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U.S.: America Vulnerable To Chemical, Biological Attacks

  • Andrew Tully

The terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center in New York and left a gaping hole in the Pentagon in Washington have only begun their war against America, according to national security analysts. And they say there is no reason to doubt that future strikes will be made with chemical or biological weapons.

Washington, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- National security analysts say Americans should become accustomed to the idea that the attacks on New York and Washington two weeks ago were not the last attempts by terrorists to destabilize the country.

And they say future acts of terror could very well include chemical and biological weapons.

Senior American officials are calling the events of 11 September "asymmetrical" attacks. The U.S. is the leading military power in the world, and its forces are predominantly conventional. Terrorists have far fewer resources, so they use unconventional weapons, weapons of opportunity.

The weapons they used two weeks ago were fuel-laden commercial jetliners that they used as flying bombs to raze the World Trade Center in New York, a symbol of American wealth, and the Pentagon, a symbol of American power.

Now the U.S. is strictly tightening security at its airports, and hijacking a plane for a repeat performance seems unlikely. But analysts warn that the terrorists are perfectly capable to mount more and perhaps grislier attacks.

One such analyst is retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, who served as an intelligence officer in the armed forces. He put it this way in an interview with RFE/RL:

"If they can do that -- if they have the operational security, fanaticism, and utter, utter lack of morality to do something like this -- you really are in a bad way [misguided] if you don't give them credit for doing anything else. I think the only reason they have not used a nuclear weapon is they simply don't have one -- parentheses, yet."

Another retired American military intelligence officer, Peter Pitorri, agrees. And he says the next attacks that Americans face will probably be easier and less expensive for the terrorists to conduct. He told RFE/RL that an efficient way to deliver some chemical and biological weapons is to use crop-dusters. These are small, one-seat planes used to quickly distribute pesticides over crops.

Even simpler, according to Pitorri, would be to send terrorist agents to Union Station, Washington's railway hub, and the city's two airports, Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport.

Under Pitorri's scenario, the agents would open vials containing small amounts of poisons -- botulin, for instance. Mere drops of the toxin can escape into the atmosphere and kill everyone within hundreds of yards in less than a minute, depending on air currents and the amount of poison released.

Pitorri says attacks at such locations would not necessarily kill everyone in Washington, but it would cause chaos in America's capital city. First, he said, it would take hours, even days, to determine what was causing the deaths because a pathologist could not simply walk into the affected area to retrieve a body for autopsy.

According to Pitorri, it would also be naive to expect scientists in hermetically sealed garb like space suits to respond quickly to neutralize the toxin. He said emergency-preparedness tests show it would take between 12 and 30 hours to have suited teams on the scenes of the attacks.

Perhaps the most vulnerable target for a chemical or biological attack is a city's water supply, according to Pitorri.

"It'd be a lot safer and a lot easier to just drop the stuff into a reservoir, and God knows we have a lot of reservoirs here [in the Washington area]."

But Pitorri stresses that it is likewise easier to protect a population from contaminated water than poisoned air. A community's water supply is already contained, while its air supply is not. Still, he says, it would take many, many guards to seal off a reservoir, as well as the aqueducts that feed it and the pipes that run from the reservoir to the users.

Even after a city's water system is contaminated, the damage can be limited, according to Pitorri.

"There is no way to contain airborne pathogens. There is a way, of course, to contain the water. You simply shut off the water-distribution center from that reservoir. But then what do you do for water?"

Colonel Allard agrees that it is practically impossible to prevent an anonymous terrorist from walking into a crowded public building and releasing a deadly biological weapon.

But Allard, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, stresses that the effectiveness of such an attack is not guaranteed. Like Pitorri, he says factors like temperature, humidity, and wind direction could limit the attack to little more than a demonstration of the terrorists' resolve.

Allard was asked if further terrorist attacks would be prompted by U.S. retaliation against Al-Qaeda, the organization run by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile whom Washington says is responsible for the attacks two weeks ago. He replied that Americans can expect to be victimized again regardless of how its armed forces respond.

"It's going to happen no matter what we do. Whatever he's [bin Laden] going to do, he's going to do. That's essentially the battle that has now been joined."

Pitorri agrees. He says that the terrorists behind the attacks two weeks ago seem determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can, regardless of the risks to themselves.

"It's hard to present a deterrent shield when the people you're trying to deter are a bunch of lunatics."

Ultimately, these and other analysts agree that there is little the U.S. or any other country can do to prevent terrorists from preying on their people. As a result, they say, the most any nation can reasonably be expected to do is to prepare itself mentally for attacks and not let terrorists weaken their resolve.