Parallel Questions

Mark C R UK asks, in response to my post Posse Comitatus, Requiescat In Pace:

“But how many functional enemies willing to disperse such agents and have the (alarming) patience to wait for for years before mortality begins?”

And this questions fits right in with the subject of a draft post I had been writing, and it is is also a question others have been asking as well. The question is phrased slightly differently, but in essence it is the same question. (Incidentally, Mark has buried the most important word in his question in parenthesis.) Here is a report summarized over at Bugs ‘N’ Gas Gal’s site:

Three Explanations for al-Qaeda’s Lack of a CBRN Attack

By Chris Quillen

The evidence of al-Qaeda’s interest in conducting a terrorist attack with chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapons appears compelling. As early as 1998, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden declared the acquisition of CBRN weapons a “religious duty” for Muslims [1]. He followed up in 2003 by asking for and receiving a fatwa from Saudi Sheikh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd that condoned the use of CBRN weapons by Muslims against infidels [2]. Combined with the multitude of warnings from al-Qaeda associates that a CBRN attack against the West is not only forthcoming but also long overdue, the Muslim “duty to warn” has been firmly established. In al-Qaeda’s opinion, no further justification is needed and no additional warnings are required [3].

Given this stated desire and apparent capability to conduct a CBRN terrorist attack, why has al-Qaeda not yet launched an attack with such weapons? This analysis explores three possible explanations for this lack of a CBRN attack: disruption, deterrence and, most disturbingly, patience.

And this summer, a question from John Robb at Global Guerillas:

From Global Guerillas:
Sunday, 18 June 2006
JOURNAL: Why al Qaeda hasn’t attacked the US since 9/11

One good explanation is from a brief I wrote back in 2004 on (see the brief “Terrorist Death-March“) how terrorism suffers from diminishing returns against stable enemies. Simply, the more it is used, the less valuable it is (which is a good thing). The reason for this is psychological. Target Western populations (and the press) become inured to terrorism in much the same way they do with petty crime. Each subsequent attack has less of a psychological impact than the first. In order to compensate for this, a terrorism planner must make each subsequent attack even more damaging or symbolically devastating than earlier attacks. The result is a death march until entire terrorism campaign runs out of steam.

This approach in part explains why the US hasn’t suffered another attack since 9/11 — the other factors being improved security (debatable) and the break-up of camps in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has not opted to attack the US is because it hasn’t been able to muster an attack that could exceed 9/11 in damage. Instead, and this is explained in the brief I linked to above, it has moved to new targets that access new geographies and political dimensions (Madrid, London, etc.).

A good example of this framework in action is found in the recent revelations unearthed by Ron Suskind in his new book called “The One Percent Doctrine.” An excerpt made available through TIME magazine has this valuable tidbit:

Ali revealed that Ayeri had visited Ayman Zawahiri in January 2003, to inform him of a plot to attack the New York City subway system using cyanide gas. Several mubtakkars (NOTE: small, portable, chemical weapon delivery systems) were to be placed in subway cars and other strategic locations. This was not simply a proposal; the plot was well under way. In fact, zero-hour was only 45 days away. But then, for reasons still debated by U.S. intelligence officials, Zawahiri called off the attack. “Ali did not know the precise explanation why. He just knew that Zawahiri had called them off.”

And everyone’s answer seemed to be: patience. We also have Roger Brent, the director of Director and President
The Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley Ca who warns of the possibility of just such an attack in his ominously-titled paper: In the valley of the shadow of death. So there are quite a few educated people, leaders in the fields that are close to the science giving us a clear and dire warning, and the west is basically doing: nothing much…

Now for the second part of Mark C R UK’s question: “…I mean is there any “real” defense from such a thing? If proven on a particular group – surely only knowledge of an “ultimate response” would provide deterrence?Also as war and winning is often associated with “the moral high ground”… surely use of such an agent would be self defeating in the face of a backlash for the use of a banned and indiscriminate biological weapon.?”

Well perhaps. But one could construct a scenario (which I fully admit is on the edge of paranoia) in which the difference between the public perceptions of the the same event would become a lever. Paul Virilio’s concept of an ‘Information Bomb’ is important here. But here’s an extract from my post ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.’ (Churchill quote):

And while we are using our imagination, here is a bad scenario: Could it be that what Al-Qaeda is waiting for is a sufficiently massive atrocity to be committed by the Allies or their proxies so they can use WMD’s against the US without losing to much of their support in the Muslim world? In this scenario, the WMD’s they would chose to use will probably be knowledge based (biological or large scale chemical warfare) and, will probably not leave any “fingerprints.”

Those in US will believe the attack was by Al-Qaeda, those in Arab world will not believe this, rightly noting that the evidence is circumstantial. If this attack is successful, there could arise in the US enormous pressure to react, perhaps with WMD’s. This reaction by the US would be perceived as justified by Americans, and unjustified by most of the rest of the World. The measure of our enemies’ success is the difference, the “delta” if you will, between these two different perceptions of the same event. (Repeat Churchill quote above) Our enemies will then have then won the war. The international geo-political power balance would be fundamentally altered by the scenario described above, with the US isolated, perhaps for a very long time from most of the rest of the world.

So, in a certain way, a biological attack could play into the attackers plans. It could also, if the blowback was strong enough, be the immediate demise of AQ, due to effects described on John Robb’s post: Terrorist Death March.

But the real issue here is that you don’t need AQ to justify possibility, that a natural disease outbreak could be mistaken for a deliberate epidemic. Both of these possibilities highlight the importance of really understanding the ways and reasons people believe what they do, what I have called the ‘ergonomics of beliefs.’ It’s not a trivial subject. A well-run Syndromic Surveillance system would also help us both minimize the casualties from any epidemic and, also quite importantly, determine the nature of the outbreak, i.e., biowarfare or an emerging zoonotic disease.

But the reality is: there are a great many reasons why we urgently need to build a credible public health monitoring infrastructure, even without the possibility of biological warfare. Zoonotic disease, for example have historically entered into common human circulation at the rate of about one new disease every century. Since the early 1980’s that rate has increased to 1 disease every year. That 100-fold increase is not sustainable.

I have written up a brief description of Syndromic Surveillance concepts in a guest post at Freedom to Tinker: Syndromic Surveillance: 21st Century Data Harvesting

Parallel Questions

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