On March 19 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the nerve gas Sarin on five trains of the Tokyo underground. Until 2001, I rated this the most frightening news story of the previous ten years. Why? Because until then the most severe weapons that had been used by terrorists had been conventional explosives. The expression “Weapon of Mass Destruction” is overused, but as the word is usually definted, this fit the bill. As it happened, due to a combination of inexperience in deployment and concern for the safety of the people actually deploying the weapons – the concentration of sarin in the containers was apparently substantially lower than Aum Shinrikyo had considered using – the Tokyo attack only killed 12 people, although a great many more were injured or otherwise affected by the attack.
But it was extremely close. Had a few fairly minor details been different, thousands would have died. As it happened, Aum Shinrikyo had one chance only to cause carnage of this kind. They were the kind of organisation that it was relatively easy for the Japanese authorities to round up and eliminate, and the Japanese authorities did indeed do this. But what they demonstrated is that a few skilled chemists with the sorts of resources that can be moderately easily bought on the open market in a developed country can produce extremely deadly chemical weapons.
It is now 2004, and such weapons have not been used again by terrorists. (In fact, I don’t think they have been used in warfare since then either. To be truthful, they are not terribly useful in achieving military objectives unless your military objectives include killing large numbers of civilians. Saddam Hussein in the 1980s seems to be the last person who was into using them in a big way. While on that, I hope Mr Hussein is enjoying his cell in Qatar or wherever it is). Since then, we have had far too many terrorist attacks using conventional explosives, and one attack in which terrorists attempted to see if the sorts of fantasies that exist in Tom Clancy novels and James Bond movies will work in real life. (The answer was clearly yes, once. I can’t imagine that September 11 type attack will work again, however). What we have learned since then is that there are terrorists out there who wish to kill westerners in large numbers, and who have operatives who are willing (or even eager) to die while delivering the weapons. Given that, an attack such as the one in Tokyo seems a fairly obvious way to achieve such objectives. So why hasn’t it happened? I find it impossible to believe that Al Qaeda would not attempt such an attack if it could. The only explanation must be that they do not have such weapons?
Why not? Demonstrations that something is possible are usually followed by somebody else trying it. So why not here?
We have not seen this scenario discussed much. This may just be that the media have missed it. (I am sure that the intelligence agencies have not missed it. And I can’t imagine that the terrorists have never thought about the posssibility). What we have seen discussed is much discussion of the possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons of various kinds. And the underlying fact is this: It is much harder to build a nuclear weapon than it is to make some nerve gas. This is why Saddam Hussein was never able to build a nuclear weapon, although he had lots of nerve gas. And it is why that Aum Shinrikyo attacked Tokyo with sarin. Reports are that they wanted to build nuclear weapons, but didn’t have quite the skill or the resources.
Which leads me to think that Al Qaeda (and other similar terrorist organisations) are in a technical sense very unsophisticated. I am not a chemist, but I know enough chemists to know that if I were to recruit two or three chemists of the right kind (or maybe one, if I could find the right person straight away), and they were to cooperate with me, I could have some nerve gas in no time.
Again, I am not a nuclear physicist (although I actually am a physicist by training), and I also know that actually assembling a nuclear weapon isn’t all that hard (although some types are trickier than others). However, obtaining the enriched Uranium (U-235) or the Plutonium isotope (Pu-239) necessary to build a nuclear weapon is, however, a substantial engineering exercise. It is relatively difficult to hide from, say, the air force of Israel. It is becoming easier to do and easier to hide as technology advances, which is a frightening thing, but the key point here is that it remains substantially harder than making some nerve gas. (The other thought is of course that Al Qaeda or some other organisation manages to buy or steal some fissile material or even complete bombs from some country that has built them, possibly the former Soviet Union. One thing to slightly take heart from is that fissile isotopes decay, and old nuclear weapons often no longer work. Only slightly, though, as the fissile material in such bombs is much easier to enrich back to something nasty than is uranium in its natural form).
This leads me to think that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations are nowhere near building nuclear weapons of their own. If they had much technical expertise, we would see it in other kinds of weapon – most notably chemical – long before we saw anything nuclear. But at first thought it surprises me that they have neither kind of weapon. Because, in both cases I have a rough idea how I would go about making such weapons myself, and I know who I could ask who would know in great detail. Particularly in the case of chemical weapons, it really doesn’t strike me as very hard.
