Terrorist Attacks on America: Questions and Answers from CNS Specialists

Do the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings represent a major US intelligence failure?

Reply prepared by Dr. Phillip Saunders, Director, East Asia Nonproliferation Program

By definition these attacks represent an intelligence failure, because the intelligence and law enforcement communities did not provide advance warning that they were coming. That said, it is extremely difficult to provide reliable intelligence about terrorist activities. Terrorist groups in the Middle East carefully conceal information about pending operations and are typically organized in small cells that often include family members. The principal means of gathering intelligence about terrorist groups are interception of communications or couriers, penetration of terrorist groups by human agents, surveillance of known terrorist group members or supporters, and monitoring the transfer of funds and personnel across international borders. It is extremely hard to penetrate terrorist cells using human agents, because US intelligence agencies have difficulty operating in countries like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and because terrorist organizations typically recruit members who share common beliefs and backgrounds. Monitoring of communications has reportedly been successful in providing some useful intelligence, but cannot provide advance warning if terrorists do not use electronic means to communicate. The success of US intelligence in thwarting previous attacks may have prompted the terrorists responsible for this attack to avoid the use of any means of communication that might be intercepted. It appears that some of the terrorists involved in the attacks were known to US intelligence agencies, but that information on them was not provided to US immigration officials until after they had already entered the United States. Better coordination between US intelligence and law enforcement agencies might have made it possible to capture these individuals or to prevent them from entering the country. However it is not reasonable to expect the intelligence community to provide perfect warning about terrorist operations. Good intelligence, close coordination with law enforcement agencies, and effective domestic security measures are all necessary to thwart terrorist attacks.

Why did the terrorists who attacked on September 11 use hijacked airplanes as their weapon of choice rather than chemical or biological weapons?

Reply prepared by Dr. Ray Zilinskas, Deputy Director, Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program

There could be three reasons why those who attacked US targets on September 11, 2001, chose hijacked aircraft to generate mass destruction and casualties rather than biological or chemical weapons.

First, we do not know well the technical capabilities of most terrorist groups. We certainly do not know whether those responsible for the September 11 attacks possess biological or chemical capabilities. Therefore, it might be that those responsible for the September 11 attacks do not possess the technical capability to deploy chemical or biological weapons capable of generating mass casualties. To do that takes a high level of technical capability. It should be recalled that the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo mounted at least nine biological attacks with no results; even its chemical attacks were badly carried out and caused few deaths. This despite the cult having chemists and molecular biologists to develop these weapons, and operating sophisticated laboratories where its scientists worked.

Second, assuming that the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks were technically capable in the biological and/or chemical fields, there would still be uncertainties as to whether they would be able to carry out a successful attack because these biological and chemical weapons are by their nature undependable, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable. Knowing this, the terrorists decided to deploy more certain means to wreak mass destruction.

Third, it would appear as if the September 11 attacks were meant to be highly visible; possibly to demonstrate in the most remarkable way possible the tremendous damage that was done to symbols of American economy and military might and to demonstrate the vulnerability of ordinary Americans to every-day implements that can be turned into extremely destructive devices. Conversely, chemical and biological weapons are more insidious in their effects on people and do not cause damage to structures. If a chemical or biological attack had been carried out successfully on September 11, the television screens would certainly have been filled with images of many sick and dying people, but not the visual drama of great destruction.

What Russian military forces are in Central Asia?

Reply prepared by Dr. Nikolai Sokov, Senior Research Associate

The Taliban, which controls Afghanistan, has long been seen in Russia as a major destabilizing force in Russia’s “soft underbelly” – Central Asia, especially in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where fundamentalist opposition has been waging war against government throughout the whole 1990s.

The new Russian military reform plans, which were adopted in 2000 and early 2001, envision a reorientation of the Russian army from the traditional, Cold War period threats in the West toward the South. The most battle-ready troops are transferred to the Volga-Urals military district. The 201st division, whish has been deployed in Tajikistan since 1992, is being reinforced. Military cooperation with Central Asian states which are concerned about Taliban’s infiltration, is expanding as well, including large-scale joint maneuvers in 2000 and 2001. In addition, the Taliban is seen as a major supporter of insurgents in Chechnya, which whom Russia wages second war in a decade. Last year, Russia was on the verge of using aircraft or medium-range missiles to bomb Chechen training camps in Afghanistan in the territory controlled by the Taliban.

It is even possible that Russia might allow the United States to use its Air Force bases which are closer to Afghanistan than, for example, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and aircraft would not have to cross potentially hostile airspace such as Pakistan.

If the United States targets the Taliban, will Russia cooperate?

Reply prepared by Dr. Nikolai Sokov, Senior Research Associate

It is expected that if the United States initiated a military action against Bin Laden and the Taliban, Russia would cooperate.

In Moscow, the attacks in New York and in Washington are likened to the explosions which occurred in Moscow in September, 1999. Two large apartment buildings were destroyed, leaving hundreds dead. Officially, Russia views the attacks on America as another confirmation of the significant threat from the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists.

Is it conceivable that the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to the attacks of September 11?

Reply prepared by Dr. Nikolai Sokov, Senior Research Associate

The short answer is: No. Modern nuclear warheads were developed for a large-scale war between superpowers and are simply too powerful and “dirty” for what is likely to be a more limited task.

A longer answer is that there are very few missions that require reliance on nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons should be able to support all likely retaliatory missions, including strikes against training camps, the infrastructure of countries hosting terrorists, and so forth. The use of nuclear weapons would lead to massive civilian casualties, creating a highly unfavorable response worldwide and would, in fact, cast a strong doubt upon the image of the United States as a military superpower.

Last but not the least, the use of nuclear weapons would eliminate the global psychological and political norm against the use of nuclear weapons. Regardless of what type of nuclear weapon is used; the “gates” would be opened. Dozens of countries worldwide, perhaps including the countries that are now among the most reliable supporters of the nuclear non-proliferation regime might decide to acquire nuclear weapons.

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