Posts by Charles P. Blair

Radiological Ray Gun: More Buck Rogers Fantasy than Risk to Real People

The June 18th arrest of two men for allegedly plotting to build a bizarre yet potentially deadly radiological device once again highlights the potential nexus of non-state actors with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, much like this year’s troika of ricin-laced letters addressed to government facilities (including one to the CIA) and public officials (all three incidents targeted President Obama at his White House address), this most recent plot reveals the historical rarity and non-lethality of non-state actors and their behaviors with radiological weapons and agents. While the potential for catastrophe posed by terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons deserves ongoing and serious attention, recent events remind us how public apprehension is sometimes founded more in fear than reality; indeed, reactions based on fear are capable of far more disruption than the physical reality of the event itself.  The role of science-based organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists is to educate the public about the real risks.

The methodologies and data sets used in this article, augmented by several others of each, will be discussed in a two day professional education summer course, “Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools” held at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA on July 25-26, 2013. This non-credit course introduces participants to state-of-the art analytical techniques, research methods, and cutting-edge databases used by the industry for the study of terrorism. Course participants gain a detailed understanding of single and multi-methodological techniques, learning how to develop analytical tools applicable to the needs of those responsible for preventing, preparing, responding to, or predicting terrorism. Highlights include how to use these research techniques to identify previous and emerging trends in terrorist activities and to cogently assess the potential role of WMD in terrorism. Register now for the “early bird” discount – 25 percent less than the listed fee. For more information and to register, please visit the course page.

Of the CBRN threats, the nuclear threat is undoubtedly truly catastrophic because a nuclear weapon can cause massive destruction, but obtaining a nuclear weapon or the fissile material to make such a weapon is very hard to do. In comparison, radiological sources are far more common, but most of them would cause little or no harm to human health if dispersed by a radiological weapon because there is not enough radioactive material contained in the vast majority of each of these sources. And even those radiological sources containing highly radioactive materials would pose great difficulties for terrorists to use because they would hazard exposing themselves to lethal ionizing radiation. These latter issues, and others outlined below, are very relevant to the recent radiological plot.

Continue Reading →

War with Iran? Revisiting the Potentially Staggering Costs to the Global Economy

The Senate passage of Resolution 65 on May 22, 2013, some argue, draws the United States closer to military action against Iran. In October 2012, amid concerns that surprisingly little research addressed the potential broad outcomes of possible U.S.-led actions against Iran, researchers at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) assembled nine renowned subject matter experts (SMEs) to investigate one underexplored question that now, eight months later, looms larger than ever: What are the potential effects on the global economy of U.S. actions against Iran? Collectively representing expertise in national security, economics, energy markets, and finance, the SMEs gathered for a one-day elicitation workshop to consider the global economic impacts of six hypothetical scenarios involving U.S.-led actions.

The elicitation revealed the rough effects of U.S. action against Iran on the global economy – measured only in the first three months of actualization – to range from total losses of approximately $60 billion on one end of the scale to more than $2 trillion to the world economy on the other end.

The results of the elicitation were compiled into the FAS report written by Charles P. Blair and Mark Jansson, “Sanctions, Military Strikes, and Other Potential Actions Against Iran.”

Summarized below are three of the six scenarios along with the associated estimated range of costs to the world economy in the first three months of U.S. action alone.

Scenario: Comprehensive Bombing Campaign (upper bounds of estimated costs to global economy: $1.7 trillion)

The president, not wanting to leave the job half-done and fearing that a more limited strike may not achieve all of its objectives or at too high a price should Iran retaliate, opts for a more thorough mission. The United States leads an ambitious air campaign that targets not only the nuclear facilities of concern but also seeks to limit Iran’s ability to retaliate by targeting its other military assets, including its air defenses, radar and aerial command and control facilities, and much of Iran’s direct retaliatory capabilities. These would include its main military bases, the main facilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Iranian Navy, Army, and Air Force. The United States seeks to ensure that the Strait of Hormuz remains open by targeting Iranian capabilities that may threaten it.

