Terrorist groups are as interested as ever in acquiring weapons of mass destruction in a global landscape where chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents have grown more difficult to track, senators heard from Defense officials last week.
Assistant Defense Secretary for Homeland Defense and Global Security Kenneth Rapuano told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities that “rapid technological advancements and increased access to dual use technologies, expertise, and materials that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes heighten the risk that adversaries can more easily seek or acquire WMD.”
“It has never been more difficult to prevent adversaries from acquiring the materials or expertise necessary to develop WMD or use CBRN materials in intentional attacks,” he said. “Additionally, the speed, volume, and coverage of international travel means that naturally occurring pathogens of security concern can spread worldwide in days, potentially having the same catastrophic consequences of a deliberate biological attack.”
The Intelligence Community, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy and Justice Department “all play critical roles in detecting threats, preventing attacks on the homeland, and working with foreign partners to stop and respond to incidents,” he added.
Rapuano noted that best efforts at prevention only go so far, thus the agency coalition “must be prepared to contain and reduce CBRN threats once they have developed.”
“DoD is postured to isolate, identify, neutralize, and dispose of CBRN threats before they can reach our borders,” he said. That includes concern about reports of ongoing use of chemical agents by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where “the U.S. and our coalition partners continue to exploit opportunities on the ground to better understand and disrupt their CW networks.”
“We must anticipate that our adversaries will continue to evolve and develop increasingly sophisticated methods to pursue, develop, or deploy CBRN weapons,” Rapuano stressed.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, deputy commander of United States Special Operations Command, emphasized the importance of increased integration of intelligence, planning and assessments in a counter-WMD fusion center “dedicated to coordinating information flow and planning, fusing intelligence and operations, and providing the WMD community of action a single point of contact for DOD operational capability.”
Chairwoman Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked Rapuano which WMD threat concerned him most at this point.
Rapuano picked biotechnology, due to the “rapid advances and ubiquitous availability” today.
“Things that you can buy on the web now and essentially do a paint-by-numbers instruction were the province of Nobel Prize-winning scientists only decades ago, and that really levels the playing field for any actor looking to develop biotechnology, biological agents and novelly engineered agents that can present a real threat,” he added.
The assistant secretary confirmed that “both Al-Qaeda and ISIS are interested in chemical, biological, nuclear,” and “certainly would be if they had opportunity to acquire the materials and know-how.” He wouldn’t elaborate in open session.
Osterman said that “functional campaign planning” helps officials “observe where the technology transfer may occur between state and non-state actors.”
“Also, where one non-state actor perhaps is working with another non-state actor in a different geographic location or in a functional capacity,” the general added. “So we try to weave that in with the translation of our strategy and policy to actual tactical application of interdiction in order to basically reinforce the larger protocol efforts that are in place.”
The CBRN Response Enterprise is nearly 19,000 strong, consisting of National Guard and Title X military arranged into teams. “We have the WMD-CSTs, the civil support teams. We have the enhanced response teams. We have a range of teams with a different mix of capabilities that go from decontamination, detection, medical effects, medical treatment,” Rapuano said. “There is air transportation, ground transportation, the whole package that can be integrated that can either be commanded by the state National Guards and there’s at least one team in every state. Or they can be authorized under Title X and under DOD command.”
Response teams are deployed “on a routine basis starting with National Special Security Events, the Super Bowl, other large events, Fourth of July.”
“And these assets will be pre-deployed in the vicinity of activities for which there may be some concern that they would be the target of an attack that might include WMD,” Rapuano explained. “And they are prepared to respond in concert with all of the other assets that are typically deployed for those events — law enforcement and others.”
DoD has been working “very closely” with Health and Human Services and DHS “to look at bio threats in general, including naturally occurring, to sync our research with them to ensure that we’re covering the full landscape of what’s naturally occurring and what perhaps could be intensified or developed for malevolent use,” the assistant secretary told lawmakers.
Pressed on how the departments wouldn’t get caught off-guard, with the 2014 spread of the Ebola virus offered as an example, Rapuano replied that “we’re looking at ways that we can get quick production, just in time, but that’s very difficult because you need that base in terms of the manufacturing base.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) mused on whether ISIS stripped of its physical caliphate poses the same WMD threat.
“Because, obviously, this is about talent as much as anything, and intellectual capacity,” Heinrich noted.
Osterman replied that “they are still a threat, to put it simply.”
“Really, when we look at pathways, we’re looking at intent, infrastructure and expertise to your point, production, weaponization, delivery systems in use,” the general added. “And they’ve demonstrated not only that capability over time, but even though as they lose the geographic caliphate, that those individuals that have the technical knowledge and frankly, the level at which they were working and had been working is not one that by loss of that geographic caliphate that it would undermine their ability to continue to pursue the weapons of mass destruction capability.”
Osterman stressed that “it’s a very, very finite technical capability and human capital issue.”
“And they are generally not front-line fighters. There are folks that were not necessarily easy to track, but they’re ones that we’ve been working on for a number of years here and have ideas where they are if we haven’t already basically taken them off the battle space,” he said. “So that’s where my concern is, and where we watch very closely again through the trans-regional approach is to make sure they’re not leaving that area of operations and perhaps than becoming an export or, as we term it, an ex-ops threat to the United States proper.”