Terrorist escalation raises new threats

United States girding for the possibility of other forms of attack

Biological, chemical arms

Bin Laden has voiced support for using wide range of weaponry

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 24, 2001|By Jean Marbella | By Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In the strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, terrorists unleashed a previously unimaginable level of horror. Now, as the United States finds itself in a new realm where the unthinkable can and does happen, there looms another chilling prospect to consider: bioterrorism.

Osama bin Laden, held responsible by the United States for the recent as well as previous terrorist attacks against America, has long been suspected of trying to add chemical or biological weapons to the arsenal for his war against the West.

Whether he has succeeded is unclear, but the mere specter that toxic gasses, bacteria or viruses could be unleashed as part of an impending showdown with the United States is a scenario both alarming and beyond what most Americans can imagine.

"People do not have stark, visual images of what an epidemic would look like," said Tara O'Toole, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies in Baltimore. "There are similarities between the attack we saw [Sept. 11] and other kinds of military attacks. But disease doesn't fit into any of the paradigms that we are familiar with."

Experts are quick to point out that there is no hard evidence -- known to the public, at least -- that bin Laden has managed to acquire chemical or biological weapons. But there are troubling hints that bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda, might have made inroads in this area:

Satellite photographs are said to show dead animals near a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan, perhaps the result of experimentation with a toxic agent.

In the trial this year of four bin Laden associates charged in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, a former top lieutenant to bin Laden testified that he was taken to a factory in Sudan where al Qaeda is accused of having made chemical weapons.

Bin Laden has made it known that he is interested in a wide range of weaponry -- from nuclear to chemical to biological -- and views them as legitimate tools in his proclaimed war against the West.

As he told Newsweek in an interview printed in January 1999, "We don't consider it a crime if we tried to have nuclear, chemical, biological weapons. Our holy land is occupied by Israeli and American forces. We have the right to defend ourselves and to liberate our holy land."

And consider this exchange with ABC News on Feb. 14, when he discussed the embassy bombing trial in New York:

ABC: The U.S. has also said, in formal charges, that you are in a position to develop chemical weapons and try to purchase nuclear material for weapons. How would such weapons be used?

Bin Laden: In answer, I would say that acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. ... It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims. But how we could use these weapons if we possess them is up to us.

This could be mere saber-rattling. And talk of bin Laden's access to such weapons of mass destruction has served the United States' purposes in the past: The Clinton administration claimed that its bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, retaliation for the bombings of two embassies, occurred because the facility made chemical weapons for bin Laden. (The terrorist leader, a Saudi exile, operated from Sudan from 1991 to 1996, when he was expelled under U.S. pressure and moved his base of operations to Afghanistan.) Since 1998, most experts have concluded that the plant indeed made pharmaceuticals and not chemical weapons.

The specter of bioterrorism, though, retains a strong hold on the human imagination because it represents perhaps the last taboo when it comes to war. That is not to say it hasn't been used: The Germans used mustard gas in World War I, and the Japanese used biological agents in World War II.

But to choke, burn, paralyze or otherwise poison a populace through the use of chemicals or germs represents such a crime against humanity that most countries have signed global treaties banning their use and destroying existing stockpiles.

Some countries, though, including ones decidedly unfriendly to the United States such as Iraq and Libya, have refused to sign or are suspected of continuing to pursue such weaponry.

The fear is that chemical and biological weapons, or the expertise to develop them, might find their way into the hands of terrorist groups such as bin Laden's stateless cells and organizations that operate outside the bounds of legality and treaties.

Which is why the nation is in a state of alert, waiting for the next strike, whatever form it might take. Cities such as Baltimore have stepped up security and testing at water reservoirs and purification plants to make sure no poisons are introduced.

The list of how chemical and biological agents can be used as weapons is a catalog of the many ways to die a horrific death.

Anthrax: Flu-like symptoms, respiratory distress, shock, death.

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