Coping with Chaos: The Aftermath of a CBRNE Incident

Whether from a terrorist attack or because of an accidental release, improving the means to detect and react to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and/or high-yield explosives (CBRNE) incidents is an issue of grave, and growing, importance. The effects of any such incident can be devastating – and it is known that terrorist organizations have for some time been aggressively seeking chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. To make matters worse, the United States has received a failing grade several times in the past on its preparedness (actually, the lack thereof) to handle such threats. To ensure that efforts to improve preparedness continue in the face of the still increasing threat, and that new technological advances continue to develop, U.S. strategic cooperation with its allies is of utmost importance, both nationally and internationally.

According to a report issued by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, “It is well within al Qaeda’s capabilities to develop and use bio weapons.” The report also suggests that, if al Qaeda is effective in recruiting skilled bio-scientists, it will almost inevitably acquire the capability needed to develop and use biological weapons.

That possibility is as alarming as another recent report – released by the inspector general of the Department of Justice (DOJ) – which warns that the U.S. agencies responsible for coordinating, planning, and reacting to such an attack are not yet ready to carry out the duties they have been assigned. The DOJ report states specifically, in fact, that “the Department of Justice as a whole and components within the Department have not implemented adequate Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) response plans.” The inevitable result, the report continues, is that the Department “is not fully prepared to provide a coordinated response to a WMD incident.”

The No-Longer-Distant Cloud on the Horizon There are numerous specific factors substantiating the need for improved preparations in dealing with a CBRNE incident – most importantly, the fact that such an attack may be looming just over the horizon. The illegal acquisition of CBRNE materials by terrorist groups will almost certainly increase in the foreseeable future, especially with global illicit trafficking being a major money-making opportunity for organized crime. Already, according to the International Atomic Energy Authority, the trafficking of such materials proliferated significantly between 1993 and 2008. One ominous statistical example: During that time frame there have been more than 1,500 trafficking incidents – primarily involving the former Soviet Union – with a staggering 65 percent of the losses involved never recovered.

Alarmingly, the Internet continues to allow information about the technology behind the development of CBRNE weapons. In addition, the current lack of security for decommissioned military CBRNE materials makes the situation much worse; too many materials are left vulnerable – i.e., susceptible to theft by criminal and/or terrorist organizations. These are some but by no means all of the factors now hindering the global community’s efforts to combat CBRNE threats.

As governments worldwide attempt to better prepare for such horrendous events, any improvement in preparedness should be coupled with advances in the technologies needed to detect any such event – before it happens. It is true that various government agencies have been tasked with responding to such threats, but not enough of those agencies are directly involved in actual development of the technologies needed to refine, improve, and further advance the detection and protection capabilities needed. Governments must communicate their needs in an effort to develop even better technologies.

The Need for a Truly Global/Truly Collaborative Effort Globally, governments should also be prepared not only to prevent, pursue, and protect their cities and citizens against CBRNE attacks, but – of greater importance – to prepare for such incidents by being more deeply involved in the development of new detection technologies. Neither task can be completed well, or completely, without the other. In short, all levels of government – plus the private sector and academia – must collaborate, vigorously and on a continuing basis, to advance the technologies needed to combat the looming CBRNE threats. Governments should therefore engage academia (as well as the nation’s leading “think-tanks” in this field) to secure their assistance in the scrutiny and development of the government’s own efforts.

Manufacturers of new-technology CBRNE detection and warning devices are in fact making such equipment more accurate, more user friendly, and more durable – usually both smaller and faster as well. However, many manufacturers acknowledge that, although a large number of products seem to be a major breakthrough in the lab, they still might fail, unfortunately, in the field. In addition, most first responders themselves – the end users in the field – agree that using anti-CBRNE equipment only once or twice a year does not provide the frequent training really needed to become personally and professionally familiar with such detection devices. Largely for that reason, communications are beginning to improve between the manufacturers of the anti-CBRNE systems and the users.

One technology that is not completely new but seems to improve almost daily involves what is called Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) – an advancing technique that can be used to rapidly analyze solids, gases, or liquids with very limited, if any, damage to the sample being analyzed. Being able to detect and develop such valuable information is the essential first step to an accurate analysis of what agent is being used in the CBRNE weapon. Although the techniques used are somewhat complicated, the concept and processes involved are relatively simple. LIBS uses a laser to cut particles – typically less than a milligram from the surface of the sample is needed – and analyzes the particles to determine the elemental composition of the sample. More simply put, a high-powered laser beam is pointed at a sample and a small portion of matter begins to vaporize, emitting plasma as it decomposes. The light emitted by the plasma is composed of spectral lines characteristic of the elements present in the CBRNE weapon or device. Analysis of this light makes it possible, in most if not all cases, to determine the elemental composition of the sample.

