28 September 1998
Source: Foreign Policy, Fall, 1998, pp. 110-124. Thanks to the author and Foreign Policy.

The Great Superterrorism Scare

by Ehud Sprinzak

EHUD SPRINZAK is professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem . This article was written under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace where he spent the last year as a senior scholar with the Jennings Randolph program.

Last March, representatives from more than a dozen U.S. federal agencies gathered at the White House for a secret simulation to test their readiness to confront a new kind of terrorism. Details of the scenario unfolded a month later on the front page of the New York Times: Without warning, thousands across the American Southwest fall deathly ill. Hospitals struggle to rush trained and immunized medical personnel into crisis areas. Panic spreads as vaccines and antibiotics run short--and then run out. The killer is a hybrid of smallpox and the deadly Marburg virus, genetically engineered and let loose by terrorists to infect hundreds of thousands along the Mexican-American border.

This apocalyptic tale represents Washington's newest nightmare: the threat of a massive terrorist attack with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Three recent events seem to have convinced the policymaking elite and the general public that a disaster is imminent: the 1995 nerve gas attack on a crowded Tokyo subway station by the Japanese millenarian cult Aum Shinrikyo; the disclosure of alarming new information about the former Soviet Union's massive biowarfare program; and disturbing discoveries about the extent of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's hidden chemical and biological arsenals. Defense Secretary William Cohen summed up well the prevailing mood surrounding mass-destruction terrorism: "The question is no longer if this will happen, but when."

Such dire forecasts may make for gripping press briefings, movies, and bestsellers, but they do not necessarily make for good policy. As an unprecedented fear of mass-destruction terrorism spreads throughout the American security establishment, governments worldwide are devoting more attention to the threat. But as horrifying as this prospect may be, the relatively low risks of such an event do not justify the high costs now being contemplated to defend against it. Not only are many of the countermeasures likely to be ineffective, but the level of rhetoric and funding devoted to fighting superterrorism may actually advance a potential superterrorist's broader goals: sapping the resources of the state and creating a climate of panic and fear that can amplify the impact of any terrorist act.


Since the Clinton administration issued its Presidential Decision Directive on terrorism in June 1995, U.S. federal, state, and local governments have heightened their efforts to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction. A report issued in December 1997 by the National Defense Panel, a commission of experts created by congressional mandate, calls upon the army to shift its priorities and prepare to confront dire domestic threats. The National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve must be ready, for example, to "train local authorities in chemical- and biological-weapons detection, defense, and decontamination; assist in casualty treatment and evacuation; quarantine, if necessary, affected areas and people; and assist in restoration of infrastructure and services." In May, the Department of Defense announced plans to train National Guard and reserve elements in every region of the country to carry out these directives.

In his 1998 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton promised to address the dangers of biological weapons obtained by "outlaw states, terrorists, and organized criminals." Indeed, the president's budget for 1999, pending congressional approval, devotes hundreds of millions of dollars to superterrorism response and recovery programs, including large decontamination units, stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics, improved means of detecting chemical and biological agents and analyzing disease outbreaks, and training for special intervention forces. The FBI, Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. Health and Human Services Department will benefit from these funds, as will a plethora of new interagency bodies established to coordinate these efforts. Local governments are also joining in the campaign. Last April, New York City officials began monitoring emergency room care in search of illness patterns that might indicate a biological or chemical attack had occurred. The city also brokered deals with drug companies and hospitals to ensure an adequate supply of medicine in the event of such an attack. Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington are developing similar programs with state and local funds. If the proliferation of counterterrorism programs continues at its present pace, and if the U.S. army is indeed redeployed to the home front, as suggested by the National Defense Panel, the bill for these preparations could add up to tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades.

Why have terrorism specialists and top government officials become so obsessed with the prospect that terrorists, foreign or homegrown, will soon attempt to bring about an unprecedented disaster in the United States? A close examination of their rhetoric reveals two underlying assumptions:

The Capabilities Proposition. According to this logic, anyone with access to modem biochemical technology and a college science education could produce enough chemical or biological agents in his or her basement to devastate the population of London, Tokyo, or Washington. The raw materials are readily available from medical suppliers, germ banks, university labs, chemical-fertilizer stores, and even ordinary pharmacies. Most policy today proceeds from this assumption.

