Saturday, October 11, 2003

Would you like DDT or Coffee?

The FDA is warning that terrorists will probably attempt a mass poisoning attack in the United States within a year (Hat tip: Little Green Footballs). According to Reuters:

WASHINGTON, Oct 10 (Reuters) - There is a "high likelihood" within the coming year of a deliberate attack or accidental outbreak in the U.S. food supply that sickens a large number of people, the Food and Drug Administration said on Friday. Although no specific threats were identified, the FDA said it came to the conclusion because of recent foodborne outbreaks and recent reports that al Qaeda was plotting to poison the food supply. ... The agency said salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7 and ricin pose a significant threat because of there easy dissemination to food. Anthrax and botulism were considered the most deadly.

In Would you like flies with that?, the Belmont Club noted that Al-Qaeda was already perfecting the poison attack method by testing it on the acting President of Chechnya. The story from the September 29 Guardian noted that "The acting president of the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya was last night fighting for his life after an elaborate attempt to poison him days before crucial presidential elections. The attempt would appear to mark the Chechen rebels' first successful use of poison to attack a Russian official". Recalling the history of the airplane attack tactic, which was in development since 1995, the Belmont Club concluded that a mass poisoning would sooner or later be attempted on "the chow line on an aircraft carrier,  a major industrial plant or a major sporting event" just as soon as the tactic was perfected. A poisoning attack would strike at one of the most vulnerable points of American life. The food service business is universal and almost no one subjects cooks, busboys and kitchen staff to security scrutiny. The FDA warning is official notice that a poisoning attack will probably happen.

With the old Al-Qaeda core rapidly withering under US pressure and on the defensive everywhere, the Islamists must  hearten their base by inflicting thousands or tens of thousands of casualties in the United States. Given the extent of their current penetration, their best bet is to create a brand new attack cell. Dan Darling links to an article suggesting they may be planning just that:

Dubai: Al-Qaeda is preparing a new attack in the United States on the scale of September 11 after adopting a new operational structure which is impenetrable to US intelligence, a Saudi weekly reports in its Friday edition. "An attack against America is inevitable," Al-Majallah quotes the Islamic militant network's newly-appointed spokesman Thabet bin Qais as saying in an email to the paper. Al-Qaeda has "carried out changes in its leadership and sidelined the September 11, 2001 team", the paper quotes bin Qais as saying. "Future missions have been entrusted to the new team, which is well protected against the US intelligence services. The old leadership does not know the names of any of its members."

A successful mass poisoning would create a strategic problem for the United States. With the reduction of Afghanistan and Iraq, all the obvious geopolitical terrorist targets have already been eliminated. A new 'September 11' might provide the motivation to strike Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria in response, but there will be questions over whether this is direct or creative enough. The other aspect of responding to mass poisoning is that terrorists will have crossed the biological weapons threshold, albeit in less than theatrical manner. Hollywood has accustomed the public to thinking of biological weaponry in terms of an Ebola virus, anthrax or other exotic pathogen in the manner of the 28 Days Later. But an attack that wipes out half the audience of a football game or the diners at a school cafeteria will be a chemical or biological strike all the same.

One unconventional type of response would be anonymous retaliation. Suppose airline catering food were contaminated at five different sites, leading to the crash of a three dozen wide bodied passenger jets. One riposte, in addition to conventional operations against state supporters of terrorism, would be to counterpoison the chow lines of the most notorious madrassas, those which are thinly disguised Islamic terrorist training centers, without attribution. There are a number of problems with this approach, as well as singular advantages. The most obvious problem is legal. Although the US President can initiate the assassination of a terrorist individual, it is unclear whether he can order what amounts to a secret biological counterstrike against an enemy. But there are advantages too. It means that the US can retaliate proportionately against the guilty parties without warring on entire nations. It also avoids the problem of not retaliating against a biological weapon with like. Just as the lack of response to numerous pre-September 11 attacks convinced Osama Bin Laden that he could continue to strike with impunity, a simple manhunt for the perpetrators of a mass food poisoning which the FDA is now warning against will convey a fundamental unwillingness by the United States to defend itself against weapons of mass destruction. Some means must be found to retaliate against a biological attack which avoids the twin pitfalls of either a blanket response against state supporters of terrorism or doing nothing at all.