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Virally infected suicide terrorists: return of a reoccurring theme that finds our defenses lax


A Canadian speaker at the FBI National Academy Associates 2006 ANNUAL TRAINING CONFERENCE posed the question, "Who would think someone will deliberately infect people and send them out to infect others?" as part of a discussion of a "suicide terrorist infected with a deadly virus." It would "be harder to detect than one packing explosives as well as being a significant threat to first responders "including rescuers -- even cops with gas masks and ordinary protection gear." "There has to be some recognition that some people will die."

The especially sad part is that this is not new news. I am reminded how themes, on our side and our adversaries, appear to rise and ebb without continuous attention so as to be repeatedly viewed as new and their employment carrying an undeserved element of surprise.

One such theme is beheading. In 2003, a colleague cited a NYT item, Conflict on Iraq-Syria Border Feeds Rage Against the U.S. "about video disks being distributed in Syrian border villages encouraging attacks on US troops patrolling the border and showing what appeared to be an American - at any rate, a white male - being beheaded, while surrounded by a cheering crowd. The Pentagon denies that any US casualty was beheaded" and asked:

Has anyone ever heard of an incident like this that might be serving as the material for the videodisk - I'm thinking something that might have happened elsewhere at some other time. I've heard of Soviet soldiers being beheaded on film in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the tapes being used to raise funds in the Gulf. Ditto Chechnya, although in that case you didn't have cheering crowds. I'm wondering if someone's adapted some old footage to a new cause.

My private response was:

Yes, prisoners of varying nationalities were sold for sport during the Russian and post-Russian incursion periods -- the closest thing in our lexicon would be a souvenir photo. It was a local affair, a personal memento to take home, rather than an external fund raising event. A video tape was made of the proud owner generally slitting the throat or shooting the purchased prisoner, but the preponderance was the throat. One has to understand the Afghan sense of humor to make any sense of this.

It does not surprise me that copies would make their way elsewhere just as the slit throat and later beheading of a US journalist made its way into radicalist propaganda videos.

We were unduly surprised by the beheading of Daniel Pearl and most recently with the beheadings of Russian diplomats. We are surprised only because we forget. See Jihadists extend kidnapping and implied beheading down the coalition supply chain.

Jihadist as infection transmission vector is not new either. From Rethinking biological warfare at a human scale, January 16, 2006:

The [2005 HIV BOMBERS] report in the Sunday Mirror (UK) regarding the possible recruitment of AIDS infected individuals as suicide bombers is not a new idea as it occurred as early as 2002 in Palestine when rat poison was intentionally placed in suicide vests and by happenstance when postmortems of suicide bombers revealed Hepatitis B infections. The only curiosity is why expansion would take so long and how the process will morph.

Citing UK MOD documents released in the aftermath of the July 2005 London bombings:

Terror chiefs are also targeting fanatics who suffer other lethal blood diseases such as hepatitis and dengue fever in order to increase their "kill rate" from an explosion. "There is evidence that terrorists might be deliberately recruiting volunteers with diseases that are spread by blood transference." Experts have found that bones and other blood-spattered fragments from a suicide bomber could penetrate the skin of a victim 50 metres away and infect them…

All these discussions overlook the potential for a prospective suicide bomber to voluntarily permit infection thereby sidestepping the "search" for a willing infected. I can see the process as an early and easy commitment to martyrdom. Once the presence of AIDS is confirmed, the martyr can proceed to carry out his or her suicide mission. There are other diseases, natural and bioweapon, that can lend themselves to infection and dispersal by "human shrapnel."

In all cases, the psychological aspects of a 'human dirty bomb' are as valuable as the direct blast effects. returning to the Sunday Mirror, consider the distancing that is recommended for UK personnel. If nothing else, the jihadists succeed in driving yet another wedge between the locals and the military:

soldiers are warned to wear special protective clothing when on guard duty or if they have to deal with casualties in the event of an attack. All bases must also have snipers hidden behind blast-proof defences ready to take out would-be suicide bombers...

While I agree [that] it is simply a matter of time before international terrorist groups such as al-Qa'eda acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them in attacks," I submit that the attack can come quickly, cheaply and in mass on a human scale.

As I have been forecasting this attack vector for some time, I've been thinking on the means by which a Judas could infect him or herself to show a group of innocents, say, a group of Mexican migrant workers ready to set off for El Norte, the US, that their 'free' inoculation is safe. The group comes across "clean" as the symptoms have yet to manifest themselves, then they infect others before taking out various first responders as either police pick them up or the unknowingly infected go to medical facilities.

Were I doing it, I would set up a medical clinic as a cover doing legitimate work for a period of time that would lessen the attention of the authorities even as it draws innocents to my facility. At the right time, a very large group is infected on the eve of migration.

While scenario spinning can be dangerous, the various and simplest permutations by which attacker and innocents alike can be infected without notice is useful to study. DHS still looks at far too complex attack scenarios in framing a likely asymmetrical attacker. See Bioterrorism Drill TOPOFF 2 -- Failing to think like al Qaeda & relearning old lessons and Katrina as an "incident of national significance" puts the lie to DHS scenario planning for terrorist event preparation.

