U.S. officials tout a near 100
percent chance of additional terror attacks in the near future.
But what kind?
By Steve Perry - counterpunch
A while ago I wrote about the Fourth Generation Warfare scenarios
now contemplated at the Pentagon and in the highest reaches of the
Bush administration. Basically they envisage a war of mutual terror
in which offensives on both sides are marked by the elements of
contingency, surprise, and the proliferation of civilian targets.
This is a quantum departure from the past. For the first time the
U.S. finds itself waging a kind of war that turns its enormous wealth
and power into a liability rather than an asset. In short, our targets
are fixed and obvious and theirs aren't. The al-Qaida network is
diffuse, inventive and full of people convinced they have little
to lose. Strike at them indiscriminately and you only create scores
of martyrs and thousands of new adherents. Try to focus your efforts
more exactly and-well, note for starters that they are said to operate
in small and largely independent cells; despite the histrionics
of the FBI and CIA, there is probably no way of capturing most of
them on intelligence radar, or assaying accurately where the next
threat lies. Hence all the empty warnings of late from a government
at pains to prove it won't be caught napping again-even if the public
alerts serve no purpose at all in preventing future disaster.
And so we the people are left to watch, wait, and speculate. A few
notes on the handicapping of future terrorist threats:
Anthrax: The least of the potential bioterror threats on the horizon,
because a) it's not contagious and b) the supply of compatible antibiotics
is relatively plentiful and available from multiple sources. In
the wake of anthrax traces discovered in Pakistan, Germany, and
Lithuania this week, the FBI has tilted back toward the theory that
foreign perpetrators are the source of the mailings, even though
it's now clear that the particular strain being employed originated
in U.S. military labs. It's a difficult matter for investigators
because there is no assurance that the various anthrax mailers are
necessarily connected: The historically lax controls on the acquisition
of the bacillus make it impossible to tell whether the perpetrators
in various locales have anything to do with each other. In any case
the anthrax threat seems containable. Officials were initially worried
that the so-far unexplained infection of New York City hospital
worker Kathy Nguyen might be the harbinger of a new wave of infections,
but these few days later that appears not to be the case.
The airlines: You have only to consider the story of Subash Gurung,
the Nepalese student who passed through security checkpoints at
O'Hare Airport with seven knives, a canister of mace, and a stun
gun in his bag. This was hardly an isolated incident. On Wednesday
MSNBC reported that since September 11, 30 percent of the weapons
taken through by testers of airport security had passed by without
detection. Now as ever, most security personnel are near-minimum
wage workers, and nationwide their ranks turn over at a mind-boggling
rate-127 percent per year, again according to MSNBC. Numerous commentators
have pointed to the example of United Flight 93 by way of claiming
any hijacker would surely be overwhelmed by other passengers; perhaps
it will be harder to turn airplanes into targeted bombs going forward.
But meanwhile there is no insurance against suicide bombs in the
luggage hold. It remains a simple matter to carry a bomb onboard
in checked luggage, so long as the bomber is willing to die along
with the rest.
Terrorist nukes and "dirty" bombs: Recent reports in the
European press hint that bin Laden and al-Qaida may have obtained
micro-nuclear bombs-the so-called "backpack nukes"-from
the former Soviet Union through a connection in Chechnya for a sum
in the neighborhood of $30 million, but these tales are uncorroborated.
The greater risk is that they may get their hands on nuclear energy
waste materials from any of innumerable sources around the world.
Like the anthrax bacillus, nuclear plant waste is monitored very
poorly, and pound after pound of the stuff goes missing from various
locations each year.
This is significant because a fissionable nuclear bomb is not an
easy thing to manufacture or in most cases to transport. Concocting
a conventional explosive laced with radioactive waste would be much
simpler-and more deadly: The half-life of the nuclear isotopes used
in most fission bombs is a matter of years or decades; the killing
power of radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel materials can
last for thousands of years, making any site affected by them permanently
uninhabitable. There has been persistent speculation that the United
Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11 was
bound not for Washington but for the Three Mile Island nuclear facility.
But it would likely be easier to buy spent fuel than to bomb it;
the salient point is that any terrorist explosive containing spent
nuclear fuel could have a catastrophic effect equivalent to the
actual bombing of a nuclear power plant.
More attacks on symbolic targets: No matter how hit-and-miss the
character of enhanced security measures, it's going to be harder
to use airplanes as bombs in the future. But there are other means
to the same ends-large truck bombs, for instance. The stepped-up
security in most places is largely a token thing. At Minneapolis's
suburban Mall of America, for instance, guards were posted in doorways
to check bags in the weekends following the 9/11 attacks. But they
covered only about a fifth of the entrances to the mall; it was
a case of motion rather than action, and the potential for mayhem
continues to be enormous.
Smallpox: The granddaddy of all terror scenarios. Until the early
'90s it was supposed that all remaining stores of the smallpox virus
rested safely at the CDC in Atlanta and a single repository in Russia.
But numerous sources-most prominent among them Ken Alibek, a former
director of the Soviet Biopreparat weapons program now residing
in the U.S.-have attested that the Soviets produced smallpox in
vast quantities for their bio-war program. The scientists involved
in that effort have since been cast to the winds in the course of
Russia's draconian, Western-driven market reforms. They need jobs
and are available to the highest bidders. Alibek claims that at
least 10-12 countries have obtained smallpox samples since the Soviet
breakup, and that does not take into account any side deals between
the weapons formulators and other entities such as, say, al-Qaida.
Wednesday's Washington Post reported that Health and Human Services
Secretary Tommy Thompson was preparing to augment the U.S.'s present
order for 54 million doses of smallpox vaccine by an additional
250 million. But alas, there are stumbling blocks. Most immediately,
the vaccine in question is a new variant on the old cowpox formula,
and it has never been tested on humans; as such there's no assurance
it will provide immunity. There is also the same legal bottleneck
we have seen in the anthrax scare, generated by a few pharmaceutical
companies interested in protecting their patents at all cost. Acambia
PLC, the manufacturer contracted to supply the initial 54 million
doses requisitioned by the U.S., does not expect to be able to fill
the order until the end of 2002. Former Minnesota state epidemiologist
Michael Osterholm surveyed the smallpox vaccine situation in his
pre-9/11 book on biowar, Living Terrors; he wrote that "we
are years away from being remotely ready for the specter of smallpox."
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor
to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage
of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.