Terrorism Expert Says Chances of New Attack in U.S. ’Very High’

July 29, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Jessica Stern, a leading expert on terror who was the National Security Council director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs in the Clinton administration, says the United States cannot let its guard down against terrorism because the chances for a second 9/11 attack remain “very high.” The author of “The Ultimate Terrorists” (1999), the forthcoming “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill” (August 2003), and "The Protean Enemy" in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Stern adds that “the prospect for terrorist groups to get access to nuclear and biological weapons is a very, very grave threat.”

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Stern is currently a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at cfr.org, on July 29, 2003.

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Now that American forces seem to be closing in on Saddam Hussein, what have we learned or not learned about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction [WMD] or its links to terrorist groups?

From what I read, it doesn’t appear that we have learned very much about the WMD program. The fact that apparently nothing has been found doesn’t yet mean that nothing’s there. There are so many different possibilities: that WMD are there, and we haven’t found them; that they were destroyed immediately before the invasion; or that parts of the program were moved. In regard to biological weapons, the most important technology is intellectual, really. It is possible to produce those weapons fairly rapidly if the expertise exists. It is not necessary to harbor a large stockpile to still have a capability.

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In regard to connections to terrorist groups, there is very little coming out in the press about that. But I did hear more than I wrote about in the Foreign Affairs article [“The Protean Enemy”] from Osama bin Laden’s biographer, Hamid Mir, who has seen Hezbollah quite active in Iraq. [Mir] reported that many people felt that the only way to fight U.S. troops [in Iraq] was through terrorism, that clearly that was the only way to resist. The notion of serving as a terrorist seemed to have quite a broad appeal, according to Mir.

But isn’t the fighting in Iraq going on now better described as guerrilla action, rather than as terrorism?

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You’re right. One of the reasons to call it guerrilla rather than terrorist tactics is that [Iraqi attackers] are fighting U.S. troops rather than civilians. But I was fascinated to hear early on that a group claiming to be part of al Qaeda took responsibility for some of those attacks, while the Pentagon is claiming the attacks are coming from troops who were loyal to Saddam Hussein. Who knows?

Do you think Osama bin Laden is dead?

My guess is that he is still alive.

Some people have said that, if he were alive, we would have heard more from him. What do you think?

I’ve heard reports from Pakistan about reported sightings of bin Laden in Afghanistan for some time. This is an area rife with rumor, so you really don’t know.

You write in your Foreign Affairs article that you have been interviewing terrorists for five years. What got you interested in interviewing them?

I had been working on a book on the prospects of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. I just got an idea that maybe I could talk to some of the individuals who had acquired or attempted to acquire chemical or biological agents, and I realized that these guys liked to talk to me. When I started talking to individuals who claimed to be fighting in the name of God, I found it irresistible to try and understand how it was that someone who seemed to be quite religious, observant, or spiritual could do something so evil. I just had to understand this.

I got a bug and had to go and interview, and I started traveling around. I began this in 1998, and I first went to Pakistan in February 1999. There wasn’t much attention being paid to the groups in Pakistan then. Now, a number of them have joined bin Laden’s International Islamic Front. I think they were willing to talk to me because they hadn’t received a lot of attention at that point. They wanted to be taken seriously, really, as terrorists, even though they described themselves not as terrorists but as jihadis.

Did you ever talk to anyone who worked for al Qaeda?

I never went to seek out someone with al Qaeda because I did not think it would be safe for me. Since I had worked for the U.S. government, it was not a good idea. But a number of the Pakistani jihadis whom I knew well had joined bin Laden’s International Islamic Front. At the time, I had heard they had a connection with al Qaeda, but I did not know how close that connection would become.

Two years ago, your greatest concern was the possibility that nuclear and other weapons would be made available to terrorist groups. Is that still a very high concern?

Yes. I think the prospect for terrorist groups to get access to nuclear and biological weapons is a very, very grave threat. The fact that I have recently been focusing on the terrorists as opposed to the weapons doesn’t mean the latter aren’t a very serious problem. Biological weapons are a particular concern.

A lot of people have said that the technical difficulties of delivering biological weapons make them less threatening. Is that not accurate?

It is accurate. A high-tech delivery system is quite difficult to put together. But a low-tech delivery system is far less difficult. We saw a very low-tech delivery system using the U.S. Postal Service to spread some anthrax. Only 18 people or so were affected, and several people died, but [the incidents] did have a major impact.

In the past, you were very concerned about scientists from the former Soviet Union spreading nuclear weapons. Are you any less concerned about that?

Not really. There has been a lot of progress since I left the government when I was working on this issue. Nevertheless, there are still reports coming out of the former Soviet Union about criminal groups trying to acquire [nuclear weapons-grade] materials. There have even been reports of organized criminals working together with terrorist groups. Unfortunately, this is a threat that is going to stay with us for some time.

On terrorism in general, if you were going to grade on a level of one to ten, what would be the level of concern that Americans should have about another attack in the United States?

Very high. The prospect of other attacks in the United States is quite high but, at the same time, [it should not be a great concern] to individual Americans because the likelihood of any individual falling prey to a terrorist attack is vanishingly small. [Attacks are] a concern mainly for the government. It is imperative that the government take this threat extremely seriously, because the government actually has the capacity to do something about this. There isn’t much that individual Americans can do.

Where would your concerns be focused? On ports, for instance?

I can’t really say. There are a lot of vulnerabilities. You have identified one of the very major vulnerabilities— ports. We know that al Qaeda has been thinking of transportation systems— trains and bridges, for instance. I would be concerned about shopping malls.

So as we near the second anniversary of 9/11, the United States should not let up its guard against terrorism? And no particular reason for believing the war against terrorism is over?

No, I don’t think so.

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