American Diplomacy

June 1999

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The Ultimate Terrorists
By Jessica Stern
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. 214 pages. $22.95.)


by David W. Thornton

AS AN INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR, Jessica Stern is certainly well qualified to write on the danger of terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) replacing the threat of nuclear war as the major security concern of the future. She is a Harvard-trained former member of the National Security Council staff. Her highly readable volume is based on interviews with government and UN officials, medical and scientific publications, and a wealth of sources in political and social science.

Stern opens her book with a disturbing scenario: “What if terrorists exploded a homemade nuclear device at the Empire State building in New York City?” She then uses the likely effects of this putative disaster to illustrate the threat that attacks involving weapons of mass destruction, including as well those employing chemicals or biological agents, pose to post-Cold War American society. The author then outlines the pattern of developments that she believes has increased both the availability of such weapons and the likelihood that disaffected individuals or groups might actually use them against targets in the United States.

Intending her book to serve as a warning to the public and government alike to take active measures to prevent such attacks, Stern also wants them to prepare for the destruction and chaos that would inevitably follow. In discussing the various chemicals, toxins, organisms, and nuclear devices that might be used by terrorists, Stern not only provides the non-specialist with useful definitions and terminology, but also situates these potential weapons in appropriate psychological context. In her view, acquiring WMD is useful to terrorists – those who direct violence toward noncombatants for a dramatic purpose – because they inspire dread and fear exceeding even the very real risk they present. Since such weapons are “mysterious, indiscriminate, uncontrollable, inequitable and invisible,” people react with horror and panic to the mere possibility that a state or private group might use them, conferring upon the terrorist organization a degree of influence out of proportion to its actual capabilities.

Stern’s discussion of the availability of WMD (especially nuclear materials from the former USSR) and the means for their delivery, provides cause for grave concern. Although the U.S. and other Western governments have been remarkably proactive in their efforts to help Russia dismantle in an orderly fashion its rapidly decaying nuclear infrastructure, Stern’s analysis conveys the strong impression that it is only a matter of time before these materials find their way into the hands of criminal and terrorist organizations. And as Stern describes (using the case of Iraq as an example), radical states are among the most determined, competent, and resourceful of organizations in finding and even using such weapons.

Having painted a bleak if not alarming picture of the real threats stemming from WMD in the hands of groups ranging from the Aum Shinrikiyo to the government of Sudan, Stern assesses the options available to the U.S. in responding to the multiple challenges presented. In addition to the ongoing attempt to contain the diffusion of Soviet nuclear materials, information, and technologies, she also applauds the attempt to coordinate the efforts of U.S. military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies with national, state, and local disaster management capabilities. Simulations are being used to define the nature of the threat and predict its most likely manifestations, while training programs seek to anticipate problems and map responsive strategies. Stern also notes that the American political and social context presents especially formidable obstacles to controlling the flow of information, materials, and equipment that potential terrorists – domestic or foreign – readily employ to obtain WMD and effect their use. Unless the American public would be willing to sacrifice a large measure of its civil liberties, no comprehensive means of monitoring, much less controlling, the activities of those determined to sow destruction and chaos through the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons can be found.

This important volume is powerfully suggestive of what in all probability will be a potent and dangerous force in the international arena during the coming century – terrorists willing and able to employ WMD in pursuit of their political and ideological aims. But because the book stops well short of describing with rigor and precision the true dimensions of the problem, it fulfills only part of an important task implicit in the title – identifying and combating a threat of the highest order.

For example, Stern leaves unaddressed the pressing question of what specific types of terrorist groups, either at home or abroad, represent the most serious, credible, and immediate threat to American interests. And while the reader cannot help but be impressed with the gruesome effects of pathogens such as Ebola or the horrors of radiation sickness, Stern’s graphic descriptions seem sensationalist absent a systematic assessment of the conditions under which such weapons might actually be used, and which sorts of communities would be most vulnerable to particular kinds of attacks. In light of the low-tech yet brutally effective bombing attacks on federal facilities in the U.S. and our embassies in East Africa, the stridency of the author’s clarion call seems rather misplaced. She directs our attention toward a category of threats that, while chilling in their evil potential, have to date thankfully remained marginal and thus arguably should claim only a small portion of limited security resources.

Stern has opened a door into a complex realm of politics and policy that defies easy categorization and crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. Explaining the development and deployment of WMD necessarily involves a substantial degree of scientific and technical expertise, and the author wields this knowledge effectively. Contemplating the formulation and implementation of policy that would respond effectively to the challenge presented by WMD in the hands of terrorist groups or rogue states requires a thorough appreciation of constitutional and bureaucratic realities peculiar to the American system of government, which Stern demonstrates. Assessing the global dimensions of the threat involves an understanding of the international political and legal environment, an area of apparent competence as well for the author. So even if her her monograph takes on more than can be adequately handled in a single study, she merits credit for the attempt.  

David W. Thornton teaches in the Department of Government and History at Campbell University.

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