Can Science and Technology Help to Counter Terrorism?

Richard L. Garwin
Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
Council on Foreign Relations, New York
IBM Fellow Emeritus
IBM Research Division
P.O. Box 218
Yorktown Heights, NY 10598
Many papers at

The Indo-U.S. Workshop on S&T to Counter Terrorism
12-14 January 2004, Goa, India
Click here for presentation slides


At these sessions we have heard much analysis and wisdom regarding the nature of the terrorist threat and some measures to counter it. Evidently there are large contributions to be made by sciences and technology, ranging from the most basic research on information technology to that of the action of bacteria and viruses to the need for new understanding of social dynamics and personal motivation.

Many of these endeavors, if successful, could have far reaching benefits for both the public and for business. These "dual benefit" activities are very difficult to design and fund. In addition to the benefits, there are serious prospective problems of misuse, manipulation, and the application of the new-found knowledge by terrorists and by states in warfare.

Nevertheless, it is desirable to push ahead, in order to allow the continuation of free and democratic societies in the face of the evolving threats of personal empowerment and terrorist use of technology.

There is also a matter of motivation of those who work on counterterrorism. It is one thing to construct useful and even beautiful buildings against the challenges of cost, time, limited space, and within the constraints of gravity, wind, and functionality. It is quite another to incur significant costs and additional design constraints in an attempt to reduce the vulnerability to terrorism and the losses if terrorism should occur.

In the medical profession, one sees similar conflicts. Some pursue biomedical research in the quest for knowledge and truth, confident that the information acquired will in some way be helpful. Others invent new technology for countering disease, such as the mechanical stents now so widely applied, or imaging technology that permits the acquisition of information to guide treatment, without the cost and hazard of invasive surgery.

But a significant effort goes into repairing the damages of knife wounds and gunshot, preventable accidents, and the like. It is a mission of mercy, requiring every bit as much ingenuity, knowledge, and technique as countering or caring for natural disease, but it is debilitating, to say the least, to exercise and expend such resources when the damage has been inflicted intentionally by one human being on another.

Still, people sort themselves out, and those who are willing and even committed to do such work deserve to be supported and esteemed by society. Add to this that many of those working in science and technology, as in other endeavors, do so as skilled workers who are employed in a system and who produce for their employers (private or public) what they are asked to do. They are supervised and evaluated and provided with tools independent of whether what they do is of benefit to society or not. So it is the job of society in a routine fashion to harness S&T, management, and to provide incentives to individuals and to organizations to prevent the damage from terrorists and to provide mechanisms to inhibit their activities.

When one strengthens the design of a building against earthquake, one does not automatically increase the threat from fire or disease. In contrast, if one expends resources totally to eliminate (if that were possible) the possibility of damage from blast, knowledgeable terrorists can without much difficulty, shift their focus to incendiary or biological or chemical attack, or to a building not yet protected.

So a balanced approach is desirable, countering threats that may not be evident or even imminent; they may be the next resort of terrorists.

Given this somewhat negative assessment of the problems in working to counter terrorism, I recognize that India, the United States, and the rest of the civilized world have enormous human resources and that there will be plenty of people willing to work effectively to counter terrorism, even if they understand that they will not be perfectly successful and will result only in ameliorating rather than eliminating such damage.

An additional aspect for such research is the recognition that major damage from terrorism results from the analog of "immune response" of society to terrorist acts. Just as there are auto-immune diseases in medicine, so the response of society to a threat of terrorism can cause more damage than terrorist attacks themselves. So such solutions must always be evaluated as to the cost they inflict in society, and we should tread as lightly as possible to minimize the inhibition of freedom and to permit the evolution of democracy and the enhancement of well being.

These generalities are illustrated by the discussion following.


Terrorism disruptive of entire societies unfortunately spans an enormous range from the familiar "mall" bomber with a vest or briefcase of high explosives, through CW or BW terrorism (thus far not experienced to any significant extent) to the disruption of unique bridges or other urban choke points, to the ultimate nuclear explosion or multiple seeding of contagious disease such as smallpox.

Among the first level of damage from individual events, there can be considerable learning from experience. Particularly from the many cases of suicide bombers in Israel and now in Iraq, one is familiar with the loss of dozens or even hundreds of people to a single suicide bomber. The general approach to protection is, first, to reduce the number of individuals who are willing to carry out such activities. This means not only a careful look at the behavior of one's society and government, but what the government says and how it is perceived. I will not mention this again, although I believe that it is of fundamental importance.

Next come relatively simple approaches for the detection of explosions or explosive-carrying devices. These differ according to the damage that might be done by an explosion, although it is extremely difficult to protect against the loss of an individual or even a few lives. That runs counter to the entire United States police and judicial system, for instance, in which one has a society remarkably free for an individual to cause damage or death, with the number of such activities held down by the promise of detection, prosecution, and punishment. The normal criminal justice system is of little help against the individual suicide bomber, although it can be of significant utility against the structure that organizes suicide bombers.

Strictly protective measures include explosive detection systems (sniffers) at mall entrances; roadblocks or barriers to prevent high speed access of vehicles carrying large amounts of explosive; and rapid detection systems for detecting hundreds or thousands of kg of explosives in a vehicle.

