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Will Terrorists Soon Be Using Weapons of Mass Destruction?

March 23, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations

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A new book by Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Jessica Stern explores the dangers


For further information contact: April Wahlestedt, Director of Communications (212) 434-9544


March 23, 1999 - There is increasing evidence that terrorist attacks of tomorrow could include the use of poison gases, deadly bacteria, or crude nuclear weapons. This is the major finding of a new book by one of the leading experts on weapons of mass destruction, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Jessica Stern. This conclusion is backed up by evidence, studies, and interviews.

Sounding what former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry calls "a wake-up call for all Americans," and former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake terms "an important alarm [that he hopes] is widely heard," Dr. Stern warns that the 21st century could witness low-technology terrorist attacks employing chemical, radiological, or biological agents. While the likelihood of mass-casualty attacks is low, governments cannot afford to ignore the danger.

In The Ultimate Terrorists, Dr. Stern cites recent developments that have contributed to this new terrorism:

-- New motivating factors, such as religious conviction or apocalyptic beliefs, have created a new breed of terrorists, unconstrained by traditional ethics or political pressures.

-- The break-up of the Soviet Union has brought nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons components onto the black market and has rendered former Soviet scientists desperate, some of whom may be a source of expertise for terrorists.

-- The Internet is making weapons-related information more accessible to terrorists, including weapons design and poison manuals.

-- Advanced industrial societies are particularly vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction, which are most efficiently used against people living in high concentration.

Drawing on both her Council research and her experience working with the White House to prevent nuclear terrorism, Dr. Stern explains the motivations of terrorists, points out specific circumstances that threaten safety, and offers steps the U.S. and other governments can take to prevent attacks and to mitigate the damage of those that occur. She also discusses the reasons poisons and nuclear materials inspire hysteria among the populace, and how to prevent the public panic that could be as dangerous as an actual attack. Finally, Dr. Stern discusses the need to improve public safety without compromising basic constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression.

Jessica Stern is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. She is a former director of Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.

The Council on Foreign Relations, founded in 1921 and based in New York, is a national nonpartisan membership organization and think tank dedicated to fostering America's understanding of other nations through study and debate.

For review copies, please contact Harvard University Press Publicity Department at 617.495.4713.

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