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On Point

The Threat of Chemical Attacks From Sea


by Austin Bay
August 24, 2004

The possibility frightened American strategic analysts in World War II, a "sneak attack" with chemical weapons delivered by submarine.

One version -- a scenario, in contemporary jargon -- had a Nazi U-boat sneaking into New York Harbor and releasing a persistent chemical agent in aerosol form, perhaps the liquid blister agent commonly called "mustard." The chemical would not only sow terror along the entire U.S. coast -- and perhaps give the White House second thoughts about American B-17 bombers pounding German cities -- but would contaminate critical docks and loading equipment. The Port of New York was a major hub in the U.S. logistics effort, and contaminated port facilities would dramatically slow the flow of U.S. supplies to Great Britain, perhaps more so than striking a dozen convoys at sea.

The analysts saw another reason the Nazis might consider such an attack: Public fear would force a diversion of U.S. military assets from offensive operations in Europe to defensive roles in North America.

No American planner considered subs attacking with nerve gas. Nerve gas was one of Hitler's darkest, best-kept secrets. The Allies only discovered Hitler's chemical "super weapon" after the war.

Substitute terrorist-prepped shipping containers for Nazi submarines, and the World War II could-be becomes a War on Terror possibility, with the sea-land container packed with chemical or radiological weapons.

In weighing the likelihood of such an attack, recognize that even the Nazis were to a degree "deterred" from the use of chemical weapons by the presence of allied chemical weapons stocks. Hitler had seen chemical weapons used in World War I and knew German populations were vulnerable. Al Qaeda, however, isn't deterrable, which is why the United States is pursuing an offensive strategy designed to destroy Al Qaeda's networks.

The U.S. homeland is simply too large to adequately protect with police inspections and passive measures. As a senior Coast Guard officer told me in August 2000 -- the subject was interdicting drug runners at sea --? "Look at the length of the U.S. coastline." He also mentioned the problem of inspecting shipping sea-land containers, and he was after drugs and illegal aliens, not bombs.

However, passive defenses for screening containers and packages of all types must improve.

The good news is that inspection teams are more proficient and detection technology is improving, though testing and deploying new detection systems is a painfully slow process.

We need to speed it up. Given the "success" (from Al Qaeda's perspective) of the March 11 attacks in Madrid just prior to the Spanish elections, November's U.S. presidential elections are a prime target, and a big container-delivered bomb is a choice weapon for such an attack.

The United States, of course, isn't the only target. Greece, with its countless islands and inlets, is vulnerable to seaborne attack, either by an explosive-laden ship or a container. The Athens Olympics is an international icon target. That's why NATO has provided Greece with naval patrol aircraft and high-tech "sea and under-sea surveillance" equipment

In 2002, a Taiwanese businessman detailed for me his company's concerns with the safety of shipping containers -- it was impossible, he said, to inspect all containers, but "we cannot stop commerce (or terrorists win)."

The new container surveillance technologies rely on "spectral absorption patterns" and advanced computer mapping techniques. The machine "multi-scans" the container, sending the computer information including "reflected images" and on "material which does not reflect but absorbs." The computer then produces a three-dimensional image. If that sounds vague, trust that no one sane wants to tip would-be terrorists.

Inspection crews and the computer look for shapes, materials and what the pros call "anomalies" within the container.

Most "radiological materials" are easily detected. That's good, because a radiological bomb (not a nuclear weapon, but a high-explosive bomb packed with radioactive material) is the kind of "wasteland weapon" capable of rendering a city block uninhabitable for decades.

Terrorists, however, are pursuing radiological weapons. In early May, Ukrainian police seized a shipment of highly radioactive cesium-137, a powder perfect for a "dirty bomb." They arrested the men who were trying to peddle it. Ukrainian officials knew the threat was serious. In 1996, Chechen insurgents placed a canister of cesium powder in a Moscow park. It was never dispersed, but the action sent a terrifying message.

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