Worst-case scenarios that are more likely than you think

November 13, 2015
A military investigator from Russia stands near the debris of a Russian airliner at its crash site at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015. Russia has grounded Airbus A321 jets flown by the Kogalymavia airline, Interfax news agency reported on Sunday, after one of its fleet crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RTX1U8L7

A military investigator from Russia near the debris of a Russian airliner at its crash site at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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.

Pakistan's nuclear-capable air-launched "Ra'ad" cruise missile is driven past during the National Day military parade in Islamabad in this March 23, 2008, file photo. Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear-capable, air-launched cruise missile with a range of 350 km (220 miles) on Thursday, the military said, a day after India tested a long-range missile. The Hatf-VIII (Ra'ad) missile had been developed exclusively for launch from aircraft, a military statement said.   REUTERS/Mian Khursheed/Files   (PAKISTAN) - RTX5GXS

Pakistan’s nuclear-capable air-launched “Ra’ad” cruise missile in the National Day military parade in Islamabad, March 23, 2008. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed/Files

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.

North Korean leader Kim Jung Un guides the test fire of a tactical rocket in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang August 15, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA - RTR42IBZ

North Korean leader Kim Jung Un guides the test fire of a tactical rocket in an undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, August 15, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA

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.

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syrian activists said at least 213 people, including women and children, were killed on Wednesday in a nerve gas attack by President Bashar al-Assad's forces on rebel-held districts of the Ghouta region east of Damascus. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) TEMPLATE OUT - RTX12S3J

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus, August 21, 2013. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

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.

5 comments

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What if that bomber opens up an office in South America where the breast implant industry is booming and American ladies come back with discounted size C-4 breasts ;)

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Unpleasantly prophetic now there is a Mumbai style attack in Paris. It is disturbing that with all the border controls, homeland security, etc the illegal drug industry still operates internationally on a large scale. Also that the tourist industries are so important that large numbers of rather unknown people fly in and out. The likely reaction to Paris is to blame local Muslims in general, but a hit squad could also visit Paris with all the tourists.
It is better to have a knowledge of statistics, and not be caught in Christian/Muslim/etc religious metaphysics, and regard one’s personal risk from terrorism as similar to driving on the highway, with efforts to reduce risk that are not perfect.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

This is always a concern; but this opinion piece is just fear mongering. We are all potential victims to some type of dramatic event. But if we start hiding in our homes because something could happen, then the enemy has won.
To minimize risk, you don’t go to or do something that is not completely safe. For example, you do not walk into a dark alley alone – especially in a bad part of town. (obvious) Nor do you stray off the tourist areas without a local guide when on a Caribean island.
Sure the obvious won’t prevent a nut-job from killing you; but if you avoid the obvious risk your odds of getting killed by a terrorist or some other type of lunatic become minimal.
So enjoy life, just be alert of your surroundings. Chances are you won’t be a statistic.

Posted by Romas | Report as abusive

If Humanity is to cease to exist, that’s not because of bombs, but because of ignorance, arrogance and greed.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

The ocean becoming too warm to support oxygen production and the earth’s oxygen falling below human-survivable levels is more likely.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive