Looking at Terror in a New
By Mitchell Bard
I remember taking a scuba-diving
course in which the first few weeks were spent
in a classroom learning all the ways you could
die underwater. Reading about chemical,
and nuclear weapons (CRBN) is a lot like that.
If the weeks following September 11, with
all the warnings and anthrax cases weren't
scary enough, along comes a series of books
outlining the dangers of nonconventional warfare
that make some of the worst-case scenarios
of pundits look like wishful thinking. Only
one of the three books, Cordesman's, includes
material since September 11, but the others
cover many of the issues that have arisen
Germs was written before
September 11th, but presciently anticipated
the likelihood of a serious terrorist
attack using nonconventional weapons. The
authors, an editor (Stephen Engelberg), foreign
correspondent (Judith Miller) and science
writer (William Broad), all from the New
York Times, investigated the topic for
the paper and tell a fascinating story of
the recent history of biological weapons.
Their book begins with a case of bioterrorism
that went largely unnoticed in this country.
It occurred in Oregon in 1984 when the followers
of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned their
neighbors with the Salmonella bacteria in
an effort to silence their opponents and win
control of the county government. The plot
was uncovered and several of those involved
were convicted of crimes and hundreds of people
were made ill.
The authors note that this was "the first large-scale use of germs by terrorists on American soil," but the
attack barely registered with the media or the nation's law enforcement community. Part of the reason was
the fact that it happened in a small town far from the media centers, and part was a desire not to publicize the
incident for fear of inspiring copycats.
One other important finding from the case that went largely unnoticed was that the Rajneeshees had bought
the Salmonella from a Maryland medical company that supplies dangerous organisms to researchers around
the world and apparently had no serious security precautions in place to prevent the materials from falling
into the wrong hands. The Bhagwan was not the only one to simply buy the ingredients he needed for
biological weapons; Saddam Hussein went to the same lab to obtain a variety of germs, including anthrax.
The book also gives a good history of biological weapons, going back centuries to recount how armies would
use their own form of germ warfare, everything from hurling the dead bodies of people infected with the
plague over city walls to dipping arrowheads in manure and rotting corpses. The authors detail U.S. research
on biological weapons and the even more sophisticated program pursued by the Soviet Union, which was far
more extensive than American intelligence knew until the fall of the empire and the defection of key Soviet
scientists who had participated in the program.
One of the most interesting chapters
deals with Saddam Hussein. The Gulf
War not only left Saddam Hussein in power,
but failed to destroy his reserves of chemical
and biological weapons. This is well-known.
Less publicized is the debate that went on
within the U.S. government during the buildup
to Desert Storm as the military prepared to
confront an Iraqi army known to possess chemical
and biological weapons. Officials were faced
with the dilemma of how to protect American
soldiers, especially after it immediately
became clear that there was not enough vaccine
to go around to protect them from some of
the germs. In addition, there was the sensitive
issue of how to treat the other armies in
the coalition. How would it look, after all,
if the United States was vaccinating its soldiers
and leaving its allies unprotected? The debate
over what to do is particularly relevant since
September 11 as officials have grappled with
the question of how to protect the general
public from anthrax, smallpox and other potential
The book by the Times team is written in the breezy journalistic style that makes for bestsellers. By contrast,
Anthony Cordesman book is written with all the style and entertainment value of a bureaucratic memo
specifying standards for manhole covers. Comparing the titles -- Germs versus Terrorism, Asymmetric
Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction -- should immediately give you a clue as to the relative density
of the two books.
Cordesman, a former government official and frequent TV talking head, holds the august title of Raleigh A.
Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic Studies. He is an insightful analyst who has built a
reputation for thorough research. While this book is filled with useful and interesting information, it is
difficult to find. The page proofs had the feel of a work that was rapidly thrown together to respond to the
terrorist attacks. It is filled with bullets, acronyms, lengthy verbatim quotations from government reports and
other analyses that are tedious and unnecessary. It is possible the final version will be different, and it would
be infinitely more readable if an editor were to force Cordesman to cut and paraphrase to make the book half
That said, the book is full of data and rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits associated with homeland
defense. Cordesman offers some truly frightening attack scenarios, which include planting smallpox in the air
duct of an aircraft, scattering mustard or nerve gas in a populated area, and contaminating the water supply
with a chemical or biological agent. The book is at its best when Cordesman analyzes the weapons
themselves, but the details are well beyond what most people need to know. Still, the bureaucratic approach
fits the intended audience of beltway insiders and provides a detailed blueprint for pursuing an effective
means of homeland defense, one that implies the creation of a much more imposing institution than the newly
formed office led by Tom Ridge.