The Essential Ingredients of an Effective Response Mounting a rapid response to a CBRNE attack will require, among other things, early detection and analysis of the materials that were apparently released during the attack. The detection and determination of CBRNE “ingredients” also may be based, of course, on obvious signs and symptoms from affected victims. However, the use of LIBS by first responders can help immensely in quickly and safelyentifying what specific type of CBRNE agent is present. Some substances are more difficult to detect than others, but early detection of the agents actually present can assist significantly in ensuring that effective countermeasures can be initiated in a more timely manner. To address detection techniques of potentially contaminated agents in the field, LIBS can and should prevent or at least minimize risk to the operator and also ensure that the equipment used is portable, easy to operate, and accurate.

One cautionary note: Although LIBS technologies have advanced dramatically over the past 10 years, continued improvements are needed. There are both advantages and disadvantages in using LIBS devices, but the benefits seem to clearly outweigh the disadvantages. To continue the advances in LIBS technology, it is important that all levels of government, private industry, and academia work together to ensure that LIBS capabilities move forward at least as rapidly as al Qaeda’s relentless pursuit of CBRNE weapons.

A continuous effort to maintain and augment the levels of well trained and well equipped first responders is why field exercises are so essential. The nation’s responses to CBRNE attacks must be tested first at the local level by, among other drills and exercises, training local emergency services units and other responding agencies, then feeding the lessons learned andentified both into operational training and into the response plans written and approved at higher levels of government.

Here it is worth noting that the United Kingdom was one of the first nations to carry out a truly comprehensive CBRNE recovery exercise – one that involved national and local government agencies as well as emergency services – to helpentify issues that might arise if there were an actual attack. In 2005, the first transatlantic CBRNE exercise, code named “Atlantic Blue,” was carried out by the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. That exercise, developed by the United Kingdom’s Home Office, was an unusually ambitious project involving years of planning and more than 10,000 operational personnel.

The Atlantic Blue scenario centered on mock but large-scale incidents involving a known terrorist organization that had obtained and was using CBRN weapons. Numerous law-enforcement and other government departments, agencies, and organizations used the exercise to test their counterterrorist contingency plans. Atlantic Blue, the script for which was based on two catastrophic explosions – one in London; the other in the United States – continued for five consecutive 24-hour days and was the first-ever “live” transatlantic operation of its kind.

The Long & Winding Road to International Collaboration Similarly coordinated efforts should be carried out internationally with academia, emergency responders, and pertinent local, state, and federal agencies all participating. And additional exercises like Atlantic Blue should be scheduled on a routine and recurring basis. The combination of allocating only a small percentage of training time (and funds) and not being familiar with new technologies to address a potentially disastrous incident will almost always result in a catastrophic response. Agencies at all levels of government therefore must not only be overly prepared to respond to CBRNE attacks, but ultimately should be totally familiar, through continuing drills and exercises, with the technologies needed (and now available) in addressing the numerous challenges involved.

Globally speaking, development and support must continue for a successful international effort to counter CBRNE terrorism. True international partnerships are a must, therefore, to permit governments to share: (a) the intelligence developed about the CBNRE capabilities of terrorists; and (b) their own plans, policies, and intentions to disrupt the terrorist group’s efforts. Cross training between and among nations and allied naval/military and law-enforcement units also is of particular importance because the ability and willingness to pool capabilities and share best-practice techniques is one of the best and most effective ways to facilitate recovery from a CBRNE incident.

Significant progress is being made in the capabilities needed to deal with the real threats posed by a CBRNE incident. Nonetheless, many obstacles remain. Given the probable continuing evolution of terrorist capabilities, and the dangers associated with that threat, there must be a global understanding of future anti-CBRNE objectives, technologies, and priorities. Finally, in order to ensure that the world is truly ready to deal with the CBRNE threat, an approach is needed that not only includes diversity, both inside and outside the governments involved, but also that brings together academic research, private industry, and the collective capabilities of government response agencies, both foreign and domestic.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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