Written by Ronald Kessler / Newsmax
Thursday, 24 February, 2011
The probability that the U.S. will be hit with a weapons of mass destruction attack at some point is 100 percent, Dr. Vahid Majidi, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, tells Newsmax.
Such an attack could be launched by foreign terrorists, lone wolves who are terrorists, or even by criminal elements, Majidi says. It would most likely employ chemical, biological, or radiological weapons rather than a nuclear device.
As it is, Majidi says, American intelligence picks up hundreds of reports each year of foreign terrorists obtaining WMD. When American forces invaded Afghanistan, they found that al-Qaida was working on what Majidi calls a “nascent” weapons of mass destruction effort involving chemical and biological weapons.
In every other case so far, the reports of foreign terrorists obtaining WMD have turned out to be unfounded. However, Majidi’s directorate within the FBI investigates more than a dozen cases in the U.S. each year where there was intent to use WMD.
For example, in 2008, the FBI arrested Roger Bergendorff, who was found to have ricin and anarchist literature. Ricin kills cells by inhibiting protein synthesis. Within several days, the liver, spleen, and kidneys of a person who inhales or ingests ricin stop working, resulting in death.
“The notion of probability of a WMD attack being low or high is a moot point because we know the probability is 100 percent,” Majidi says. “We’ve seen this in the past, and we will see it in the future. There is going to be an attack using chemical, biological or radiological material.”
Even a WMD attack that does not kill a great number of people would have a crushing psychological impact.
“A singular lone wolf individual can do things in the dark of the night with access to a laboratory with low quantities of material and could hurt a few people but create a devastating effect on the American psyche,” Majidi says.
As described by Majidi, who was previously the chemistry division leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the WMD Directorate was established in 2006 to coordinate all elements of the FBI that deal with WMD cases.
Regarding a subject that is full of hype and misinformation, it is rare for an official who is an expert in the field and has full access to current classified information to talk about it for publication.
Majidi says the kind of threat that keeps him awake at night is one from a lone wolf. That’s because the FBI, along with the CIA and foreign partners, has developed a number of ways to detect plots by al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists. Besides intercepting their communications and infiltrating their organizations, the FBI gets reports when people purchase materials that could be used in a WMD attack. These techniques are known as trip wires.
For my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack,” Arthur M. “Art” Cummings II, who headed FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations, gave an example of the FBI’s use of trip wires.
When the FBI got a report of a man buying chemicals that could be used for explosives, it investigated. In this case, it would have been easy to dismiss the purchases as innocent, since the man was buying the supplies from a swimming pool company, and his business shipped pool supplies.
“That explanation wasn’t good enough,” Cummings says. “It’s not OK to say, It looks like pool supplies, we’re done. You don’t finish there. Who at the pool company, specifically, did he buy them from? What specifically was the transaction, and what happened from there? Is it a friend; is it an associate; is it somebody who wants to do us harm? There was a day we would have said, It’s a commercial transaction, don’t worry about it. Each and every lead is followed all the way down to the most minute detail.”
Majidi says three agents from his directorate have been assigned to FBI offices overseas — known as legal attaché offices or legats — in countries like Georgia to work with foreign intelligence authorities on possible attacks.
Currently, Majidi is working to develop ways to detect development of new organisms that could be used in a biological attack. By definition, there would be no way to detect a new organism or to develop an antidote before it is unleashed.
“We are not sitting on our hands waiting to predict what will happen based on what happened yesterday,” Majidi says. As an example, he says, “You can design an organism de novo that never existed before. While there is no known articulated threat, this is something that we feel is a technology or science that potentially can be misused, either accidentally or on purpose.”
The FBI is working with the synthetic biology community to develop ways to zero in on any hint that someone could be developing such an organism that could become a threat.
“We’re not there to stop the science but to integrate our activities within their portfolio so that when the threat does develop or may develop over a long arc of time, we are ahead of those issues,” Majidi explains.
Majidi says the most remote threat is an attack with a nuclear device. A terrorist bent on detonating a nuclear weapon would have to successfully negotiate a series of steps, Majidi says. He would have to find an expert with the right knowledge. He would have to find the right material. He would have to bring the device into the country, and he would have to evade detection programs.
“While the net probability is incredibly low, a 10 kiloton device would be of enormous consequence,” Majidi says. “So even with those enormously low probabilities, we still have to have a very effective and integrated approach trying to fight the possibility.”
Experts are constantly being quoted with estimates of the amount of enriched uranium that could be unaccounted for from Soviet Union stockpiles and could be used to make nuclear weapons. Majidi says no one knows the actual amount.
“I know there is a hobby of guessing, and different folks give you a different number,” he says. “All I can tell you is that from the interdictions that we have had in the past decade, the quantities have been sufficient of highly enriched uranium that I clearly worry about this material on a global scale. How much is there? Any amount is too much.”
A terrorist who stole a nuclear weapon from a country that has one would have an easier time than if he tried to make one. “One of the things you have to understand is that nuclear markets are very ambiguous markets,” Majidi says. “There are as many bad guys trying to sell material as there are good guys trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
While terrorists talk about using WMD, the preferred method for attack so far has been explosives. Majidi cites two examples: the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen who boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, and tried to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear; and the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square.
“While all of these guys are still interested in potentially using chemical, biological, or radiological weapons wherever it is possible, the pragmatic approach that they have taken is to use what has worked for them best, which is various forms of explosives and improvised explosives,” Majidi says.
“The latest round is concealing explosives coming through the commercial shipping environment,” Majidi notes. “That brings to the fore the fact that explosives are something that we’re not going to get away from any time soon. It’s the modality that is most often preferred by a pragmatic adversary.”
Given the sensitivity and complexity of the subject, Majidi says he tries to present all the issues in context: “One of my jobs is to make sure I put all of these things in an appropriate light, because if you were in my job you would see that everyone always tries to elevate things to a tremendous level.”
Of one thing Majidi is sure: “There’s a probability of 100 percent that a WMD event will happen.”