AS MILITARY LEADERS DEVOTE increasing attention to neutralizing roadside bombs in Iraq, specialists caution that it would be a mistake to dismiss the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
These experts contend that terrorists are bent on using WMD against civilian populations in the United States and allied nations.
Many Americans have let down their guard after U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq failed to uncover WMD--which include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear explosive devices--experts told a recent conference in Tampa, Fla., sponsored by the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM.
Instead, they noted, the Defense Department is focusing now on defeating improvised explosive devices, the handmade conventional bombs that have been taking a heavy toll among U.S. and coalition service personnel and civilians in Iraq.
Officials at the special operations conference acknowledged the importance of the counter-IED project, but they warned military leaders not to downplay the threats posed by the possibility of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.
The devastation from such a weapon detonated in a major city would dwarf the impact of any single conventional IED, said Army Lt. Col. John Campbell, the chief of SOCOM's chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear branch. And if terrorists are able to acquire a particularly destructive weapon, they are likely to use it, he said. "The threat is real, and we have to be prepared for it," he said.
The United States needs to plan for every contingency and be willing to adapt to the unexpected, Campbell said. "Events like Hurricane Katrina show that the best plans don't always work, and we have to be ready for that."
More than four years after the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden "hasn't resorted yet to [WMD]," Campbell said. "Why not?
"My personal opinion is that we have been chasing him so hard, be hasn't had the opportunity," he said. "We need to keep up the pressure."
While U.S. and coalition troops did not uncover large stores of WMD in Iraq, they did find evidence that insurgent forces have been trying to develop unconventional weapons, said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen V. Reeves, the Defense Department's joint program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. "In Fallujah, we found a chemical lab with stockpiles of potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide," he told conferees.
Both are potentially fatal to anybody exposed to them and can be used to make a chemical bomb, Reeves said. Those devices "are remarkably simple to make and reasonably effective to use," he said.
While Al Qaeda so far hasn't been able to acquire and use such weapons, others have. During World War I, both Germany and Britain used poison gas on the battlefield.
In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein employed it against enemy troops in the Iran-Iraq war, and reportedly even against his own rebellious Kurdish civilians. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the deadly nerve agent, sarin, into the Tokyo subway system. In 2001, somebody mailed letters containing deadly anthrax bacteria to several news media offices and two U.S. senators. That case remains unsolved.
Many terrorist organizations wouldn't use WMD if they got their hands on them, because doing so would undermine popular support for...