The Heritage Foundation recently convened a meeting of experts to discuss “Weapons of Mass Destruction and America’s Communities,” the various ways our terrorist enemies might attack us and our allies in the future, and what might be done to stop them. You can imagine what a merry gathering this was.
The most obvious concern: the spread of nuclear weapons. Within the group, there was consensus that if Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, is not prevented from acquiring nukes, the result will be a nuclear proliferation “cascade.” Before long, so many countries would have so many nuclear devices that the chances of terrorist groups getting their hands on at least a few would increase exponentially.
A scenario perhaps even more frightening: Terrorists using biological weapons, setting off epidemics of smallpox, Ebola virus, or other hemorrhagic fevers; a crop duster spreading ten pounds of anthrax causing more deaths than in World War II; genetically engineered pathogens — for example, a super-contagious form of HIV. A bio attack would be much easier to carry off than a nuclear attack; biological weapons can be manufactured in hidden laboratories and spread by unarmed and innocent-looking individuals.
We also discussed radiological dispersal devices (RDD), more commonly known as “dirty bombs.” Such weapons are fairly simple to construct: radioactive materials — e.g. radium, radon, thorium — are wrapped around a core of conventional explosives. Though an RDD would not carry the lethality of a nuclear or biological weapon, its psychological and economic impact could be substantial.
How else might terrorists advance toward their goal, succinctly articulated by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “a world without America”? Adm. Mike McConnell, until February of this year the director of National Intelligence — America’s top spy — recently told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes that he was increasingly concerned about cyber warfare, the use of computers and the Internet as weapons.
“If I were an attacker and I wanted to do strategic damage to the United States . . . I probably would sack electric power” throughout as much of the country as possible, he said. McConnell worries also about the possibility that a cyber attacker could destroy the electronic processes and records that keep track of money and its movements, thereby setting off an economic collapse.
In the same report, Jim Lewis, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Kroft: “In 2007 we probably had our electronic Pearl Harbor. It was an espionage Pearl Harbor. Some unknown foreign power, and honestly, we don’t know who it is, broke into the Department of Defense, to the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, probably the Department of Energy, probably NASA.”
Another way to destroy the electric grid as well as everything computerized: an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. In 2001 the U.S. government established a commission to “assess the threat to the United States” from an EMP attack. The commission reported to Congress that if a nuclear warhead were to be detonated at high altitude over the American mainland the blast would produce a shockwave so powerful that it would “cripple military and civilian communications, power, transportation, water, food, and other infrastructure.” Before long, millions of Americans would, as the Wall Street Journal flatly phrased it, “die of starvation or want of medical care.” The CIA has translated Iranian military journals in which EMP attacks against the U.S. are explicitly discussed.
Among the experts attending this conference, all agreed that the use of such terrorist weapons is a more serious and imminent threat than is “global warming.” Yet no summits are being organized to decide how the U.S. and other targeted nations can best defend themselves.
I would argue also — as I did at the Heritage meeting — that defensive measures alone, while necessary, are not enough. Instead, we must recognize that we are engaged in a great global conflict, one that is no less serious because it is unconventional and asymmetrical.
Outreach, engagement, and exercises in “conflict resolution” are useful when the U.S. has a dispute with Mexico or when the Netherlands disagrees with Luxembourg. But this approach makes no sense when dealing with self-proclaimed jihadis eager to use 21st-century weapons to achieve 7th-century goals.
Iran’s ruling mullahs have been killing Americans for decades — for example, in Beirut, Iraq, and most recently in Afghanistan. They write “Death to America!” on their missiles. It would be both foolhardy and irresponsible to let such extremists acquire nuclear weapons in the hope that somehow, when their capabilities match their intentions, they will suddenly decide they would prefer our respect rather than our destruction.
If we are to prevent our enemies from doing the kind of damage they intend, we must stay on offense. We need to keep our enemies nervous, under pressure, and on the run. We’ll need to go after the bad guys in their training camps, laboratories, and safe houses — wherever those may be. We’ll need to force them to continually look over their shoulders and worry that they may be killed or captured — and being captured should not mean they are rewarded with a global stage to spout their propaganda at American taxpayer expense.
We need to choose: Do we intend to advance or retreat, hunt or be hunted — win or lose? There is no fortress we can construct, no balance of power and terror we can achieve, no gesture or concession that will make us inoffensive to our enemies. When the barbarians are at the gate, you need to do more than lock up — and we haven’t even done that yet.
George Orwell articulated a fundamental rule of national security: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Most of the West is now led by people who believe that rule may have once applied but no longer. If that doesn’t keep you awake at night, nothing will.