Are we nearer to an unconventional terrorism attack?

An international effort to monitor, control and foil CBRN terrorist attacks is vital for the security of the international community.

Chemical weapons drill 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Chemical weapons drill 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
Since the sarin attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan in 1994-1995, the anthrax attack in the United States in October 2001 and the chlorine attacks by al-Qaida elements in Iraq in 2006-2007, there was no serious chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incident worldwide. Although limited in their scope and lethal results, these attacks materialized, albeit tardily, the potential CBRN threat perceived since the early 1970s.
Present events in the Greater Middle East and Pakistan have raised the specter of a far greater and more present danger. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime it became known that he had secretly kept some of his chemical weapons arsenal, in spite of his international obligations. Two sites containing chemical weapons were found in Libya and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United States were notified.
The OPCW inspectors visited Libya in mid-January 2012 and found stocks of mustard agent. Libya now has until April 29, 2012, to submit a detailed plan and a date by which the destruction of the materials would be completed.
However, no one is sure such agents could not have been disseminated to terrorist elements, as heavy weapons, ground-to-air and antitank missiles have found their way to jihadists in the Gaza Strip and possibly to al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb elements in the Sahara region. For instance, in February 2012, 43 SA-24 anti-aircraft missiles and the shoulder- fired SAM-7 were found in a cache in the town of In Amenas in southern Algeria, near the Libyan border.
This scenario could be repeated with the chemical (nerve and blister agents), biological and even radiological weapons and agents found in the hands of the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria. Already in May 2011, in a CNN interview, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about the possibility that Hezbollah is armed with more missiles and rockets than most states, possibly with chemical or biological warheads.
In the event of a power vacuum in Syria there is the possibility of weapons proliferation to Hezbollah or other regional militant groups.
Damascus has already provided ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. An Israeli defense official threatened that Israel will not tolerate any transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The future status of Syrian chemical weapons has become a major worry also for the United States, which is pressing nations bordering Syria to be attentive for unconventional arms that might be smuggled into their territories. It was reported that the US and some Middle East allies are intensifying satellites surveillance of Syria’s chemical and biological sites. According to Arab and US officials, Jordan and the United States are preparing a strategy for securing Syria’s considerable arsenal of chemical and possibly biological weapons. In the event an Arab peacekeeping force is approved to enter Syria, Jordanian special forces teams would be assigned to find and protect close to 12 WMD-related facilities located at al-Safira, Hama, Homs and Latakia.
The 2008 US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism centered its findings on several areas where the risks to the United States were increasing, and mainly at “the crossroads of terrorism and proliferation in the poorly governed parts of Pakistan,” described as “the most likely source of WMD acquisition.”
It should be remembered that Pakistani nuclear scientist Bashiruddin Mahmood, former chief of Pakistan’s Khushab plutonium reactor, had close ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Together with other scientists and military and intelligence officers he created the Pakistani humanitarian NGO Umma Tameer e Nau (UTN).
Former Director General of Pakistani Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISID) Hamid Gul was among the board members and patrons of UTN.
Before 9/11 Mahmood offered to construct chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs for al Qaida. After 9/11 he was detained with other associates by Pakistan Intelligence at the request of the US government, but was later liberated.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard and former director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the US Department of Energy, mentioned several scenarios of “nuclear nightmares that keep [him] up at night”: Pakistan loses control of its bomb; the burgeoning Pakistani nuclear arsenal (more places where something can go wrong); increased extremism; the perilous military-civilian relationship.
Pakistan is seen indeed by international officials and experts as the main threat in this field.
The US has implemented a $100 million program to secure Pakistan’s nuclear laboratories and weapons (for example, by separating warheads from missiles) while “US officials remain concerned about foreign-trained scientists who support radical Islamic causes infiltrating Pakistan’s nuclear establishment and, more broadly, about the remote (but not unthinkable) possibility of an acute regime-threatening political crisis during which nuclear security is breached and a warhead falls into the hands of Islamic extremists.”
In a February 20, 2011, editorial, significantly titled “Pakistan’s Nuclear Folly,” The New York Times warned that Pakistan, which has between 95 and over 110 deployed nuclear weapons, had manufactured enough fuel for 40 to 100 additional weapons. “The ultimate nightmare is that the extremists will topple Pakistan’s government and get their hands on the nuclear weapons,” claimed the editorial.
A more realistic scenario is the Islamist radical terrorists attack some nuclear facility and provoke a major nuclear incident, or get their hands on some fissile material.
Eight people were killed in a 2007 suicide bombing at a nuclear missile holding site south of the Pakistani capital. Suicide bombers in 2008 attacked entry points at Pakistan’s Kamra air base – a suspected nuclear weapons holding site – and the Wah Cantonment facility, thought to be involved in putting nuclear weapons together.
Two high-profile attacks by terrorists on highly secure military bases in Pakistan, the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi in October 2009 and the naval aviation base at PNS Mehran near Karachi in May 2011, have renewed anxiety about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Some terrorists learned their tactics from the Pakistan Army’s elite commandos, the Special Service Group, which had trained earlier generations of Pakistani/ Kashmiri militants in similar tactics for operations against India.
In light of the revolutionary events and the growing instability in much of the Greater Middle East and South Asia and the growing threat of failing states losing control on their chemical, biological and nuclear assets, an international effort to monitor, control and foil CBRN terrorist attacks is vital for the security of the international community.
The writer is a senior research scholar at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.