Homeland Security and Public Safety

The U.S. Is Still Vulnerable to Chemical Threats

The Boston Marathon bombings were a chilling reminder that terrorist attacks don’t need to be big to wreak havoc on a population.

The Boston Marathon bombings were a chilling reminder that terrorist attacks don’t need to be big to wreak havoc on a population. Pressure cooker bombs containing shrapnel killed three people and injured 264 others, causing physical and emotional scars that will last for years.

What if a similar incident included the release of a biological or radiological agent? Are emergency responders prepared to handle such a contingency? The answer may vary depending on the agency and its training resources, but experts believe a terrorist’s ability to carry out that type of attack may be increasing.

Matt Mayer, a former official with the U.S. DHS, said acquiring the equipment and technology needed to disperse biological or radiological agents is becoming easier. Mayer referenced the 2010 failed car bombing attempt in New York City’s Times Square and the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as examples of terrorist plots that would have succeeded if the bombs had detonated.

In addition, communication breakdowns between various levels of law enforcement may have an impact on detecting potential terror schemes. A recent report co-authored by Mayer and Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing called out the FBI for failures that may have led to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Writing for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank, Downing and Mayer argue that the FBI’s interview of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in January 2011 should have been revealed to the Boston Police. While the interview may have concluded that Tsarnaev posed no terrorist threat at the time, his actions in the following two years may have suggested otherwise.

Tsarnaev’s subsequent activities went undetected by the Boston Police Department because it was unaware of the FBI’s initial contact with him, leading to lost opportunities to detect and potentially thwart the bombing at the marathon.

“In some cases, we’ve been lucky rather than good,” Mayer said. “So the question is can we be doing better, and I think the answer to that clearly after Boston is ‘yes.’”

“We can’t afford for the Boston bombing to be a biological release or a radiological release,” he added. “We can’t afford to have those losses.”

Modern Terror

Biological attacks have occurred through the mail over the years, using agents such as anthrax or more recently, ricin, to intimidate and harm political figures. Though filters and other preventive measures have since been installed in post offices and mail rooms, other delivery methods concern experts.

Bombs like the ones used in the attack during the Boston Marathon are an obvious delivery device for radioactive materials. Vayl Oxford, national security executive policy adviser for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and former director of the DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), said there are high-risk radiation sources within the U.S. that could easily be the source of a dirty bomb. He added, however, that the U.S. launched a program in 2007 to enhance security of domestic radiation sources to make them difficult to obtain.

The nation has focused its strategy on preparing areas that could be on a terrorist’s agenda due to the potential of high casualties, according to Duane Lindner, director of Sandia National Laboratories’ Chemical and Biological National Security program. Tourist attractions, sporting events and major urban areas are just some examples of prime targets.

“Where do people gather and where are there crowds of people? You quickly come to worry about the transportation hubs,” he said. “[They would] release the material into the air in an airport terminal or other sorts of transportation nodes.”

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.