The Chaos Proposition. The post-Cold War world swarms with shadowy extremist groups, religious fanatics, and assorted crazies eager to launch a major attack on the civilized world--preferably on U.S. territory. Walter Laqueur, terrorism's leading historian, recently wrote that "scanning the contemporary scene, one encounters a bewildering multiplicity of terrorist and potentially terrorist groups and sects." Senator Richard Lugar agrees: "fanatics, small disaffected groups and subnational factions who hold various grievances against governments, or against society, all have increasing access to, and knowledge about the construction of, weapons of mass destruction.... Such individuals are not likely to he deterred . . . by the classical threat of overwhelming retaliation."

There is, however, a problem with this two-part logic. Although the capabilities proposition is largely valid--albeit for the limited number of terrorists who can overcome production and handling risks and develop an efficient means of dispersal--the chaos proposition is utterly false. Despite the lurid rhetoric, a massive terrorist attack with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is hardly inevitable. It is not even likely. Thirty years of field research have taught observers of terrorism a most important lesson: Terrorists wish to convince us that they are capable of striking from anywhere at anytime, but there really is no chaos. In fact, terrorism involves predictable behavior, and the vast majority of terrorist organizations can be identified well in advance.

Most terrorists possess political objectives, whether Basque independence, Kashmiri separatism, or Palestinian Marxism. Neither crazy nor stupid, they strive to gain sympathy from a large audience and wish to live after carrying out any terrorist act to benefit from it politically. As terrorism expert Brian Jenkins has remarked, terrorists want lots of people watching, not lots of people dead. Furthermore, no terrorist becomes a terrorist overnight. A lengthy trajectory of radicalization and low-level violence precedes the killing of civilians. A terrorist becomes mentally ready to use lethal weapons against civilians only over time and only after he or she has managed to dehumanize the enemy. From the Baader-Meinhoff group in Germany and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to Hamas and Hizballah in the Middle East, these features are universal.

Finally, with rare exceptions--such as the Unabomber--terrorism is a group phenomenon. Radical organizations are vulnerable to early detection through their disseminated ideologies, lesser illegal activities, and public statements of intent. Some even publish their own World Wide Web sites. Since the 1960s, the vast majority of terrorist groups have made clear their aggressive intentions long before following through with violence.

We can draw three broad conclusions from these findings. First, terrorists who threaten to kill thousands of civilians are aware that their chances for political and physical survival are exceedingly slim. Their prospects for winning public sympathy are even slimmer. Second, terrorists take time to become dangerous, particularly to harden themselves sufficiently to use weapons of mass destruction. Third, the number of potential suspects is significantly less than doomsayers would have us believe. Ample early warning signs should make effective interdiction of potential superterrorists easier than today's overheated rhetoric suggests.


Who, then, is most likely to attempt a superterrorist attack? Historical evidence and today's best field research suggest three potential profiles:

Groups such as Hamas, Hizballah, and Islamic Jihad, which so many Americans love to revile--and fear--do not make the list of potential superterrorists. These organizations and their state sponsors may loathe the Great Satan, but they also wish to survive and prosper politically. Their leaders, most of whom are smarter than the Western media implies, understand that a Hiroshima-like disaster would effectively mean the end of their movements.

Only two groups have come close to producing a superterrorism catastrophe: Aum Shinrikyo and the white supremacist and millenarian American Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, whose chemical-weapons stockpile was seized by the FBI in 1985 as they prepared to hasten the coming of the Messiah by poisoning the water supplies of several U.S. cities. Only Aum Shinrikyo fully developed both the capabilities and the intent to take tens of thousands of lives. However, this case is significant not only because the group epitomizes the kind of organizations that may resort to superterrorism in the future, but also because Aum's fate illustrates how groups of this nature can be identified and their efforts preempted.