Scenario 4 Comprehensive Bombing Campaign

Scenario: Isolation and Persian Gulf Blockade – no military action (upper bounds of estimated costs to global economy: $550 billion)

Iran’s economy is reeling yet diplomatic agreement remains elusive. The United States, concerned that the Iranian regime has gone into survival mode, enacts what can be referred to as a “total cutoff” policy. The United States moves to curtail any exports of refined oil products, natural gas, energy equipment, and services. Investments in Iran’s energy sector are banned worldwide. Official trade credit guarantees are banned, as is international lending to Iran and investment in Iranian bonds. Insurance and reinsurance for all shipping going to and from Iran is prohibited. Substantial U.S. military assets are deployed to the Persian Gulf to block unauthorized shipments to and from Iran as well as to protect shipments of oil and other products through the Strait of Hormuz.

Scenario 2 Isolation and Persian Gulf Blockade

Scenario: Full-Scale Invasion (upper bounds of estimated costs to global economy: $2.8 trillion)

The United States resolves to invade, occupy, and disarm Iran. It carries out all of the above missions and goes “all in” to impose a more permanent solution by disarming the regime. Although the purpose of the mission is not explicitly regime change, the United States determines that the threat posed by Iran to Israel, neighboring states, and to freedom of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz cannot be tolerated any longer. It imposes a naval blockade and a no-fly zone as it systematically takes down Iran’s military bases and destroys its installations one by one. Large numbers of ground troops will be committed to the mission to get the job done.

Scenario 5 Full-Scale Invasion

Note: All opinions expressed here and in the report, as well as its findings, are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federation of American Scientists or any of the participants in the elicitation that served as the centerpiece of this study.

Better Understanding North Korea: Q&A with Seven East Asian Experts, Part 2

North Korea flag nuclearEditor’s Note: This is the second of two postings of a Q&A conducted primarily by the Federation of American Scientists regarding the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. Developed and edited by Charles P. BlairMark Jansson, and Devin H. Ellis, the authors’ responses have not been edited; all views expressed by these subject-matter experts are their own. Please note that additional terms are used to refer to North Korea and South Korea, i.e., the DPRK and ROK respectively.

Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) asked seven individuals who are experts in East Asia about the the recent escalation in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Is North Korea’s recent success with its nuclear test and satellite launch evidence that it is maturing? Is there trepidation in Japan over the perceived threat of North Korea attacking Japan with a nuclear weapon? Has North Korea mastered re-entry vehicle (RV) technology?  Is there any plausible way to de-nuclearize North Korea?

This is the second part of the Q&A, featuring Dr. Yousaf Butt, Dr. Jacques Hymans and Ms. Masako Toki. Read the first part here. Continue Reading →

Better Understanding North Korea: Q&A with Seven East Asian Experts, Part 1

North Korea flag nuclearEditor’s Note: This is the first of two postings of a Q&A conducted primarily by the Federation of American Scientists regarding the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. Developed and edited by Charles P. Blair, Mark Jansson, and Devin H. Ellis, the authors’ responses have not been edited; all views expressed by these subject-matter experts are their own. Please note that additional terms are used to refer to North Korea and South Korea, i.e., the DPRK and ROK respectively.

Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) asked seven individuals who are experts in East Asia about the the recent escalation in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Is North Korea serious about their threats and are we on the brink of war? What influence does China exert over DPRK, and what influence is China wiling to exert over the DPRK? How does the increase in tension affect South Korean President Park Guen-he’s political agenda?

This is the first part of the Q&A featuring Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter, Dr. Balbina Hwang, Ms. Duyeon Kim and Dr. Leon Sigal. Read part two here.

Continue Reading →

Q&A Session on Recent Developments in U.S. and NATO Missile Defense with Dr. Yousaf Butt and Dr. George Lewis

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

Dr. George N. Lewis is a senior research associate at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell University.

missiledefense4Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) asked two physicists who are experts in missile defense issues, Dr. Yousaf Butt and Dr. George Lewis, to weigh in on last week’s announcements on missile defense by the Obama administration.

Before exploring their reactions and insights, it is useful to identify salient elements of U.S. missile defense and place the issue in context. There are two main strategic missile defense systems fielded by the United States: one is based on large high-speed interceptors called Ground-Based Interceptors or “GBI’s” located in Alaska and California and the other is the mostly ship-based NATO/European system. The latter, European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense is designed to deal with the threat posed by possible future Iranian intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles to U.S. assets, personnel, and allies in Europe – and eventually attempt to protect the U.S. homeland.

