Lions and Tigers and Bombs

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.” CP

Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.