Keep your enemy closer

The best way to know the full extent of Iran’s nuclear doings is to offer it help.

Tt now appears a foregone conclusion that Iran will continue its nuclear program no matter what the United States and the European Union offer to stop it.

Short of a U.N. Security Council resolution–which is unlikely, given the reluctance of veto-wielding nations such as China and Russia to impose sanctions–Israel or the United States might seek to end the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program through force. But bombing nuclear facilities or launching a preventive war runs the risk of futility because Iran has hardened and dispersed its nuclear complex. Moreover, military action may spark reprisal by Iranian-backed jihadist groups at a time when the U.S. military is already stretched to the breaking point by the insurgency in Iraq.

In pursuing a civilian nuclear program, Iran has international law on its side. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gives signatories “the inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technologies contingent on not making nuclear explosives. Although Iran has been less than forthcoming about many of its nuclear activities, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have not revealed evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

Despite the U.S. government’s fears, the president’s “WMD Commission” concluded that U.S. intelligence knows “disturbingly little” about Iran. And in August, the Washington Post reported that a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) projects that Iran is about 10 years from having the capability of making nuclear weapons–double the time predicted by earlier estimates.

The new NIE, if correct, provides more time for active engagement. The United States and other international partners should seize the opportunity to work closely with Tehran to ensure that its nuclear program complies with the most rigorous safeguards while preserving its right to perform peaceful nuclear activities. Close involvement also can serve as an important source of data on Iranian nuclear activities and can act as a reality check on U.S. intelligence community estimates.

Such collaboration would open interesting avenues to shape the development of Iran’s nuclear program in a positive manner. In the near term, the United States could work with the nuclear industry to provide a steady supply of fresh fuel to Iran through direct contracts with individual companies or through a multinational consortium. (Such a “fuel bank” was recently proposed at an international conference in Moscow.) In parallel to the provision of guaranteed fresh fuel as needed, Iran would implement part of its own proposed agreement with the European Union to restrict the number of enrichment centrifuges it operates for research purposes.

A key to successful implementation, however, is to enhance the monitoring of Iranian enrichment facilities. Unfortunately, the United States is ill-prepared for this task, since efforts to improve safeguards technologies have languished. Safeguards techniques include video surveillance to monitor daily activities at a nuclear facility, satellite imagery analysis to assess movements to and from a country’s nuclear sites, and environmental sampling to determine what types of nuclear materials are present at a facility. In a May report titled “Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risk,” the American Physical Society found that less than $5 million was devoted to such research and development in fiscal 2005.

No technology is proliferation-proof, but more can be done to make nuclear technology proliferation-resistant. To that end, the American Physical Society recommends that the United States “expand efforts in international technical collaborations” with an eye toward “designing safeguards directly into critical nuclear systems.” Probably the most effective built-in safeguards technologies are “use-control” systems that would automatically shut down a facility if a violation occurs. (For example, a use-control system could stop operation of a uranium enrichment plant if highly enriched, bomb-usable uranium is produced.) Iran’s nuclear program could be a valuable test bed for such enhanced safeguards. And increased transparency would yield important diplomatic benefits by minimizing the distrust that currently characterizes Tehran’s relationship with the United States and other countries.

Over the long term, if confidence builds that Iran is fully complying with more rigorous safeguards–and if Iran’s nuclear energy needs continue to grow–the United States and its international partners can assist Iran with developing next-generation fuel cycles that have built-in proliferation-resistant technologies. One such option would be to spike low-enriched uranium hexafluoride with thorium. If the spiked material is introduced into an enrichment plant to make highly enriched uranium, as opposed to the low-enriched uranium used for nuclear fuel, the presence of radioactive thorium would sound an alarm.

To make all this happen, the nuclear industry has to play an essential role. Some industry officials are gradually coming around to the concept that proliferation is bad for business because a well-publicized diversion of commercial nuclear technology into a military program would likely hurt sales. However, the industry has yet to make proliferation-resistance a top priority in all new fuel-cycle technologies under development.

Critics would likely label our proposal as appeasement. Rather than being starry-eyed Neville Chamberlains proclaiming nuclear “peace in our time” with Iran, we would hinge implementation of our initiative on Iran agreeing to rigorous, continuous monitoring of their nuclear program through active involvement with the United States and the European Union. Only by keeping our enemy closer can we increase confidence that Iran is living up to its commitments.

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Mother. Daughter. Sister. Bomber.

The woman known as Dhanu stood waiting for former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It was May 21, 1991. She wore thick glasses that obscured her face and clutched a sandalwood garland; the bulge beneath her orange salwar kameez (a traditional Hindu dress) bespoke her apparent pregnancy. As Gandhi strode toward the podium at the political rally where he was to speak, he acknowledged well-wishers lined along the red carpet. He clasped Dhanu’s hand, and she respectfully kneeled before him. With her right hand she activated an explosive device strapped to her belly with a denim belt and embedded with 10,000 steel pellets. Gandhi, his assassin, and 16 others were killed.

Later it was revealed that a policewoman had attempted to prevent Dhanu–an assassin allegedly dispatched by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)–from reaching the prime minister. But Gandhi had intervened, saying something like, “Relax, baby”–quite possibly the last words he ever spoke. [1]

Gandhi may have been blinded by gender, but if so, he was not the first, nor the last. Even the security-conscious United States, post-9/11, failed to include women among an official profile of potential terrorists developed by the Department of Homeland Security to scrutinize visa seekers. [2] Traditionally, women have been perceived as victims of violence rather than as perpetrators. Yet they are now taking a leading role in conflicts by becoming terrorists and, specifically, suicide bombers–using their bodies as human detonators.

The female suicide bomber is a phenomenon that predates the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP), a secular, pro-Syrian, Lebanese organization, sent the first such bomber, a 17-year-old Lebanese girl named Sana’a Mehaydali, to blow herself up near an Israeli convoy in Lebanon in 1985. Out of 12 suicide attacks conducted by the SSNP, women took part in five of them. After Lebanon in the 1980s, female bombers spread to other parts of the globe, including Sri Lanka, Turkey, Chechnya, and Israel. Worldwide, approximately 17 groups have started using the tactical innovation of suicide bombing, with women operatives accounting for 15 percent of those attacks. [3] According to terror expert Rohan Gunaratna, almost 30 percent of suicide attackers are women. [4] Most have belonged to secular separatist organizations, such as LTTE and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But recent years have witnessed the worrisome emergence of women suicide bombers in religious organizations.

Historically, to the extent that women have been involved in conflict, they have served supporting roles. Their primary contribution to war has been to give birth to fighters and raise them in a revolutionary environment. The advent of women suicide bombers has not so much annulled that identity as it has transformed it. Even as martyrs, they may be portrayed as the chaste wives and mothers of revolution. When Wafa Idris became the first female Palestinian suicide bomber to strike Israel in January 2002, an Egyptian newspaper eulogized: “The bride of Heaven preferred death to the pleasures of life, so as to convey a powerful message to the Arab nation.” [5] Another editorial noted, “From Mary’s womb issued a Child who eliminated oppression, while the body of Wafa became shrapnel that eliminated despair and aroused hope.” [6]

To complicate the notions of femininity and motherhood, the female bomber’s improvised explosive device (IED) is often disguised under her clothing to make it appear as if she is pregnant and thus beyond suspicion or reproach. Police reports in Turkey have emphasized caution approaching Kurdish women who may appear pregnant; several female PKK fighters disguised themselves this way in order to penetrate crowds of people more effectively and to avoid detection, assuming correctly that they would not be frisked or subjected to intense scrutiny. Israel learned this lesson as well. Hanadi Jaradat, a law student from Jenin who killed 19 civilians in a crowded Haifa restaurant in 2003, wore an explosive belt around her waist in order to feign pregnancy.

Moreover, according to a British security source, “The terrorists know there are sensitivities about making intimate body searches of women, particularly Muslim women, and thus you can see why some groups might be planning to use a female suicide bomber. Hiding explosives in an intimate part of the body means even less chance of detection.” [7] The report said a woman could conceal up to 12 pounds of plastic explosives inside her body. The detonator and other components, which can be hidden in a watch, cell phone, or electrical device, could easily be taken past security checkpoints.

The use of the least-likely suspect is the most-likely tactical adaptation for a terrorist group under scrutiny. A growing number of insurgent organizations have adopted suicide bombing not only because of its tactical superiority to traditional guerrilla warfare, but also because suicide bombing, especially when perpetrated by women and girls, garners significant media attention both domestically and abroad.

The recruitment of women by insurgent organizations can mobilize greater numbers of operatives by shaming men into participating. This tactic has parallels to right-wing Hindu women who goad men into action through speeches saying, “Don’t be a bunch of eunuchs.” [8] This point is underscored by the bombers themselves. A propaganda slogan in Chechnya reads: “Women’s courage is a disgrace to that of modern men.” [9] Before Ayat Akras blew herself up in Israel in April 2002, she taped her martyrdom video and stated, “I am going to fight instead of the sleeping Arab armies who are watching Palestinian girls fighting alone,” in an apparent dig at Arab leaders for not being sufficiently proactive or aggressive against the Israeli enemy. [10]

But why do these women become suicide bombers? The defining characteristics of a suicide bomber, in general, are elusive. Contrary to popular perception, they are not unbalanced sociopaths prone to self-destructive tendencies. Nor are they poor, uneducated religious fanatics. “The profile of a suicide terrorist resembles that of a politically conscious individual who might join a grassroots movement more than it does the stereotypical murderer, religious cult member, or everyday suicide,” notes Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. [11]

Additionally, they may feel a sense of alienation from their surrounding societies, or be seeking retribution for humiliation. (Eyad El-Sarraj, the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, has found that Palestinian suicide bombers share childhood traumas–notably, the humiliation of their fathers by Israeli soldiers.) [12] Suicide bombers tend to emerge in societies that extol the virtues of self-sacrifice. And, crucially, suicide bombers rarely act on their own. They are recruited and indoctrinated by organizations that might exploit their desire for a sense of belonging and that may act as surrogate families.

