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The puzzle of why terrorists do not have weapons of mass destruction

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.

26 comments to The puzzle of why terrorists do not have weapons of mass destruction

  • Robin

    I seem to recall seeing film of al Qaeda testing some sort of chemical weapons on dogs in their terrorist training camps. It is odd that they haven’t used them. Maybe they have tried, but whatever security organization that prevented the attack kept it under raps to avoid panic. Or maybe they’re just afraid of what will happen to them, should they do such a thing. Their leaders don’t seem to be in quite as big a hurry to die as many of the followers.

  • Sam

    It seems to me that until you actually get fission bombs, the bang for the buck for “WMD”s isn’t really all that great. Consider if Aum Shinrikyo simply left several backpacks of explosives on the subway. They likely would have been safer to the deployer and builders of the bombs than the sarin, and surely more reliable and effective.

  • Grant Gould

    What is remarkable about Aum cult’s attack is not that it killed so few people but that it killed so many. In spite of the scare stats that we get about chemical weapons (a gram is “enough to kill a hundred people” and what have you), it’s fairly clear that it takes about a ton of any chemical per fatality outdoors, whether it’s First World War poison gas or Saddam’s infamous gassing of the Kurds with a relatively sophisticated nerve gas. Indoors the numbers are better, but not astonishingly so.

    If the Aum cultists had packed guns instead of gas, they would have killed more people. Bombs might have been still more effective. And neither guns nor bombs requires years of secretive effort from dozens of people.

    The fact is that “Weapons of Mass Destruction” are simply not that great for anything other than hype value. Even a crude nuclear weapon is likely to be only comparably powerful to an equivalently expensive conventional attack. Frankly, if Al Quaeda somehow detonates a crude nuclear weapon in a harbor somewhere, we have probably gotten off easily: The same level of funding and technical expertise necessary to put together and execute the nuke plan could have backed dozens or hundreds of simpler attacks.

  • R C Dean

    I wouldn’t discount another angle. The governments that facilitate terrorism have discovered that the collateral risk to them of old-fashioned guns-n-bombs attacks by their terrorist auxiliaries/proxies is quite low. I suspect the message has been delivered to them that if any of their pet killers use gas, germs, or nukes, the risk to their continued reign and personal safety will escalate exponentially.

    It is not worth the trouble to the US and its allies to take out the mullahs and nutjobs that infest the middle east so long as all they are exporting is guns and bombs. It is definitely worth the trouble if they start exporting WMDs. While the terrorists may not be deterrable, their state sponsors definitely are. The states that did not appear to be deterrable (the Taliban, Hussein) are now gone. That message has been received, believe me, and Syria, Jordan, et al are probably doing everything in their power to ensure that no WMD attacks occur.

  • Jacob

    Grant Gould has a point.

    We have seem simple bombs get a lot of bang, in Bali, Madrid, Jerusalem. No need for the fancy WMD stuff. AQ has adopted the software developers’ moto: KISS = keep it simple, stupid.

    We had, though, another WMD attack – the anthrax attack. Not many people dead, but a big scare.

    “And this will genuinely be a moment unique in human history.”
    How will it be unique ? I thought those many dozens of millions dead in two World Wars and the communist lunacy are pretty hard to surpass.

    “And we must not forget this fact. And we must prepare for it, however difficult it seems.”

    How do you prepare ? I’m not sure there is much that can be done. You can never prepare for everything imaginable.

  • Perhpas, Aum and not al-Qaeda are the ones who should really frighten us. I think we have forgotten that there are many groups and individuals out there, most of them with much more coherent ideologies and organisations than the wierd blend of mysticism and pulp sci-fi Aum spouted.

    The technology for mass destruction exists, is getting better all the time and is hard to keep secret or off the black market. Even if al-Qaeda and their supporters are crushed and discredited, it’s available for any other terrorists with the ideology and resources. Maybe we are in for a much longer war on terrorism than we expect.

    For example, if they put their minds to it, I can imagine that the Provisional IRA could have the time, money and people they would need to buy or build nuclear weapons.

    Maybe I’m being too gloomy, so please take a potshot at me. Besides, I still live and work in the centre of London!

  • Dave

    Weaponising chemicals is quite hard work, so as has been mentioned, good “old fashioned” explosives are easy to handle, obtain and deploy.

    Likewise, as Michael mentions, knowing how to build a nuke and building them are slightly different. Either you need an improbable amount of Uranium or a smaller, but harder to handle sensibly, piece of Pu.

    To be honest the “Cobweb” scenario still bothers me the most as the most likely way for groups to get technology, especially with the web around.