The biggest substantive flaw is
his conclusion that the U.S. is a target of
terrorism primarily as "an extension of theater-driven
conflicts." This suggests that Islamic fundamentalists,
such as Osama
bin Laden, target the U.S. only because
of America's role in the Middle East rather
than because they view American values as
antithetical to Islam. Cordesman's argument
also suggests that the elimination of regional
disputes (read the Arab-Israeli conflict)
will remove, or at least reduce, the motivation
for terrorists to attack United States targets.
A good response to this is actually provided
by Paul Pillar, who quotes former counterterrorism
coordinator L Paul Bremer in his book, Terrorism
and U.S. Foreign Policy: "[Bin Laden]
doesn't like America. He doesn't like our
society. He doesn't like what we stand for.
He doesn't like our values. And short of the
United States going out of existence, there's
no way to deal with the root cause of his
terrorism." And what is true of bin Laden
is also true of other terrorists, especially
the Muslim groups.
Pillar, a former counterterrorist official at the CIA, devotes most of his attention to the broader foreign policy
issues that Cordesman skirts. His book is the one that has been most outdated by events, though, to be fair, he
expresses the conventional wisdom prior to September 11 that CRBN terrorism was unlikely.
One of Pillar's interesting observations, which is particularly apropos given what has come to light about the
attack on America, is that some terrorists do not necessarily have a political objective, but may simply wish
to inflict pain. What he calls an "ad hoc terrorist," such as World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Youssef, is not
necessarily a part of an organization, can't be deterred and is unafraid of punishment. Despite the
government's public campaign to pin the September 11 attacks on Osama bin Laden, the hijackings and
anthrax letters fit the pattern of the ad hoc terrorists.
Pillar also rightly focuses on the
danger of Islamic terrorism, noting that all
of the major anti-U.S. terrorist attacks in
the 1990s, except Oklahoma City, and several
of the most prominent ones in the 1980s, were
perpetrated by Muslims.
He makes the obligatory politically correct
remarks that the Muslim world is not monolithic,
but also documents the clear animus of Islam
toward the West. A key passage notes the misperception,
prevalent in the Islamic world, that "the
United States is anti-Islamic, and that virtually
everything it does in the Islamic world is
part of an effort to weaken, control, or destroy
Muslims."Thus Muslims believe the West is
at war with Islam, no matter how vigorous
the denials by U.S. officials. In fact, a
war is going on, but it is one-sided,
with much of the Islamic world at war with
the United States while we profess our neutrality.
Terrorism and U.S. Foreign
Policy describes various terrorist organizations
and strikes one particularly false chord when
Pillar equates Palestinian extremists with
the radical Jewish group Kahane Chai. Whereas
the Palestinian terror groups have thousands
of members, enjoy widespread support and are
considered freedom fighters who are allowed
to operate with impunity in the Arab world,
the Kahane Chai was outlawed in Israel and
its followers number no more than a handful.
Pillar mentions the case of Baruch Goldstein,
a fanatic who shot up a mosque in Hebron
and intimates a similar incident could occur
again. The massacre in Hebron, however, was
extraordinary, and is raised repeatedly because
it was so atypical. By contrast, the Palestinian
groups he mentions, such as Hamas
Jihad, regularly perpetrate suicide bombings
and other heinous terrorist attacks that are
a far greater threat to peace than the far
more remote possibility of another Goldstein-type
Sounding like President Bush, Pillar says the war on terrorism "requires long, patient, persistent effort," but
he breaks with the President when he concludes that "terrorism cannot be 'defeated,' -- only reduced,
attenuated, and to some degree controlled." But Americans want to win the war, and even Bush's repeated
calls for patience are unlikely to erode this unreal expectation.
If you want to get a rudimentary understanding of the threats we face without being put to sleep, Germs is
your book. If you work in the administration or staff a key committee related to security, then take
Cordesman's volume to bed and you'll be rewarded with detailed guidance for writing legislation, building a
bureaucracy and implementing a strategy for addressing nonconventional threats. And if you want to better
understand the political context in which the war on terrorism will be fought, then Pillar is the book to read.
About the only comfort one can take after reading these books is that the use of CRBN has so far been
remarkably rare and ineffective. The fact that progress in genetic engineering offers not only the possibility
for great medical advances but the likelihood of the development of more dangerous biological weapons is
not a thought that makes for a peaceful sleep.
Had these books all been published prior to September 11, they would have been largely ignored and treated
with the same apathy as the many others written on the subject of nonconventional weapons. Now, however,
these authors, who might have been dismissed as Chicken Littles, have a receptive audience that already
believes the sky has fallen.