Why not start with the bad news and get it over with? According to Gary Ackerman, it seems possible that terrorists one day will use CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) weapons as a staple of their arsenal.
Ackerman is director of the WMD Terrorism Research Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a nongovernmental organization devoted to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
"Is this going to occur in five years, 10 years, 15 years?" he wondered aloud at a recent seminar about terrorism hosted by Risk Management Solutions Inc., the Newark, Calif.-based catastrophe modeling firm.
The timeframe is unknown, but the eventuality is based on a Harvard business model that describes the relationship between technology and costs. When costs of technology are lowered, the theorem goes, performance goes up.
In the case of terrorists, CBRN technology performance will eventually reach a "tipping point," Ackerman said, when it meets and exceeds terrorists' need. Then a "wholesale" switch from conventional to CBRN weapons will occur.
At present, however, Ackerman said, CBRNs are not terrorists' No. 1 choice in weapons. Generally speaking, terrorists prefer technology that's easy to use, easy to find and has a successful track record.
Andrew Coburn, RMS' vice president of catastrophe research, director of terrorism research, found that the previous year's data on terrorism bore this out. Terrorists are trending toward using smaller conventional bombs, maximizing the technology with better targeting.
"We're actually seeing a record number of people killed with smaller bombs," Coburn said.
Still, in a survey of the 4,000-plus jihadist Web sites, done in conjunction with RMS, Ackerman found that terrorists are abuzz about making CBRNs. Precedent, he said, shows that some terrorist groups have the resources, the ideologies and the desire to use CBRNs.
Ackerman also warned that dissident governmental elements within sovereign nations pose a risk of passing along WMD technology to terrorists. U.S. chemical facilities are also highly vulnerable as a target for attack.
"That is to me one of the largest vulnerabilities in this country," he said.
What's the good news out of all of this? U.S. security is improving, said Coburn, adapting to a "more intelligent use of intelligence efforts." It focuses less on specific targets and more on "connecting the dots" and uncovering terrorist cells and plots.
According to Coburn and his colleague Gordon Woo, RMS' catastrophe risk consultant and chief architect of its terrorism model, this increased U.S. security, along with terrorists' preference to follow the path of least resistance, suggests that Europe could face the greater near-term threat.
But it's all a matter of degree. The terrorists' desire to attack the United States is "stronger than ever," said Bruce Hoffman, corporate chairman in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency at RAND, speaking at the RMS event.
"The United States shouldn't feel itself unique," he warned, making sure everyone in the room understood that nations, even America, can't stop every terrorist plot.
September 1, 2006
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