  • Guy Herbert

    Good points, well made.

    To reinforce this, contemplate how effective they are even with conventional bombs. That is, not very. There have been a diminishing handful of high-profile successes outside the moslem world. Even one is too many, of course, but they don’t add up to a significant threat. The monstrosity of the 9/11 attacks was dumb luck, and that style is in all probability unrepeatable.

    Most of the actual terrorising of Western populations has been left to our own governments. And what a good job they do.

  • Most of the actual terrorising of Western populations has been left to our own governments. And what a good job they do.

    Spot on.

    And this is only going to get worse (at least in the short term).

  • Susan

    Al-Qaeda wants to kill a lot of infidels but it doesn’t want to harm the infidels’ land. Islam is an expansionist, cupiditous creed that places a huge value on taking land away from infidels. Land that would be infected with radiation or chemical toxins for hundreds or thousands of years has no value to them. The land belongs to Allah (under their belief) and the Muslims (as Allah’s vice regents) — perhaps they also believe they have no right to destroy Allah’s land.

    It’s their greed for Western land that is keeping them from going all the way, IMHO.

  • David Gillies

    Making a nuclear bomb is hard. Even a Uranium bomb presents substantial challenges. Making a Plutonium bomb is much, much harder. Pu239, unlike U235, cannot be used in a gun-type self-assembly bomb. A Pu bomb must be an implosion device. Solving the equations required to design the explosive lenses is phenomenally hard, and constructing them to the necessary tolerances is also difficult.. Far and away the most challenging task from a physics standpoint in the Manhattan Project was the lens design. The so-called ‘hydrocodes’ that are used to model the evolution of a nuclear explosion are among the most closely-guarded secrets of weapon-owning states and have taken tens of thousands of man-years to design. A major hurdle facing a group attempting to manufacture an implosion device is that it simply must be tested. This is a huge security risk. Substitution of a non-fissile core will give a lot of data, but there is a much higher risk that the device will not work as intended when the time comes. Use of fissile material in testing is out of the question: it instantly gives the game away and uses irreplaceable Plutonium. For this reason, I predict that any nuclear weapon built by a terrorist group will be of the self-assembly type, and that means Uranium 235. Harder still than pure-fission weapons are thermonuclear devices. These are, to all practical purposes, far beyond the capabilities of non-State actors (they’re extremely hard for States to build). The only way terrorists will obtain a more complex design is in the form of an existing warhead.

    The problem with Uranium bombs is that they require a lot more fissile material than implosion weapons. Whereas an implosion bomb typically requires around 16-20 kg of fissile material (this can be reduced with a depleted Uranium tamper), a Uranium bomb requires of the order of 50-100 kg of fissile material. Supply of fissile material is the most challenging factor in making a Uranium bomb. An enrichment facility is way beyond the capabilities of a non-State actor; therefore the supply must be already enriched. Given a suitable supply, machining the Uranium to form the sub-critical masses is relatively simple, although the machining would have to be done in a radiation-tight facility via remote CNC machines, and dust-control would be of the utmost importance if your valuable technicians were not to expire from radiation poisoning or toxic effects.

    From the above, I think we can conclude that if terrorists do obtain a nuclear weapon, there will have been State involvement at some stage. States are deterrable, at least in principle. It would be astonishingly risky for a State to use a terrorist group as a proxy. It is very unlikely that rogue elements within a State would be able to provide the necessary fissile material or functioning warhead to a terrorist group. Thus, if a terrorist group does obtain a nuclear weapon, it will have been as a policy of a State. This State, once identified, will be subject to annihilation.

    Having said this, I do believe that a nuclear attack on a Western city by a terrorist group will occur. The question is what will happen in the aftermath. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the response would be many times greater than the attack.

    As an aside, decay of the primary fissile material is not a problem. Uranium 235 has a half-life over over 700 million years; that of Plutonium 239 is over 24,000 years. However, in more sophisticated bomb designs, other radioactive materials are present, notably a beryllium/polonium neutron reflector in the case of an implosion weapon, and various tritium-based substances in the case of some thermonuclear weapons. These can indeed decay to the point where functioning of the weapon is compromised, but they are extremely unlikely to be found in a terrorist-built weapon.

  • Tedd McHenry

    Given how easy it is to make weapons of mass destruction, why do the terrorists not have them?

    First, congratulations, Michael, on a very good summary of the situation. However, I’m not convinced that the absence of WMD attacks necessarily implies an absence of WMD. (Though I agree that it’s highly unlikely that anyone other than national governments has nukes, unless they’ve somehow acquired them from a national government.)

