Chemical and Biological Weapon Terrorism: Assessing the challenges from sub-state proliferation Jean Pascal Zanders



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Chemical and Biological Weapon Terrorism: Assessing the challenges from sub-state proliferation
Jean Pascal Zanders

The Japanese apocalyptic religious sect Aum Shinrikyo released the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo underground system on 20 March 1995. Thirteen people eventually died and more than 5500 were injured. This strike was the sect’s third intentional and indiscriminate release of sarin within a year. In March 1994 Aum Shinrikyo tried to assassinate the leader of a rival religious sect, the Soka Gakkai, but failed as the spraying system mounted on a van malfunctioned and contaminated its operators. The second attempt occurred in the town of Matsumoto on 27 June 1994, resulting in seven deaths and 600 injured. While the improved spraying system functioned, the targets of the attack—three judges who were expected to rule against the sect in a land dispute—survived with relatively minor injuries as a consequence of a series of errors by the sect’s strike team.1

Following these incidents terrorism was said to have made a qualitative leap: for the first time a terrorist organization had discharged a so-called weapon of mass destruction. While some analysts had predicted the inevitability of the development, many still have difficulties in understanding the purpose of terrorist organizations resorting to chemical and biological (CB) weapons. Part of the explanation is the focus on the potential consequences of such an attack: because of their classification as so-called weapons of mass destruction, which lumps them together with nuclear and radiological weapons, CB weapons are said to be able to produce huge numbers of casualties. The immensity of the envisaged consequences defies rational explanation of the political motives for the terrorist attack.

Much of the analysis of the threat of terrorism with CB weapons has so far been directed towards circumscribing the threat, profiling organizations likely to resort to such weapons and investigating the requirements for consequence management. However, once it has been determined that a particular group has developed an interest in chemical or biological weapons, its eventual acquisition and release of these weapons is virtually taken for granted. With nuclear weapons as the yardstick, CB weapons are seen as easy and cheap to obtain. This black box approach has diverted attention away from what is actually involved in the acquisition of chemical or biological weapons by a terrorist group.2

While only a few cases of terrorist attacks using CB weapons have been documented in detail, this paper nevertheless attempts to set up an analytical framework to describe the process of proliferation to sub-state actors. A distinction is first made between terrorism with CB materials and terrorism with chemical or biological weapons. Second, the paper then deconstructs the threat of terrorists using CB weapons and sketches the evolution of the overall threat with CB weapons since the 1991 Gulf War. Third, it applies the assimilation model for the demand-side study of CB weapon proliferation in states to sub-state actors. The assimilation model focusses on the way the political and military imperatives, as constrained by the state’s material base, become reconciled with each other so that the weapon under consideration becomes an integral part of the mainstream military doctrine. It can be applied to non-state actors, because it focusses on the many thresholds which the promoters of the armament dynamic must overcome and the opportunity costs they are willing to pay to overcome these thresholds. With non-state entities, some thresholds identified for states will be virtually nonexistent, while other ones will feature much more prominently. The presence of certain thresholds and their respective height consequently typify the way in which a non-state actor can structure its armament dynamic. Based on these insights, the paper concludes that while the acquisition of CB weapons by terrorists is definitely feasible, such organizations nonetheless face enormous obstacles on the path to a CB weapon capability.3 This decreases the likelihood of such events occurring. Moreover, if terrorists acquire such a capability it is highly probable that the quality of the agents will be well below that of similar agents in military arsenals. Fourth, from these insights the paper draws conclusions about the preparations to respond to a terrorist strike that utilizes CB weapons.

To avoid muddling the discussion, an explicit distinction between terrorism with chemical and biological materials, on the one hand, and terrorism with chemical and biological weapons, on the other hand, has to be made. Terrorism with CB materials deals with the use of any toxic substance or pathogen in pursuit of certain goals. Terrorism with CB weapons refers to the use of warfare agents, that is a toxic chemical designed, developed and selected by the military to support certain missions laid out in the military doctrine of a state. This distinction highlights the deeper significance of the 1995 sarin attack in the Tokyo underground: for the first time a terrorist organization turned to a warfare agent.