These same characteristics apply to women suicide bombers–albeit through the unique prism of their experiences and status. In Sri Lanka, Mangalika Silva, the coordinator of Women for Peace in Colombo, observes that, “The self-sacrifice of the female bombers is almost an extension of the idea of motherhood in the Tamil culture. In this strongly patriarchal society, Tamil mothers make great sacrifices for their sons on a daily basis; feeding them before themselves or the girl children, serving on them and so on.” [13] Anecdotal evidence suggests that many women bombers have been raped or sexually abused either by representatives of the state or by insurgents–thereby contributing to a sense of humiliation and powerlessness, made only worse by stigmatization within their own societies. They may be avenging the loss of a family member or seeking to redeem the family name. And these women, not content to play the designated roles of passive observer or supportive nurturer, may seek to prove to their own societies that they are no less capable than their male counterparts to be vital contributors to the cause. Clara Beyer, a researcher for the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, astutely observes that, “When women become human bombs, their intent is to make a statement not only in the name of a country, a religion, a leader, but also in the name of their gender.” [14]

 

Daughters of revolution

Insurgent and terrorist organizations have long provided women a potential avenue for advancement beyond what their traditional societies could offer. Women in radical secular organizations have engaged in anticolonial and revolutionary struggles in the developing world and elsewhere since the 1960s. They have played vital support roles in the Algerian revolution (1958-1962), the Iranian Revolution (1979), the war in Lebanon (1982), the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1991), and the Al Aqsa Intifada (since 2000). [15]

Female terrorists have come from all parts of the globe: Italy’s Red Brigades, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof faction, America’s Black Panthers, and the Japanese Red Army–occasionally emerging as leaders. Women have even been on the front lines of combat, demonstrating that their revolutionary and military zeal is no less than that of men. (The Tamil Tigers have units exclusively for women.) There also have been a handful of notorious Palestinian women militants. In 1970, Leila Khaled was caught after attempting to hijack an El Al flight to London. Khaled, as journalist Eileen Macdonald puts it, “shattered a million and one taboos overnight and she revolutionized the thinking of hundreds of other angry young women around the world.” [16]

Khaled explained her rationale: “Violence was a way of leveling the patriarchal society through revolutionary zeal–the women would demonstrate that their commitment was no less than those of their brothers, sons, or husbands. Strategically, women are able to gain access to areas where men had greater difficulty because the other side assumed that the women were second-class citizens in their own society–dumb, illiterate perhaps, and incapable of planning an operation.” [17]

More recently, the idea of violence empowering women has spread throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This militant involvement by women has had an extreme effect on the existing norms of Palestinian society, which has long had a cultural set of rules that describe and limit gender roles. These norms have dictated the separation of the sexes and prescribed that women restrict themselves to the private space of the home.

Through violence, however, women have placed themselves on the front lines, in public, alongside men to whom they are not related. This results in a double trajectory for militant women–convincing society of their valid contributions while at the same time reconstructing the normative ideals of their society. [18] “Palestinian women have torn the gender classification out of their birth certificates, declaring that sacrifice for the Palestinian homeland would not be for men alone,” declared female columnist Samiya Sa’ad Al Din in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Akhbar. “On the contrary, all Palestinian women will write the history of the liberation with their blood, and will become time bombs in the face of the Israeli enemy. They will not settle for being mothers of martyrs.” [19]

The first wave of Palestinian women who became shahidas (female martyrs) had varied backgrounds: one ambulance worker, one seamstress, two in college, one in high school, one law school graduate, and one mother of two who left relatives stricken and shocked. [20] Some analysts have suggested a shared characteristic among them, that they were misfits or outcasts–young women who found themselves, for various reasons, “in acute emotional distress due to social stigmatization.” [21] Journalist Barbara Victor corroborated this hypothesis when she determined that the first four female Palestinian suicide bombers were in situations where the act of martyrdom was seen as their sole chance to reclaim the “family honor” that had been lost by their own actions or the actions of other family members. [22] Allegations abound that the first female Hamas suicide bomber, Reem Riashi, a mother of two, was coerced by both her husband and lover as a way of saving face after an extramarital affair. [23]

Elsewhere in the world, sexual violence against women–and the ensuing social stigma associated with rape in patriarchal societies–appears to be a common motivating factor for suicide attackers. Kurdish women allegedly raped in Turkey by the military have joined the PKK, while Tamil women allegedly raped by the Sinhalese security services and military join the LTTE. Gandhi’s assassin, Dhanu, is alleged to have been raped, although this issue remains one of intense debate and controversy. (By some accounts, it was her mother who was raped by Indian peacekeepers who occupied Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990). According to the Hindu faith, once a woman is sexually violated she cannot get married or have children. Fighting for Tamil freedom might have been seen as the only way for such a woman to redeem herself.

For Dhanu, the conflict had another personal dimension: The peacekeepers in Sri Lanka had killed her brother, a well-known cadre for the Tamil Tigers. In that regard, she shared an experience common in conflict-ridden societies–the loss of loved ones. Most of the Chechen attacks against Russia in 2004 involved “Black Widows” reportedly wishing to avenge the deaths of family members in Russia’s conflict in Chechnya.

Female bombers have participated in more than 18 major attacks since the outbreak of the second Chechen War in 1999 and have developed into an increasingly serious threat since 2000. Previous acts of violence took place in the Northern Caucasus and were primarily aimed at military targets. They did not aim to kill large numbers of Russian civilians. The attacks by female suicide bombers have reversed these patterns. Imran Yezhiyev, of the Chechen-Russian Friendship Society in Ingushetia, observes: “Suicide attacks were an inevitable response to the ‘most crude, the most terrible’ crimes Russian forces had committed against Chechen civilians during the war. When Russian soldiers kill children and civilians and demand payment for their return, many in Chechnya are outraged and vow revenge. One woman, Elvira, whose 15-year-old son had been killed by Russian troops who demanded $500 to return his corpse stated, ‘Oh, yes, I want to kill them. Kill Russians, kill their children. I want them to know what it is like.'” [24]

 

Divine intervention

Islamic leaders initially opposed women’s activism and banned women from becoming suicide bombers on their behalf; only a handful of clerics endorsed such operations. The Saudi High Islamic Council gave the go-ahead to women suicide bombers in August 2001, after a 23-year-old Palestinian mother of two was seized by Israeli security as she brought explosives to Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Religious leaders in Palestine disagreed, and a theological debate rages as to whether women should or could be martyrs. [25]

Hamas’s former spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, argued that a woman’s appropriate role in the conflict was to support the fighters (that is, the men). According to Yassin, “In our Palestinian society, there is a flow of women toward jihad and martyrdom, exactly like the young men. But the woman has uniqueness. Islam sets some restrictions for her, and if she goes out to wage jihad and fight, she must be accompanied by a male chaperon.” Sheikh Yassin further rationalized his reservations–not because of Shariah (Islamic religious law), but because women martyrs were deemed unnecessary: “At the present stage, we do not need women to bear this burden of jihad and martyrdom. The Islamic Movement cannot accept all the Palestinian males demanding to participate in jihad and in martyrdom operations, because they are so numerous. Our means are limited, and we cannot absorb all those who desire to confront the enemy.” [26]

This situation is alarmingly true. Most of the militant organizations in Palestine cannot fill positions for martyrdom operations fast enough. [27]   After Wafa Idris blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem in January 2002, Yassin categorically renounced the use of women as suicide bombers or assailants. Yet, sensing the increasing support for women martyrs and bowing to public pressure and demands, Yassin amended his position, saying that a woman waging jihad must be accompanied by a male chaperon “if she is to be gone for a day and a night. If her absence is shorter, she does not need a chaperon.” In a second statement, Yassin granted a woman’s right to launch a suicide attack alone only if it does not take her more than 24 hours to be away from home–an ironic position, since she would be gone for longer if she succeeded in her mission. [28]

While Yassin pointed out that it was Hamas’s armed wing that decided where and when attacks would take place, his comments included quotes from the videotape that Riashi, Hamas’s first female bomber, recorded before carrying out her January 2004 attack, about how she hoped her “organs would be scattered in the air and her soul would reach paradise.” Yassin added: “The fact that a woman took part for the first time in a Hamas operation marks a significant evolution. . . . The male fighters face many obstacles on their way to operations, and this is a new development in our fight against the enemy. The holy war is an imperative for all Muslim men and women, and this operation proves that the armed resistance will continue until the enemy is driven from our land. This is revenge for all the fatalities sustained by the armed resistance.” [29]

Among Islamic groups, the trend toward women suicide bombers appears to be contagious, as religious authorities are making exceptions and finding legal precedent to permit women’s participation. Groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have begun to employ women bombers. An indication of this ideological shift was the capture of two young women in Rabat, Morocco, on their way to target a liquor store in a preempted suicide attack. Within weeks of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, on March 29, 2003, two women (one of whom was pregnant) perpetrated suicide attacks against Coalition forces. Al Jazeera television reported on April 4 that the two Iraqi women had videotaped their intentions: “We say to our leader and holy war comrade, the hero commander Saddam Hussein, that you have sisters that you and history will boast about.” [30]

Also in March 2003, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an interview with a woman calling herself “Um Osama,” the alleged leader of the women Mujahideen of Al Qaeda. The Al Qaeda cell claimed to have set up squads of female suicide bombers under orders from Osama bin Laden to target the United States. The women bombers purportedly include Afghans, Arabs, Chechens, and other nationalities. “We are preparing for the new strike announced by our leaders, and I declare that it will make America forget . . . the September 11 attacks,” she said. “The idea came from the success of martyr operations carried out by young Palestinian women in the occupied territories. Our organization is open to all Muslim women wanting to serve the [Islamic] nation . . . particularly in this very critical phase.” [31]

