The loss of 3000 Americans to Al Qaeda terrorism September 11, 2001 brought to many the sudden recognition that America was no longer leading a charmed life. Since then, a great deal of hand wringing and discussion has ensued, but the problem is a serious one and won't go away. Not that it was unrecognized and unpublicized. For instance, in 1999 the Commission chaired by former U.S. senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman reported

"There a greater probability of (catastrophic terrorism) in the next millennium...Future terrorists will probably be even more hierarchically organized, and yet better networked than they are today. This diffuse nature will make them more anonymous, yet their ability to coordinate mass effects on a global basis will increase...Terrorism will appeal to many weak states as an attractive option to blunt the influence of major powers...(but) there will be a greater incidence of as hoc cells and individuals, often moved by religious zeal, seemingly irrational cultist beliefs, or seething resentment...The growing resentment against Western culture and breeding a backlash...Therefore, the United States should assume that it will be a target of terrorist attacks against its homeland using weapons of mass destruction. The United States will be vulnerable to such strikes."

--U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century, September 1999, p. 48

The concept of megaterrorism was well known; the warning was there; only the date, place, and nature of the deed were in question to those who had looked at the prospects.


It is important to recognize that some of the most important threats do not have the object to instill terror in the population, but simply to destroy vast numbers of people and even their accomplishments. As will be seen, the empowerment of the individual by modern technology (which increases lethality and which has increased vulnerability), together with the willingness or the desire to die in the act of destruction, can greatly reduce the effectiveness of some of the most important tools of counter terrorism: post-attack attribution and punishment- e.g., by the promise of reward. Nevertheless, such tools are vitally important in other cases and can serve as an important deterrent to terrorist organizations and acts.

This report is focused largely on the threat and only secondarily on the potential remedies. And it concentrates on vulnerabilities of U.S. society. But this is only by example; other societies are at least as vulnerable, and may find themselves also the target of terrorism and megaterrorism. Furthermore, the solution to terrorism does not lie in actions by the United States alone. The talents and efforts of many throughout the world can reduce the threat of terrorism.

Before concentrating on analysis of terrorism and potential solutions, it is a good idea to introduce and define terrorism and its nature. There are many types of terrorists, many types of victims and targets, and several categories of actions against those targets. Thus we consider actors, targets, and actions.

First, the actors-- humans. A robot, an emplaced explosive, or a trained animal can conduct terrorism, but for the near term we count those as mechanisms and the terrorists themselves as human beings. There can be state-sponsored terrorism, individual terrorists with their own agendas, and a whole range between. State-sponsored terrorism might use individuals of the sponsoring state; it is as likely to depend upon other individuals who act for hire, or who are motivated by similar causes as those that impel the state sponsoring the terrorism.

The individual terrorist can have a range of grudges ranging from strong feelings against abortion to equally strong feelings against the use of animals in research or commerce, to the preservation of trees, to race hatred, to a grudge against a movie star or a president. Such groups or individuals can be loosely affiliated, or isolated.

Then there can be terrorist organizations, either sponsored by a state or not, more or less closely organized to carry out a campaign which if not dictated is at least outlined from the top.

There are distinctions among actors-- emphasized most recently to the American consciousness by the fact that some individuals don't mind or even prize losing their lives in carrying our terrorist acts. The professional anti-terrorism community for decades observed that not only did terrorists not wish to die, but also they really did not wish to kill very many people. Their purpose was to bring their cause to world attention in a favorable light, and that does not occur by victimizing and killing large numbers of innocent civilians. The terrorists and their cause must appear to be the victims. The professionals were largely correct-- for that era.

A hired killer will take a risk of death, but it is a rare one who will commit himself or herself to death for the cause-- and then only if the fee for hire goes to the family, for instance. But the Kamikaze pilots of the Zeros in WW II, and suicide bombers in Israel, and the 19 who died (or at least the four who were in charge of the aircraft hijackings on 9/11) show that there is no shortage of people who fit this mold. This is important not only because it shows increased dedication to the cause, but also because it enables means of action that are otherwise outside the capability of many individuals or groups.

Thus, to bring ten kilograms of explosives into a crowded mall and to detonate them at the desired moment where the crowd is most dense while remaining safe, one self, is more difficult technically than pressing a button to detonate explosives on one's own body.

Now, the targets. If they were governments and government activities, the deed might not be so much terrorism, but, for instance, revolution. An act of one government against another government constitutes an act of war, declared or undeclared. In any case, governments in general have the resources to protect their personnel and facilities better than do corporations and citizens. Attacks on families of government workers, including families of personnel in the armed services are not a direct attack on government facilities or powers. However, they are little different from attacks on the population, selected groups, or on facilities not belonging to the government, so this paper does not discriminate between government facilities and those belonging more generally to the population and infrastructure.