The EPAA uses ground-based and mobile ship-borne radars; the interceptors themselves are mounted on Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers. Two land-based interceptor sites in Poland and Romania are also envisioned – the so-called “Aegis-ashore” sites. The United States and NATO have stated that the EPAA is not directed at Russia and poses no threat to its nuclear deterrent forces, but as outlined in a 2011 study by Dr. Theodore Postol and Dr. Yousaf Butt, this is not completely accurate because the system is ship-based, and thus mobile it could be reconfigured to have a theoretical capability to engage Russian warheads.

Indeed, General James Cartwright has explicitly mentioned this possible reconfiguration – or global surge capability – as an attribute of the planned system: “Part of what’s in the budget is to get us a sufficient number of ships to allow us to have a global deployment of this capability on a constant basis, with a surge capacity to any one theater at a time.”

In the 2011 study, the authors focused on what would be the main concern of cautious Russian military planners —the capability of the missile defense interceptors to simply reach, or “engage,” Russian strategic warheads—rather than whether any particular engagement results in an actual interception, or “kill.” Interceptors with a kinematic capability to simply reach Russian ICBM warheads would be sufficient to raise concerns in Russian national security circles – regardless of the possibility that Russian decoys and other countermeasures might defeat the system in actual engagements. In short, even a missile defense system that could be rendered ineffective could still elicit serious concern from cautious Russian planners. The last two phases of the EPAA – when the higher burnout velocity “Block II” SM-3 interceptors come on-line in 2018 – could raise legitimate concerns for Russian military analysts.

A Russian news report sums up the Russian concerns: “[Russian foreign minister] Lavrov said Russia’s agreement to discuss cooperation on missile defense in the NATO Russia Council does not mean that Moscow agrees to the NATO projects which are being developed without Russia’s participation. The minister said the fulfillment of the third and fourth phases of the U.S. ‘adaptive approach’ will enter a strategic level threatening the efficiency of Russia’s nuclear containment forces.” [emphasis added]

With this background in mind, FAS’ Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threat, Charles P. Blair (CB), asked Dr. Yousaf Butt (YB) and Dr. George Lewis (GL) for their input on recent developments on missile defense with eight questions.


Q: (CB) Last Friday, Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that the U.S. will cancel the last Phase – Phase 4 – of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense which was to happen around 2021. This was the phase with the faster SM-3 “Block IIB” interceptors. Will this cancellation hurt the United State’s ability to protect itself and Europe? Continue Reading →

Norway’s Anders Brevik: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Politics of Cultural Despair

ABOUT THIS REPORT (click to show)

At some point, most security analysts face the dilemma of balancing expediency with analytical thoroughness. Such is the case with Norway’s Anders Breivik. As his victims await burial, Breivik’s treatise—the 1500 page, 2083:
A European Declaration of Independence
(click here for PDF link)—became available only a few days ago. While some researchers, mindful of the value of analytical completeness, patiently plod through this massive manifesto, analysts at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) conclude that the nature of Breivik’s attacks, compounded with the extraordinary content of his treatise, raise questions of such immediate concern that the formulation and release of initial analyses are prudent. We present such an effort here as both a highly formatted blog post and as a preliminary report. The former allows for a quick delivery of
our preliminary investigation amid a platform for open discussion of a threat that remains, we believe, largely inchoate. The latter conforms to our professional dedication to robust research and application of various relevant analytical methodologies.

While Breivik’s unprecedented attacks alone warrant profound study, his treatise seeks to portend far greater acts of terror and destruction than those visited upon Norway on July 22nd. However, to date, no substantive effort addresses the document’s detailed exposition of the fabrication, delivery and general merits of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons (CBRN). The paucity of concern and immediacy revolving around Breivik’s assertions of forthcoming CBRN attacks likely result from two interrelated issues. First, Breivik is incarcerated and will likely remain so for the rest of his life; Breivik himself is no longer a threat. Second, some question his technical acumen with regard to CBRN; even if he were free, according to one putative CBRN expert, “Breivik’s WMD idea is not realistic.”[1] We
largely agree with such conclusions
. However, any proper risk assessment must conduct a so-called “assumptions check.” Such an exercise has two primary elements: 1) explicitly identifying conclusions that rely, in part or in whole, on assumptions and 2) identifying and evaluating the consequences should such assumptions prove false.[2] Application of an assumptions check to the Breivik case, we believe, precipitates the need for serious and immediate analyses of the treatise’s content for two primary reasons.