Yet another measure of Al Qaeda’s growing interest in recruiting women was the publication in August 2004 of the online magazine Al Khansaa. Published by the group’s self-described Arabian Peninsula Women’s Information Bureau, the magazine’s first issue calls upon women to participate in jihad in a variety of ways. Reflecting the evolving duality of women’s proscribed role in armed struggle, the magazine emphasized first and foremost that the “woman in the family is a mother, wife, sister, and daughter. In society she is an educator, propagator, and preacher of Islam, and a female jihad warrior. Just as she defends her family from any possible aggression, she defends society from destructive thoughts and from ideological and moral deterioration, and she is the soldier who bears [the man’s] pack and weapon on his back in preparation for the military offensive.” However, the article added, “When jihad becomes a personal obligation, then the woman is summoned like a man, and need ask permission neither from her husband nor from her guardian, because she is obligated, and none need to ask permission in order to carry out a commandment that everyone must carry out.” [32]

Indeed, some see female suicide bombers as a crucial blow against the decadent influences of Western culture–an act of defiance that does not redefine women’s traditional roles, but reaffirms them. A columnist in the Jordanian newspaper Al-Dustour noted, “The Arab woman has taken her place and her dignity. It is the women’s rights activists in the West who robbed women of their right to be human, and viewed them as bodies without souls. . . . Wafa [Idris] did not carry makeup in her suitcase, but enough explosives to fill the enemies with horror. . . . Wasn’t it the West that kept demanding that the Eastern woman become equal to the man? Well, this is how we understand equality–this is how the martyr Wafa understood equality.” [33]

Yet, the women who seek empowerment and equality by turning themselves into human bombs merely reinforce the inequalities of their societies, rather than confront them and explode the myths from within. Traditional societies have a well-scripted set of rules in which women sacrifice themselves–the ideal of motherhood, in particular, is one of self-denial and self-effacement. The women who choose the role of martyrs do not enhance their status, but give up their sense of self as they contribute to this ultimate, albeit twisted, fulfillment of patriarchal values.

For their part, terrorist groups will continue to find recruits as long as they can offer women a way out of their societies, a chance to participate as full members in the struggle. As such, increasing women’s roles in peaceful activities, addressing their needs during times of peace and during conflict, and protecting and promoting their rights cannot be an afterthought in foreign policy. The best way to fight the war on terror is to make the terrorist organizations less appealing–to men and to women.

 

1. “Lady with the Poison Flowers,” Outlook India, August 29, 2005.

2. Jessica Stern, “When Bombers Are Women,” Washington Post, December 18, 2003.

3. Yoram Schweitzer, “Suicide Terrorism: Historical Background and Risks for the Future,” June 18, 2004 (pbs.org).

4. Rohan Gunaratna, “Suicide Terrorism–A Global Threat,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 20, 2000.

5. Al-Wafd, February 1, 2002, as cited in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, February 2, 2002 (memri.org).

6. Adel Sadeq, Hadith Al-Medina, February 5, 2002, as cited in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, February 6, 2002 (memri.org).

7. Daniel McGrory, “‘She-Bomber’ Fears Over Plot for Woman to Blow Up Plane,” Times Online, February 21, 2004.

8. Amrita Basu, “Hindu Women’s Activism and the Questions It Raises,” in Amrita Basu and Patricia Jeffrey (eds.), Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia (London: Routledge, 1997).

9. Dimitri Sudakov, “Shamil Besaev Trains Female Suicide Bombers,” Pravda, May 15, 2003.

10. Libby Copeland, “Female Suicide Bombers: The New Factor in Mideast’s Deadly Equation,” Washington Post, April 27, 2002.

11. Cited in Cameron Stewart, “Enemy Within,” Australian, July 16, 2005.

12. Michael Bond, “The Making of a Suicide Bomber,” New Scientist, May 15, 2004.

13. Quoted in Ana Cutter, “Tamil Tigresses,” Slant: The Magazine of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Spring 1998.

14. Clara Beyer, “Messengers of Death: Female Suicide Bombers,” February 12, 2003 (ict.org.il/articles/articledet.cfm?articleid=470).

15. After the Iranian Revolution, the clerical regime created informal cadres of women to fight the war, though the Islamic republic could not bring itself to employ women martyrs. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “They Live to Die,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2002.

16. Eileen Macdonald, Shoot the Women First (New York: Random House, 1992).

17. Leila Khaled, My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973).

18. Lucy Frazier, “Abandon Weeping for Weapons,” Online Journal of Education, Media, and Health: Issue on Terrorism, August 6, 2002 (nyu.edu/classes/keefer/joe/frazier.html).

19. Samiya Sa’ad Al-Din, Al-Akhbar, February 1, 2002.

20. Israel’s security forces are aware of more than 20 cases in which women were involved in sabotage activity against Israeli targets. “The Role of Palestinian Women in Suicide Terrorism,” January 2003 (mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0n210); Copeland, “Female Suicide Bombers.”

21. Israeli Security Sources, “Blackmailing Young Women into Suicide Terrorism,” February 12, 2002 (mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0n2a0).

22. Barbara Victor, Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Suicide Bombers (New York: Rodale Press, 2003).

23. Chris McGreal, “Palestinians Shocked at Use of Suicide Mother,” Guardian, January 27, 2004.

24. Cited by Owen Matthews, “So Warped by Hate, They Will Kill Anyone to Take Revenge Against Russia,” Daily Mail, September 4, 2004.

25. Peter Beaumont, “Woman Suicide Bomber Strikes,” Guardian, January 28, 2002.

26. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 31, 2002.

27. Nasra Hassan observed this fact years ago in her article, “An Arsenal of Believers,” New Yorker, November 2001.

28. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 31, 2002; February 2, 2002.

29. Arnon Regular, “Mother of Two Becomes First Female Suicide Bomber for Hamas,” Ha’aretz, January 15, 2004.

30. Cited by Roman Kupchinsky, in “Smart Bombs with Souls,” in Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch, April 17, 2003.

31. “Bin Laden Has Set Up Female Suicide Squads: Report,” Arab News, Dubai, March 13, 2003.

32. Middle East Media Research Institute, “Al-Qa’ida Women’s Magazine: Women Must Participate in Jihad,” Special Dispatch Series, September 7, 2004.

33. Al-Dustour, February 5, 2002.

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Iraq’s hot properties

Review of “DOD Should Evaluate Its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions,” Government Accountability Office, September 2005.

Ask big city mayors to list the terrorist threats they worry about most, and they’ll probably put a “dirty bomb” attack near or at the top of the list. Of the unconventional weapons that a terrorist could use to attack the United States, a dirty bomb is arguably the most probable. The components for building a dirty bomb are (comparatively speaking) more numerous and technologically less complex to work with than those needed to construct and deliver a viable nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon.

Built by packing conventional explosives with radioactive materials, a dirty bomb is primarily a psychological weapon, designed to induce chaos and panic by preying on the public’s fear of radiation. If especially potent radiological materials are used, a dirty bomb attack also has the potential to cause massive economic damage–trillions of dollars, under some plausible scenarios.

A troubling new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2005 (“DOD Should Evaluate Its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions”), suggests that the Iraq War may have elevated the dirty bomb threat by creating a window of opportunity for terrorists or others to steal from Iraq’s unprotected inventory of thousands of radiological sources that were used in a variety of industrial, medical, and other applications. Common sources include nuclear well-logging tools, used in oil exploration, and teletherapy devices, used to treat cancer. In the chaos that followed the fall of Baghdad, these sources were often left unguarded, making them attractive targets for sophisticated looters. (Even to the untrained eye, radiological sources may appear valuable, thereby attracting salvagers who may be unaware of the potential of their plunder. In 1987, for instance, scavengers in the Brazilian town of Goiania dismantled a radiotherapy machine containing cesium 137 and inadvertently contaminated hundreds of people and 40 city blocks.)

What’s especially frustrating about this mess is that the Defense Department knew prior to the invasion and occupation of Iraq that thousands of radiological sources were scattered across the country. Yet, the GAO concludes, the Pentagon “was not ready to collect and secure radiological sources in Iraq at the start of the hostilities in March 2003.” As a result, during the first six months of the conflict, Defense provided no guidance to commanders in the field on how to collect and secure radiological sources. Troops did not have the proper equipment or training and were forced to improvise. Even Defense’s 11-person Nuclear Disablement Team–sent to Iraq to deal with nuclear weapons facilities–lacked the proper equipment. The GAO described an instance where the team “had to move highly radioactive sources with an ice cooler that was lined with lead bricks.”

The underlying cause of this chaos was the failure of the Pentagon to adequately consult and coordinate with other U.S. agencies–most notably, the Energy Department, which is the U.S. agency with the most expertise and experience in dealing with radiological sources. The Pentagon, acting through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which is responsible for preventing the spread of unconventional weapons, didn’t begin coordinating with Energy until the month hostilities began. From that point, bureaucratic politics impeded progress. Such interagency friction–in this case, a series of technical and legal disputes–is perhaps unsurprising. What is especially remarkable, the GAO found, was the friction within Defense (between DTRA and the military) over something as basic as to what extent the military would provide security for DTRA and Energy technical experts working in the field.

By September 2003, according to the GAO, many of these problems appeared to have been resolved, enabling DTRA to collect and secure approximately 1,400 radiological sources in 140 collection missions and to verify the security of an additional 700 sources. The total number of sources remaining in Iraq is unknown, however, because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep comprehensive records. The State Department has helped Iraq create an Iraqi Radiological Source Regulatory Agency, and Energy and State are providing the fledgling agency with financial and technical assistance. It’s an impressive record of accomplishment, although it’s distressing that it took the Pentagon so long to get its act together.

The report is wanting in one crucial respect, however: It fails to detail why the Pentagon neglected to have a plan in place before the war. The GAO’s description of Defense’s slippage on potential radiological threats emanating from Iraq–its failure to anticipate looting, to provide troops with the right equipment, and to draw on the expertise of other agencies–would be an appropriate picture of Defense’s planning for the Iraq invasion writ large. What specific bureaucratic and political forces caused Defense to determine that Iraq’s radiological sources posed a threat, but then wait so long to act? It’s hard to believe that there’s not more to this story than interagency bickering.

