Terrorists could mount nuclear or biological attack within 5 years, warns Congress inquiry

Posted in Terrorism | 07-Dec-08 | Author: Ewen MacAskill| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Custom officials check a container during an exercise aimed at stopping the trade in weapons of mass destruction. A US commission has warned that terrorists are "likely" to use nuclear or biological weapons in the next five years.

An investigation by the US Congress into weapons of mass destruction published yesterday made a chilling prediction of terrorists mounting an attack using biological or nuclear weapons within the next five years.

The six-month inquiry mentioned Pakistan as one of the likeliest sources of such an attack. The target could be the US or some other part of the world.

The report, by the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, said "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".

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

George Bush said the report highlighted the greatest threat facing the US and was "dangerously real". He said that after the 9/11 attacks he had put in place policies tackling the threat and he was leaving a good foundation for his successor.

Barack Obama's incoming administration, which is to prioritise tackling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, was briefed on Capitol Hill yesterday about the findings in the 132-page report.

The commission, led by former Democratic senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, was given six months to complete the report. It followed on from the work of the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks.

Graham told reporters that a biological or nuclear attack within the next five years was not inevitable and the commission's reports included a series of recommendations which, if implemented, could diminish the threat. The recommendations included the creation of a White House post focusing on proliferation and more emphasis on diplomatic efforts.

The team's remit ranged from lack of security at biological labs in the US to the safety of nuclear stockpiles in Russia. It conducted 250 interviews with scientists, analysts, intelligence agencies and the military.

The report concluded that the risk from biological or nuclear weapons was higher than sceptical foreign policy and defence analysts have so far suggested. Those analysts had pointed to the complexity of transporting such weapons and the limitations of a nuclear "dirty" bomb, whose radius of damage is minimal compared with missile-delivered warheads.

The report disagreed, saying: "No mission could be timelier. The simple reality is that the risks that confront us today are evolving faster than our multi-layered responses.

"Many thousands of dedicated people across all agencies of our government are working hard to protect this country, and their efforts have had a positive impact. But the terrorists have been active, too - and in our judgment America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."

It added that much dangerous biological and nuclear material around the globe was "poorly secured - and thus vulnerable to theft by those who would put these materials to harmful use, or would sell them on the black market to potential terrorists".

As well as the threat from stateless militant groups, the commission expressed concern about the danger posed by proliferation of nuclear weapons in countries such as Iran, saying the Obama administration must stop Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

It pointed to Pakistan, both at state level and among stateless groups, as one of the areas of most concern. "Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan," the report said.

Talent told journalists: "It is the epicentre of a lot of these dangers." He said the report had been drawn up before the Mumbai attacks. The commission recommended that Pakistan be top priority for the Obama administration in terms of terrorism and proliferation.

Proposals include eliminating terrorist safe havens through military, economic, and diplomatic means, securing nuclear and biological materials in Pakistan, countering and defeating extremist ideology, and constraining a nascent nuclear arms race in Asia.

Other recommendations include strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and other international safeguards, creating a US national security force appropriate to the 21st century and developing a more coherent strategy for countering ideologies that lead to terrorism.

At home, the commission was disturbed by the apparent lack of security at laboratories dealing with dangerous biological materials.

Government investigators sent to check on the vulnerability of such research sites were able gain access to the outside of these buildings and then observe work inside.

It was fortunate that they were from the government and not al-Qaida as these were precisely the lethal trove that the terrorists have been seeking for years, the report said.

The investigators watched a pedestrian simply stroll into one of the buildings through an unguarded loading bay.

The commission recommended tighter oversight of the 400 research facilities and 15,000 staff engaged in such work.

Another recommendation was for the establishment of an anthrax preparedness strategy.