Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good stories? (updated)

Picture: The Triumph of Death (Pieter Breugel, Museo del Prado, Madrid)

This blogger read the following article in "Homeland Security News" at the "National Terror Alert Response System," Report - Al Qaeda Unconventional Weapons Experiment Kills 40 Operatives.

An al Qaeda affiliate in Algeria closed a base earlier this month after an experiment with unconventional weapons went awry, a senior U.S. intelligence official said Monday. The official, who spoke on the condition he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said he could not confirm press reports that the accident killed at least 40 al Qaeda operatives, but he said the mishap led the militant group to shut down a base in the mountains of Tizi Ouzou province in eastern Algeria.

He said authorities in the first week of January intercepted an urgent communication between the leadership of al Qaeda in the Land of the Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda’s leadership in the tribal region of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan. The communication suggested that an area sealed to prevent leakage of a biological or chemical substance had been breached, according to the official. “We don’t know if this is biological or chemical,” the official said. The story was first reported by the British tabloid the Sun, which said the al Qaeda operatives died after being infected with a strain of bubonic plague, the disease that killed a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. But the intelligence official dismissed that claim. Source WP.

The Sun - Terrorists Killed By Own Black Death Experiment: The terrorists planned to wreak havoc on Western targets but fell victims to their own weapon, a leading expert on chemical warfare believes. The Sun revealed yesterday that Black Death, also called the Plague, killed at least 40 fanatics at a terror training camp in Algeria earlier this month.

It was thought they caught the disease through poor living conditions in their forest hideouts. But Dr Igor Khrupinov, of Georgia University, said: “Al-Qaeda is known to experiment with biological weapons. And this group has direct communication with other cells around the world. “Contagious diseases, like ebola and anthrax, occur in northern Africa. It makes sense that people are trying to use them against Western governments.” Dr Khrupinov, once arms adviser to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, added: “Instead of using bombs, people with infectious diseases could be walking through cities.” Black Death has been researched as a biological weapon before. Source, The Sun.

Oh, the horror (sarcasm alert). Well, this article sources to two very similar reports in the Washington Times and The Sun. The former is a serious newspaper (although founded in 1982 by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon), while the latter is a British tabloid better known for its "Page 3" topless models. OK, so on reading the article this blogger wasn't very impressed at all. The article seems rather fantastical; mostly anonymously sourced; contradictory - the "intelligence official" said that some mishap closed down the terrorist camp, but also dismissed the claim of plague; the terrorists may have caught the plague "through poor living conditions in their forest hideout" (doesn't quite match up to the accompanying photo of a cave in treeless terrain) or by developing a biological warfare agent; and generally rather foolish.

In sum, the article would have us believe that although the terrorists could have acted as human vectors by walking through cities to infect others (pace Dr. Khrupinov) , they chose to stay and die in their camp rather than hopping a bus to the nearest city. And having developed the plague and having successfully demonstrated its lethality (albeit inadvertently on some of their own members) the terrorists abandoned their weapon and closed their base! Sounds like 'The gang who couldn't shoot straight." And, final note, why would The Sun talk to "a leading expert on chemical warfare" about biological agents?

A second article, "UK Cyber Attack reported" from DefenseTech.org also bears many of the same hallmarks as the story above i.e somewhat vague on the details, anonymously sourced, a breathless "danger, danger" quality, "unconfirmed reports implied", etc. OK, so this is a reputable organization and their articles generally are top-notch, but this blogger is still a little skeptical on this one.

Do the British really have the fire control and other systems on their naval vessels connected to e-mail and the Internet? Was this really "an attack" vs. an infection. The article references a recent "cyber-attack" on the Pentagon and implies this bug was "similar" though experts were "not willing to say they were identical." Note: the Pentagon response was " to ban the use of USB memory sticks or flash drives", which would seem to be a counter-measure to inadvertent infection and not to "an attack" (unless there was someone that intentionally used a USB memory stick to infect the Pentagon machines, something a tad more serious...).

Next up, JeffreyLockwood, a professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming, who has just published a book, "Six-Legged Soldiers," purporting to explore the history of man's attempts to use insects for military purposes... While promoting his book (which has been reviewed as not very rigorous, e.g. see here, here and here) , he seems to have hit upon the idea of emphasizing how easy it would be for terrorist to use insects (perhaps to 'goose' sales of his book).

From 'Terrorists could use 'insect-based' biological weapon:' "... Jeffrey Lockwood... said such Rift Valley Fever or other diseases could be transported into a country by a terrorist with a suitcase. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think a small terrorist cell could very easily develop an insect-based weapon. "He said it would "probably be much easier" than developing a nuclear or chemical weapon, arguing: "The raw material is in the back yard. "He continued: "It would be a relatively easy and simple process. "A few hundred dollars and a plane ticket and you could have a pretty good stab at it."

OK, if this really so easy and so cheap it begs the question as to why this hasn't happened yet... Perhaps the answer is that it is not!

Bottom line, there are many, many stories that appear in the media that on first read appear scary... terrorists, bubonic plague, cyber-attacks, bombs, weapons of mass destruction, etc., etc. While all of these are real things, fantastical stories with little basis in reality are not very useful - they cause unnecessary fear, and simply muddy the water and detract from the real threats (of which there are enough without making more up out of whole cloth...)

Updated Jan 22nd 1700:

The first (plague) story, make that this pile of sludge, was picked up and featured at The Counterterrorism Blog and then at The Daily Dish. The Counterterrorism Blog bills itself as "The first multi-expert blog dedicated solely to counterterrorism issues, serving as a gateway to the community for policymakers and serious researchers. Designed to provide realtime information about terrorism cases and policy developments." Ouch, makes one wonder about the rest of their "analysis"... The Daily Dish subsequently notes that there are questions re this story, referencing "WMD blogger Armchair Generalist." Phew!

Self-congratulatory note: The Armchair Generalist (or at least a "J", who links to The Armchair Generalist in his 'Contact me') came by, read this blog entry and agreed in the comments, prior to penning his excellent take-down...


  1. George Smith at Dick Destiny has a good post that also runs parallel to your observations (http://www.dickdestiny.com/blog/2009/01/it-would-be-easy-for-terrorists-to.html). I largely agree - I didn't even bother to comment about Lockwood's book, because it just seemed so silly.

  2. Thanx for the reminder re "Dick Destiny" Haven't been there for a while, but will start visiting again. He has done some masterful take-downs in the past...


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