Terrorism Today

A primer on avoiding yesterday's war

* Toxins can be easily manufactured. In the mid-1990s, a forward-thinking federal contractor got nervous about the ease with which terrorists could obtain deadly toxins. The contractor set up a test by posting, in an online chat room, the formula for making sarin, a deadly biological agent. "The formula was genuine, except for some subtle omissions which would render the result harmless," Probst explains. Less than an hour later, he reports, "some 30 different messages were posted giving the correct formulation and pointing out the errors in the consultant's work."

* Numerous experts were predicting an event similar to the suicide bombings. But you won't hear that from the Pentagon. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1996, another terrorism expert, Steve Emerson, predicted last Tuesday's events with deadly accuracy. "The United States will, in my opinion, increasingly serve as a lightning rod for international terrorists who perceive the U.S. as an enemy that must be destroyed because of its inherent evil nature," Emerson testified. He also told the senators that "terrorists will attempt to carry out attacks that will generate mass casualties and fatalities" and "will most likely target office buildings or arenas housing large civilian populations."

Owing in large measure to his views, Emerson has been branded a racist and an alarmist who relies on questionable sources and shoddy research techniques. Before the September 11 bombings, he was so hard up for cash that he was cold-calling would-be donors in an effort to keep open his anti-terrorism outfit, Investigative Project on Religious Extremism. But now, because of the bombings, Emerson is so much in demand that he's lucky to get two hours' sleep a night.

Becca Carr

In the early 1990s, terrorism expert Probst co-authored an extraordinary Pentagon report, "Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terrorism," which outlined and predicted the events of last week with alarming accuracy, according to those who've obtained copies. Unfortunately, you can't read the report; the Pentagon never released it to the public. The Los Angles Times reported in 1998 that "even a sanitized version designed to promote public preparedness was axed." Why didn't the Defense Department release it? The report was considered "too alarmist and far-fetched" for average Americans to read, according to the Los Angeles Times. One wonders if the families of the dead Pentagon employees would see the report as far-fetched today.

* If you're in the market for germs, just place an order. White supremacist Larry Wayne Harris recently had some official-looking letterhead made, and then ordered three vials of bubonic plague from a Rockville, Maryland, laboratory. The plague samples were delivered by Federal Express. Interestingly, it's not illegal to possess bubonic plague. Harris was nonetheless caught by law-enforcement officials and convicted of mail fraud for ordering the samples with fake stationery. His sentence? Eighteen months' probation.

If you don't want to order the stuff already made, various recipes are easy to obtain. When the white supremacist group known as the Patriot's Council wanted to get the formula for recin, another deadly biological agent, it reportedly found what it needed in a Soldier of Fortune magazine advertisement. (A Soldier of Fortune spokesman, however, does not recall the incident and says the magazine tries to screen such ads before publication.)

* If you're wondering why the threat of terrorism hasn't taken a front seat in this country, consider these statistics: Tuesday's terrorists killed an estimated 5,000 people. Last year, drunk drivers killed 16,058 people on America's roads, heart disease killed an estimated 800,000 Americans, more than 235,000 died last year of cancers of the digestive system, and breast cancer claimed 193,000. Nobody is talking about putting U.S. marshals outside liquor stores and cigarette vending machines.

As the nation mourns, there is a natural tendency to want to figure out precisely what happened. Unfortunately, this often leads to fighting yesterday's war. Vanderbilt University political science professor Jim Ray, a specialist in international conflict, rightly points out that, as a nation, we'd be well served to focus on "less obvious" sources of potential trouble.

When I was at Business Week in the mid-1990s, I holed up for some weeks in a ramshackle, cockroach-infested hotel near Miami International Airport, gathering tidbits for an investigative story on growing numbers of counterfeit aircraft parts showing up on major U.S.-based airlines. While reporting the story, my days were spent with government snitches, undercover cops, aircraft mechanics, airplane parts brokers, and FBI agents including the uncouth G-man who wasn't enamored of Adam Bryant (who is, by the way, a first-rate reporter now working at Newsweek).

These aviation safety professionals shared a common mission: They were petrified that the enormous--and lucrative--trade in bogus aircraft parts was going to cause an airline disaster. They were frustrated that few people of note, in the media or elsewhere, would listen to their concerns because the disaster hadn't happened yet. They knew that because there had been no blood, there hadn't been a story.

In fact, I had a heck of a time getting Business Week to publish the cover story on bogus aircraft parts. Many of my risk-averse, career-conscious colleagues were simply scared to run an article on a potential problem, no matter how real. Nobody wanted to be branded an unthinking alarmist. Maybe this time, we'll learn.


Willy Stern is a staff writer at Nashville Scene, City Pages' sister paper published in Tennessee. His investigative reports on topics including aviation safety have won numerous national and international awards.

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