    There were six or seven years between the first WTC attack and the second, even though the method used for the second attack was available the whole time. Some planning and preparation was necessary, of course; and it’s possible that it took Al Qaida several years to even think of the plan. But it’s also possible that they bide their time and make attacks according to a long-term, strategic plan. If that’s true, we can’t take absence of WMD attacks as evidence of absence of WMD.

  • Guy Herbert

    Susan, “Islam is an expansionist, cupiditous creed that places a huge value on taking land away from infidels.” Ah — the scales have fallen from my eyes! Not a powerful subculture of reactionary nutters lashing out against the Islamic world’s engagement with an attractive rival culture at all. It’s all of Islam. And the reason that the Islamic Neutron Bomb has yet to be deployed must be that they covet our women and goats.

    Granted, Tedd McHenry: [...] it’s also possible that they bide their time and make attacks according to a long-term, strategic plan. Possible, but unlikely. If such diffuse and oddly assorted groups really are capable of making and coordinating a subtle long term plan worthy of a go-master in which these individual attacks form a strategic net too deep for anyone else to discern, then I’d be sufficiently surprised to consider whether God really is on their side–perhaps acting as Chief of Staff. In such cases Unitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.

  • Doug Collins

    A 1971 book – The Curve of Binding Energy – might be germaine to this discussion. Its thesis, that a ‘fizzle’ bomb is buildable by a relatively low tech, non governmental group, was being advanced by Ted Taylor. Taylor was a wunderkind who designed fission bombs for the Manhatten project and later for the US military. He designed both the biggest yield fission bomb and the smallest physical bomb in the US inventory. His big bomb has a yield approaching fusion bomb levels.

    He claimed that a crude, inefficient design could still result in a bomb with a yield as large or larger than the Hiroshima bomb. When the book was written the ominously prescient comment was made that such a bomb, though relatively small, would still be enough to knock down one of the WTC towers.

    His other comment -contradicting some of the comfort that we take from assuming terrorists would have to test first- was that most tests are unnecessary: we already know what works and what doesn’t work. I recall that the book claimed no tests had failed for a long time prior to publication.

    While the production of a sophisticated bomb is probably beyond the ability of terrorists, sophistication may not be what we should worry about. Newer centrifuge and mass spectrometer techniques to purify small amounts of U-235 at dispersed locations may be capable of accumulating enough for a “small” bomb. The technology appears to be widely available to construct a small crude bomb. Purification may really be the only obstacle left.

    Taylor apparently got a lot of resistance and criticism, at least partly because his ideas threatened the investment in nuclear power of the large utility companies. Their byproducts were seen by him as a major potential source of fissionable material. Considering the “Atoms For Peace” efforts of the last few decades, I have to wonder how much of that stuff is floating around. If dirty bomb material is available, purifiable used fission rods may be also.

  • Susan

    Yes indeed Guy, it’s so much easier to make fun of and taunt people about a subject you know nothing about, instead of bothering to learn about it, isn’t it? Are you by chance related to one of those twits who romped about London cocktail parties say about 1930ish, declaring how stupid everyone else was for believing that anything signficant would come of that silly little Austrian paper-hanger with the ridiculous mustache?

    I didn’t say all of “Islam” currently had signed up for an expansionist agenda, I said that there was a theological justification in Islam for invading and conquering other nations. Which there is. And that Al-Qaeda and related groups are motivated by this theological justification.

    Read and learn, foolish man. http://www.khilafah.com

  • jeff

    The capture of the Syrian terrorists in Jordan with 3 tons of chem weapons designed to kill (in the estimation of both the terrorists and the Jordanian security forces) 80,000 people does not come to mind here? Or is that absolutely discredited?

  • Guy Herbert

    I don’t know that you may assume I know nothing about a subject simply because I belive your views about it are absurd.

  • Guy Herbert

    There’s plenty of reason to be worried about militant Islam, but probably less so now than at any time since the late 70s. The real damage was done many years ago by Saudi theo-diplomacy when the House of Saud had much more money.

    What’s absurd is to attribute a well-worked-out, globally practicable, plan to millennial revolutionaries who posit undefined paradise on earth based on a Great Leap Forward to the seventh century. While it is absolutely certain they want a Holy War, there really is no need to believe their propaganda, and every reason not to assist it by portraying the conflict in apocalyptic terms.

  • verity

    Guy – to be fair, Susan was not putting forward personal views. She is profoundly knowledgeable about Islam, having been obliged through circumstances to become so.