The GAO hints at one explanation, but demurs on saying it outright: The Pentagon did not regard radiological sources as a serious threat. The report found that Defense “has not comprehensively reviewed its experiences in collecting and securing radiological sources in Iraq,” which suggests a lack of interest in the matter. The persistence of bureaucratic obstacles is also strong evidence of the Pentagon’s apathy–if the senior leadership had perceived unsecured radiological sources as a high-priority threat, they would have intervened and settled the matter.

In fairness to Defense, another possible explanation is that the Pentagon could not have pulled together a plan in the short period between when the Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq and the launching of the invasion. If that is the case, then the heightened risk of a dirty bomb attack on U.S. soil is yet another consequence of the White House’s rush to war.

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Time for a nuclear entente cordiale

“It is not acceptable for North Korea to carry on developing its nuclear weapons program,” warns British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Iran must permanently abandon “all military goals to its nuclear activity,” demands French President Jacques Chirac. Both leaders are concerned about nuclear proliferation, and both know that, as nuclear weapon states, their own countries are obliged under Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to make “good faith” efforts toward eliminating their respective nuclear arsenals. What Blair and Chirac may not realize is that Article 7 of that same treaty succinctly offers them a double opportunity to set a moral example and to establish a cooperative process for nuclear disarmament that other nations could emulate.

While the United States was the first nation to possess nuclear weapons, there was a strong Anglo-French heritage to the underlying science, beginning with the researches in radioactivity conducted separately by Marie Curie and by Ernest Rutherford. Decades later, in 1940, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, two refugee physicists working in England, wrote a revolutionary description of how to build a fission weapon from uranium 235. Their wartime memorandum was notable for more than the clarity of its physics. Anxious that former colleagues in Germany might make the same conceptual leap as they had, the pair urged the British authorities to take immediate steps to establish a counterthreat, “even if it is not intended to use the bomb as a means of attack.” The fearful symmetry of mutual deterrence was born.

In the aftermath of World War II, the British government embarked on a secret, independent atomic weapons program. Britain saw the bomb not only as a deterrent, but as a means to prevent a U.S. nuclear monopoly and to preserve its own status despite a fading empire. France took a tortuous route. The French government told the newly formed United Nations in 1946 that it had no intention of acquiring the bomb; a decade later President Charles de Gaulle made the decision to produce plutonium and manufacture nuclear weapons. De Gaulle was not prepared to entrust the ultimate defense of France to NATO and wanted to restore la gloire de la France.

Despite some reductions in the past decade, France still possesses more than 300 nuclear weapons, while Britain has an estimated 200 and is actively contemplating (with little public debate) the replacement of its four Trident submarines.

Patrick Blackett, the British atomic heretic and Nobel Prize-winning physicist, suggested in 1959 that: “Once a nation pledges its safety to an absolute weapon, it becomes emotionally essential to believe in an absolute enemy.” Neither Britain nor France faces any absolute enemies that threaten their existence. As such, we propose that they should set a crucial example for the world by agreeing to bilateral nuclear disarmament. The opportunity to do so exists under Article 7 of the NPT, which simply states: “Nothing in the Treaty affects the rights of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.”

Such a cooperative venture might rescue the NPT from oblivion. France and Britain, two mature states diplomatically and technologically, would be uniquely placed to guide other disarmament efforts (such as in South Asia) after concluding an internationally verified agreement of their own. Their national atomic establishments have deep expertise that would be invaluable in global nonproliferation efforts to secure and monitor fissile materials.

If France and Britain cannot conclude such a treaty, while both are members of NATO and do not face any imminent threats, it will not be due to opposition from the British or French public (or from their neighbors in Europe). Rather, the two countries would exemplify states that originally developed nuclear weapons in utmost secrecy and whose political leaders continue to rely on their arsenals to assert national prestige.

The nuclear threat began in Europe–it can also be reversed there.

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To tell the truth

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that there are “half a dozen futures that seem to me equally probable, and among them is the possibility of civilization cutting its own throat.” The catalyst for such an outcome might very well be the bureaucratic impulse to hide incompetence, embarrassment, and abuse. Today, when a U.S. national security employee, intelligence official, or member of a law enforcement agency reports wrongdoing, he or she has virtually no protection against retaliation. They are confronted with a choice between career and conscience–for there is little in history to make them confident about their continued employment should they speak out against illegal dealings or activities that put us all at risk.

In the 1980s, CIA employee Richard Barlow discovered that Pakistan, with the blessing of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, was able to buy restricted nuclear technology-related items in the United States. Barlow also unmasked a coordinated attempt by the U.S. intelligence community to lie to Congress about Pakistan’s activities. The result? His security clearance was suspended, and he lost his job. The Reagan and Bush I administrations covered up Barlow’s discoveries because, at the time, they needed Pakistan’s help to fund and supply the Afghans in their bloody fight with the Soviets.

This was not merely a problem restricted to the presidencies of that era. The then-Democratically controlled Congress steadfastly refused to address the dangerous issues that Barlow raised and was only too happy to try to move them out of the public eye. We are now paying the price for this shortsightedness–what Barlow had discovered was an early incarnation of physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s illegal, international nuclear proliferation network. Khan, known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, has been under house arrest since February 2004. In October 2005, President George W. Bush declared that “The United States . . . has exposed and disrupted a major blackmarket operation in nuclear technology led by A. Q. Khan.” But that disruption should have come nearly 20 years ago, when Barlow first raised the alarm. Khan’s underground network could have been halted before he leaked nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

In light of what happened to Barlow, is it likely that anyone would come forward in similar circumstances now? His case is hardly unique, a fact attested to by the very existence of our organization, the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition. Our members include Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who reported that Operation Able Danger had information on 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta’s cell well before the attacks. (Shaffer was subsequently labeled untrustworthy, in part because he admitted to taking government dime pens out of an embassy when he was a high school intern, and his security clearance was revoked.) And then there’s Sandalio Gonzalez, a 32-year law enforcement agent, who was forced into retirement for questioning–in an internal memorandum–the federal government’s complicity in up to 15 murders in Mexico.

Bureaucrats are playing ducks and drakes with our lives. It is crucial to take measures to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers and to encourage accountability within national security agencies. Retaliation against whistleblowers should be criminalized. The precedent for such legislation already exists, in that the judicial system prosecutes people for obstruction of justice and for witness tampering. To further safeguard the rights of conscientious federal employees, agencies and administrators who retaliate against whistleblowers should be made liable for civil damages, much as they are presently liable for damages in the event of racial or sexual discrimination. And, in order to obviate the painful choice between career and conscience, employees terminated or punitively reassigned for reporting wrongdoing should be awarded their full retirement as if they had continued on in employment. When national security employees charged with securing the well-being of the nation feel confident in reporting malfeasance, the nation as a whole will be much safer.

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Grid-locked

North Korea needs energy. But can the parties negotiating a solution to the nuclear crisis come up with a viable way to plug in the North?

Nighttime satellite images sparkle with the bright city lights of South Korea and Japan, while neighboring North Korea remains shrouded in darkness. The country’s energy needs are dire: 23 million people struggle to get by on 2 gigawatts of energy (less power than the amount consumed by a single U.S. city of 1 million people). North Korea’s energy shortage likely contributed to its mid-1990s famine, when electric irrigation pumps and threshers stopped working. Factories throughout the country stand idle, and homes sometimes receive as little as two hours of electricity per day. Many have come to rely on candles and wood-burning stoves.

Small wonder, therefore, that the recent “breakthrough” at the September 2005 round of six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program hinged upon a commitment from the five other parties–the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China–to provide the North with energy assistance. Pyongyang, in turn, has agreed to a set of principles that would lead to the North “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and returning to the global nonproliferation regime.

But how will this energy be provided? Immediately after the September announcement, North Korean officials stated that the only form of energy assistance that mattered to them was the provision of light water nuclear reactor technology–a demand that U.S. negotiators branded as unacceptable. [1]  South Korea, however, has offered an alternative–instead of building power plants in the North, Seoul would directly supply 2 gigawatts of electricity through power lines spanning across the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

This proposal, however, is fraught with both technical and political difficulties. If the South’s plan serves as the basis for the next round of six-party talks, then any final agreement is likely to be built upon very wobbly foundations. The six parties should instead consider adopting a short-term, alternative package of energy assistance that would provide more energy services faster, cheaper, and at lower risk. Doing this would give immediate substance to pledges to supply energy assistance–substance that has been sorely lacking from attempts to provide the North with energy aid up until this point.

 

A shock to the system

Thirty miles north of the city of Sinpo, on the eastern coast of North Korea, sit the dormant foundations of two under-construction nuclear reactors. After roller-coaster confrontations with Pyongyang in 1994, the United States, along with South Korea, Japan, and the European Union (EU), agreed to provide the North with energy assistance as part of a deal to freeze its existing nuclear programs and to provide for the continuity of inspections at its nuclear facilities. Included in the October 1994 deal, known as the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, was the construction of the two 1-gigawatt light water nuclear reactors and the promise to provide large U.S. shipments of heavy fuel oil (HFO). [2]

Although the framework held for eight years, the type of energy assistance that the parties settled on proved counterproductive. The North Koreans had difficulty absorbing the fuel oil, as only one large power plant in the country was designed to use HFO as a full-time fuel. The HFO sent to North Korea also contained significant amounts of sulfur and other impurities that reportedly accelerated the corrosion of heat exchangers in North Korean power plants designed to use coal, thereby reducing their generating efficiency and capacity. [3]  The North ended up dumping some of the HFO in trenches because it couldn’t store or use it all.