Although it comes as no comfort to the 12 people who died in Aum Shinrikyo's attack, the cult's act of notoriety represents first and foremost a colossal Japanese security blunder. Until Japanese police arrested its leaders in May 1995, Aum Shinrikyo had neither gone underground nor concealed its intentions. Cult leader Shoko Asahara had written since the mid-1980s of an impending cosmic cataclysm. By 1995, when Russian authorities curtailed the cult's activities in that country, Aum Shinrikyo had established a significant presence in the former Soviet Union, accessed the vibrant Russian black market to obtain various materials, and procured the formulae for chemical agents. In Japan, Asahara methodically recruited chemical engineers, physicists, and biologists who conducted extensive chemical and biological experiments in their lab and on the Japanese public. Between 1990 and 1994, the cult tried six times--unsuccessfully--to execute biological-weapons attacks, first with botulism and then with anthrax. In June 1994, still a year before the subway gas attack that brought them world recognition, two sect members released sarin gas near the judicial building in the city of Matsumoto, killing seven people and injuring 150, including three judges.

In the years preceding the Tokyo attack, at least one major news source provided indications of Aum Shinrikyo's proclivity toward violence. In October 1989, the Sunday Mainichi magazine began a seven-part series on the cult that showed it regularly practiced a severe form of coercion on members and recruits. Following the November 1989 disappearance of a lawyer, along with his family, who was pursuing criminal action against the cult on behalf of former members, the magazine published a follow-up article. Because of Japan's hypersensitivity to religious freedom, lack of chemical- and biological-terrorism precedents, and low-quality domestic intelligence, the authorities failed to prevent the Tokyo attack despite these ample warning signs.


lf a close examination reveals that the chances of a successful superterrorist attack are minimal, why are so many people so worried? There are three major explanations:

Sloppy Thinking

Most people fail to distinguish among the four different types of terrorism: mass-casualty terrorism, state-sponsored chemical- or biological-weapons (CBW) terrorism, small-scale chemical or biological terrorist attacks, and superterrorism. Pan Am 103, Oklahoma City, and the World Trade Center are all examples of conventional terrorism designed to kill a large number of civilians. The threat that a "rogue state," a country hostile to the West, will provide terrorist groups with the funds and expertise to launch a chemical or biological attack falls into another category: state-sponsored CBW terrorism. The use of chemical or biological weapons for a small-scale terrorist attack is a third distinct category. Superterrorism--the strategic use of chemical or biological agents to bring about a major disaster with death tolls ranging in the tens or hundreds of thousands--must be distinguished from all of these as a separate threat.

Today's prophets of doom blur the lines between these four distinct categories of terrorism. The world, according to their logic, is increasingly saturated with weapons of mass destruction and with terrorists seeking to use them, a volatile combination that will inevitably let the superterrorism genie out of the bottle. Never mind that the only place where these different types of terrorism are lumped together is on television talk shows and in sensationalist headlines.

In truth, the four types of terrorism are causally unrelated. Neither Saddam Hussein's hidden bombs nor Russia's massive stockpiles of pathogens necessarily bring a superterrorist attack on the West any closer. Nor do the mass-casualty crimes of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City or the World Trade Center bombing. The issue is not CBW quantities or capabilities but rather group mentality and psychological motivations. In the final analysis, only a rare, extremist mindset completely devoid of political and moral considerations will consider launching such an attack.

Vested Interests

The threat of superterrorism is likely to make a few defense contractors very rich and a larger number of specialists moderately rich as well as famous. Last year, Canadian-based Dycor Industrial Research Ltd. unveiled the CB Sentry, a commercially available monitoring system designed to detect contaminants in the air, including poison gas. Dycor announced plans to market the system for environmental and antiterrorist applications. As founder and president Hank Mottl explained in a press conference, "Dycor is sitting on the threshold of a multi-billion dollar world market." In August, a New York Times story on the Clinton administration's plans to stockpile vaccines around the country for civilian protection noted that two members of a scientific advisory panel that endorsed the plan potentially stood to gain financially from its implementation. William Crowe, former chair of the joint chiefs of staff, is also bullish on the counterterrorism market. He is on the board of an investment firm that recently purchased Michigan Biologic Products Institute, the sole maker of an anthrax vaccine. The lab has already secured a Pentagon contract and expects buyers from around the world to follow suit. As for the expected bonanza for terrorism specialists, consultant Larry Johnson remarked last year to U.S. News & World Report, "It's the latest gravy train."

