A deadly chemical or biological attack on a major city is extremely likely, perhaps inevitable, in the next decade, according to leading international terrorism experts.
The effect on society and the economy of terrorists perfecting the weapons could potentially be more devastating than the Al Qaeda attacks 20 years ago that led to $45 billion in insurance pay-outs, an event hosted by the International Forum of Terrorism Risk (Re)Insurance heard.
Given the devastation caused by Covid-19, a biological or chemical device was now the “perfect weapon of choice for the terrorists”, said Douglas Wise, former deputy director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency.
“We know that terrorists are seeking access to that kind of material,” he told the documentary film, 9/11 Two Decades of Disruption. “It's simple to use, doesn't require extraordinary technology and it's very easy to deploy. And the terrorists know that the impact to societies, to nations, to economies is existential.”
Lady Suzanne Raine, the former director of counter terrorism at the UK Foreign Office, said Al Qaeda now had a “scientific understanding” about chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons through “battlefield” development.
“The question has to be, when and if that battlefield experimentation moves out of a battlefield,” she said. “You would expect it more likely would happen through a returning fighter because they’ve got the experience of using them and sooner or later you would expect it to happen.”
Mr Wise agreed: “We've seen again and again that terrorist organisations aspire to carry out these kinds of mass casualty, high impact events and it's not for lack of effort that they have not succeeded, thus far.”
A successful attack, potentially causing more fatalities than the 3,000 from 9/11, would have a major psychological effect on society, said former FBI agent Ali Soufan, chairman of the Soufan Group, a global intelligence consultant.
“The possibility of a CBRN attack, rightfully gets a great deal of attention because we can imagine that with biological or chemical weapons it could be a tremendous shock to society and to the perception of safety that we aim to protect,” he said.
Over the past 30 years terrorists regularly used deadly substances although as yet not a weapon of mass destruction, said Prof Andrew Silke of Cranfield University.
“To say that you expect another one before 2030 is fairly unremarkable, we absolutely are going to have chemical and biological attacks, probably on an annual basis and maybe considerably more often.”
Brig Ed Butler, who led British special forces during the post-9/11 period, raised serious concerns of a terrorist dirty-bomb, using radiation to kill and contaminate.
“If we did have a radiological device go off in the middle of London or a major conurbation we wouldn't be coming back into the city. Our whole country would change much more than from Covid, which has been dreadful. If you can imagine having parts of central London being denied for years and years that's something which would be catastrophic.”
While the insurance industry worked effectively post 9/11 preventing insolvencies and an economic downturn, the attacks did present a major challenge, said Britt Newhouse, former chairman of Guy Carpenter, the American reinsurance firm. “As a student of history my biggest fear is something like this is going to happen again, bigger and worse and motivated by real true evil intentions,” he said.