Before 11 September, Asymmetric Conflict 2010 noted a Vietnam Redux camp:

has begun to form around the core proposition that it is possible for the aggressor to achieve his principal strategic objectives in the theaterto induce U.S. withdrawal before achievement of its war aimswithout resorting to the high-risk use of nuclear, biological, or chemical threats or attacks. Adherents of this camp generally believe that regional actors are likely to have sufficient conventional power to achieve their ends, even if that conventional power is far inferior to that of the United States, and that the necessary strategic behaviors can be induced of Washington without projecting the war into the American homeland (which they also tend to see as unnecessarily risky). In the words of one analyst, "first principles for defeating a global power [without WMD] are in wide discussion 'out there'." [Statement made as an introductory remark by one of the speakers at a day-long symposium at IDA… The speaker was a senior member of the Intelligence Community, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis. The 11 principles that follow in this text reflect the author’s effort to distill the key strategic points from that discussion.] These principles appear to still be in the formative stage of debate among U.S. experts, but the research performed for this study suggests that they encompass the following:

  1. The weak can defeat the strong.
  2. Take a long time to prepare.
  3. Red can out-innovate Blue.
  4. Strike a fait accompli, reversible only at high cost.
  5. The Information Age empowers Red as much as Blue.
  6. Blue precision-guided munitions can be defeated.
  7. Red counterstrikes cannot be "defeated."
  8. Embarrass America.
  9. Time is not to the U.S. advantage. America fears quagmires.
  10. Escalate in ways that make it hard for the U.S. to counter-escalate.
  11. Don’t surrender. So long as you never lose, you’ve won.

The essence of this approach to asymmetric conflict is that the American public can be made weary of the costs of prolonged war, which will translate into an eventual political willingness to settle the conflict on terms that preserve the aggressor regime and potentially some of its original gains. And it can be made weary through sustained generation of U.S. casualties that will not result in U.S. escalation so long as those casualties do not occur suddenly or dramatically or otherwise generate great fear or anger among the American public. Indeed, recourse to WMD attacks in-theater and to terrorist attacks on the U.S. public could be seen as unnecessarily provocative. As Freedberg has argued, "If an adversary’s greatest asset is American indifference to conflicts in distant lands, then the last thing he wants to do is bring the war home to America.

The eleven points still track in a post 11 September world; Unfortunately, the closing "unnecessarily provocative" comments do not.

The combination of suicide terrorism and a willingness to "bring the war home" is extremely effective. From Iraq replaces Palestine as militant Islam's crie de guerre:

[S]uicide terrorism is a form of weaponry that terrorist groups, secular and religious, operate at a level above the suicide bombers. Suicide attacks are efficient weapons in that they have an effective homing capacity combined with obstacle avoidance and best timing of detonation...

Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, [notes that] religion is NOT the important criterion for a suicide volunteer. The principal stimulus to volunteering IS foreign occupation which increases nationalist resistance. (Religion is, however, a multiplier when the foreign occupying power has a religion different from the local community which the terrorists can exploit to their benefit…). Suicide terrorism is a quintessential asymmetrical attack tool in that suicide coercion is the inverse of the military coercion of the larger, ostensibly stronger power. The "presence of foreign combat troops on territory that the terrorists prize" cuts across all other drivers, be it religion, social status, revenge, poverty, or low education. Following the success of Hezbollah and its Iranian handlers in dissuading the US, France and Israel to remain in Lebanon, other asymmetric groups adopted the strategy (although much of the technical advances have been made by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka). Of the terrorist campaigns since 1980 that Pape has studied, 13 have concluded while 5 are still ongoing. Of the 13, 7 resulted in territorial gains for the terrorists while 6 did not. Pape writes:

"The main purpose of suicide terrorism is to use the threat of punishment to compel a target government to change policy and most especially to cause democratic states to withdraw forces from land the terrorists perceive as their national homeland."

Pape states the reality of needing to "find a lasting solution to suicide terrorism that does not compromise our core interest in maintaining access to one of the world’s key oil-producing regions." Dying to Win points to the need for counterterrorist strategies that defeat the current pool of suicide terrorists while deflecting or disarming the forthcoming emergence of a larger pool. Pape paints a steep slope that is not now being pursued, certainly not with sufficient competence, consistency, or funding, combining such actions as thoughtful concessions to occupied areas that rob terrorist groups of their support and possibly their legitimacy among the sea in which they swim, reconciliation with Muslim states and developing core alliances with Iraq and Saudi Arabia to combat of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

The absence of such reductive policies predicts sustained suicide terrorism without limitation.

Li’l bugs, big peril (Item 4)
CBR Weapons and WMD Terrorism News- July 19, 2006
Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies

Li'l bugs, big peril
'Bio-terror' weapons easier to hide than a bomb, FBI briefing told
July 18, 2006

Video: Islamic Terrorists Behead Russian Diplomats
John LIttle
Blogs of War
June 25th 2006
Note: The video link is no longer active but the stills are

Iraq Insurgents Claim to Kill 4 Russians
Al-Qaida-Linked Group Says It Killed 4 Russian Diplomats in Iraq, Posts Video Showing 3 Slayings
Associated Press/ABC News
Jun 25, 2006

AFTER THE WAR: FRONTIER; Conflict on Iraq-Syria Border Feeds Rage Against the U.S.
New York Times
July 15, 2003
Fee archive
Mirror LFP - Lebanese Foundation for Peace

Asymmetric Conflict 2010
Brad Roberts
Prepared by IDA
November 2000

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Infrastructure Defense Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Terrorism Public  


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