Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Inevitability of Terrorists Using WMD

In today's Daily Telegraph is an interview with Henry Crumpton, the newly-appointed head of counter-terrorism at the Department of State. In the interview, Crumpton says that he "rate[s] the probability of terror groups using WMD [to attack Western targets] as very high. It is simply a question of time." He supports this belief by noting the al-Qaeda program to develop weaponized anthrax and the connections between Iran and Hezbollah.

I go back and forth as to whether I agree with Crumpton on this. On the one hand, there's the sense of technological teleology; that is, that the more WMD exist, the more likely it is that they'll be used. As counter-terrorism efforts get better, terrorists are forced into more spectacular attacks that get more "bang for the buck." The possibility of inflicting massive casualties and fear on a society by unleashing a virulent biological agent or detonating a nuke may just be too good for a terrorist group to ignore, especially when one considers the relatively low cost of such an action.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely convinced that these are good weapons for terrorists to use. While it's true that al-Qaeda doesn't play, or need, the PR game quite like old school terrorist groups (the PLO/PA, the IRA, etc.) do, al-Qaeda also isn't quite as unique as they're often made out to be. Al-Qaeda still needs public opinion, even if it's only to attract new recruits. We're also seeing first hand what happens when al-Qaeda alienates its potential domestic constituency, as Iraqi Sunnis, even those involved in the insurgency against the US occupation, turn against the group. Al-Qaeda also still needs to support of states, even when that support is much weaker than it received from Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda needs Pakistan to not try too hard to clean out the mountain regions. It needs Syria to allow its militants into Iraq, and it needs Iran and other countries for political and economic support. Unleashing a WMD such as anthrax, smallpox, or plague could very well bring all such support to a halt. I have argued that if al-Qaeda had known that it would lose its base of operations in Afghanistan, it would not have carried out 9/11. Now that it knows what the price of such high-scale attacks may be, would al-Qaeda really raise the bar even higher? I do not believe that the US is the real target of al-Qaeda's wrath, so why would it poke the bear even more?

As I said, I'm conflicted. It's certainly possible that a terrorist group will, at some point in the near future, use a WMD against the US or another western country. But, I don't think it's inevitable. A lot of it will depend on how well the US can deter the use of such weapons. The invasion of Afghanistan and even the invasion of Iraq have done a lot to create that deterrence.

No comments: