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The emerging threat of superterrorism - The Times of India

Ved Marwah ()
June 26, 1998

Title: The emerging threat of superterrorism
Author: Ved Marwah
Publication: The Times of India
Date: June 26, 1998

The risk of nuclear, chemical and biological weapon blackmail is
no longer a theoretical one. It poses a real threat to
democratic countries like India. The possibility of a terrorist
group using such weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is not as
remote as we would like to believe. Prof Paul Wilkinson, an
authority on international terrorism, told a conference on
international terrorism in Cairo recently that chemical weapons
were used in at least five incidents of terrorism in Sri Lanka.

The increasing level of technological sophistication among
terrorist groups is creating genuine fears about the spread of
WMD terrorism. The havoc such terrorism can cause is
unimaginable. it can wreak death and destruction on an
unprecedented scale. WMD blackmail will be very difficult to
resist. Such weapons provide terrorists with leverage that they
can use with great effect to achieve their goals. They can either
use them as "sabre rattlers" to up the ante in response to
political action, or to achieve a specific objective.

Terrorist motives are complex and the targets unpredictable. The
release of sarin nerve gas by a fanatical group two years ago
killed 12 and injured 5,500 in Tokyo's underground system. Two
men were arrested in Las Vegas in February on suspicion of
possessing anthrax, a lethal biological agent. It is not easy to
detect a biological weapon attack. The symptoms of such an attack
may not immediately be visible. And its after effects can last
for a much longer period. Anthrax spores, for example, can remain
stable for many years in soil and water. When inhaled they cause
severe pneumonia and even death in a week.

Dual Uses

It is not possible completely to ban the production of all
ingredients that go into the making of chemical and biological
weapons. Many precursor chemicals have dual uses: Thiodiglycol
used for ball point pens can be converted into mustard agent by a
simple process of chlorination. Fomenters used in the production
of beer, antibodies, enzymes and other therapeutic products such
as insulin and growth hormones can also be used to produce
significant quantities of biological agents. There has been a
diffusion of the technologies that enable proliferation a number
of which have legitimate civilian application.

Nuclear terrorism is easier to detect, but not that easy to
control. It may be easier to control the possibility of a nuclear
device getting into the hands of terrorists; but that cannot be
ensured without an effective international agreement about the
production and sale of fissionable material. Experts differ
about the chances of a nuclear weapon getting into the hands of a
terrorist group. According to some, the possibility is too
remote to cause any real concern. A terrorist group is unlikely
to possess the type of technology that is required to make or
explode even a simple nuclear device. But others disagree with
this view. What happens if a terrorist group is a front
organisation of a hostile power? The threat is real, even if the
possibility of such an act taking place may be low. A single act
of nuclear terrorism could have far-reaching consequences.
Extraordinary precautions against such an act are essential.

Notable Successes

Unlike nuclear weapons, however, the making of chemical and
biological weapons does not require much expertise and
sophisticated technology. Nor is the formula for producing them a
secret. It is available even to a lay person on the Internet. It
is not too expensive to produce. Even a small terrorist group
Can afford the cost involved. The danger from chemical and
biological weapons is very real, and they are no less destructive
than a nuclear device.

Contrary to popular belief, terrorism has achieved notable
successes. It is a cost-effective option. This fact is not lost
on the new emerging groups. They are a highly motivated lot,
obsessed by the righteousness of their cause and the
inevitability of their ultimate victory. They will stop at
nothing to achieve their goal. The ability of a terrorist group
to take the initiative in the choice of targets and the timing of
its acts makes it very difficult to take, preventive action. The
country has to recognise the danger and prepare itself to meet
it. Wisdom lies in allocating adequate resources and high-level
attention for developing a practical plan of action to cope with
the menace.

(The author is a former police commissioner of Delhi)

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