Terrorists may attack infrastructure, such as transportation nodes, water supply facilities, sewage facilities, electrical transmission, and the information or the financial infrastructure. Such would not have large immediate death tolls, but could bring a society to its knees and focus the attention of the population on the immediate problem rather than on economic activity, health, and the survival of the society.

Some terrorist attacks would deny substantial areas to occupancy or even to transit. Among such are the widespread scattering of antipersonnel mines; the dissemination of intense radioactivity; the spreading of anthrax spores or of other durable BW agent. In part, the denial may be self-denial, because the risk of reoccupancy may not be very great. Yet in a society which has felt at peace for a long time, it is difficult to feed into the calculus of everyday life even a small probability of being blown up in the marketplace, or a tiny enhancement in the probability of dying of cancer.

Some terrorist acts, on first thought, would get a substantial amount of moral support from the population attacked. The Internal Revenue Service appears to be a focus of domestic terrorist resentment. But the IRS impacts economic activity a year ahead. An attack on the system by which the government pays its bills would affect commerce and government within days.

At this point, I give my judgments, which are that the world should fear first megaterrorism by biologic agents-- smallpox, anthrax, and the like; and next in line is nuclear megaterrorism-- either from the clandestine transport of a nuclear weapon stolen in Russia, or from the assembly in the United States of an improvised nuclear device (IND) based on high-enriched uranium. More about this when we get to the "actions."

Not all agree on the importance of megaterrorism-- BW or nuclear, or even chemical agents, as compared with small-scale terrorism using explosives, for instance.

One pole of this debate is represented by this statement:

"The main trend (in international terrorism) is the trend away from state involvement and state sponsorship (compared to) 15 years ago...I believe that the specter of terrorists, especially international terrorists, using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear means has...diverted our attention from what...will continue to be the main threat, which is the infliction of loss of life through conventional means...(There were) two attacks on the United States. The one that used box cutters and aircraft hijacking is the one that killed almost 4,000 people; the one that used anthrax spores has so far killed five. We ought to reflect on that; I can assure you the terrorists will reflect on that."

--Paul Pillar, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia and former Deputy Director for Counter-Terrorism, CIA, National Journal, January 28, 2002

Whatever the purpose of terrorism, terrorists have limited resources. Such limits were clearly not financial in the case of the damage inflicted by the hijacked aircraft 9/11/2001; there are estimates that the overall direct cost of this activity was $65,000. Be that as it may, if terrorists are limited in lives to be expended, the 9/11/01 events provided the grand benefit-cost ratio of 3000/19. This derives from 3000 dead in the terrorist collisions with the two World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, and 19 terrorists who sacrificed themselves in the process, including those on the aircraft which went down in Pennsylvania because of the heroic actions of the passengers and crew. Although these attacks succeeded-- according to Bin Laden beyond his wildest expectations-- the result is still a benefit-cost ratio of 3000/19, or about 150:1.

From a cold-blooded reckoning of lives taken against terrorist lives lost, this is "only" 150 to 1. However, the impact on American society, economy, and the world was very much larger than would have been the death by accident of 3000 on an ocean liner, which shows that lives lost are far from the only metric on either side.

And so Pillar is right, in part. It is a lot easier to cause deaths of this magnitude by conventional means than by the display of imagination and organization required for the events of 9/11/01. In particular, if terrorists are satisfied with such an exchange ratio, the tried and true means of obtaining it is to bring down aircraft by the use of explosives on board. And if explosives in luggage unaccompanied by the passenger won't do, then an explosive charge secreted on the body (in the shoes!) or in the carry-on luggage of a witting passenger is available. Such passengers would be more likely to fly on heavily laden flights than on the lightly loaded flights of 9/11/01. And the simultaneous destruction of about a dozen U.S. aircraft, planned by Ramsi Ahmed Yousef in 1995, was designed to obtain just this impact. The chill would begin with the air transport system, and have a substantial impact on the economy. But it would not have the impact of the highly visible destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.


We have already discussed the agent of a hijacked large aircraft, crashing into a building of symbolic significance and/or which houses many people. This is self-induced vulnerability, but one which can hardly be eliminated at this stage of our society, and in any case not without some years of action. But it can be ameliorated-- by strengthened and locked cockpit doors on large passenger aircraft, and by greater control over freight aircraft and private aviation.