In late 2003, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO)–the U.S.-led consortium building the two nuclear reactors–suspended construction in response to U.S. allegations made public in October 2002 that North Korea had a secret uranium enrichment program. Yet, even if the reactors had been completed, the North Korean electricity grid could not have supported them, as the grid is far too small and simple to run such large and potentially hazardous units. [4]  During the negotiations of the Agreed Framework, North Korean grid experts warned their leadership not to accept any reactors larger than 400 megawatts. American negotiators also knew about the grid constraint but chose to ignore it. The parties were driven by irresistible political logic to proceed with a bad project that could never have worked. [5]

In order to kick-start the stalled talks, on July 12, 2005, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young announced that South Korea had offered to supply 2 gigawatts of power to North Korea if it dismantled its nuclear weapons program. [6]  (Although a gigawatt of electrical power can sustain only a small U.S. city, it would go a lot further in North Korea, where households have few, if any, appliances and perhaps one or two lights.) South Korea’s offer is benchmarked to the Agreed Framework’s energy assistance plan and is designed to substitute for the power output of the two light water reactors. Rather than building nuclear reactors on North Korean soil, the current offer entails running power lines from South Korea to the North, with delivery of electric power possibly beginning as early as 2008.

South Korea already supplies a small quantity of electricity to the Kaesong industrial zone north of the demilitarized zone, which houses South Korean industry and forms a “grid island” separated from the North’s electricity grid to ensure reliable, high-quality power.Officials from the South’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Energy estimate that supplying an additional 2 gigawatts of electricity would cost a few billion dollars–about $1.5-$1.7 billion to install the new transmission lines and transformer substations between Yanju in South Korea and Pyongyang, and more than $1 billion per year for generator fuel and to operate and maintain the transmission facilities. Seoul has said that it will pay for the plan with its $2.4 billion of unspent commitments from the total $4.6 billion cost of the KEDO light water reactor budget. [7]  It is unclear who would pay for annual operation costs after South Korea funds the first year.

The plan met with immediate skepticism in South Korea. The opposition Grand National Party, concerned about upsetting consumers with prospective tax or electricity rate increases, criticized the plan’s potential cost. [8]  Indeed, the South Korean government would likely impose a tax or rate surcharge to pay for this aid, and low-income South Korean power consumers might grouse that they are paying higher tariffs to send free electricity to the North.

South Korean officials have not disclosed the specific destination of the electrical power, or even if they have discussed the relevant technical issues with the North. Given the near collapse and unreliability of the North’s power system, it is safe to assume that only large industrial plants and major cities in the Pyongyang-Nampo region–and possibly industrial cities on the east coast, such as Hamhung–could absorb 2 gigawatts of electricity within the next five or so years. This constraint implies that a transmission corridor would be set up across the DMZ north of Seoul and directed straight toward Pyongyang. It can also be assumed that South Korea would build two high-voltage transmission lines (capable of carrying either 345 or 220 kilovolts) from the DMZ to Pyongyang, so that if one line had a forced outage, the remaining line should be able to transmit 2 gigawatts of electricity.

Mismatched grids

A daunting obstacle confronting Seoul’s proposal is the significant disparity between the electrical grids of the North and South. North Korea’s unified electrical grid dates back to approximately 1958. Built to support Stalinist-style heavy industry, the grid collapsed along with the industrial economy in the 1990s when it was abandoned by the former Soviet Union.The Ministry of Electric Power and Coal runs the transmission and distribution system, as well as its 62 power plants, 58 substations, and 11 regional transmission and dispatching centers. The grid’s total reported generation capacity as of 1990 was about 8-10 gigawatts, with the higher total including numerous small power plants of uncertain operability. At present, the system operates not as a unified grid, but as a largely disconnected hodgepodge of regional and local grids running on different frequencies, with an estimated operable generation capacity of only 1-3 gigawatts. Most of the North’s main transmission lines are rated at either 220 or 110 kilovolts. Other bulk transmission lines are rated at approximately 66 kilovolts, with lower voltage lines used for local distribution.

By Western standards, the North’s system is arcane and subject to regular power outages. Voltage and frequency fluctuations within the grid are orders of magnitude greater than international standards, and electricity supplies, depending on the area, vary from nonexistent to occasionally interrupted. (Supplies in Pyongyang are the most reliable.) Making matters worse, responses to outages are cumbersome and slow, often resulting in cascading outages and further delays in restoring power.

Connections between the elements of the transmission and distribution system were, as of the early 1990s, operated by telephone and telex, without the aid of automation or computer systems. An early 1990s U.N. project installed some control equipment at select control centers and a singlepower plant in the Pyongyang area, yet few other upgrades have been undertaken.

By contrast, South Korea’s power system is roughly 30 times larger than North Korea’s current operable system. Its generating capacity is about 60 gigawatts. [9]  The South plans to increase its total installed capacity to about 80 gigawatts by 2015 through investment in new plants, including about 10 gigawatts of renewable energy (especially wind power). [10]  Moreover, the South’s transmission and distribution system is much larger and more complex than the North’s. The system includes about 25,000 kilometers of transmission lines–plus an additional 10,000 kilometers are slated to be constructed in the next decade. A network of345-kilovolt lines form the backbone of the system, while local systems operate on 154-kilovolt or 66-kilovolt lines (the latter are being phased out). A 765-kilovolt line, now under construction, will allow industry to ship bulk power from generation plants in the south of the country to Seoul and surrounding areas, which account for more than 42 percent of the total load. [11]

Due to reactive power losses and the locations of power plants, transmission lines, and demand centers within South Korea, there are physical limits on the South-North transfer of electricity by long-distance transmission lines that could have a major impact on South Korea’s ability to supply energy to the North. [12]  Exceeding these limits can trip circuit breakers and shut down the South Korean grid. In 2001, South Korean experts estimated that the maximum load that could be drawn from the South Korean grid and sent to the North was about 0.5 gigawatts, or about one-quarter of what has been offered. Although the North’s supply and demand of electric power has since grown, South Korea’s ability to transmit power to high-demand centers, such as Seoul, has not grown commensurately, making it unlikely that its grid can supply more than was estimated in 2001.

Given the vast disparity between the two grids, it is not only difficult but downright hazardous for South Korea to simply transmit pure power to the North. The two grids operate on different frequencies (in parts of the North, at least), with divergent standards, such as voltage fluctuation and reserve capacity, and with completely distinct engineering and safety cultures. South Korea cannot afford to put its own grid at risk of forced outages, operating as it does 20 nuclearpower reactors, due to instability propagated from the North Korean grid. Safety analyses of light water reactors identify forced outages as one of the main pathways to a meltdown accident.

If power is to be drawn off the South’s existing grid without putting it at risk, the South needs to either build power plants north of Seoul to better balance supply and demand in the grid or build unconnected power plants that supply power directly to the North. A third option–to free up generating and transmission capacity by reducing demand in the Seoul area–would not be politically palatable in the South.

South Korean officials told the Joong-Ang Daily on July 18, 2005 that they intend to expand power generation in the Seoul and Incheon region to achieve the necessary balance in the South’s grid and have already advanced completion of a 0.8-gigawatt generating unit at Incheon’s Yeongheung Thermoelectric Power Plant to June 2008. Officials also said that they intend to add an additional 2 gigawatts of separate generating capacity at this plant in order to supply the power needed for the North, as well as to add other capacity (such as reopening the Seoul Thermoelectric Power Plant in Dangin-dong) in order to keep up with growing demand around the capital city. However, independent Korean transmission experts have criticizedthese plans, saying that they were already under way and aimed at solving existing transmission congestion problemsinside the South. New plants are needed, they say, to supply 2 gigawatts to the North. [13]  To ensure South Korea’s grid reliability without incurring the expense of current converters that would protect it from the instability of the North’s grid, South Korea’s state-owned Korean Electric Power Corporation appears to be assuming that the two grids will be run separately for the foreseeable future.

Ground to cover

Grid interconnection is highly political and difficult to achieve between friendly neighbors, let alone enemy states divided by many fundamental issues. [14]  Before connecting their grids, North and South Korea would have to confront several potentially showstopping issues that include: the high front-end political cost of negotiating how their systems will connect; realistically funding the full cost of the 2 gigawatts; negotiating operating standards; and achieving the trust needed to share dispatch and control authority in a system that requires intimate and instant coordination. (A South Korean power authority study conducted in the mid-to late 1990s avoided these issues by assuming that the North’s grid was absorbed into the South’s by “swallowing it alive.”)

From North Korea’s perspective, an even bigger problem is that South Korea could arbitrarily shut off the supply of electricity by “flipping a switch.” Given South Korea’s notoriously volatile politics, such a fear is not irrational.  One way to ameliorate this potential would be if South Korea and Russia connected their grids by building a tie-line across North Korean territory.This would enable the North to siphon off power when and where it is needed rather than absorb a bulk power transfer on a political timeline and would buffer North Korea against South Korean political manipulation. [15]

Cost considerations could also affect the success of the South’s offer. A rough analysis suggests that the entire project will likely require far more investment than the stated ceiling of $2.4 billion. According to our estimates, the capital cost for a 2.12-gigawatt electric gas-fired power plant would be $1.1 billion; the cost for 100 kilometers of cross-DMZ and 400 kilometers of high-voltage transmission lines would be $580 million; and the cost to refurbish half of the North’s transmission and distribution system would be $1.8 billion. The total capital investment needed to produce this system, which would be able to deliver 2 gigawatts of usable power to the North, likely would be at least $3.4 billion. With fuel expenses, the subsequent annual operation and maintenance cost would be at least $1.1 billion. Hidden costs in the renovation of the North’s distribution system–including additional transmission infrastructure and an upgrade of end-use equipment–as well as increases in fuel cost (a possibility that recent increases in international oil and gas prices underscore), would likely drive annual costs closer to $1.5 billion or more. By comparison, South Korea currently invests on average about $3 billion per year in its own new generation and transmission capabilities.

South Korean officials recognize the uncertainty in theirestimates, particularly because so little is known about the North’s distribution system. [16]  But they are also aware that continued instability in North Korea threatens to undermine the South Korean economy. Even a small reduction in South Korea’s $900 billion gross national product would be far more costly than the power offer. If other countries were to offer additional investment to meet the cost of rehabilitating and reconstructing the North’s power system, it would make the South’s offer more meaningful. Japan is the only candidate for such a major role because of its obligation to pay reparations to the North, similar to those paid to South Korea in 1965, for damages inflicted during colonialism and World War II. But Japan is not about to commit any resources while its bilateral agenda with the North remains unresolved, especially in relation to the return of “abductees,” Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea after the Korean War.

