organizations to achieve maximum effect, it seems reasonable to argue that, in terms of creating sheer terror and mass casualties, America’s nuclear power facilities would make a good target. These facilities are located all over the United States and, in many instances, these facilities do not have aggressive security polices in place. Further, the overall impact of this type of terrorist attack would be quite substantial in both the immediate aftermath and the long-term psychological implications. A terrorist attack on a nuclear facility would release dangerous radiation into the environment, which could impact hundreds if not thousands of individuals over the course of time. Further the magnitude of such and attack would make Americans fearful of nuclear power. This could markedly impede the ability of U.S. power companies to supply basic power to all citizens. Finally, attack of a nuclear facility would not require special equipment or weapons for the terrorist organization. A large bomb would be sufficient for creating a widespread radiological threat.
While nuclear facilities appear to be a good target for terrorist organizations, there are other targets that would also be viable. In particular, terrorist organizations could consider large family tourists destinations — “i.e. Disney Land, Bush Gardens, etc. These facilities are open 365-days a year and, on any given day, thousands of people are visiting. A terrorist attack perpetuated at this type of a facility would not only produce considerable causalities, but also it would produce a huge psychological impact. Americans would have to sit in their homes and watch as rescue and recovery efforts attempt to find families and children. The media would be overrun with stories of children that have lost limbs and families that have lost children, mothers and fathers. This attack would be successful because it would effectively impact the one institution that all Americans hold dear: family.
The final target that terrorists should consider would be the White House. Although there is evidence to suggest that the White House was the intended target on September 11, 2001 the terrorists were not successful in achieving this objective. While it is reasonable to assume that few individuals would be hurt in this type of an attack, the psychological ramifications of success in destroying this target would be quite substantial. Presently, the White House represents the epicenter of American politics and decision making. If the structure were destroyed a formidable symbol of American government would be impacted. Further, since 9/11 the White House has become one of most heavily guarded buildings. With this in mind, the ability of a terrorist group to infiltrate one of the most secure sites in the U.S. would clearly have an impact on the security and safety perceptions of the American public.
7. The final question posed is how intelligence systems can adapt to networked forms of terrorist organizations. Arguably, the ability of terrorist organizations to create large networks of operatives living all across the globe is one of the most difficult issues for intelligence and law enforcement officials to address. In the past, terrorist organizations did not have access to advanced communication and computer technologies, requiring them to operate in one geographic area. The advent and mass proliferation of computer technology and the internet has created a situation in which terrorist organizations are able to operate from all areas of the globe. A central location is no longer needed to coordinate activities and to carry out attacks against diverse targets.
Given the current status of terrorist organizations, it seems reasonable that intelligence networks could adopt a number of different methods for addressing the unique configuration of terrorist groups. First, intelligence groups could work to develop technology that will enable them to create a web of surveillance. Specifically, technologies that would allow intelligence officers to collect information shared across the internet may provide a valuable asset for facilitating surveillance and intelligence gathering. Although this technology is just one example, the central point here is that the government could invest heavily in technology development as a central means to improve outcomes in this area.
Second, the intelligence community could consider the use of spies to infiltrate terrorist networks. Although this practice appears to mimic the actions of the CIA and the FBI during the Cold War, the reality is that this method of intelligence gathering clearly has its benefits. Although the type of infiltration will be different — “requiring the spy to become part of an electronic community — “the data gathered through this process could provide the intelligence community with valuable information that could improve international security. Thus, while the process of infiltration will require different tactics, the method would be similar to that used in the Cold War.
Finally, the intelligence system could work to discover the central area of operations for the terrorist organization and dismantle the organization from the top, down. For instance, if the United States could capture Osama bin Laden, this would have a notable impact on the ability of Al-Qaeda to carry out its missions. With bin Laden removed from power, operatives working in the field would have no source of direction. As the investigation of bin Laden progressed, it is also possible that the intelligence officers would be able to discover the sources of bin Laden’s financing. With these sources of income removed, Al-Qaeda operatives carrying out bin Laden’s directives would not have the resources to continue this work. Although this proposal may work in the short-term, it is reasonable to suspect that over the long-term, operatives of the organization will eventually regroup, select a new leader and acquire new sources of funding. Thus, this method would not be foolproof.
The dynamic terrorist threat.” RAND Corporation. . Accessed October 31, 2007 at http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/2005/MR1782.pdf.
Thornburgh, Dick. “Balancing civil liberties and homeland security.” Albany Law Review, 68(4), (2005): 801-813.
Weapons of mass destruction.” Global Focus. . Accessed October 31, 2007 at http://globalfocus.org/GF-WMDs.htm.
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