My fears-- megaterrorism by means of BW agents or nuclear weapons-- deserve a bit more description.

The concept of megaterrorism was well known. The warning was there. Only the date, place and nature of the deed were in question to those who had looked at the prospects. And though September 11slaughter was not caused by the "weapons of mass destruction" of which the Hart-Rudman Commission warned, it is still my belief that the biggest threats we face are two types of such weapons: biological and nuclear devices.

BIOLOGICAL-WARFARE AGENTS ARE, IN MY JUDGMENT, the biggest menace we currently face, but not all such agents are created equal. Bioweapons perfected by the major powers in the immediate postwar period included diseases of plants, animals and humans. They were further divided into diseases such as anthrax that are merely infectious-caused only through direct exposure to a weaponized bacterium or virus-and those like smallpox that are also contagious, or spread from one person to another.

The five deaths and six inhalational anthrax illnesses caused by anthrax-bearing letters incited by the events of September 11have taught us a lot about inhalation anthrax that we did not know before. Quite apparent, and not surprising, is the fact that the spores may reside for weeks and months in the lung before vegetating-even in the presence of effective antibiotics-and if antibiotics are withdrawn, an ensuing infection is usually lethal within days unless promptly treated. The likelihood of prompt treatment has, of course, increased greatly, since a disease almost unknown to the ordinary medical practitioner is now at the top of everybody's alert list. Yet anthrax remains a concern because in the form of spores it is so durable. The dissemination of dry spores has been achieved in Russia and the United States and perhaps elsewhere, and tons of anthrax spores have been produced and weaponized-for instance, in 1991 in Iraq, Cuba 1994.

But my chief concern is not a handful of anthrax letters, or even a hypothetical mass mailing of 10,000 anthrax letters. What worries me most are biological agents that are contagious as well as infectious.

Take smallpox, for example, a viral disease that spreads rapidly and kills 30 percent or more of the people it infects. Through foresight and aggressive action on the part of the World Health Organization, smallpox was deemed eradicated in 1980. Two stocks of smallpox were officially maintained-one in the United States and one in what is now Russia-but testimony from one of the workers in the Russian biowarfare program attests that the Soviet Union had secretly weaponized smallpox. The Soviets apparently had numerous ballistic-missile warheads filled with biowarfare agents; some of those agents may have been stolen or diverted. Since the United States has never had access to Russia's former military biowarfare installations, we just don't know the full extent of the program and the degree to which agents remained under the government's control.

It is also likely that some individual researchers in the United States and elsewhere, whether in military or civil programs, did not destroy their stocks of smallpox virus when their nations signed the Biological Warfare Convention of 1972 but kept some for a rainy day-perhaps without any malevolent intent. Some of these stocks may have fallen into the hands of terrorist groups; stored, they could be multiplied by the same techniques used to grow viruses for human or animal vaccines and could be available for widespread dispersion from moving cars or trucks. Depending upon the planning and organization for countering such an attack, the initial infection of 100,000 people might lead to infection of many tens of millions and, given the smallpox fatality rate, the death of 30 million people within four months.

Against smallpox, as with most other viruses, antibiotics are useless; there is no effective treatment after symptoms appear. There is, however, an effective vaccine. But though it was long mandatory in the United States, smallpox vaccination was abandoned here in 1972.

The stockpile is not enough to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. But recent experiments have shown that the vaccine is effective in doses five times as dilute as normal, and a further economy may be achieved by adjustment to the way the vaccine is delivered. What's more, in March 2002, vaccine maker Aventis Pasteur announced that it had some 85 million additional doses of smallpox vaccine in storage and agreed to donate them to the U.S. government; these also can be extended by dilution. In other words, there is now more than enough for every U.S. resident (though the government has not, so far, reinstated widespread vaccination), even without the new smallpox vaccine currently in development.

In the case of smallpox we got lucky. But there are many potential biowarfare agents, such as Burkholderia mallet a contagious bacterium that causes a deadly disease called glanders, for which there is no vaccine. They might be disseminated within large buildings-and distributed by the circulating air in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems-or outdoors, to expose whole cities. And in the case of an outside release, even people who were indoors with the windows shut would be at risk of exposure, as air tends to leak through tiny gaps and cracks in most buildings.

Simply replacing the normal air filters used in most ventilation systems with high-efficiency filters-which are already widely available--could offer some degree of protection against a number of bioweapons. Such filters aren't a perfect solution, though, because contaminated air still circulates for a time before getting routed through the filter. But if living and working spaces were maintained at positive pressure so that any leaked air flowed out instead of in, high-efficiency filtration of" make-up air"-that required to maintain the positive pressure-could reduce the risk of bioweapon exposure by a factor of a thousand or more.