 

Closing a deal

For any energy assistance program to succeed, continued negotiations should be based on mutual interest. South Korean and U.S. officials often assert that so little is known about the North’s energy economy that it is difficult to set priorities. Yet, North Korean energy experts have stated clearly their energy and electricity priorities in formal communications with KEDO, in EU-sponsored meetings, with officials working on energy- and grid-related U.N. projects, and through private and technical channels. [17]

North Korean energy experts maintain that it is crucial for assistance to move from short-term fixes to long-term development. They’ve explicitly stated the desire to increase the North’s energy security by decreasing its reliance on coal, diversifying resource use, exploring for crude oil, undertaking international natural gas projects, and developing nuclear power–a similar course to Japan and South Korea.

They also have a laundry list of specific energy goals: restore and repair existing thermal and hydroelectric plants; build new hydroelectric plants; repair, integrate, and improve voltage and frequency on the North’s transmission and distribution network; add modern control facilities; rehabilitate and modernize coal production; adopt energy-efficient technologies in industrial and commercial sectors; and develop renewable energy systems.

Given the North’s energy predicament, these are not irrational choices. The earliest a South-North arrangement would begin providing bulk power to North Korea is 2008, which is light-years away for Pyongyang. The trick to delivering energy aid in a meaningful time frame is to shift from large-scale, intergovernmental projects to a basket of diverse, small-scale, rapidly implemented (less than a year), and relatively cheap options that match these priorities.

South Korea should repair North Korean coal-fired power plants that can be fixed economically. More broadly, the fastest way to increase the North’s power and coal supply is to reduce waste. Improving the energy efficiency of lighting, motors, boilers, and controls in industry, and installing weather stripping and simple insulation measures in buildings,would enlarge effective supply much faster than building new power plants or running power lines to the North. [18]

Should the six-party talks lead to actual North Korean nuclear weapons dismantlement and the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, realistic energy assistance will become an imperative for nonproliferation efforts on the Korean peninsula. Projects such as South Korea’s power plan may be politically necessary for a negotiated outcome, but they are not sufficient to deliver tangible benefits to the North. To provide North Korea with energy development on a meaningful time frame, multiple small projects that offer an array of energy services are preferable to big, symbolic projects whose completion would take years to complete–if ever.

1. See Peter Hayes et al., “Light Water Reactors at the Six-Party Talks: The Barrier That Makes the Water Flow,” Nautilus Policy Forum Online 05-78A, September 21, 2005.

2. A gigawatt is a billion watts of power and can be supplied in mechanical, thermal, or electrical form. In this article, all gigawatts are in terms of electrical energy. In North Korea, more than 70 percent of the fuel energy value at the generating plant is lost in producing the electricity, and 15-20 percent (possibly more) of the power that is generated is lost in transmission and distribution.

3. North Korea has only one major power plant designed to use HFO. North Korea used HFO in combination with coal at plants initially designed to use domestic coal.

4. John H. Bickel, Evergreen Safety and Reliability Technologies, LLC, “Grid Stability and Safety Issues Associated with Nuclear Power Plants” (paper, Workshop on Power Grid Interconnection in Northeast Asia, Beijing, China, May 14-16, 2001). This and other cited workshop papers can be found online at nautilus.org/archive.

5. The KEDO reactors could only have operated by being tied into a Russian Far East-South Korean interconnection, or if the South ran two AC lines from the KEDO reactors to the South Korean grid, in effect importing the power from the North.

6. Rhee So-eui, “S. Korea Says Offered to Supply North Electricity,” Reuters, July 12, 2005.

7. Private communication with U.S. officials; Joo-hee Lee, “South Korea Offers Power Aid in Return for Nuclear Cleanout, Proposes Light Water Reactor to be Terminated for Assistance,” July 13, 2005.

8. Hae-in Shin, “GNP Split on N.K. Energy Assistance,” Korea Herald, July 16, 2005.

9. Korea Electric Power Corporation, “KEPCO in Brief,” December 31, 2004; see also Dong-wook Park, Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute, “Perspectives on Northeast Asian System Interconnection” (paper, Workshop on Power Grid Interconnection in Northeast Asia, Beijing, China, May 14-16, 2001).

10. Jungmin Kang, “Update on the ROK Energy Sector and the ROK LEAP Model” (paper, Asia Energy Security Workshop, Tsinghua University, Beijing, May 17, 2005).

11. Jong-keun Park, “Power System and Technical Issues in South Korea” (paper, Workshop on Power Grid Interconnection in Northeast Asia, Beijing, China, May 14-16, 2001).

12. Energy transmission requires reactive power to support the motors, generators, and alternators attached to the system, as well as devices such as condensers and capacitors, which normalize electric current flow by releasing energy when drops in voltage are sensed. If a system is not designed to provide for reactive power demand, then this energy will be drawn from the transmission lines and will lead to the grid being overloaded and possibly trigger interruption of supply. See Thomas C. Elliott et al., Standard Handbook of Powerplant Engineering (New York: McGraw Hill, 1989), p. 4.59.

13. Private communications with transmission specialists.

14. See Karsten Neuhoff, “Economic Considerations: An Overview and Background on Power Markets and Pricing Principles, with Focus on International Trading, Institutional Considerations for International Electricity Trade” (paper, Workshop on Power Grid Interconnection in Northeast Asia, Beijing, China, May 14-16, 2001).

15. See studies on regional and Russian Far East-South Korean grid interconnection, from the Second Workshop on Power Grid Interconnection in Northeast Asia, Shenzhen, China, May 5-8, 2002.

16. Cited in Seo Jee-yeon, “Energy Aid to N. Korea Faces Technical Hitch,” Korea Times, July 15, 2005.

17. For example, see North Korean Delegation, “Energy Sector Activities and Plans in the DPRK” (paper, Asian Energy Security Workshop 2005, Beijing, China, May 13-16, 2005); and DPRK Delegation, “Options for Rehabilitation of Energy System and Energy Security and Energy Planning in the DPR of Korea” (paper, Asian Energy Security Workshop 2004, Beijing, China, May 12-14, 2004).

18. For additional information on measures that would improve the provision of energy services in the North while reducing overall energy use, plus estimates of the North’s recent trends in energy supply and demand, see David von Hippel, Timothy Savage, and Peter Hayes, “The DPRK Energy Sector: Estimated Year 2000 Energy Balance and Suggested Approaches to Sectoral Redevelopment,” March 2003, Nautilus Institute.

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Terrorism: A shifting landscape

The war on terror and the Osama bin Laden manhunt have brought an age-old debate about self-censorship to the geosciences.

The camera angle was tight, neatly framing Osama bin Laden, his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their two cohorts, sitting in an indistinguishable ravine, perhaps somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The tape, which aired first on Aljazeera a month after 9/11 and featured bin Laden praising the attacks, contained no clues of the terrorists’ location–until its final few throwaway frames.

As he watched the tape’s concluding moments on CNN, Jack Shroder, a geoscientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), noticed something–the camera had been filming when it was wrestled from its tripod. The tight frame around bin Laden now swung suddenly upward, providing a split-second glance of sheared crystalline rocks. “I know where that is!” exclaimed Shroder, who mapped Afghanistan in the 1970s and cofounded the Afghanistan Studies Center at UNO. “That’s the Spin Ghar range.”

The rest happened quickly. After Shroder told a reporter where he believed the tape was shot, U.S. government officials visited him in Omaha and asked him to keep his expert opinion quiet–they also enlisted him in the bin Laden manhunt. Meanwhile, at the University of Cincinnati, geography researcher Richard Beck was inspired by Shroder’s deduction. Familiar with the Pakistan side of the border from doing exploratory fieldwork there for Amoco, Beck began formulating his own guess as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Within a few weeks, he was forwarding possible search targets, such as Afghanistan’s Zhawar Kili cave complex, to the U.S. military, officially ushering the geosciences (geography and geology) into the war on terror.

That two academics would work so closely with the government at first gave no one in the geoscience community pause. The U.S. government and geoscientists have been intertwined for decades; a large number of geoscientists are either employees of offices such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or they work on outsourced projects that are bankrolled by federal dollars. Nor were Beck and Shroder alone. A number of other geoscientists rapidly realized their expertise could be applied to combating terrorism. In January 2002, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) held a workshop to discuss how its members could aid in areas as disparate as emergency response and biosecurity.

Beck, too, wanted to collaborate with his colleagues. In the May 2003 issue of the AAG journal Professional Geographer, he detailed his successes and frustrations in the bin Laden search–with one caveat: “Some information sources used in this study, some details of the method, and some conclusions have been omitted” for the safety of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

This proviso raised some hackles. “We’re in the business of fairness, openness, and transparency,” says John O’Loughlin, a geography professor at the University of Colorado and editor of the non-AAG affiliated journal Political Geography. “Anything that violates that doesn’t belong in an academic journal.”

O’Loughlin contends that the gold standard for academic publication is that research be replicable and that Beck’s work didn’t meet that standard. Beck disagrees, arguing that Shroder did exactly that when he commented on Beck’s work (and revealed much of his own) in a November 2005 Professional Geographer article. “There’s a certain segment of academia that’s rabid, and you’re never going to satisfy them,” Beck says.

“Self-censorship is a completely legitimate thing to do,” adds Shroder, who, at the government’s request, removed many sensitive items from the Afghanistan Studies Center web site after 9/11.

Troubled by such sentiment, O’Loughlin is taking the matter to the AAG Publications Committee in hopes of persuading it to devise more rigid replication standards that would prevent publication without, as he terms it, “the full Monty”–complete openness–regarding methods and funding.

As for Beck and Shroder, they’ve long relinquished their search for bin Laden. Despite the criticism and the fact that bin Laden’s still at large, they believe they made an important contribution to both geoscience and the war on terror. Especially, Shroder says, considering bin Laden’s new preferred means of communication–audiotape. “They sure got the message that we can tell where they are.”