First, Breivik has made claims, through his writing as well as to Oslo District Court Judge Kim Heger, that he is in league with extremist cells and that some of these co-conspirators “are already in the process of attempting to acquire chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials.”[3] While it is likely that Breivik acted alone, we are not comfortable assuming that this is the case. Moreover, given the operational sophistication of his attacks, and, among other salient components in the case writ large, the overall operational security that he maintained for years, it is axiomatic that Breivik’s threats should be considered in great detail. Indeed, as renowned terrorism expert Gary Ackerman has warned, “History is replete with cautionary tales warning against basing threat assessments on static analyses of an opponent’s motivations and capabilities.”[4] In short, it is possible that subsequent attacks—some perhaps even utilizing CBRN—may be forthcoming, and it is therefore prudent for the intelligence communities to carefully consider Breivik’s writings.

Second, our initial analyses of Brevik’s comprehension of the relevant issues surrounding the fabrication and employment of CBRN concludes that he was motivated and capable of credibly pursuing low-end CBRN attacks—specifically those likely to result in mass effect as opposed to mass destruction . As our report details, this is specifically the case with some biological and radiological agents. Should Breivik be part of a cell of violent extremists, it is possible that his confederates share an equal, if not greater, understanding of the technologies underlying certain CBRN. Moreover, they may have access to the necessary agents and technologies necessary to actualize Breivik’s more ambitious stratagems for the employment of CBRN.

We are presently inclined to conclude that Breivik acted alone. Consequently, his warnings of forthcoming CBRN events are likely invalid. However, given the nature of his attacks and the content of his treatise we urge the security community to seriously consider the possibility that cells of violent extremists are linked to Breivik; the pursuit of a CBRN capability—as well as the possibility of radiological and/or biological use—are a possibility.

Blog posts and reports from the FAS Terrorism Analysis Project are produced to increase the understanding of policymakers, the public, and the press about threats to national and international security from terrorist
groups and other violent non-state actors. The reports are written by individual authors—who may be FAS staff or acknowledged experts from outside
the institution. These reports do not represent an FAS institutional position on policy issues. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion contained in this and other FAS-published reports are the sole responsibility of the author or authors.


[1]
See “Alleged Norway Shooter Considered WMD Attack, Jihadi Alliance,” ABC News,
July 24, 2011. Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/anders-breivik-alleged-norway-shooter-considered-wmd-attack/story?id=14148151

[2]
Whether we are conscious of it or not, most of us frequently conduct an
assumptions check. For example, imagine that as you are about to lie down in
bed for a night of sleep you suddenly realize that you cannot be sure if you
locked your car doors. You might temporarily assume you did; however,
you mind quickly assesses the consequences of a faulty assumption.
Whether or not you get up, get dressed, and trudge out to your car is largely
the result of the risk assessment you make should the car be unlocked.

[3]
Andrew Berwick [pseudonym for Anders Behring Breivik], 2083 A European
Declaration of Independence
, July 2011, 1022.

[4]
United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security
and Governmental Affairs Hearing on “Nuclear Terrorism: Assessing the Threat to
the Homeland.” Testimony of Gary A. Ackerman, April 2, 2008, 3.
Available at: http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/_files/040208Ackerman3.pdf

Norway’s Anders Brevik: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Politics of Cultural Despair

CHARLES P. BLAIR, KELSEY GREGG, AND JONATHAN GARBOSE 1

 July 27, 2011

Ten years after the events of 9/11, it is often forgotten that high fatality terrorist incidents remain a rarity. Indeed, prior to 9/11 the single deadliest terrorist attack was the 1978 Iranian theatre firebombing perpetrated by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK: People’s Majahedin of Iran) with 470 fatalities. Since 1970, only 118 incidents of terrorism have killed more than 100 people—0.12 percent of the 98,000 terrorist events encompassing that four decade span. As the death toll of the July 22 attacks in Norway approaches 100, it is useful to appreciate this fact. In addition to recognizing their uncommonly deadly outcomes, two other features related to the attack are salient. First, significant elements of Anders Breivik’s treatise—the 1500 page 2083: A European Declaration of Independence 2 (click here for PDF link)—address the acquisition, weaponization, and use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents or devices against Breivik’s perceived enemies. Second, his ideological platform, said by Breivik to represent his role as “Justiciar Knight Commander for Knights Templar Europe and one of several leaders of the National and pan-European Patriotic Resistance Movement,” is largely informed by European racist ideology that first emerged in the nineteenth century and continues to this day. This report principally evaluates the CBRN elements of Breivik’s treatise. A subsequent report (schedule for release in late 2011) will orient Breivik’s ideological underpinnings within the broader historical milieu of European racist thinking. First, however, it is useful to place Breivik’s attack in perspective.

Notes:

  1. The authors thank Rebecca A. Remy for her valuable research assistance.
  2. Andrew Berwick, pseudonym for Anders Behring Breivik, 2083 A European Declaration of Independence, July 2011, hereafter referred to as The Declaration.

The Demise of Osama Bin Laden

In the immediate aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden much attention has been focused on the fact that al-Qa‘ida, in stark contrast to its operational configuration a decade ago, is no longer a cohesive whole. It is a “franchise” many rightfully point out, even inspiring sophisticated and deadly attacks by “lone wolves”—those sharing only in al-Qa‘ida ideological and strategic vision. Consequently, it is not surprising that several informed commentators have emphasized that Bin Laden’s death does little to “tip the scales in our favor.”[1] Indeed, there should be little doubt that long ago al-Qa‘ida transcended a single man. Highly capable and inspirational figures—Attiyatallah, Abuy Yahya al-Libi and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri—are poised to assume bin Laden’s role and continue his role as spearhead of the global jihadist movement. Moreover, in the short term it seems entirely likely that there will be an upsurge in jihadist activity, specifically a greater quantity of attacks and, quite possibly, attacks that qualitatively precipitate relatively higher death tolls and levels of terror than has been the case recently. In short, it can be strongly argued that bin Laden’s death does little to alter today’s threat assessment of al-Qa‘ida.

The long-term impact of bin Laden’s death, however, is likely to be significant for at least three reasons. First, it should be recalled that members of al-Qa‘ida swore a personal oath to bin Laden, not his organization.[2] With his absence a certain loss of moral is to be expected. Perhaps of greater significance is the effect this will have on an embarrassing leitmotif of America’s “War on Terrorism”: bin Laden’s ability to escape capture since 1998. It is difficult to overemphasize the impact his perceived invulnerability had on his followers; in many ways it gave bin Laden an aura of sacrosanct protection by Allah. With its removal it seems likely that the jihadist movement will lose some of its momentum, even if the metrics of measuring “morale” are hard to gauge. Second, bin Laden’s death coincides perfectly with the largely secular awakening now taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. While we cannot yet predict what the mid- and long-term outcome of this mass movement will be, it is entirely possible that it will serve to weaken the jihadist movement at a time when it is suffering a major setback with the death of bin Laden. Finally, the circumstances of bin Laden’s death fully removes the thin veil obstructing a long obvious fact: Pakistan’s ISI is not only aiding the Taliban to ensure that the endgame in Afghanistan conforms to their perceived needs, elements of it are clearly intertwined with al-Qa‘ida.

It is now clear that no amount of denial or obfuscation can impede a widespread understanding that Pakistan’s ISI is actively working against U.S. interests. This has, of course, long been known. Moreover, it can be argued that this reality continues because it somehow reflects the best possible options in a very complex situation. Regardless of how one feels about the ISI’s role, the U.S. public will now weigh in on the debate. Thus, it is entirely conceivable that relations with Pakistan will continue to sour; that development could result in several outcomes, few of them good and many of them unanticipated.

[1] Jarret Brachman, “The Next Bin Laden,” Cronus Global, May 2, 2011.

[2] We are indebted to Jeffrey M. Bale of the Monterey Institute of International Studies for reminding us of this fact.