Mass Destruction Terrorism No Longer Just Theoretical

by Gerald L. Epstein

Gerald Epstein

The use of sarin in the Tokyo sub-ways in March broke a taboo. For the first time, terrorists used a weapon of mass destruction--in this case, a chemical warfare agent. A few weeks later, a terrorist bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, taking some 200 lives. This attack, using a homemade conventional explosive, brought terrorism to the forefront of U.S. attention.

The bomb believed responsible for the Oklahoma City attack is relatively simple to make. Chemical and biological weapons are not as familiar to terrorists, and they require some technical sophistication, but they can be far more devastating. Technically competent individuals can make such weapons using widely available equipment and materials, if they are careful enough to avoid killing themselves in the process. Should highly enriched uranium become available on the black market, a skilled group might even be able to fashion a Hiroshima-type nuclear explosive. Even if such a bomb were far short of the 12.5 kiloton yield of the Hiroshima bomb, it would make the Oklahoma City disaster--an 0.002 kiloton explosion free of long-term contamination--fade in comparison.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons--has long been a problem. During the Cold War, however, it was overshadowed by the buildup of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which threatened societal nuclear annihilation. The proliferation threat was abstract and distant; when it became a concern at all, it referred to actions by states, and not by subnational or terrorist groups.

Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons have widely disparate effects, military applications, means of production, and methods of control. Yet it makes sense to distinguish them from conventional weapons. Kilogram for kilogram, they can be hundreds to millions of times more deadly. Unlike conventional weapons, which are considered legitimate instruments of national defense, weapons of mass destruction engender widespread revulsion.

International law and practice--codified in three major treaties--reflect the near-universal consensus that they should not spread to additional states, and that existing stockpiles should be reduced or eliminated. This consensus makes coordinated international action against proliferation possible. Such action is essential, since no single nation can stop proliferation or protect itself from proliferation's consequences.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the problem has gotten much more complicated. Social, political, and economic turmoil in Russia and the other former Soviet republics raises the ominous prospect that materials, expertise, components, or technologies related to weapons of mass destruction, or even weapons themselves, might become available. Borders of the former Soviet republics are porous, and the systems set up by Russia and the other new states to account for, control, and protect nuclear materials--particularly in civilian facilities--fall far short of international standards. Since nuclear material production is the most difficult step in making a nuclear weapon, a bombmaker able to procure such material from the former Soviet Union would reap a tremendous head start.

Early reports of nuclear smuggling from the former Soviet Union ranged from irrelevant to fictitious. In the last two years, however, weapon-grade uranium and plutonium have been seized in amounts that on occasion have constituted up to one-tenth of what is needed to make a nuclear weapon. Obviously, there is no way to know what additional shipments have escaped detection.

When the proliferation threat is measured by the number of aspiring nuclear powers, however, considerable progress has been made in recent years. Countries thought to be pursuing nuclear weapons in the past, such as Brazil and Argentina, appear to have abandoned those ambitions and have joined nonproliferation regimes. In a triumph of U.S. diplomacy, all the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union have either returned or committed to return to Russia any Soviet nuclear warheads on their territory, and all have joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear-weapon states. The best news has been South Africa's complete and unilateral nuclear disarmament, transforming it from an undeclared nuclear power to a valued and influential member of the NPT regime.

Not all the news is good. Israel, India, and Pakistan show no interest in giving up their nuclear arsenals, which--as non-members of the NPT--they are under no international obligations to renounce. Iraq and North Korea violated their treaty commitments by seeking nuclear weapons, a precedent that Iran is suspected of following. As a result of the Iraqi and North Korean programs, however, the world has learned some valuable lessons.

Iraq's situation revealed the limitations of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards and of western intelligence capabilities. Although Iraq was known to be pursuing nuclear weapons, the scope and progress of its nuclear weapon program took Western analysts by surprise. It also demonstrated that the IAEA's primary mission before the Gulf War--verifying that states were not misusing their civil nuclear facilities as part of a weapon program--addressed only part of the proliferation problem. The IAEA's member states had not given it the resources or the political support to perform the more important job of verifying the absence of covert nuclear facilities.

The IAEA recognizes the importance of searching for undeclared nuclear facilities, and now has proposed extensive additions to its safeguards operations. It is soliciting more information from its member states about their nuclear programs, as well as about what they may know about programs in other countries. It is exploring the use of environmental sampling to detect covert nuclear facilities. However, its member states have not funded this new mission, nor have they increased funding to cover the growth in the IAEA's traditional safeguards obligations to include new countries and new facilities.

In North Korea, the IAEA demonstrated a new, aggressive approach to exposing nuclear proliferation. Its inspections and analyses proved that North Korea had not revealed the full extent of its previous nuclear material production. By ringing the alarm, the IAEA accomplished its official mission in full. But it is important to realize that the IAEA has no authority to stop proliferation. Options available to individual states or to the United Nations Security Council to deal with this situation are complicated by North Korea's unpredictable nature, and by the conventional military threat that it poses to South Korea. In negotiations with the United States, North Korea has agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear reactors, which are ideal for producing weapon-grade plutonium, in return for more easily safeguarded light-water reactors. If this agreement breaks down, however, the situation once again can get very tense.

Chemical and biological weapons receive less attention than nuclear weapons, but they remain a serious concern. With advance warning and defensive gear, both chemical and biological attacks can be mitigated. For this and other reasons, these weapons are generally considered to have limited military utility. However, they could be extremely serious against unprotected civilians. Most of the equipment needed to produce deadly chemical agents has legitimate civilian applications, and some agents are simple to produce with widely available equipment. Quantities of biological and toxin agents sufficient to produce vast numbers of casualties can be rapidly produced in small facilities. Virtually all such production equipment has civil applications and is available worldwide. For example, the closely related technology of fermentation has been practiced for thousands of years.

The greatest obstacle to the use of biological weapons may well be lack of interest on the part of those who might otherwise be motivated to use them, whether due to unfamiliarity with the technology or to the difficulty in using it to accomplish a specific tactical objective. Such a judgment would echo that of those military planners in World War II and more recently who have had the ability to produce and use such weapons on large scale but who have found reason not to do so. This explanation may continue to hold true indefinitely, but--given the difficulty in finding a limit to the amount of carnage that some human beings are willing to inflict--it hardly inspires great confidence for the future.

The Tokyo attack should serve notice that chemical (and by extension, biological) terrorism is no longer theoretical. However, it does not necessarily presage a wave of such attacks, any more than Iraqi chemical attacks against Iran in the 1980s paved the way for a future of chemical warfare. Indeed, Iraqi use of chemical weapons probably had the opposite effect, helping motivate negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Tokyo attack is also a reminder to redouble our efforts to forestall nuclear terrorism. Chief among these should be the vigorous pursuit of efforts to improve the controls and security over nuclear weapon materials in the former Soviet Union, the most likely source of nuclear materials for a terrorist.

Gerald Epstein is a senior analyst at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). This article draws on studies of nuclear proliferation he has directed at the OTA. However, any views expressed are strictly his own.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

June 1995 (Volume 4, Number 6)

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