CBRNE: Warnings Heard, But Not Heeded

The realities of ever-changing threats are becoming an increasingly more important factor for the United States and its allies to consider in updating their contingency plans. One example: During the last fiscal year alone, the U.S. Army’s EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams responded to almost 250 U.S.-based CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and/or high-yield explosive) incidents. Recognizing the increased gravity of the CBRNE problem, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently addressed a report related to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to firm up critical incident-management plans associated with CBRNE incidents (as well as those caused by natural disasters). Somewhat alarmingly, the OIG report indicated that DHS is “making progress” – even though a seamless plan is not yet in place or even close to completion.

Today, the United States is still not well prepared to deal with a large-scale CBRNE terrorist attack – even though the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Proliferation and Terrorism issued a failing report over a year ago concluding, among other things, that the nation was at that time “not fully prepared to provide a coordinated response to a WMD incident.” More recently, Commission members issued another strong warning, as follows: “Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013 [emphasis added].

The counterterrorism community continues to be concerned about CBRNE attacks and is still not sure how to defend against them. The possibility of another catastrophic scenario similar to the actual release, on 20 March 1995, of a sarin nerve-agent gas in a crowded Tokyo Subway – which killed 12 people and injured several thousand more – is becoming more likely. The Tokyo attack was relatively simple in nature – Aum Shinrikyo, the organization responsible, merely filled a number of plastic bags with toxic gas and left the bags on subway trains.

Mass transit systems in major cities such as Washington, London, New York, Chicago, and Madrid are highly susceptible to the same type of synchronized attack, and there are few or no countermeasures currently in place – in those cities and most others – to protect those systems. Moreover, although sarin gas itself is not easy to produce, there are other toxic chemicals readily available that might also be used.

“Little or No Training” Needed by Terrorist Volunteers A mounting concern related to the possibility of such an attack continues to escalate. Not too long ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned U.S. law-enforcement agencies, in one of its weekly intelligence bulletins, about the threat of a chemical attack by groups, or even individual terrorists, trying to make improvised chemical weapons. According to the FBI, “recently obtained information” reinforces the fact that “a chemical weapon made with easily available items … could produce toxic gas such as hydrogen cyanide or chlorine gas.” In addition, the agency pointed out, “little or no training” would be “required to deploy such a device, due to its simplicity.” The FBI statement substantiates previous warnings that al Qaeda is, and has been, plotting new attacks against the United States that could and probably would be launched against such “soft targets” as malls and hotels, and in enclosed areas such as U.S. subway systems.

International counterterrorism agencies also can no longer overlook the worst-case scenario or “small-percentage” threat posed by a CBRNE attack; al Qaeda leaders already have made it known, in fact, that they are attempting to acquire CBRNE weapons and devices. Significantly, a major immediate concern for U.S. officials that escalated to a much higher level within the past several days – i.e., since the imposition of the No Fly Zone policy against Libya – is how far Moammar Qaddafi is willing to go to defeat the rapidly increased threat to his regime. According to U.S. and allied intelligence sources, Libya is believed to possess an estimated 9.5 metric tons of mustard gas and various quantities of other chemical weapons.

Whether Qaddafi expands the current violence by bombing Libyan cities and/or using chemical weapons, the international community should be prepared to deal with the consequences of such actions – which might even include the weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. In that context, it should be remembered that, for about two decades (during the 1970s and 1980s), Libya was a major arms supplier for many terrorist organizations. The ongoing conflict in Libya can still not only provide terrorist organizations a safe haven but also lead to increased transfers, to terrorists from Libya’s arms depots, of CBRNE systems and devices as well as other weapons.

Libya has publicly admitted to producing tons of mustard gas in the past, and Libya’s military arsenals are known to contain ammunition capable of delivering chemical agents. Mustard gas, first used in combat by the German Army in World War I, is an odorless gas that can take up to 12 hours to take effect – and can remain in the soil for weeks thereafter. Even small amounts of mustard gas, combined with high-yield explosive devices – also quickly available in Libya’s warehouses – could cause truly catastrophic damage, including both internal and external bleeding. The immediate effects are not only long lasting but also very painful – it usually takes four or five weeks for anyone exposed to mustard gas to die from the poisoning effects.

Chaos in Libya: The Fallout Effects and Other Dangers Of particularly grave concern is the large quantity of Libyan weapons that have already entered circulation, particularly in countries where there has been little government control. Because of their relatively low cost and ease of manufacture, chemical weapons have long been considered “the poor man’s atomic bomb.” The international community may therefore soon see al Qaeda’s WMD threats become a grim new reality, particularly if chemical weapons looted from Libya’s arsenals end up in the hands of terrorists and/or on the international black market in such weapons.