Within the U.S. government, National Security Council experts, newly created army and police intervention forces, an assortment of energy and public-health units and officials, and a significant number of new Department of Defense agencies specializing in unconventional terrorism will benefit from the counterterrorism obsession and megabudgets in the years ahead. According to a September 1997 report by the General Accounting office, more than 40 federal agencies have been involved already in combating terrorism. It may yet be premature to announce the rise of a new "military-scientific-industrial complex," but some promoters of the superterrorism scare seem to present themselves as part of a coordinated effort to save civilization from the greatest threat of the twenty-first century.

Morbid Fascination

Suspense writers, publishers, television networks, and sensationalist journalists have already cashed in on the superterrorism craze. Clinton aides told the New York Times that the president was so alarmed by journalist Richard Preston's depiction of a superterrorist attack in his novel The Cobra Event that he passed the book to intelligence analysts and House Speaker Newt Gingrich for review. But even as media outlets spin the new frenzy out of personal and financial interests, they also respond to the deep psychological needs of a huge audience. People love to be horrified. In the end, however, the tax-paying public is likely to be the biggest loser of the present scare campaign. All terrorists--even those who would never consider a CBW attack--benefit from such heightened attention and fear.


There is, in fact, a growing interest in chemical and biological weapons among terrorist and insurgent organizations worldwide for small-scale, tactical attacks. As far back as 1975, the Symbionese Liberation Army obtained instructions on the development of germ warfare agents to enhance their "guerrilla" actions. More recently, in 1995, four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, an antitax group that rejected all forms of authority higher than the state level, were convicted of possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon. Prosecutors contended that the men conspired to murder various federal and county officials with a supply of the lethal toxin ricin they had developed with the aid of an instruction kit purchased through a right-wing publication. The flourishing mystique of chemical and biological weapons suggests that angry and alienated groups are likely to manipulate them for conventional political purposes. And indeed, the number of CBW threats investigated by the FBI is increasing steadily. But the use of such weapons merely to enhance conventional terrorism should not prove excessively costly to counter.

The debate boils down to money. If the probability of a large-scale attack is extremely small, fewer financial resources should be committed to recovering from it. Money should be allocated instead to early warning systems and preemption of tactical chemical and biological terrorism. The security package below stresses low-cost intelligence, consequence management and research, and a no-cost, prudent counterterrorism policy. Although tailored to the United States, this program could form the basis for policy in other countries as well:

There is neither empirical evidence nor logical support for the growing belief that a new "postmodem" age of terrorism is about to dawn, an era afflicted by a large number of anonymous mass murderers toting chemical and biological weapons. The true threat of superterrorism will not likely come in the form of a Hiroshima-like disaster but rather as a widespread panic caused by a relatively small CBW incident involving a few dozen fatalities. Terrorism, we must remember, is not about killing. It is a form of psychological warfare in which the killing of a small number of people convinces the rest of us that we are next in line. Rumors, anxiety, and hysteria created by such inevitable incidents may lead to panic-stricken evacuations of entire neighborhoods, even cities, and may produce many indirect fatalities. It may also lead to irresistible demands to fortify the entire United States against future chemical and biological attacks, however absurd the cost.

Americans should remember the calls made in the 1950s to build shelters, conduct country-wide drills, and alert the entire nation for a first-strike nuclear attack. A return to the duck-and-cover absurdities of that time is likely to be as ineffective and debilitating now as it was then. Although the threat of chemical and biological terrorism should be taken seriously, the public must know that the risk of a major catastrophe is extremely minimal. The fear of CBW terrorism is contagious: Other countries are already showing increased interest in protecting themselves against superterrorism. A restrained and measured American response to the new threat may have a sobering effect on CBW mania worldwide.

Setting the FBI Free

When members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo went shopping in the United States, they were not looking for cheap jeans or compact discs. They were out to secure key ingredients for a budding chemical-weapons program--and they went unnoticed. Today, more FBI agents than ever are working the counterterrorism beat: double the number that would-be superterrorists had to contend with just a few years ago. But is the FBI really better equipped now than it was then to discover and preempt such terrorist activity in its earliest stages?

FBI counterterrorism policy is predicated on guidelines issued in 1983 hy then-U.S. attorney general William French Smith: The FBI can open a full investigation into a potential act of terrorism only "when facts or circumstances reasonably indicate that two or more persons are engaged in activities that involve force or violence and a violation of the criminal laws of the United States." Short of launching a full investigation, the FBI may open a preliminary inquiry if it learns from any source that a crime might be committed and determines that the allegation "requires some further scrutiny." This ambiguous phrasing allows the FBI a reasonable degree of latitude in investigating potential terrorist activity.

However, without a lead--whether an anonymous tip or a public news report--FBI agents can do little to gather intelligence on known or potential terrorists. Agents cannot even download information from World Wide Web sites or clip newspapers to track fringe elements. The FBI responds to leads; it does not ferret out potential threats. Indeed, in an interview with the Center for National Security Studies, one former FBI official griped, "You have to wait until you have blood on the street before the Bureau can act."

CIA analysts in charge of investigating foreign terrorist threats comb extensive databanks on individuals and groups hostile to the United States. American citizens are constitutionally protected against this sort of intrusion. A 1995 presidential initiative intended to increase the FBI's authority to plant wiretaps, deport illegal aliens suspected of terrorism, and expand the role of the military in certain kinds of cases was blocked by Congress. Critics have argued that the costs of such constraints on law enforcement may he dangerously high--reconsidering them would be one of the most effective (and perhaps least expensive) remedies against superterrorism.


Brian Jenkins first makes his well-known argument that terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead, in "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (Orbis, Autumn 1985). More recently, Jenkins provides a reasoned analysis of weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) terrorism in the aftermath of the Tokyo subway attack in "The Limits of Terror: Constraints on the Escalation of Violence" (Harvard International Review, Summer 1995). For a counter argument, see Robert Kupperman's "A Dangerous Future: The Destructive Potential of Criminal Arsenals" in the same issue. Ron Purver reviews the literature on superterrorism and weighs the opportunities for, and constraints on, terrorists considering a WMD attack in "Chemical and Biological Terrorism: New Threat to Public Safety?" (Conflict Studies, December 1996/January 1997). Jerrold Post and Ehud Sprinzak stress the psychopolitical considerations inhibiting potential WMD terrorists in "Why Haven't Terrorists Used Weapons of Mass Destruction?" (Armed Forces Journal, April 1998). For a solid compilation of essays on superterrorism, see Brad Roberts, ed., Terrorism with Chemical and Biological Weapons: Calibrating Risks and Responses (Alexandria: Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, 1997). Walter Laqueur surveys the history of terrorism and finds an alarming number of barbarians at the gate in "Postmodern Terrorism" (Foreign Affairs, September/October 1996). John Deutch takes a counterintuitive look at the subject in "Think Again: Terrorism" (FOREIGN POLICY, Fall 1997). Finally, David Kaplan provides the best available study of Aum Shinrikyo in his excellent book The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia (New York: Crown Publishers, 1996).

The World Wide Web provides a number of resources for superterrorism research. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nonproliferation Project and the Henry L. Stimson Center provide regular coverage of nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapons issues, including terrorism. The Federation of American Scientists publishes a wealth of government documents as well as excellent news and analysis pertaining to weapons of mass destruction. And the State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism" provides one-stop shopping for information on some of the world's more notorious organizations.

For links to these and other Web sites, as well as a comprehensive index of related articles, access www.foreignpolicy.com.