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Q and A: Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire

Roméo Dallaire does not lack for perspective. The Canadian commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in 1994, Dallaire witnessed firsthand that country’s genocide. His pleas for help were ignored by Western nations, which were hesitant to get involved in another African entanglement so soon after the U.S. debacle in Somalia. Nearly 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered. Forever changed, Dallaire emerged as a spokesperson for genocide victims, traveling the world to speak candidly about how to prevent such atrocities. He also wrote a book about his experiences, Shake Hands with the Devil (2004), which inspired a documentary chronicling Dallaire’s first return to Rwanda a decade after the genocide. In this interview with the Bulletin, Dallaire shares his thoughts on coping with depression, how to define genocide, empowering Rwandan women, and more.

 

Does the West truly grasp the Rwanda genocide’s horrors?
The West is sensitive to the catastrophe, but the genocide’s tenth anniversary and the various films that came with it brought that about. Otherwise, it would’ve disappeared into the history books as a blip that didn’t affect us much. Everybody was horrified about the people who died [when reflecting on the tenth anniversary], but Darfur was happening at the same time, and more people were killed, injured, or refugeed there than in the [December 2004] tsunami. Yet, no one did anything. We’re still not clear on what horror is and what should have priority.

During the crisis in Rwanda, the U.N. response was cumbersome and bureaucratic. How can it react more swiftly?
The United Nations acts bureaucratically because when you don’t have any resources, you overmanage. It wasn’t that the United Nations suffocated on paperwork as much as the sovereign states did not give it the necessary assets to respond. That made the United Nations beg, borrow, and fiddle, making it far less effective than it could have been.

Did it surprise you that the U.S. media preferred covering the O.J. Simpson and Nancy Kerrigan sagas to the genocide?
[The American media] simplified what was happening in Rwanda. They called it tribalism. Then they said, “These guys always do this. It’s in their genes. So what’s new except for the gore?” O. J. Simpson was in our backyard. Although journalists were leaving Rwanda with very good stories, they were getting chopped to hell in Atlanta and New York.

Given the history of violence between Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis, can peace there ever be achieved?
A reconciliation is possible. It will happen primarily through the empowerment of women–they bring a completely different perspective to humanity–and educating children objectively. This means teaching civil liberties and the responsibility of citizenship without religious backing.

How did you repress your temptation to intervene with offensive military force in 1994?
It came from the very overt realization that if I commenced operations in any deliberate fashion, my force would literally be wiped out. We did not have the capabilities to defend ourselves against either side. I could only function in a defensive posture. Both sides had enough resilience that even if I eliminated the top dog, they would’ve been able to pursue their operations. That would’ve put all my people, particularly the 30,000 civilians under my protection, in harm’s way.

Do you ever become anesthetized to such atrocities?
Never. These visions come back visibly clear in slow motion. You live with it by trying to sense when something might affect you. If you know that you can’t be around barbecues because it brings back the smell of burning corpses, you don’t go to barbecues. Sometimes all you need is a sound or a smell to launch off into oblivion.

As someone who had to cope with severe depression following Rwanda, what would you suggest for soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder?
The only way to live with this stuff is professional therapy, which may or may not include medication, a bosom buddy who is prepared to listen to you for hours, and, ultimately, the realization that who you were before doesn’t exist any more.

Debate continues within the international community over what constitutes a “genocide” and how to define “terrorism.” Is too much emphasis placed on semantics?
We’re eliminating black-and-white tools we can use to take action by spending time interpreting conventions to the letter of the law instead of enforcing their spirit. There’s no such thing as freedom fighters. Anybody who kills innocent people in order to achieve an objective is a terrorist. Suicide bombers should not be accepted in any way, shape, or form.

How would you rate international peacekeeping efforts in Darfur?
When it started, absolutely zero. Diplomatic efforts were useless, as the Sudanese government made the Western world dance to its tune. As the African Union has moved in, we’re finding a new regional capability that must be reinforced. Now the United Nations must be prepared to take over the initial deployment of this regional capability, initiating a more permanent security requirement.

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Iraq’s hot properties

Review of “DOD Should Evaluate Its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions,” Government Accountability Office, September 2005.

Ask big city mayors to list the terrorist threats they worry about most, and they’ll probably put a “dirty bomb” attack near or at the top of the list. Of the unconventional weapons that a terrorist could use to attack the United States, a dirty bomb is arguably the most probable. The components for building a dirty bomb are (comparatively speaking) more numerous and technologically less complex to work with than those needed to construct and deliver a viable nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon.

Built by packing conventional explosives with radioactive materials, a dirty bomb is primarily a psychological weapon, designed to induce chaos and panic by preying on the public’s fear of radiation. If especially potent radiological materials are used, a dirty bomb attack also has the potential to cause massive economic damage–trillions of dollars, under some plausible scenarios.

A troubling new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2005 (“DOD Should Evaluate Its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions”), suggests that the Iraq War may have elevated the dirty bomb threat by creating a window of opportunity for terrorists or others to steal from Iraq’s unprotected inventory of thousands of radiological sources that were used in a variety of industrial, medical, and other applications. Common sources include nuclear well-logging tools, used in oil exploration, and teletherapy devices, used to treat cancer. In the chaos that followed the fall of Baghdad, these sources were often left unguarded, making them attractive targets for sophisticated looters. (Even to the untrained eye, radiological sources may appear valuable, thereby attracting salvagers who may be unaware of the potential of their plunder. In 1987, for instance, scavengers in the Brazilian town of Goiania dismantled a radiotherapy machine containing cesium 137 and inadvertently contaminated hundreds of people and 40 city blocks.)

What’s especially frustrating about this mess is that the Defense Department knew prior to the invasion and occupation of Iraq that thousands of radiological sources were scattered across the country. Yet, the GAO concludes, the Pentagon “was not ready to collect and secure radiological sources in Iraq at the start of the hostilities in March 2003.” As a result, during the first six months of the conflict, Defense provided no guidance to commanders in the field on how to collect and secure radiological sources. Troops did not have the proper equipment or training and were forced to improvise. Even Defense’s 11-person Nuclear Disablement Team–sent to Iraq to deal with nuclear weapons facilities–lacked the proper equipment. The GAO described an instance where the team “had to move highly radioactive sources with an ice cooler that was lined with lead bricks.”

The underlying cause of this chaos was the failure of the Pentagon to adequately consult and coordinate with other U.S. agencies–most notably, the Energy Department, which is the U.S. agency with the most expertise and experience in dealing with radiological sources. The Pentagon, acting through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which is responsible for preventing the spread of unconventional weapons, didn’t begin coordinating with Energy until the month hostilities began. From that point, bureaucratic politics impeded progress. Such interagency friction–in this case, a series of technical and legal disputes–is perhaps unsurprising. What is especially remarkable, the GAO found, was the friction within Defense (between DTRA and the military) over something as basic as to what extent the military would provide security for DTRA and Energy technical experts working in the field.

By September 2003, according to the GAO, many of these problems appeared to have been resolved, enabling DTRA to collect and secure approximately 1,400 radiological sources in 140 collection missions and to verify the security of an additional 700 sources. The total number of sources remaining in Iraq is unknown, however, because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep comprehensive records. The State Department has helped Iraq create an Iraqi Radiological Source Regulatory Agency, and Energy and State are providing the fledgling agency with financial and technical assistance. It’s an impressive record of accomplishment, although it’s distressing that it took the Pentagon so long to get its act together.

The report is wanting in one crucial respect, however: It fails to detail why the Pentagon neglected to have a plan in place before the war. The GAO’s description of Defense’s slippage on potential radiological threats emanating from Iraq–its failure to anticipate looting, to provide troops with the right equipment, and to draw on the expertise of other agencies–would be an appropriate picture of Defense’s planning for the Iraq invasion writ large. What specific bureaucratic and political forces caused Defense to determine that Iraq’s radiological sources posed a threat, but then wait so long to act? It’s hard to believe that there’s not more to this story than interagency bickering.

The GAO hints at one explanation, but demurs on saying it outright: The Pentagon did not regard radiological sources as a serious threat. The report found that Defense “has not comprehensively reviewed its experiences in collecting and securing radiological sources in Iraq,” which suggests a lack of interest in the matter. The persistence of bureaucratic obstacles is also strong evidence of the Pentagon’s apathy–if the senior leadership had perceived unsecured radiological sources as a high-priority threat, they would have intervened and settled the matter.

In fairness to Defense, another possible explanation is that the Pentagon could not have pulled together a plan in the short period between when the Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq and the launching of the invasion. If that is the case, then the heightened risk of a dirty bomb attack on U.S. soil is yet another consequence of the White House’s rush to war.

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The bioterrorist cookbook

The chances of a massive bioterrorism attack remain low. It’s the small-scale attacks that warrant real concern.

No doubt, Lawrence Wein, a professor of management science at Stanford Business School, did not expect to be at the center of a national controversy over censorship. His research paper, which was slated to be published on May 30, 2005, in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was intended as a thought experiment–a mathematical model of the supply chain providing milk to consumers in the United States and how it might be contaminated by a terrorist using botulinum toxin. [1]  The New York Times thought his findings significant enough to invite him to publish an editorial titled “Got Toxic Milk?” [2]

Before publication by PNAS, however, Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary for public health emergency preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to the president of the National Academies, Bruce Alberts, requesting that the paper not be published since it provided a “road map” for terrorists. Simonson’s concerns were not without cause. Botulinum toxin is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) list of highly lethal “Category A” biological agents, along with smallpox, anthrax, plague, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers. (After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq admitted to the United Nations that it had produced more than 19,000 liters of concentrated botulinum toxin–theoretically enough to kill tens of millions of people.)