It is particularly difficult to detect and deter explosives carried or driven by suicide bombers, since they will probably choose the lesser goal of blowing up the guard if they are frustrated in their approach to the more lucrative target.

In order to prevent the auto-immune destruction of society by the threat or practice of a modest amount of mall bombing, it is essential for leaders and citizenry alike to put this threat in context. In the United States, the deaths due to various causes in the year 2001 were 2,400,000. Of these, deaths from heart disease were 700,000; cancer, 553,800; stroke, 164,000; accidents, 102,000; and influenza, 36,000.

Among the accidents, some 42,000 were motor vehicle deaths.

An appropriate sense of perspective for the leaders and the general public is essential if societal disruption out of proportion to the threat is not to degrade the performance of the society and to impair civil liberties and commerce alike.

For instance, in the Nuclear and Radiological Threat category of "Making the Nation Safer ...", there are the so-called dirty bombs, which might not be explosions at all, but simple intentional contamination with radioactive materials. These have been discussed at some length by Henry Kelly and colleagues from the Federation of American Scientists.

A key point is the identification of the radioactive material, and the characterization of the threat in terms of duration of exposure. If it is cobalt-60, with a half-life of five years, even though a substantial fraction of the population exposed for five years would be at risk from cancer, controlled evacuation of the contaminated region within a few days or weeks would limit the hazard by a factor 50 or more. This is consistent with the regulatory approach to environmental hazards such as arsenic and drinking water, for which the regulated limit in the United States is now 50 parts per billion, corresponding to a lifetime cancer risk of about 1.7%. The new limit is to be 10 ppb (reached by 2006), which then corresponds to a lifetime cancer risk of about 0.3%. To my mind, this is unacceptably high, but there is also a requirement that consumers be notified of the arsenic level in their municipal drinking supply, so that they can take individual measures if they so wish.

To reduce the threat from radiological dispersed devices, it is highly desirable to implement stricter control and reporting of the millions of sources of intense radioactivity. These are used for radio therapy in hospitals, industrial radiography of heavy thick materials, and food sterilization as well as, to some extent, polymerization of plastics.

  1. Reduce opportunities for terrorists to obtain dangerous radioactive materials,
  2. Install early warning systems to detect illicit movement of radioactive materials,
  3. Minimize casualties and panic from any attack that does occur.

At the other extreme of nuclear threats is the explosion of a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear device in an urban environment or in a harbor. I have published some analyses leading to estimates of hundreds of thousands of people who would be killed by the explosion even of a one kiloton bomb (about 5% yield of the nuclear weapon that destroyed Nagasaki). For a ground-level explosion, far more people would be killed by exposure to the prompt radiation from the explosion and to the immediate fallout of the debris from the explosion itself than was the case in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Nuclear and Biological Megaterrorism," Erice, Sicily, August 19-24, 2002.

Protecting society against terrorist use of nuclear weapons lies in the better protection of nuclear weapons of those states possessing them. In this regard, Russia is a special problem in view of the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and the rather poor security created by the economic problems in that country. Pakistan is another concern, because its dozens of nuclear weapons are at risk of diversion by sympathizers with extremist Islamic groups, and also by a potential coup against the government.

It is possible to detect the nuclear materials-- Pu-239 or U-235-- most commonly used for nuclear weapons. Of these, highly enriched uranium is the greater problem, since it is far less detectable than plutonium. It is also easier to fabricate into a nuclear weapon, and such an improvised weapon might well have the full yield of the Hiroshima bomb-- some 13 kilotons.

Another general purpose instrument against terrorism is intelligence. To this one needs to add the powerful tool of appropriate financial rewards for informants.

Human and agricultural health systems-- bioterrorism.

For bioterrorism I take three examples-- foot and mouth disease, Salmonella, and smallpox.

Foot and mouth disease is a highly contagious disease of animals, affecting pigs and cows, for example. It is not apparently a threat to human health, but because it is so contagious, it is typically forbidden to import any animal product from an infected region into a country free of foot and mouth disease. This is a problem that cries out for improved vaccines, in order to prevent the spread of FMD in places in which it exists, and to protect animal populations in states free of FMD. Ironically, existing vaccine is not much used for protection because its use results in the animals developing antibodies that cannot be distinguished from the presence of FMD. It is in the interests of trading nations of the world to develop such effective protection, and it seems to me that this could very well be done in India. More effective vaccines for FMD are needed. It is highly desirable to carry out such work, despite the fact that the United States has been free of FMD. As with the case of smallpox, the absence of even a single case should not convey a sense of security, but a profound sense of insecurity and instability against the introduction of the disease.

Salmonella is a frequent cause of food poisoning in the United States and to a greater extent in other countries. Its cause is a common bacterium causing primarily illness and occasionally death. The one recorded bioterrorist incident in the United States, other than the anthrax attacks of Fall 2001, was from a sect in Oregon that wished to reduce the number of people voting, in order to give their candidate a better chance at election. In this case, Salmonella was spread on food at a self-service salad bar. It could also be used to contaminate supermarket vegetable counters, and would surely sicken a large number of people.

We have had a lot of recent experience with anthrax. Despite its familiarity over the centuries, much has been learned in the last couple of years. Among our new-found knowledge is the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment after symptoms begin. To recapitulate, anthrax forms a hardy spore, which survives in the environment for decades. When it is ingested in the lungs or GI-tract, some fraction of the spores enter the vegetative state, from which the bacteria can reproduce.

There is effective vaccine against several strains of anthrax, and, as mentioned, there is also effective antibiotic treatment. But recent knowledge of the mechanism by which the bacterial population produce disease implicates three protein products of the bacteria. These toxins have specific actions in animal cells, which can be blocked by appropriate chemical counters. Should such a treatment prove viable, there would be another approach besides preventing the disease or preventing the multiplication of the bacteria, and that would be to detoxify the toxic products, so that the disease itself would be less harmful to its host. Much more biomedical research along these lines is indicated, and because of the substantial competence and lower cost for such activities in India, India should be a prime location.

Despite the effectiveness of a few grams of anthrax in killing a number of people, through the inefficient means of dissemination from postal sorting machines, as well as from direct communication from envelopes containing the anthrax spores, anthrax is not highly communicable. That is, the disease is not readily communicated from one individual to another. In principle, therefore, improved hygiene can protect individuals from the primary source, and it is not necessary to take strong measures to isolate people sick with anthrax.

Smallpox is a different story. We all now that the world has been free of smallpox since the extraordinary effort made by the World Health Organization (WHO) to eradicate smallpox worldwide. This was possible because smallpox has no animal hosts other than humans.

In 1972 the U.S. government terminated the U.S. vaccination program. Arguments in favor of termination included the fact that several people per year died of side effects of the vaccine, and nobody died of smallpox. Therefore, why vaccinate? Consider the example of the nuclear reactor with its control rods fully inserted, and no significant neutron population in the core. If one pulled out the control rods (one could argue that they are not needed because there are no neutrons), a few stray neutrons would soon produce an enormous amount of heat and radioactivity, leading (if the control rods were pulled out rapidly enough) to melting of the reactor core and liberating much of the radioactive material accumulated in the core. perhaps dispersal as in the case of Chernobyl, the core damage was extreme and there was no gas-tight containment as there is with all the so-called Light-Water Power Reactors. Vaccination against smallpox is the analogue of permanently inserted control rods in a nuclear reactor.

Failing substantial vaccination, the country is at risk to the dissemination of virus at a busy airport, from which tens of thousands of people would unknowingly disperse all over the United States and the world, so that within a couple of weeks, when the disease became apparent, they would have infected a good many others.

Smallpox has a fortunate characteristic that vaccination is effective during the first four days after exposure, or so it is thought. Therefore it is possible in principle with an appropriate distribution of vaccine and a few-minute course in vaccination techniques, for a few thousands workers throughout the United States to create 10,000 in the first hour and many times that in the second hour, so that it should be possible to vaccinate all reachable individuals within a couple of days. But this takes a plan and provision of the appropriate bifurcated needles for the vaccination process, as well as other supplies.

The United States has been largely unsuccessful with the Administration's initiative to vaccinate large numbers of first responders and health-care workers, and to make vaccination available to those who wished it. I believe this is a significant failure, and we do not even have, yet, a plan to vaccinate hospital and emergency workers in a single day.

My August 2002 paper describes the effectiveness of non-specific measures to counter an epidemic. Smallpox is not among the most highly communicable diseases. From experience with natural epidemics, on the average it seems that a smallpox victim infects about three others. Hence 1000 primary cases would grow in two weeks to 3000, two weeks more to 9000, and so on. If the transmission could be reduced by a factor four-- to an average of 0.75 secondary cases per primary case-- even if there were no other treatment, 1000 primary cases would result in a total of 4000 altogether.

Society need not fragment itself or setup quarantine or other barriers routinely, but they should be available in case of an outbreak of smallpox (or SARS), at the first sign of a significant number of cases. This would do nothing for the primary victims, but it would keep a tragedy from becoming a disaster. And limiting the infection to a multiple of the initial cases, compared with the potential millions of victims of a fulminating epidemic.

In order to achieve this there must be analysis and planning. But the implementation requires the action of much of the society. This can only be achieved by the distribution of action messages via radio and particularly television. The internet is an excellent distribution medium in the United States because it provides data on demand; following an alert, anyone with internet access would be able to access and print the information relevant to their locality. In case of biological terrorism, a radiological dispersal incident, or the release of toxic material, the channels for distribution of warning and action information to the public is not inherently affected. But simultaneous attack on the internet and the power grid would amplify greatly the impact of BW, RDD or chemical attack.


Science and technology specific to countering terrorism includes the means of ensuring premature detonation of explosives or of inhibiting the triggering of explosives. Most S&T counter-terrorism tools are highly useful for public health, law enforcement, or general intelligence purposes. Much S&T now useful for counter terrorism is embodied in systems in general use, such as the media of mass and selective communications. Science and technology cannot eliminate the problem of terrorism, but they can help in opposing it.