A terrorist attack on the United States involving weapons of mass destruction is not imminent, or even likely, according to the head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
A terrorist attack on the United States involving weapons of mass destruction is not imminent, or even likely, according to Stephen Younger, head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. "What we are dealing with is a low probability, high consequence event," said Younger in a recent interview with Government Executive. "The consequences associated with an attack are so great that the president is exactly right to raise the priority of reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction to the highest levels." Younger says past terrorist attacks, including those of Sept. 11, suggest terrorists favor highly explosive devices that offer quick results as opposed to more complex weapons of mass destruction that do not always have an immediate impact. Also, he says, the condemnation from the rest of the world if a nuclear, chemical or biological strike were launched would be so great that even terrorists groups would hesitate to go that route. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has been at the forefront of federal efforts to reduce threats poised by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The Defense agency is responsible for identifying emerging threats to the United States and its interests by hostile countries and terrorist organizations. It is also charged with finding ways to deter and combat these threats. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency has worked closely with intelligence agencies to identify future threats, assisted the FBI in its investigation of last fall's anthrax attacks, and studied ways to penetrate fortified targets by modifying missiles already in the U.S. weapon inventory. "Probably the single most important thing we can do to predict future acts of terrorism is to understand causes of terrorism as causes of culture. This is not a technology problem. Technology will not save us from terrorism; it will help us mitigate the effects of terrorism. This is a socio-political problem," said Younger, who says understanding how a terrorist's culture differs from our own culture is crucial to identifying future threats. For example, Younger said, terrorists traditionally have favored high explosives over chemical and biological weapons because they create a "dramatic and immediate impact"-like commercial airlines slamming into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Terrorist tendencies can also be understood by examining what means of attack have not been used. "It's certainly within the realm of terrorists to use chemicals against us," he said. "They have not done that yet. We'd like to understand better why and how to keep it that way." According to Younger, one of the most valuable ways to learn about a culture is by studying its literature. "People tell you about themselves in the way they tell stories. That's how we communicate. That's why novels sell more than business books," he said. However, studying Al Qaeda literature has proved vexing because much of it exists only orally and very little of what is written has been translated into English, he added. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has also helped the FBI search for the person or organization responsible for the anthrax attacks. Younger said the equipment used to manufacture anthrax is "ubiquitous" in the scientific community and a "graduate-level microbiologist" would have the skills required to manufacture the deadly biological agent. "Lots of people have the capability. What we need to understand is who would have the intent to use it," he added. The Defense agency has also studied potential vulnerabilities at federal buildings and suggested improvements. For example, an analysis of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, found that support columns were vulnerable to high-explosive blasts. As a result, the agency recommended that a protective coating be applied to the columns. That has made them much less vulnerable. Younger emphasized that the agency's structural expertise is not based simply on computer modeling, but also on extensive testing done at federal test ranges in New Mexico. "We go out and build structures and build columns and expose them to real high explosive blasts, often with hundreds of pounds of high explosives, and measure the response of that structure. Then we treat it through various means and measure the response of the improved structure," he said.