I strongly advocate such positive-pressure protection. It could be applied not only in buildings but in public transport or even private automobiles as well. And implementing it is relatively cheap. At a typical annual office rental rate of about $9,000 per employee, it amounts to an added cost of about $9 per employee each year-a burden many judge is overwhelmed by its routine benefits in reducing allergies and normal transmission of communicable diseases.

Some argue against filtration and positive-pressure protection because they offer imperfect solutions-they don't protect people who are outside, and they don't protect against toxic chemicals. The demand for perfection often stands in the way of tremendous benefit.

MUCH AS THE ANTHRAX LETTERS FOCUSED THE NATION'S attention on the threat of bioterrorism, the arrest in May of Jose Padilla threw a spotlight on another threat: "radiological dispersal devices," or more colloquially, "dirty bombs."

Such devices use explosives or other means to disperse solid or liquid radioactive materials. And there are numerous potential sources of radioactive materials. Rods of cobalt-60, for example, are used for irradiating spices and other foods to kill insects and germs, for medical radiation therapy to treat cancer and for industrial radiography to x-ray thick and dense materials. Strontium-90 provides heat for powering isolated instruments or radio relays. But for the most part, a dirty bomb poses little more immediate health threat than a conventional bomb.

Consider, for example, a hypothetical attack on Chicago with one kilogram of plutonium dispersed by high explosives. Assuming a very pessimistic low wind speed so that the radioactive cloud remains over the city for 12 hours, the net result is that-after 40 years or so-120 people would die of cancer caused by the plutonium. The economic ramifications of a detonated dirty bomb, on the other hand, could be tremendous, as a very large area of contamination would have to be evacuated and cleaned up or left uninhabited for years.

Nuclear explosives, however, represent a much larger threat. A terrorist nuclear explosive would devastate a city, whether detonated in the hold of a ship in harbor, in a cargo container, in a cellar, or in an apartment. U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons are built to yield explosions in the range of 150 kilotons, or the equivalent of 150,000 tons of TNT. But even if a terrorist set off a device that caused just a one-kiloton explosion, the effect on a city like Manhattan would be devastating. Eleven city blocks would be obliterated. People in a 53block area would be killed outright by the heat of the explosion.Those in an 88-block area would immediately receive a lethal dose of radiation. During working hours in a densely populated part of Manhattan with some 2,400 people per block, some 210,000 people would die. For a 10-kiloton explosion, perhaps five times as many would die.

Hospitals would be overwhelmed by the number of people injured by flying glass, suffering from radiation exposure and the like. Transit and communications would be severely crippled. Organized medicine would be unable to cope. Even after the initial crisis had passed, public-safety personnel would face the daunting task of determining where high levels of radioactivity had rendered areas uninhabitable, and where contamination was slight enough that people could return to their homes.

How could such a terrorist explosion come about? Military nuclear weapons could be stolen or diverted, but they are usually provided with substantial protection against unauthorized detonation, and considerable skill would be required to bypass this protection. An improvised nuclear device would not have this problem but would require the acquisition of one essential ingredient-fissile material, either plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Fissile material is not an article of commerce and itself would have to be stolen or diverted. The first plutonium bomb incorporated six kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, of which more than 250 tons has now been made-enough for 40,000 such crude weapons. In addition, every large nuclear power reactor produces annually on the order of 200 kilograms of plutonium, which is not weapons grade and need not be to make an improvised nuclear device. Indeed, there are 100 tons or more of plutonium accumulated in Japan, France and the United Kingdom alone from the reprocessing of civilian power reactor fuel.

The low-enriched uranium used in U.S. nuclear reactors, on the other hand, can in no way be used directly to make a nuclear explosive. But highly enriched uranium as used in nuclear weaponry is also employed in some research reactors and in fuel for naval reactors, such as those that propel our aircraft carriers and submarines. Likewise, Russian nuclear-propelled ships use highly enriched uranium. And in Russia particularly, stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium (even weapons grade plutonium) intended as nuclear fuel do not have nearly the security provided to nuclear weaponry.

