Worst-case scenarios that are more likely than you think
The likelihood that a Russian charter airplane, Metrojet 9268, was felled by a bomb after leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, highlights how many national security stories we may be missing — stories that pose at least as much of a threat to the United States as the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Consider: Al Qaeda is still fixated on blowing up airplanes, a dream that may have just played out in the Sinai. But other risks include loose nukes in Pakistan, three-stage rockets in North Korea that can hit the United States, radiological weapons on the Russian black market and the possibility that terrorists with a demonstrated interest in biological warfare will make use of the next major infectious disease outbreak to turn human beings into weapons.
All these threats are getting worse. All might do even more damage, near-term, than Iran.
Start with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. The organization’s top bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, is still at large — and still innovating. Six years ago, Asiri pioneered the implanted explosive device. He planted the first-known cavity bomb in his own brother, who blew himself up in front of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. That same year, Asiri was implicated in the Underwear Bomber plot.
By 2010, he had moved on to a new idea: plastic explosives stashed in printer cartridges that were then placed aboard cargo planes. Two years later, he was collaborating with doctors to design new surgical techniques for planting his body bombs.
That none of these plots has succeeded (yet) is a credit to counterterrorism officials in the United States and allied nations. But we have to be right every time; Asiri only needs one lucky break.
Meanwhile, AQAP is carving out safe haven in Yemen, a nation that has fallen apart. While trying to counter rebels in Yemen backed by Iran, the Saudi air campaign has empowered Sunni extremists, including al Qaeda and Islamic State. The chaos will give Asiri and his pupils more room to practice.
Islamic State also bragged this summer that it could buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. The suggestion is alarming given Pakistan’s growing stockpile and history of proliferation. Even if you ignore the risk of a deliberate transfer — and many Pakistani officials do have a record of double-dealing with terror groups — Pakistan is still a nation that moves nukes in panel vans on surface roads.
It’s also the country with the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal. When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Washington last month, he failed to dispel U.S. concerns about the vulnerability of his country’s weapons programs. Leaders in Washington and New Delhi are rightly alarmed about Pakistan’s talk of developing tactical nukes for battlefield use. Not only would those weapons risk escalating conflict between India and Pakistan, they would also be catnip for Islamic State, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.
To the east, North Korea has restarted its reactor at Yongbyon and rolled out a new long-range missile — that may be capable of hitting the United States. The Hermit Kingdom has shown no signs of reining in its aggression and may be preparing for its fourth nuclear test. The country is also notorious for arms trafficking and proliferation. In 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian-North Korean nuclear plant in territory now controlled by Islamic State. If the Kim regime does make progress on its weapons of mass destruction programs, those nuclear, chemical and biological advances risk showing up in terrorist hands around the globe.
Nuke smuggling is also good business in Eastern Europe, especially in Moldova, where authorities have only scratched the surface of a black market. Russian criminal vendors are reported to be actively seeking jihadist buyers, particularly those looking to harm the West. In Syria, where Russia’s intervention has frozen a disastrous status quo, chemical warfare continues. The fierce maelstrom now offers Sunni extremist groups a laboratory for their darkest dreams.
How long before chlorine bombs show up in Turkey, Jordan or Israel? How long before Islamic State cobbles together its first radiological weapon — a dirty bomb bound for Ankara, Amman or Tel Aviv?
In a new report, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense warns that we’re not paying enough attention to the third leg of the WMD triad: germ warfare. Former Senator Joe Lieberman, the panel’s co-chairman and former chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said this week that he’s shocked no jihadist group had yet pulled off a biological attack and warned that the United States is dangerously unprepared for plots that are less complicated than most probably think.
Islamic State’s drive to show viciousness — burning some captives alive, beheading others, torturing and enslaving even more — leaves little doubt that the extremist group might be willing to use toxins, germs or radioactive material in a major international plot. Its access to major population centers in the Middle East points to the potential for catastrophic harm.
Policymakers must consider that the lone wolf, armed with a bread knife and radicalized in his basement, may not be the era’s only short-term danger.
Counterterrorism is a science of worst-case scenarios. The risk of a game-changing plot is always small, but the kind of “black swan” events that could reshape the region look more and more real today. Better to overestimate the threat now than read about it in the papers tomorrow.