Terrorism has been practised throughout history and in all types of civilization. Poisonous substances, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, have been used for political assassinations or sabotage. Such use was always limited, because only few people had access to the substances and possessed the learning to use them. Despite the risk of harsh punishments, the prospect of certain success attracted poisoners to the substances.4 A qualitative change regarding the knowledge and accessibility to toxicants took place during the 19th century. With the development and rapid expansion of organic chemistry and the chemical industry the number of poisonous compounds increased significantly. The most common causes of poisoning are accidents, suicide or homicide. Poison appeared in the pre-World War 1 domestic law of several industrialized countries as part of the penal code or health, food, drugs and cosmetics acts. Greater scientific understanding of the propagation of infections contributed to the deliberate use of disease for sabotage. For instance, as part of a programme coordinated in Berlin during World War 1 German agents cultivated pathogens in the United States and tried to infect horses and livestock ready for shipment to the war theatres in Europe and the Middle East.5

Chemicals and pathogens were also used in World War II for assassinations and sabotage. On 27 May 1942 Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, was allegedly killed by a grenade charged with botulinus toxin supplied by Great Britain to Czech commandos.6 Soviet agents reportedly had 9-mm pistol bullets containing 22 mg of aconitine for use against German administrative officials in occupied zones. The bullet produced a sure deadly effect even when it failed to hit a vital part of the body.7 Polish and Soviet partisans were also reported to have used biological agents in sabotage or assassination operations against German troops.8

Since World War 2 poison weapons have been mostly associated with secret services. In September 1978 the Bulgarian secret police assassinated the exiled writer Georgi Markov with a pellet containing ricin. The toxin is said to have been supplied from the Soviet KGB-run Laboratory 12, which specialized in substances that could kill quickly, quietly and efficiently.9 In September 1997 the Israeli secret service Mossad attempted to assassinate the head of the political bureau of the Palestinian militant Islamic organization Hamas, reportedly with a lethal dose of the synthetic opiate fentonyl.10 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced evidence that South Africa’s apartheid regime developed various contraptions charged with a poison or a biological agent for use against the black population as part of its chemical and biological warfare programme.11

Terrorist organizations on the whole have shown relatively little interest in CB materials. The 1995 survey on CB terrorism by Ron Purver lists over two dozen reported instances of terrorist use or threat of use of biological materials and a considerable number of threats and incidents with poisonous substances.12 The cases range from apparently empty threats to reports of acquisition and actual discovery of possession.13 Nevertheless, many of the listed cases could arguably be classified as attempts at homicide, suicide or criminal extortion motivated by financial rather than political gain. Other cases involved the intelligence services of certain countries, as mentioned above.

Common to most examples is the discriminate use of the poisonous agents. Humans were targeted individually; horses and livestock also had to be infected apiece. Even in those cases in which the assailant is never directly confronted with his victims—e.g., the poisoning with mercury of exported Israeli citrus fruits in 1978 by a Palestinian terrorist organization or the lacing of foodstuffs in shops with toxicants14—the physiological consequences were limited to the person ingesting the toxic substances. Another shared characteristic is the clear mission-oriented purpose of the attacks with CB materials. In no documented attack with non-warfare agents, whether successful or unsuccessful, were such agents used for their own sake. On the contrary, the goals to be achieved through the use of such agents were narrowly defined. This direct goal–instrument relationship may explain, in part, why no ‘mass destruction’ resulted from these strikes.

The scientific and industrial developments of the 19th century also laid the foundations for chemical warfare in World War 1 and the military biological warfare programmes. A huge number of toxic compounds were investigated for their suitability as weapons. In the 20th century around 70 different chemicals were used or stockpiled as chemical warfare agents. Even fewer were standardized. The basic reason is that the selection of an agent represents a compromise:



  • A presumptive agent must not only be highly toxic, but also “suitably highly toxic”, so that it is not too difficult to handle.

  • The substance must be capable of being stored for long periods in containers without degradation and without corroding the packaging material.

  • It must be relatively resistant to atmospheric water and oxygen so that it does not lose effect when dispersed.

  • It must also withstand the sheering forces created by the explosion, as well as heat when dispersed.15

Thus, for example, the US binary nerve agents were less pure than the unitary ones, but to the proponents of the programme in the 1980s the relative ease of production, storage and transportation, the increased safety for the troops handling the binary munitions, and the less complicated processes of demilitarization and destruction more than compensated for this loss of purity.

Moreover, the military had several types of agent at their disposal and, depending on the mission, were able to select them on the basis of volatility versus persistency and lethality versus incapacitation. Candidate biological warfare agents were similarly selected on the grounds of a compromise between pathogenicity, survivability after release and controllability. Military biological weapon programmes included lethal, incapacitating and anti-crop agents. This mission-oriented selection of chemical or biological warfare agents shaped the direct goal–instrument relationship.

Another common feature of the CB weapon programmes was that, especially after World War 2, the final production phases (synthesis of the actual warfare agent, manufacture of delivery systems, weaponization, testing) were essentially conducted in facilities owned or controlled by government agencies. This limited the accessibility to these technologies. Furthermore, the public discourse regarding the necessity of chemical or biological warfare agents in the military arsenals was fundamentally different. While their casualty-producing qualities entered the discussions, the rationale for their acquisition was also based on tactical, strategic and geopolitical considerations. Such arguments included offsetting an adversary’s numerical superiority in a particular domain; targeting rear areas, including population centres; economic warfare, including destruction of crops; deterrence; and their utility as bargaining chips at disarmament negotiations. As a consequence of the way the military envisaged to use these agents, CB weapons were widely viewed as indiscriminate instruments of warfare. The user does not have full control over the agent after release into the atmosphere and, even in a tactical setting, the agent may spread far beyond the primary target area on the battlefield, affecting combatants and non-combatants alike.

The goal–instrument relationship for chemical or biological materials, on the one hand, and chemical or biological warfare agents, on the other hand, is markedly different. This is a direct consequence of the criteria underlying the selection of the agents. The compromises in function of military utility may therefore have been a disincentive for terrorist interest in warfare agents. While warfare agents can definitely be used for assassinations or sabotage, there is no immediate rationale available for their selection for these purposes. Moreover, the terrorist grouping would have to overcome the many technological difficulties involved in the manufacture, weaponization and dissemination of these agents. Aum Shinrikyo, of course, did precisely that, but it is also the only known organization to have attempted to acquire and use warfare agents on a large scale.16 The current threat predictions—particularly those involving mass casualties—appear incommensurate with current reality. Before looking into the internal motivations for a terrorist organization to acquire CB weapons, it is therefore necessary to investigate whether the overall threat perception regarding CB weapons has, in fact, changed and, subsequently, been injected into the threat projections of terrorism.


Part of the problem of rationalizing the use of CB weapons for terrorist purposes lies in the qualification of CB weapons as weapons of mass destruction. This has two major implications. First, it draws the attention of the analyst away from the political motives for resorting to CB weapons and towards the consequences of such employment. As small quantities of toxic chemicals, pathogens and toxins are said to be able to produce massive casualties, prevention, emergency response and logistics become the prime focus of policy analysis. The immensity of the envisaged consequences, in turn, defies any rational explanation of the political motives for the terrorist act and reflects on the assessment of the rationality of the perpetrators. Second, the grouping of CB weapons with nuclear weapons into the category of weapons of mass destruction blurs the threat and consequence assessments for each individual class of non-conventional weaponry. The most plausible type of weapons to be used in a terrorist strike is mentally linked to the most destructive weapon category and vice versa. Chemical weapons are thus implicitly associated with the far greater destructive power of nuclear arms, and the nuclear threat is heightened because of the greater plausibility of terrorist organizations acquiring chemical weapons. Between these two extremes, biological weapons occupy the middle ground: they are easy to acquire and said to be able to produce mass casualties. For each of the three categories, the potentially most lethal agents are the ones considered. Furthermore, as Western analysts tend to use nuclear weapons as the yardstick to measure the complexity and cost of armament programmes, CB weapons are almost by definition easy and cheap to produce. This, too, affects assessments of the terrorist threat with CB weapons.

The focus on the consequences of a terrorist attack with CB weapons has another important implication: it affects a state’s security deficit. A state always confronts a variety of security challenges. As it can never meet all security contingencies no matter what preparations it undertakes, a security deficit emerges. While the security deficit contains an objective component—for instance, the differences in numbers and types of weapons deployed by two or more adversaries—it is foremost an expression of the subjective appreciation of the threat(s). In the threat analysis of terrorism the objective component is by and large absent: new organizations can spring up at different times; their motivations and causes will differ; knowledge of the weaponry at their disposal is fragmentary at best; and the strikes can come without any warning, in any place and at any time. The only known factors of the security deficit are the state’s own vulnerabilities. Consequently, they define the threat. The high probability of a terrorist strike with biological weapons is thus assessed on the basis of, for example, the limited understanding of the behaviour of pathogens under various environmental circumstances in built-up areas, the presence of essentially unprotected ventilation systems in modern buildings, the limited capability to detect these agents before people are harmed, or the lack of organizational preparedness to respond to the envisaged disaster. In this way, the terrorist threat with CB weapons rests on worst-case analyses of every conceivable scenario and developments in a wide variety of terrorist organizations, which are then amalgamated into a single threat projection. Little distinction is consequently made between what is conceivable or possible and what is likely in terms of the threat of a terrorist attack with CB weapons.

This sense of vulnerability has developed rapidly and its origins are complex. On 13 May 1991 then President George Bush declared that the United States would forswear the use of chemical weapons ‘for any reason, including retaliation, against any state’ once the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) enters into force.17 The announcement represented a major policy shift. The way in which the victory had been achieved against Iraq in 1991 was then seen to have greatly devalued the military utility of CW. The new weapon technologies had basically rendered chemical weapons obsolete.18 The confidence of 1991 cannot contrast more starkly with today’s extreme sense of vulnerability to CB weapon threats.

Several events have contributed to this development. The use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian soldiers and its own Kurdish population in the 1980–88 war brought the issue of proliferation to the fore. Many companies in Western Europe and the United States had supplied Iraq with key technologies for large-scale production of advanced chemical warfare agents and delivery systems. The Soviet Union and its satellite states had trained the Iraqi military in the conduct of chemical warfare and sold large quantities of weaponry, some of which Iraqi engineers succeeded in converting into chemical weapon delivery vehicles (e.g., the al-Hussein ballistic missile). At the time chemical weapon armament programmes were also reported in some other countries in volatile regions (e.g., Libya and Syria). However, only following Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War did the world learn of the extent and advanced nature of Iraq’s CB weapon programmes. Moreover, the great efforts the Iraqi leadership was undertaking to conceal components of these programmes from UNSCOM inspectors testified to the high value modern-day proliferators attach to CB weapons. In addition, in the years following the liberation of Kuwait many soldiers of the coalition forces suffered a variety of medical conditions, collectively known as the Gulf War Syndrome. The lack of conclusive evidence that low-level exposure to chemical or biological warfare agents may or may not have been a contributing factor increased the sense of helplessness in the face of such weapons. This sense of helplessness has been further heightened by the possibility that the medical pre-treatments to protect the soldiers from the effects of CB weapons might actually also be a cause of some of the conditions.

As the events in Kuwait unfolded, the bipolar world order was gradually giving way to a new multipolar international system. Many local and regional conflicts, which had been suppressed during the Cold War, flared up into open wars. The early enthusiasm for peacekeeping and peace enforcement in the wake of the victory in the Gulf War soon ebbed away as many of the conflicts proved intractable and led to relatively heavy casualties for the intervening forces. It also gradually dawned on policy makers and military planners that, as a consequence of proliferation, these troops may one day confront an adversary armed with chemical or biological weapons. Whatever the causes of the Gulf War Syndrome, the phenomenon highlighted many inadequacies in current CB weapon defence, detection, protection and prophylaxis. For forces unwilling to sustain high casualty rates (especially in view of the remarkably low number of casualties in Kuwait) asymmetrical warfare with CB weapons was suddenly perceived as able to defeat armed forces equipped with the most modern conventional weaponry.

Meanwhile, the international community was also moving rapidly to strengthen the regimes banning the possession and use of CB weapons. In January 1993 the CWC was opened for signature. States parties to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) began to consider verification and other measures to significantly strengthen the treaty. However, some events, in addition to the discoveries in Iraq and proliferation, raised questions about the value of the security offered by these treaties.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin all but admitted to an offensive Soviet biological weapon programme in violation of the BTWC in 1993. Serious concern continues to exist about Russia’s compliance with the convention. Trilateral verification and transparency exercises by the three co-depositories of the BTWC (Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) have come to a halt feeding suspicions of Russian non-compliance, and, recently, highly publicized accounts by a former ranking official in the Soviet biological weapon programme appear to confirm the worst fears.19 Similar reports have emerged regarding the development of new chemical warfare agents. Neither the agents nor their precursors are featured in the lists of chemicals in the CWC and may therefore escape detection under its routine reporting and inspection mechanisms.20 The rapid deterioration of economic and social conditions in Russia increases the possibility of highly trained specialists with knowledge of chemical or biological weapon development and manufacture being enticed with financial incentives to countries suspected of seeking such weaponry. Low security at the various chemical weapon storage sites in Russia raise the possibility of theft.

The disarmament treaties themselves have an impact on the relative threat perception. After the entry into force of the BTWC in 1975 CW gradually became the greater threat; in the 1990s biological weapons are once again the larger threat as the CWC sets new standards for verifiability and enforceability. This perception is exacerbated by the concerns about the poor detection capabilities for biological warfare agents and the problems of consequence management if a release of biological weapons were to occur. Against the background of the debates on asymmetrical warfare, the CWC ban on in-kind deterrence or retaliation appears to hobble a state party. Yet the whole purpose of disarmament conventions such as the BTWC and the CWC is that the parties to them must seek ways of ensuring security by means other than those that are prohibited.21 This was precisely the deeper sense in President Bush’s declaration on 13 May 1991. In a different context, the CWC seems to contribute subtly to the focal shift towards the consequences of possible chemical weapon employment. The ban on the use and preparations for use has removed the tactical, strategic and geopolitical rationale for acquiring chemical weapons from current discussions, leaving the element of casualty production.

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