The best single protection against the terrorist use of nuclear weapons is to block the acquisition of plutonium or enriched uranium. The Bush administration in December 2001 recognized the seriousness of this problem and that something can be done to solve it, and it has increased the budget for such "cooperative threat-reduction activities." In a separate deal, the United States is buying 500 tons of highly enriched uranium (diluted in Russia to low-enriched uranium to fuel US. reactors) over 20 years, at a cost of about $12 billion. Once diluted, this material is useless for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. But the delivery of the nuclear fuel will not be complete until 2014, and Russia had diluted only about 150 tons of highly enriched uranium by summer 2002. Here is a threat that will persist for much longer than necessary. This is a serious concern. Every 100 tons of bomb uranium can be used to build more than 1,000 nuclear weapons of the type that destroyed Hiroshima.

It would be a simple matter for the United States and/or the international community to advance Russia the much smaller amount of money required to blend down the remaining 350 tons (and perhaps another 700 tons not included in this deal) enough to render it unusable for nuclear weaponry. This could be done in about two years, and the money would be repaid by Russia with or without interest when this material was further blended and transferred to the United States.

Eliminating such large stores of weaponable materials is one important step. Detecting the illegal transport of such materials when they fall into the wrong hands is another. Can weapon usable materials be detected in transit? Yes and no. Radiation detectors sensitive to low-energy gamma rays from plutonium are routinely deployed at the portals of plants processing plutonium. Plutonium detection can be foiled by the use of enough lead shielding, but that eliminates the possibility of accumulating a weapon mass of plutonium by routinely smuggling tiny amounts through a portal, since the shield would be too massive to conceal on the body. Uranium, however, is somewhat more difficult to detect than plutonium.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the threat of a Soviet nuclear weapon smuggled into the United States was taken seriously. As recounted in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Los Alamos effort to produce the nuclear weapons used in 1945, was asked in 1946 at a congressional hearing "whether three or four men couldn't smuggle units of an [atomic] bomb into New York and blow up the whole city." His reply: "Of course it could be done, and people could destroy New York." Asked how such a weapon smuggled in a crate could be detected, Oppenheimer replied, "With a screwdriver." Some years later the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission published a still classified study, the "Screwdriver Report."

Currently, the United States has dedicated nuclear emergency search teams with the ability to deploy about 600 people with devices to detect and disable nuclear weapons in the case of a credible bomb threat. But a terrorist with a mission to actually kill people would certainly not alert the authorities to the existence of a nuclear explosive; the device would need to be detected either in transit, following intelligence tips or by generalized search. This is a tall order for the nuclear-emergency search team, even granting substantial improvement in its capabilities. We must-and with proper research we can-develop improved sensing technology capable of detecting even shielded nuclear materials in cargo containers, trucks, luggage and so forth. Deployed widely, such technology would be the embodiment of Oppenheimer's screwdriver.

THESE ARE FRIGHTENING TIMES, BUT WE CAN REDUCE THE likelihood and the impact of terrorism that uses bioagents and nuclear explosions. Against bioterrorism, the most feasible and urgent remedy is one that does not depend upon the details of the threat: the deployment in homes and offices of filtration and positive-pressure protection systems. That, in addition to masks, education on personal hygiene and contingency plans, can essentially eliminate what could otherwise be devastating epidemics caused by contagious bioagents. In the longer run, the war against bioterrorism would benefit from the development and production of vaccines-not only in the United States, but abroad-and the development of antitoxins and other treatments.

To protect against radiological dispersal devices, we should improve the security of radioactive sources used in industry and the health sector. And since such devices for the most part pose limited immediate harm but constitute a serious economic threat and can lead to panic, we should have contingency plans and public-education programs that forestall precipitous and dangerous movements among people who face no significant short-term hazards. Against the terrible threat of destruction by a smuggled nuclear weapon or an improvised nuclear explosive, much more must be done to secure at their source the materials indispensable to such devices-plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Still, even these feasible partial remedies will not be in place when they are needed unless the United States creates a technical organization with responsibility for evaluating the terrorist threat, prescribing remedies and evaluating how we are doing at implementing them. This needs to be done with wartime urgency, the same urgency that drove the creation during World War II of the radar lab at MIT and of the Manhattan Project. For the most part, however, the work of this new laboratory would not need to be so highly classified. It could begin simply by carving out sections of a small number of existing government or national laboratories and putting them under the firm control of a homeland-defense analogue of J. Robert Oppenheimer-a person with technical leadership and total dedication to the cause of reducing the vulnerability of our society.

The focus now is, as it happened in Spain, and as best illustrated by the cooperation between Cuba and Iran, on megaterrorism taken place my MULTITERRORISTS, that is, by the cooperation of perhaps diverse terrorist groups and states, that join efforts to achieve their goal: the destruction of modern western civilization.

Éste y otros excelentes artículos del mismo AUTOR aparecen en la REVISTA GUARACABUYA con dirección electrónica de: