Biological attack likely by 2020, report warns

A terrorist group is "likely" to conduct an attack using biological weapons by 2020, according to a report released Thursday by a CIA think tank.

Over the next 15 years, successes in the global war on terrorism and advances in information technology are likely to result in an increasingly "decentralized" terrorist threat, consisting of an "eclectic array of groups, cells and individuals," says the report, prepared by the National Intelligence Council.

While influenced by al-Qaeda, such smaller groups are expected to overshadow the terrorist organization by 2020 and could recruit new members through the war in Iraq and other possible conflicts, the report says.

Acts of bioterrorism would be "particularly suited" to these smaller and better-informed terrorist groups, the report says.

"Indeed, the bioterrorist's laboratory could well be the size of a household kitchen, and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster. Terrorist use of biological agents is therefore likely, and the range of options will grow," it says.

The report also warns that while it is "less likely" terrorists would obtain a nuclear weapon; they are expected to continue to attempt to do so over the next 15 years through theft or purchase, "particularly in Russia or Pakistan." The likelihood that a terrorist attack involving a nuclear weapon occurs before 2020 "cannot be ruled out," it adds.

Even so, the report says that most terrorist attacks in the future are expected to continue to involve conventional weapons, though with "new twists to keep counterterrorist planners off balance." Among such possible new strategies are the use of simultaneous attacks in widely separated areas, the use of advanced explosives and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and possible cyber attacks against computer systems and information networks.

The United States and its interests will continue to be "prime terrorist targets," but increasingly attacks may also focus on Western Europe and other Middle East countries, the report says.

The report is the third to be released by the National Intelligence Council, with previous reports covering periods through 2010 and 2015. It is based on discussions held with more than 1,000 independent experts over the past year, according to reports.

"Mindful that there are many possible 'futures,' our report offers a range of possibilities and potential discontinuities, as a way of opening our minds to developments we might otherwise miss," council Chairman Robert Hutchings said in an introductory letter.

Along with terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction, the report warns that a number of countries will continue to seek, and in some cases "enhance," their own such armaments. Nuclear weapons states are expected over the next 15 years to improve the survivability of their forces, to improve their nuclear delivery systems and to develop the capability to penetrate missile defense systems, the report says.

In an apparent reference to the suspected nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, the report also says that other non-nuclear countries, especially in the Middle East and Northeastern Asia, may choose to develop atomic weapons "as it becomes clear that their neighbors and regional rivals are already doing so." Those efforts may be accelerated through proliferators like the former associates of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has confessed to transferring nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

The concern that the nuclear efforts of Iran and North Korea may prompt others to follow suit has been "widely held" among proliferation experts for years, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

"It doesn't take a national intelligence expert to figure that out," he said.

Countries are expected to continue to hide biological and chemical weapons production capabilities through incorporation into legitimate commercial infrastructures and are expected to be less reliant on foreign suppliers, the report says. It also warns of the development of advanced biological weapons agents and the possible development of chemical agents intended to circumvent the verification regime of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Kimball said that "not too much is being done" to address the advancing biological weapons threat. As countermeasures, he recommended increasing efforts to have private industry self-regulate biological research, to have government oversight of some research and the development of a verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. "Nothing of substance" is being done now on such measures, Kimball said.

Countries are also expected to continue development of improved ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, over the next 15 years, according to the report. By 2010, several countries of concern will probably acquire land-attack cruise missiles and North Korea and Iran are almost certain to have developed ICBM capabilities, it says. In additional, several other countries are likely by 2010 to have developed space launch vehicles, which can be used to aid ICBM development, the report adds.

There is also increasing concern that organized crime groups may increasingly deal in weapons of mass destruction over the next 15 years if countries "lose control of their inventories," the report says.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec