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Why Haven't Terrorists Used Weapons of Mass Destruction Yet?

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18, 2002 – U.S. leaders know that terrorists know how to use some weapons of mass destruction but they haven't. Why is that?

Steven Younger, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, posed the rhetorical question to his audience at the Fletcher Conference here Oct. 16.

"Psychologists say terrorists like to see explosions and they like to see immediate gratification," Younger said. Another reason terrorists haven't used chemical, biological or radiological weapons, he said, is that they are concerned about alienating friends.

"It could be that there are some lines beyond which even they would not go for fear of alienating the rest of the Islamic world, upon which they depend on for various types of support," he said.

It could be the United States and the coalition against global terrorism has so broken up the cells that they cannot communicate and launch these attacks.

He said after talking with hundreds of people he has come around to this chilling possibility: "They just haven't gotten around to it yet."

Younger's agency is working to lessen the threat to military personnel and to the homeland. He said nuclear weapons are the greatest danger militarily. On the civil side, he noted, his agency's biggest problems are biological and chemical weapons.

He agrees with strategists who say terrorists and rogue states must challenge the United States asymmetrically because no country on Earth could stand up to the U.S. military in a conventional manner.

A nuclear weapon is the biggest threat to the U.S. military because it is a "civilization-shattering" matter that service members cannot defend against. "Once a nuclear weapon has been detonated, nature takes its course," he said.

U.S. service members have the equipment and training needed to operate in chemical and biological environments. He said it would not easy, but American service members could drive on in these environments. The homeland is far less prepared, though, so chemical and biological threats are a greater concern on the domestic front, Younger said.

Biological agents have drawbacks for terrorists, but they could be used to attack the U.S. homeland. He said smallpox is a possibility, but it is not easy to get or to make.

"It's not as easy to make or disseminate as another biological weapon I worry about more: anthrax," Younger said. Whoever sent anthrax spores through the mail last year attacked the United States, he said.

"I want to be clear about the use of the word 'attack,'" he continued. "This was not an 'outbreak' of anthrax. There are outbreaks of influenza and outbreaks of measles. This was an attack. Someone made an object and sent it with the intent to do harm to the recipients."

He said the material in the October 2001 anthrax attacks "was made as well as anthrax can be made on the planet today." And with some of the best minds on the planet working on the case, the United States still hasn't found who was responsible, he remarked.

But of even more concern domestically than biological weapons are the myriad poisonous chemicals transported and stored throughout the country, he said.

"The release of those chemicals into the environment could cause great damage," Younger noted. "Indeed, there could be hundreds of thousands of casualties by lunchtime today and there is very little we can do about it. Once these materials are released they spread, if not by wind then by simple diffusion. Unless you are a marathon runner, it is unlikely that you'll get away from them. They can be treated, but they are labor-intensive to treat. They worry me a lot.

"One can argue about whether the greater threat to America is biological or chemical, but we need to be as prepared as possible for both."

Younger also discussed radiological weapons, which he called "primarily weapons of terror." He explained that destruction is limited to the immediate area of the blast, and the effect of the radiation being distributed is relatively small unless very large quantities of radioactive materials were used. But terrorists would have trouble transporting and placing such a large weapon, he noted.

"It's not a lack of dedication on the terrorists' part. It's simply that the human body cannot sustain that level of radiation long enough to emplace a large quantity of radioactive material," he said.

The primary effects of a radiological weapon are terror and economic consequences. "You can imagine if you expose a large area to relatively low level of radioactive contamination, real estate values will plummet," he said. "Then how do you clean up a tree, or grass, or upholstery or a whole host of things we found in the exposure of the (Hart Senate) Office Building?"

Younger said the country needs to be aware of these risks, and all the agencies in the various levels of government involved need to exercise to prevent such attacks and contain the consequences of such attacks. "We need to work harder to make them work better together," he said.

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