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US WMD report: Dirty bombs, chem weapons are bunk

But the bioterrorists will strike by 2013! Aiee!

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A US congressional investigation into terrorists and WMDs has concluded that there will be a WMD attack within five years unless prompt international action is taken. The report also effectively says that the only kinds of WMD worth worrying about are atomic bombs and biological weapons.

Bob Graham and Jim Talent, both former senators (Democrat and Republican respectively) led the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, set up by the US Congress in 2007. The two men and their associated commissioners and staff have since travelled the world, interviewing people and looking into the terrorist WMD threat.

First off, Graham, Talent et al rapidly decided to ignore some of the threats which are often grouped under the term "WMD". According to their report:

The mandate of the Commission was to examine the full sweep of the challenges posed by the nexus of terrorist activity and the proliferation of all forms of WMD — chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear ... we concluded early in our deliberations that this report should focus solely on the two types of WMD categories that have the greatest potential to kill in the most massive numbers: biological and nuclear weapons.

In other words, "dirty bombs" (radiological) and chemical weapons aren't worth worrying about. That was already fairly obvious to many, but it's interesting to see the idea making headway in Washington.

But the two senators certainly aren't out to downplay the threat of terrorist WMDs, no sir. They think that unless something is done, there will be mass-casualty attacks soon.

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.

So terrorists might set off a nuclear bomb in the next five years, which is pretty damn serious. Well, actually maybe not:

Terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.

So we're probably talking about a bioweapon, not a nuke, at least in the near term. Still, the Commissioners have judged that the terrorist bio threat is on a par with nukes. This seems a little curious, and indeed they admit that in saying this they are actually in conflict with the advice they received from America's security and intelligence community. They are also unable to point to any kind of bioweapon attack which has resulted in the sort of casualties which nukes are all too well known to be capable of causing.

In the course of the report, the Commission does touch on the various underground bioweapon efforts of modern times, by the Rajneeshee cult in the US, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. They also examine the most effective recent biological attacks, by the rogue US government bioweapons researcher Bruce Ivins. Ivins was, as one would expect, far and away the most effective bioweapon attacker. During his anthrax-spore mail campaign, in which he was able to draw on the resources of the US Army's biodefence labs, 22 people contracted the disease, five of whom died.

This was a rather unimpressive performance - Ivins' bioweapons campaign caused even less harm than the highly ineffectual chemical-weapons attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995, which killed twelve people. Thus far, the Commission has offered no convincing reason why bioweapons shouldn't join the dirty bombs and the chemical weapons in the scare dustbin.

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