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A Rational Response to Dirty Bombs

Op-Ed, Financial Times

June 11, 2002

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security

 

A Rational Response to Dirty Bombs

by Jessica Stern
June 11, 2002
Reprinted from the Financial Times

The capture of Abdullah al-Muhajir, the US citizen accused of plotting a
"dirty bomb" attack on Washington DC, is another demonstration that the
world is now vulnerable to unconventional terrorism.

We have known for some time that al-Qaeda has been seeking weapons
of mass destruction. Operatives described their attempts to acquire
uranium for use in nuclear weapons in a New York City federal court over
a year ago. Plans and materials for designing unconventional weapons
were found in Afghanistan. And Osama bin Laden has repeatedly boasted
about his success in hiring scientists to assist him in producing nuclear
and biological weapons.

The arrest of Mr al-Muhajir, a former Chicago gang member who changed
his name from Jose Padilla after converting to Islam, reminds us that
radical Islamists aim to turn rage, humiliation and perceived deprivation
into a weapon of war. They do not recruit exclusively in Muslim countries;
they seek out disaffected youth all around the world.

The UK has become a popular gathering place for radical Islamists from
around the world, some of whom are recruited to join jihads from
mosques. A former FBI counter-terrorism official estimates that between
1,000 and 2,000 young men left the US to become Mujahideen in
purported holy wars during the 1990s. Two New York mosques sent 40 to
50 recruits per year overseas in the mid-1990s, he says.

The jihadis were never tracked as a group. Immigration officials do not
keep records of US citizens travelling abroad, and a combination of legal
controls and self-restraint stopped the FBI and CIA from monitoring their
activities.

Nor should it be a surprise that al-Qaeda successfully recruited a former
gang member who had served time in a US prison. Terrorists have long
used prisons as a source of operatives, and young men join gangs for
some of the same reasons they join terrorist groups. Hopelessness, the
feeling of being left behind by rapidly changing societies and fear are the
fuels of terror, whether practised by inner-city gangs or by global terrorist
criminals.

Still, it is important to keep the threat in perspective. Dirty bombs are far
more frightening than lethal. Numerous studies by government and
non-government scientists have shown that a dirty bomb would kill only
people in the immediate vicinity of the explosion. While people living
downwind of the blast would be exposed to additional radiation, there
would be very few additional cancer deaths, probably undetectable in the
statistical noise.

The US government considered developing radiological weapons during the
second world war, but abandoned the project as impracticable. Unlike
chemical and biological agents, radioactive poisons act slowly. They are
difficult to disseminate in concentrations sufficient to cause death,
radiation sickness or cancer. In contrast, chemical agents can be stored
for a long time, and are easier to transport. That makes them more
attractive to terrorists than radiation devices if the main objective is to
kill many people.

But radioactive weapons can be effective instruments of terror because of
their psychological impact - the human fear of radiation makes them
inherently terrifying. For more than a quarter of a century, psychologists
and risk analysts have sought to identify the attributes of risks that are
especially feared. Studies of perceived risk show that fear is
disproportionately evoked by certain characteristics of radiation: it is
mysterious, unfamiliar, indiscriminate, uncontrollable, inequitable and
invisible. Exposure is involuntary, and the effects are delayed.

The media also tend to highlight terrorist incidents, heightening dread and
panic still further. Because Belfast is still considered a terrorist city, many
people consider it to be more dangerous than Washington DC, although
there are far more murders per head of population in Washington than in
Belfast.

We feel a gut-level fear of terrorism, and are prone to trying to eradicate
the risk entirely, with little regard to the cost. In contrast, when risky
activities are perceived as voluntary and familiar, danger is likely to be
underestimated. On average, more than 100 US citizens a day die in car
accidents. Yet people expose themselves to the risk because it is a
voluntary act and drivers feel the illusion of control.

What can be done about the problem? First, we need to realise this is a
new kind of war. Our enemies deliberately target civilians. But uncertainty,
dread and disruption are their most important weapons. Our most
important response, then, is an informed public that understands not only
the risks we face, but also the role of fear.

But public education is only the first step. Many policy measures can
reduce the likelihood and impact of such threats. Nuclear power plants
must be secured. Evacuation and clean-up plans should be readied and
hospitals should be prepared. Radiation detectors should be deployed at
ports and borders. Tracking systems for radioactive isotopes must be
improved. Despite the relatively low casualty rate for radiological attacks,
the psychological impact will be far more devastating if governments are
perceived to be unprepared.

Unconventional weapons, used in a total war, require an unconventional
response. New agencies and organisations will have to be involved.
Businesses will play an increasingly important role. The food industry
needs to be aware that the enemy in this war will not be dressed as a
soldier and may not carry a gun. Instead, he may be an insider working at
a food processing plant aiming to steal radioactive sources or contaminate
food products.

Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare, requiring a psychologically
informed response. Our hardest challenge is not to overreact - the
terrorists'' fondest hope - and not to give in to fears. We will need to find
the right balance between civil liberties and public safety. The news about
Abdullah al-Muhajir makes us want to scour our cities in search of
would-be killers. It would be better to act in a measured and deliberate
way.

Jessica Stern lectures in public policy at Harvard University''s Kennedy
School of Government. She is a former director for Russian and Ukrainian
affairs at the National Security Council.

 

For more information about this publication please contact the ISP Program Coordinator at 617-496-1981.

For Academic Citation:

Stern, Jessica. "A Rational Response to Dirty Bombs." Financial Times, June 11, 2002.

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