Nevertheless, after due consideration, PNAS published the paper in July 2005. In an explanatory editorial, Alberts argued that “scientific free-for-all in the open literature leads to a refinement of the original findings that will, over time, always make any analyses much more reliable and better understood.” [3]

In that respect, PNAS was quite correct. Wein’s analysis came under immediate and severe criticism from other scientists. Two researchers wrote a rejoinder, published by the Federation of American Scientists, noting that, “Many strains of Clostridium botulinum in nature produce very little or no toxin. Finding the right one in nature out of literally 600 or 700 strains can take a long time.” Looking at all of the variables, they concluded the real chance of successfully carrying out such an attack was only one-billionth of what Wein had stated. [4]

Does this mean we should not be concerned about a bioterrorist attack? Not necessarily. The debate over the botulinum threat is just one vivid example of how we are predominantly looking in the wrong place in attempting to assess the current terrorist threat. Even if terrorists were to find it difficult to execute massive attacks using Category A agents such as botulinum toxin and smallpox, there are other, less exotic biological agents that would be suitable for smaller-scale attacks.

The problem is that our thinking has become dominated by the central concern of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against people. As knowledge from the offensive biological weapons programs undertaken in the twentieth century by the United States, Britain, and the former Soviet Union certainly demonstrated, if the right biological agents are prepared in the right way and used under the right conditions, very large numbers of people could be killed. But biological weapons are not just another type of massive WMD bomb. There are many opportunities for an attacker to wreak havoc that fall short of what one might consider “mass destruction.” [5]

If dozens–as opposed to thousands or millions–of people were killed or made ill, widespread panic would still ensue. And governments would likely respond by spending millions of additional dollars to safeguard the nation and reassure the public. Nor can one assume that the targets of such attacks would be limited to humans. Those state-level offensive programs also carefully investigated the use of bioweapons against agriculture. As anyone living in Britain is aware, the 2001 natural outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease did enormous damage to the country’s farming industry. The infectiousness of the virus–and the fact that it presents little danger to the humans who would handle it–would surely make it appealing to someone wanting to cause great harm.

 

The A, B, Cs of biowarfare

Economists use the term “barriers to entry” to describe the obstacles confronted by a firm seeking to enter a specific market. Those barriers might include massive up-front research and development costs, or an inadequate infrastructure that precludes small companies from producing mass quantities of goods at affordable prices.

If one were to think of biological weapons as a market, then the barriers to entry could potentially be quite high–that is, assuming an organization sought to develop weapons on a destructive scale comparable to those developed by states for military use. However, a terrorist group aiming for a smaller than WMD-scale attack would have fewer technical obstacles to overcome.

A recent report prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) made precisely this point. In a side-by-side comparison of two hypothetical biological weapons programs–one conducted by a state, the other by a terrorist group–the report demonstrated how the terrorist program would require considerably fewer steps to achieve “operational capability.” [6] (See “The Bioterrorism 12-Step Program,” PDF file) A terrorist group, for example, would not need to develop agents that had a long storage life. Nor would it have to optimize the performance of a large-scale dissemination device (specialized munitions or warheads) to deliver the biological agent to its intended target; nor to refine the manufacturing process to produce massive quantities of the agent. Also, a terrorist group would not need to acquire effective individual and collective defenses (including vaccines) for its troops or train them to fight in a biological warfare environment.

Because of such differences, the CRS report notes that “agents that were considered high threats in other frameworks appear to present a lesser threat when viewed in the small scale attack context,” while conversely, “agents that were considered of lesser threat when considering mass casualty attacks may be ranked more highly in the small scale context, as barriers to mass use may be missing when the agent is used on a small scale.” Or, put another way, as the lethality of biological agents declines, so too may the barriers to entry for utilizing some of them as weapons.

The CRS report carries an appendix that gives the relevant characteristics of some 30 agents that are cause for concern. Some of these are on the CDC Category A list, but most are not. For instance, one of these is Salmonella typhimurium, which is categorized by the CDC as a Category B agent (“moderately easy to disseminate,” causing “low mortality rates”). CRS notes that Salmonella typhimurium is common worldwide, causes fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea, and that serious complications may occur in a small number of cases. No vaccine exists for this bacterium, and according to the report it could be disseminated by contaminating food or drink.

The opportunities available to a terrorist who wished to cause social and economic disruption by making people ill–and who was satisfied with killing tens or hundreds rather than thousands of people–would, in fact, be rather wide-ranging. Indeed, when the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases began its program to develop countermeasures to potential biological warfare agents, it used not only the CDC’s Category A list but also a listing of Category B and C agents. (Category C agents are defined as “pathogens that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future because of availability; ease of production and dissemination; and potential for high morbidity and mortality rates.”) Helpfully, for the nonbiologist, these agents were divided into different groups: inhalation bacteria; arthropod-borne viruses; toxins; food and waterborne pathogens; and emerging infectious diseases. [7]

Although these Category B and C agents were accorded a lower threat priority, a number of them had been weaponized in the twentieth-century state-level offensive bioweapons programs. Thus the inhalation bacteria listed included Coxiella burnetii, the causative agent of Q-fever (fatal to only 1 to 2 percent of those infected); the arthropod-borne viruses included Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (with a mortality rate of less than 1 percent); and the toxins included Staphylococcal enterotoxin B (which is almost never fatal). The military developed these agents not to kill, but to incapacitate adversaries by inducing such symptoms as fever, violent coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea. The deliberate use of such agents against civilian populations by terrorists might well cause considerable panic.

The potential impact of smaller-scale biological weapons attacks has been well understood for decades. In 1970, during the run-up to the agreement of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), the World Health Organization (WHO) produced the first edition of its report, Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons. [8]  This study confirmed the possibility that a biological weapon could be used to kill large numbers of people in a WMD-style attack. However, the report also considered examples of sub-WMD attacks in which either botulinum toxin or typhoid bacteria were used to contaminate the water supply by injecting the material into a major water main.

The WHO assumed that these hypothetical attacks took place without any prior warning–so that, if typhoid bacteria were used, the authorities would not begin to see the effects in illness rates until about a week later. The amount of material injected was assumed to be rather limited so that the terrorist did not have an impossible task in producing it. The quantity of water consumed and the percentage of people infected were worked out for a variety of population sizes, climatic conditions, and levels of urban development. In the case of a large, developed, industrial city in a temperate climate, the total number of typhoid cases was calculated to be some 35,000. Early and effective use of antibiotics would reduce the fatalities to about 200. In comparison to other scenarios analyzed by WHO, this outcome was a somewhat best-case scenario. But even so, it would surely have a major impact if such an attack were carried out in a developed country today.

Of course, it is not necessary to resort to hypothetical examples of small-scale attacks, since there already exists detailed information on what might be regarded as a classic case: the 1984 incident in The Dalles, Oregon. There, the followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh wished to influence the outcome of a local election in their favor by making a large number of the townspeople ill. To this end, on September 11, 1984, the sect began contaminating salad bars in the town with Salmonella typhimurium. On September 17, the public health department began to be notified of people falling ill with gastroenteritis. When it became clear that these victims all reported eating at salad bars, these were closed down on September 25. It was eventually revealed that at least 750 people had been made ill, but the true number affected is likely to have been higher. (There are many outbreaks of food poisoning caused by Salmonella typhimurium each year, and the deliberate nature of this outbreak was not detected at the time.) Only later, in a different investigation, did it become clear that the sect had grown the bacterium–in sufficient quantities to carry out the contamination–in its own laboratories. Fortunately, nobody died as a result of the attack, but there are certainly other more dangerous agents that could have been used.

 

Bitter pill

Despite the billions of dollars that the United States is spending on biodefense, well-informed critics feel that little real progress has been made. Vaccines and antidotes remain in short supply, local officials have not developed plans to distribute medical supplies in a timely manner to citizens, and hospitals do not have the capacity to handle a sudden surge in patients. [9]  Given the plausibility of small-scale biological attacks against not only people (civilian and military), but also livestock, it will become increasingly difficult to mount an effective defense in the coming decades, particularly if the increase and spread of capabilities that the genomics revolution in biology will bring is taken into account. While it is improbable that terrorists today could manipulate an agent for malign purposes–for example, by increasing the antibiotic resistance of an agent–it can not be ruled out in the decades ahead, in light of the accelerating development of biotechnology worldwide. [10]

Biodefense certainly has a place in what the International Committee of the Red Cross has called a web of prevention. That web is composed of an integrated set of policies centered on the international prohibitionary norm embodied in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 BWC, and designed to persuade anyone contemplating the hostile use of modern biology that it is far too costly to attempt. But progress on strengthening the BWC is floundering. At the treaty’s 2001 review conference, the United States, after a decade of multilateral negotiations, rejected outright a proposed verification protocol on the grounds that it would not only be ineffective, but would also put national security and confidential business information at risk.

It is crucial that progress be made lest history repeat itself at the next review conference in 2006. Some modular steps could be taken to fortify the BWC. For example, the confidence-building measures previously agreed upon (including declaration of past activities in offensive and defensive research programs) should be strengthened, and a mechanism put in place to ensure that they are properly submitted by all states parties. Biodefense must be kept in perspective. It certainly cannot be the main solution because there are far too many possibilities for attack.

 

1. Lawrence Wein and Yifan Liu, “Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), July 12, 2005.

2. Lawrence Wein, “Got Toxic Milk?” New York Times, May 30, 2005.

3. Bruce Alberts, “Modeling Attacks on the Food Supply,” PNAS, July 12, 2005.

4. Milton Leitenberg and George Smith, “Got Toxic Milk? A Rejoinder,” Federation of American Scientists (fas.org/sgp/eprint/milk.html).

5. See Mark Wheelis, Lajos Rozsa, and Malcolm Dando (eds.), Deadly Cultures: Bioweapons from 1945 to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming in 2006).

6. Congressional Research Service, Small-Scale Terrorist Attacks Using Chemical and Biological Agents: An Assessment Framework and Preliminary Comparisons (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004).

7. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID Biodefense Research Agenda for Category B and C Priority Pathogens (Washington, D.C: National Institutes of Health, 2002).

8. World Health Organization (WHO), Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons (Geneva: WHO, 1970).

9. Mimi Hall, “Nation Unready for Germ Attacks,” USA Today, July 31, 2005.

10. See Raymond Zilinskas and Malcolm Dando, “Biotechnology and Bioterrorism,” Encyclopedia of Bioterrorism Defense (Hoboken: Wiley-Liss, 2005).

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