  • David wrote:

    As an aside, decay of the primary fissile material is not a problem. Uranium 235 has a half-life over over 700 million years; that of Plutonium 239 is over 24,000 years…

    Yes, my mistake. The point I was trying to make was that many Soviet era weapons are likely now not functional in their original form, but that possession of the materials in them would make constructing a bomb substantially simpler than attempting to develop one from scratch. I was incorrect about the technical details of why this is so.

  • Dave F

    I think MJ’s argument misses a key theme in al-Qaeda strategy: maximum theatrical impact: al-Qaeda, as shown by video of Osama and colleagues discussing the impact of 9/11, thought that the attacks would at most devastate the upper floors. They never dreamt the combined effect of structural impact and devastating explosions of nearly full high octane fuel loads would bring the towers down.

    And even if the effect had been as they imagined, the publicity and terror flowing from such an astonishing attack would still have been ubiquitous.

    For this reason, a chemical attack with even light fatalities on say, the Tube (where deaths would be maximised, since there is absolutely no airconditioning) would have a powerful effect on the thinking of the British populace.

    The only thing that may be giving them pause is the fear that retribution might be as unexpectedly powerful as was that to 9/11. Two terror-supporting regimes down, three to go.

    The sad fact is we have become hardened to the bombing of civilians by repeated and unrelenting exposure.

  • Guy Herbert

    “Two terror-supporting regimes down, three to go.”

    ?? There are dozens of regimes that use and support terror, in the sense of the extra-legal threat of violence to their enemies.

    Dave F’s comment seems to suggest that somehow the Islamist terrorism phenomenon is in the control of a handful of states. Some states have supported and inspired it for their own ends at various times, but it is doubtful they (or anyone) have the capacity easily to suppress it. It’s been building up momentum for a while.

    The strategy-of-spectaculars point is well made, but there’s nothing for the Islamists to gain by not executing it, if they can. I submit incapacity remains a better explanation. We must expect more attacks, but the pattern will be determined by where and when they can be achieved. Though they may well be timed for effect, that doesn’t require central control, just a minimum of nous on the ground.

  • Some states have supported and inspired it for their own ends at various times, but it is doubtful they (or anyone) have the capacity easily to suppress it.

    True enough, although if there was suddenly no longer any oil money flowing into the Middle East, that would help a lot. And if there had never been any oil money flowing into the Middle East, I believe most of the problems would be absent. It’s a shame all recipients of oil money couldn’t act like Norway, but few can.

  • Guy Herbert

    Well we are where we are. No doubt if the British Army had been less preocupied holding down Iraq in the first place and had had the resources and foresight to crush Ibn Saud rather than let him expel the Hashemite Sherif from Mecca, the world would be a much better place.

  • OldFan

    Gentlemen,

    What you are not cognizant of is the central fact of all chemical, biological and radiological [CBR, an old acronym] weapons: they work great in sealed chambers but have major problems in the field. During my stint in CBR school, it was drilled into us that the key concept was not “lethality” but getting an “effective field concentration”. As an example, nerve agents are quite toxic [only a few parts per million needed] but an area the size of a football stadium [of either trype] requires delivery of up to 100 pounds of agent [about 10 large artillery shells] to have a high probability of effectiveness [90% casualties versus unprepared targets]. Bad, but asingle themos bottle of the stuff is nowhere near this figure.

    Now, under ideal conditions [primarily the short-lived "inversion" state], a few dozen gallons of agent can be sprayed over the are of a small village with deadly effect. This is what happened to the Kurds when Saddam’s forces murdered them. A subway car, with its ready supply of drafts of air [just open a door] is far from ideal – as was amply demonstrated in Tokyo.

    These types of weapons are dangerous, but they are not nearly as simple and easy to deploy and use as you might think. Only in James Bond movies do six small planes with 50-gallon spray tanks take down 35,000 troops at Ft. Knox.

    The key problem is referred to in my current circles as “weaponization” – the process of turning an interesting small-scale effect into a decisive weapon. Horses [stirrups] took over 1500 yrs to weaponize, gunpowder took 400 yrs, airplanes took less than 35 yrs, nuclear fission took abou 15 yrs, and computer chips took about 9 yrs.

  • Tedd McHenry

    Guy:

    If such diffuse and oddly assorted groups really are capable of making and coordinating a subtle long term plan…

    Well, if we’re talking unlikely, what’s thoroughly unlikely is that all of the “diffuse and oddly assorted groups” has WMD. Much more likely is that only one such group has them, making your argument moot.

    I’m not suggesting that it’s highly likely that one of the various terrorist groups has WMD. I’m only suggesting that the absence of attacks is not good evidence that they don’t.