There are several other disturbing factors substantiating the need for improved preparations in dealing with terrorist attacks, specifically when CBRNE weapons are or might be involved. Incident management planning is one of the more important of those factors. The United States realized shortly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in late August 2005 that a need for greater integration and synchronized preparedness in the coordination of efforts was urgently needed – not only at all levels of government (federal, state, and local) but also in the private sector and in NGOs (non-government organizations). The concept of a truly national counterterrorism plan was then in its infancy stages, of course – but more than six years later such a plan has still not been implemented. Moreover, unlike a number of other nations, the United States does relatively little to integrate its own counterterrorism plans with those of its closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico.

Meanwhile, the member states of the European Union (EU) have been urged for years to include the risk of CBRNE in their own emergency response plans. Presidents and prime ministers have called on all EU states to incorporate the CBRNE risks into plans, integrate the different elements, carry out multinational simulation exercises, improve the exchange of information, and raise the public awareness in general about the possibility of a CBRNE attack. In response, the EU has made efforts since 2002 to respond to CBRNE attacks, and in 2008 established a database on CBRNE terrorism-related events and on materials that might possibly be used in a future attack.

Today, U.S. and allied defense experts usually agree that there is an increasing likelihood that multiple incidents, if planned by al Qaeda, may well occur simultaneously – e.g., simultaneous attacks on several different stations in public transit systems. When allocating resources, therefore, governments would be well advised to consider and plan to respond to multiple incidents of the same type, particularly if coupled with terrorist incidents of different types, at either the same or different geographic locations – e.g., several subway stations within the same city. Coordination and training are not only the cornerstones of both deterrence and response in such situations, but are now paramount. Multiple incidents would invariably require the coordination and cooperation of various government response agencies, whose efforts would be coupled with multiple regional, state, and local jurisdictions – a further necessity in incident management planning.

NIPP Plus HSPD-7, But No Bullets To address the lack of incident management planning, the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) was established to create a comprehensive nationwide framework that provides structure to the integration of national response resources. NIPP was created by then President George W. Bush in reaction to the attacks of 11 September 2001 with the signing of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7 (HSPD-7), which ordered the development of such a plan. In 2003, Bush ordered DHS to complete the plan within a year – the department missed that deadline, but in 2005 then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the completion of an Interim NIPP that was not “a comprehensive plan” for protecting critical infrastructure and was often criticized for that deficiency (and for a number of other reasons).

In 2006, DHS completed the NIPP, claiming that it was the most comprehensive risk- management system ever available defining critical infrastructure protection roles and responsibilities for all levels of government, private industry, nongovernmental agencies, and tribal partners. Nonetheless, and even though the NIPP continues to be updated, many requirements are still not being met effectively.

Although lacking in certain other respects, NIPP does however provide a consistent plan for agencies (federal, state, local, and private-sector) to work toward a safer, more secure nation based on cooperative efforts in preventing, deterring, neutralizing, and mitigating the effects of a terrorist attack or similar emergency, including a natural disaster. Protecting the U.S. infrastructure necessarily starts with preparedness – a goal that encompasses several factors including planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluation, and the taking of corrective action if, as, and when needed. However, when one component of the preparedness circle is not effective, the entire process is crippled. Agencies that are able to effectively plan and organize, for example, but are not provided the funds needed to properly equip and train their personnel, can handicap the entire progression.

Not incidentally, the claim sometimes made that chemical weapons would be difficult for terrorist organizations to manufacture has been rejected by the Central Intelligence Agency, which points out that the clandestine production of chemical and biological weapons for multiple attacks should and would be no more difficult for terrorists than the production of narcotics would be for drug cartels. A worsening of the current conflict in Libya (or any other nation with chemical weapon caches) might quickly, and easily, put chemical weapons within the reach of terrorist groups. A continuous progression of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating, and, when and as necessary, the taking of corrective action is required to maintain readiness for preparedness. Only through a consistent application of the NIPP guidelines by all of the public and private entities involved can this be accomplished effectively.

In short, governments should be prepared not only to prevent CBRNE attacks and protect their cities, and their citizens, against such attacks, but also to train first responders how to deal with a reactive or tactical situation – without becoming casualties of the attack. Far too often in the past, unfortunately, U.S. emergency agencies have not been adequately supplied and trained to deal with chemical attacks, especially on a large scale. Even today, agencies that have been organized in accordance with the NIPP guidelines – but have not been adequately funded to implement the NIPP model – will be in the position of a policeman carrying a gun with no bullets.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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