Is the West prepared for an Islamic State attack?

By Arabinda Acharya | June 28, 2016

In January 2006, Singapore conducted Exercise Northstar 5, a drill designed to educate the public about chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks—and how best to respond to them. In April 2015, authorities followed up with another drill, Northstar 9. The Southeast Asian city-state has also established a specialist agency, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Explosive Defence Group, as well as a Community Emergency Preparedness Program. Most important, it has built shelters—in the rapid-transit system, in schools and community centers, and in the Housing Development Board buildings in which most Singaporeans dwell—for the public to use in the event of an attack. In addition to other life-saving facilities, the shelters feature “protective blast doors, decontamination facilities, ventilation system[s], power and water supply systems and dry toilet system[s],” according to the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

At a time when the Islamic State could be eyeing European targets for a chemical-weapons attack, Western countries could take a lesson from the island nation. Most countries in the West remain alert to the possibility of an attack involving weapons of mass destruction, and indeed have the ability to prepare for such scenarios, yet their current planning lacks specifics in terms of policies, procedures, and resources. In many countries, response preparations focus primarily on military operations and force-protection measures, including the safety of first responders, while plans involving the civilian population and infrastructure do not receive adequate attention. And while preventative measures might make an attack less likely, that is no excuse for this lack of preparedness.

Prevention vs. preparedness. Much has already been written about terrorists and the threat of weapons of mass destruction, yet most attention has been on the possibility of groups like Al Qaeda and now Islamic State acquiring and using such weapons. A number of studies, testimonies by top intelligence officials, and statements of political leaders suggest that Islamic State is intent on using some forms of chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological weapons, especially in Europe and the United States, and may even be in possession of the expertise, technology, money, and materials to do so. Less attention is given to our preparedness to deal with the consequences of a such an attack. Indeed, preparedness remains largely neglected due to the perception that a strike of this kind still poses significant technical and logistical challenges to non-state actors, even though, according to a December 2015 European Parliament briefing, Islamic State has overcome the financial constraints.

It is true that, strategically, the first step in preparing for an attack is preventing one from happening in the first place—by denying terrorists access to dangerous materials and devices. This requires intelligence coordination not only among different agencies in a particular country, but also with other countries to target sources, conduits, and criminal facilitators.

It’s also true that such an attack is relatively unlikely. According to one assessment, a radiological device (such as a dirty bomb) poses big obstacles in terms of acquiring materials and accessing targets; pathogens for biological weapons can “rapidly be detected” by concerned authorities; and the delivery of chemical weapons requires local resources that could be especially hard to get in Europe and North America due to the rather robust surveillance networks in place. Moreover, most major incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear destruction have come about due to state actors, human error, or natural calamity, and those involving non-state actors, from the 1995 Tokyo subway attack to the 2001 anthrax letters in the United States, have either failed or had very limited impact.

Yet countries should still have a plan for when prevention fails. The response to such an incident depends on a number of factors—including the type of weapon used, the delivery method, and the location of the attack—and involves everything from organizing cleanup, decontamination, and evacuation to providing special medical facilities and medications, protective equipment, shelters, and expert personnel. It also involves having in place the means to restore normalcy and public confidence as quickly as possible.

How ready is Europe? Europeans have made some efforts to prepare for an attack, but as journalists Aline Robert, Jorge Valero, and Nicole Sagener explain, most of these remain policies that have not actually been implemented yet. Responsibility to address the threat remains primarily with individual states, which is problematic since broad policies to deal with the threat and allocation of resources are done at the EU level, making it difficult for policies and practices to be consistent. Country-specific responses might be inadequate, especially when these need robust expertise, information, and intelligence sharing.

Moreover, there is as yet no European Union legislation to target or control chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear substances that could specifically be used as a weapon of mass destruction, except the use of chemicals as “explosives precursors.” (Although it is worth noting that most countries around the world rely on piecemeal legal or executive instruments for their response plans rather than such general legislation.) There have been some efforts, however, by different European Commission agencies to detect misuse of such substances and develop crisis-management plans. And the 2003 Strategy Against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the 2005 Counter-Terrorism Strategy also seek to deal with terrorists’ access to such materials.

