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Tue, 15 Nov 2005

Looking under the lamp post

There is an apocryphal story told as a metaphor for the process of scientific discovery, of a man who comes out of his house one night to find his neighbour crawling around on his hands and knees, searching the ground around a street lamp. "What's the matter?" Asks our protagonist. "I've lost my house keys!" Replies the neighbour. Our protagonist promptly joins in the search, but after a few minutes he realizes that he can't see any sign of the keys. "Are you sure this is where you dropped them?" He asks. "Of course not! I dropped them way over there, in the woods!" "Then why are you searching under the lamp post instead of in the woods?" "Because there's more light here!"

Meanwhile, it's probably no exaggeration to say that one item that is seldom out of the news is the possibility that terrorists of one kind or another -- insert your pet nightmare here -- might seek to get hold of chemical weapons, or other so-called weapons of mass destruction. We are, in fact, constantly exhorted to be on the lookout for suspicious signs, and the alleged stockpiling of chemical weapons was cited extensively in the propaganda build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Well, we didn't find any chemical weapons plants in Iraq; and meanwhile, terrorists are doing it the old way, blowing themselves up with explosive belts. But the science fiction writer in me keeps prompting me to ask, what if ...?

To date, we have one actual terrorist use of chemical weapons: March 20th, 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo underground. There are two surprising aspects to the Aum group's use of sarin; firstly, that they bothered with the stuff at all, and secondly, that they had any measure of success with it. Sarin is notorious for having a poor shelf-life, and certain impurities that can be introduced in the manufacturing process can increase the decomposition rate, rendering it useless in a matter of days to weeks. Moreover, because Sarin is horrendously toxic, it is difficult to handle: while it's possible to make quantities of a few hundred grams in a reasonably well-equipped organic chemistry lab with suitable protective equipment, making large quantities requires large, purpose-built (and very well sealed!) reaction vessels.

A tenth of a miligram may be enough to kill a human being, but before it can do so, it must be delivered to the target -- and this is a difficult task that has brought many chemical weapons programs to grief over the years. A few hundred grams might notionally be enough to kill everyone in a city ... but if you vapourize it in a city street it is likely to disperse long before anyone even notices it. For their Sarin attacks to succeed, the Aum group had to build a large chemical factory and use large quantities (in their June 27th, 1994 attack on an apartment building) or enclosed space (the March 20th, 1995 attack on the Tokyo underground trains) to amplify their attacks -- a single suicide vest would have achieved a greater death toll at far lower cost.

If the Aum Shinrikyo attacks (they also tried to use botulinum toxin and anthrax spores) failed, I suspect the real cause is that Aum were obsessed with following a movie-plot model of what a terrorist CBW attack should look like. As security expert Bruce Schneier explains:

Sometimes it seems like the people in charge of homeland security spend too much time watching action movies. They defend against specific movie plots instead of against the broad threats of terrorism.

We all do it. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats. We imagine anthrax spread from crop dusters. Or a contaminated milk supply. Or terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs. Before long, we're envisioning an entire movie plot, without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we're scared.

Psychologically, this all makes sense. Humans have good imaginations. Box cutters and shoe bombs conjure vivid mental images. "We must protect the Super Bowl" packs more emotional punch than the vague "we should defend ourselves against terrorism."

The 9/11 terrorists used small pointy things to take over airplanes, so we ban small pointy things from airplanes. Richard Reid tried to hide a bomb in his shoes, so now we all have to take off our shoes.

Schneier's explanation attempts to make sense of the peculiar measures that are so widespread and inconvenience us in our day to day lives -- security measures that protect against a single specific threat type, the "Bruce Willis movie" model of a terrorist attack.

Terrorists are themselves generally following a movie script in their heads. 9/11 was conceived by Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta as a vast cinema verité spectacular, an imagination-catching extravaganza to motivate their base. Aum Shinrikyo's leader Shoko Ashahara frequently preached about a coming Armageddon, a global conflict that would destroy Japan with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (except for his followers). In light of this, it's hardly surprising that they, too, are hypnotised by the conventional wisdom about the terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons -- that it must be with conventional militarily-weaponizable substances, or diseases such as Q-fever, smallpox, and ebola.

The action-movie model for security threats cuts both ways, it seems.

Which brings me to my immediate concern: that in addressing the threat of CBW terrorism, our erstwhile guardians are looking under the street light. Because the actual requirements for a terrorist CBW weapon are different from those for a military CBW weapon. And the first group to not only recognize this but to act on it is capable of causing horrific damage.

The military uses of chemical weapons broadly encompass three goals:

  • Area denial
  • Incapacitating or killing enemy troops
  • Terrorising civilians

Dousing an area with nerve gas makes it difficult for infantry (and to a lesser extent, vehicles) to move through the area safely, while the substance persists -- as with Sarin, they all break down eventually. Incapacitating or directly killing enemy soldiers is a secondary goal these days, as well-equipped armies have excellent protective equipment. Finally, terrorising civilians should require no explanation, other than to add that civilian populations are at their most vulnerable to chemical weapons when they live in high density towns or cities. Gas attacks are area weapons, and to saturate a built-up area with poison gas requires quantities best measured in tons.

To achieve these goals, military chemical weapons require certain characteristics: typically they are liquids at ambient temperature but have very high vapour pressure, break down within days (you don't want them lingering in territory you've occupied), and extremely rapid toxicity (to be of use on the battlefield they must incapacitate enemy troops immediately, within seconds to at most a few minutes of contact).

In contrast, the requirements for a terrorist CB weapon are almost the opposite of those for a military one. It does not need to be immediately effective; there's nothing to be gained by killing a victim in seconds as opposed to weeks. Persistence long after the attack is a positive virtue. A high vapour pressure makes handling the substance hazardous -- far better if it's a stable liquid, or even a solid. The only common factor a properly designed terrorist chemical weapon would have with a military one is toxicity.

If this sounds like a fairly abstract set of requirements, rest assured: there are plenty of compounds out there that fit the bill of goods. An example would be dimethyl mercury. Note that I'm only discussing this because (CH3)2Hg is so incredibly toxic that any soi-disant terrorists reading my blog who decide to experiment with the stuff are going to succumb to a lingering, painful death -- this stuff is nasty. It's one of the most potent neurotoxins known; it's also easier to synthesize than sarin or most other comparable agents, from relatively innocent precursors. (Note that when I say "easier to synthesize" I mean "easier for someone with a background in organic chemistry to kill themselves with". This isn't something you can knock up by accident in your kitchen using a jar of table salt and an old thermometer.)

Dimethylmercury is completely useless as a military chemical weapon for several reasons -- it is highly persistent, there is no way to reverse the damage it causes (which is cumulative), it is insoluble in water, it has a significantly lower vapour pressure than, e.g., Sarin, it can penetrate rubber and plastics used in protective clothing, and so on. But these same drawbacks may be assets to a terrorist weapon, especially if it were to be deployed by an organization with a supply of willing martyrs, including educated willing martyrs with chemistry degrees to synthesize the stuff and maybe apply it to the washroom door handles in a dozen shopping malls.

And there is worse stuff out there, I'm sure of it. Stuff that fits the terrorist bill of requirements for a CBW agent much better than sarin and similar, and that nobody is keeping track of.

To circle back to my original point: in looking for known military CBW threats, police and intelligence agencies are looking under the lamp post. Luckily for us, the bad guys are also in the habit of looking under lamp posts -- in no small part because that's where we're searching. But our luck won't hold indefinitely. And if we don't figure out a better way of dealing with terrorist threats than panicking over the latest Hollywood movie plot, we're going to be in trouble.

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 21:12 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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