However, when I think about it some more, it becomes harder. If I were to ring up three chemists I knew at grad school, and ask them do they know how to make sarin, or do they know someone who would, I suspect that there is a fair chance that I would get on to someone who knew before long. And it’s quite possible that he or she would tell me how. However, what would also happen is that the fact that I had been asking questions would also get around, and before very long I would have someone knocking on my door and asking me all kinds of questions about why I wanted to know this. While this kind of knowledge is not widespread, it is relatively easy for security organisations to keep track of it, and to notice anyone who can ask awkward questions. This fails when knowledge becomes widespread and there are too many people to keep track of. US intelligence services attempted to keep knowledge about hard encryption secret in the way they would suppress knowledge about how to build weapons – in fact encryption softwere was legally treated as a munition – but failed utterly. (This book gives a good overview of the story).
And of course, it seems impossible to stop things like the Sasser worm for much the same reason. Quite probably our information networks do make this sort of thing much harder. However, there is an enormous difference between the number of bright anarchic 18 year olds programming computers in their basements and the number of Al Qaeda sympathetic teenagers dabbling in organic chemistry in their basements.
I could read lots of books and attempt to make sarin myself without consulting other people, but chances are I would kill myself in an early experiment rather than make any weapons. I could go back and do a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry, and learn all these things without arising suspicion, but that would take a long term plan. And the fact is that you can’t really choose people to be scientists: they choose themselves. Non-scientists don’t generally understand the mindset very well, and so sending a few people off to American colleges to learn how to make sarin is probably not very effective. And if you send too many people, some of them will not be loyal. (Neal Stephenson wrote an entertaining (but for some reason very obscure) novel named The Cobweb under a pseudonym a few years back, which was all about this – Iraqi grad studends making biological weapons for Saddam Hussein in a public university somewhere in the American west. And ultimately people did notice). In practice the best way to develop chemical weapons in secret if you are a terrorist organisation is to find a few people with the right mindset (although not necessarily complete expertise in the subject at hand), put them together in secret, and encourage them to talk to one another until they develop the correct expertise. As far as I can tell, this is what happened in Japan. The terrorist organisation in question seemed particularly designed to recruit people of the right mindset, and it was a more authoritarian top down organisation.
Al Qaeda is not like this. It seems to be more a loosely federated organisation of semi-autonomous cells. The disaffected middle class Saudi quality of the September 11 terrorists notwithstanding, Al Qaeda isn’t an organisation of much appeal to people of a scientific mindset, even Arabs of a scientific mindset. Most Arab scientists I know are not entirely free of anti-Americanism, but they despise the fundamentalists just the same. (Both Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaeda have a curious fondness for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy though). A structure consisting of loosely federated small cells doesn’t really allow for the development of much technical sophistication or institutional knowledge. Which possibly explains why the terrorists are seemingly such amateurs in terms of obtaining and building weapons. The extraordinary thing about September 11 was the sheer novelty of what was achieved. A weakness in America’s systems was expoited in such a way that two of the largest buildings in the world were destroyed with a few knives and a couple of sets of boxcutters (or whatever it was). This was a triumph of planning over resources. Al Qaeda went to this much trouble because as I see it it was forced to by a lack of resources.
None of this really makes me sleep any easier. This is merely an attempt to answer a simple question. “Given how easy it is to make weapons of mass destruction, why do the terrorists not have them?”. Given how easy it is to make them, I suspect terrorists will have them at some point. However, when it comes down to it I am amazed they do not have them already. And the only reason I can think of for why is incompetence. And this is the only way I can explain the incompetence.
Even if it is hard for terrorists to build nasty weapons of their own because of their institutional structure, states do have the right institutional structure, and there are one or two states out there that could conceivably supply terrorists with weapons. (The fear of what America might do to any state from which such weapons could be traced is hopefully something of a deterrent. But how really do you deter somewhere like North Korea?). When weapons capable of killing thousands or more people fall into the hands of small non-state groups, the world will really have changed. We are at a curious moment in which two things have happened: there has been one terrorist attack (Tokyo, 1995) in which a potential weapon of mass destruction was used without mass destruction being causes, and there has been one terrorist attack (New York, 2001) in which mass destruction was caused without a “weapon of mass destruction” being used. I cannot see how the two things will not come together at some point.
And this will genuinely will be a moment unique in human history. And we must not forget this fact. And we must prepare for it, however difficult it seems.