Apart from adopting of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which commits member states to have and enforce appropriate and effective measures against proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons, and establishing the Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence Initiative, the EU has also adopted an Action Plan delineating procedures for prevention, detection, preparedness, and response. The plan seeks new systems and technologies to deal with multiple types of threats—known in the industry as “all hazard” threats—that require major coordination among government, the private sector, and the public. European plans involve, among other things, decontamination, post-incident diagnosis, and increasing social resilience in the event of an attack. At a country-specific level, Britain’s counterterrorism strategy highlights measures to deny terrorists access to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials, to prevent attacks, to respond promptly and effectively to incidents, and to recover from them as quickly as possible. The UK has also codified a “Model Response” to guide emergency services in the event of an attack.

As a 2014 European Commission report pointed out, however, there is a need to do more—especially in terms of creating a better strategy to anticipate, deter, and manage these kinds of incidents, as well as in terms of cultivating effective public-private dialogue that engages all stakeholders.

What about America? In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency oversees chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. The country has a fairly long history of exposure to such dangers. Since 1998, more than 1,300 incidents of lost, stolen, or abandoned devices with radioactive substances have been reported, any of which could have been used to make an improvised radiological weapon. Domestic preparedness against such incidents dates back to the Cold War era and intensified after the March 1995 Tokyo subway attacks, the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the post-9/11 anthrax letters in the fall of 2001. The National Strategy for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Standards seeks to establish intra-agency coordination and to develop standards for equipment performance, interoperability, and voluntary training and certification, with a view to improving preparedness and response capabilities at the federal, state, and community levels. According to the government, the range of professionals involved in protecting and responding to threats has expanded beyond specialized military units to include “local first responders, including police, firefighters, emergency medical services, hazardous materials response units, and bomb squads.” There has also been a significant growth in the “technological options as well as the number and types of equipment used by responders.”

But there is a perception that, as in Europe, intentions and policies do not match actual performance. As the National Strategy acknowledges, the domestic preparedness in terms of procurement of required equipment is “confronted with a complex array of technical specifications, capabilities and choices” and with overlapping efforts involving research and development of new technologies, forensics, and performance specifications to manage an incident involving weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, different agencies are acting on their own in terms of R&D for new technologies and equipment and in terms of developing protocols for first-responder protection, cleanup, and forensics, resulting in overlaps and wasted resources.

What should be done? The lackluster preparedness in Europe and the United States could be explained in terms of the prevailing belief about the low probability of terrorists obtaining, improvising, and deploying a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear device. This also explains why finding the best practices to manage the consequences of such an attack by a non-state actor continues to be largely a theoretical discussion.

Managing the aftereffects of an incident involving weapons of mass destruction is quite different from managing a conventional terrorist attack with guns and explosives. Authorities must consider the toxicity of agents, the nature of different contaminations, the lengths of effects, and the scale of cleanup operations. They must also prepare plans for restoring public confidence and a sense of normalcy. An additional, related challenge is the need for intelligence coordination for improved monitoring of dangerous materials. This must involve the government, the private sector, and the general public, as well as international cooperation, yet governments ought to shoulder the bulk of the burden, provide resources and expertise, and coordinate among the diverse players involved.

Responding to the threat of chemical attacks by Iraq during the first Gulf war, Israel prepared its citizens by providing information about the risk, supplying gas masks and antidotes, and building sealed rooms for cover. However, given the complexity and unpredictability of the threats today, response preparedness must go beyond this. Governments must take steps to strengthen detection capabilities when it comes to dangerous substances and insider threats. They must equip first responders, rescue services, security forces, and health professionals with the proper tools and training. And they must enact robust measures that integrate response procedures, facilitate rapid analysis of suspicious materials, and establish secure databases for the exchange of information and best practices among different agencies at the local, national and international levels. 

Most countries in Europe and North America continue to be caught flatfooted by traditional terrorist attacks. Unlike Al Qaeda, Islamic State operates in identifiable territories that could be targeted and reclaimed with a united and a determined effort that unfortunately continues to elude the international community. This is all the more reason for Western nations to guard against—but also prepare to respond to—chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks by non-state actors.

Author’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the positions of any institutions with which I am affiliated.

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