Chem-bio terrorist attacks a supplanted fad, says analysis

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Terrorist attempts to launch chemical-biological based attacks on public transportation were a fad supplanted by a more realistic return to explosives in the latter part of the last decade, says a new analysis published this month by the Mineta Transportation Institute.

The analysis (.pdf) examines 15 failed terrorist plots against public transportation in the United States, Europe and Australia from 1997 through 2010. Four of those plots involved poison gas, and one involved ricin.

"All of these plots share an illusory quality," says the analysis, which is written by Brian Jenkins, a senior advisor to the president at Rand Corp., and Joseph Trella, a consultant.

"They were all talk. No actual weapons or substances were found," they add--noting that the ricin plot could be an exception, since the plotters were in possession of a handful of castor beans.

Given the difficulty of acquiring chemical-biological substances in large quantities, it's unlikely that any of the plots would have resulted in mass casualties had they not been foiled. But, that hasn't prevented sensationalist accounts to grow around them, a quality fanned by the news media but also understandable in a post-9/11 context, they say. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, no terrorist plot could be easily dismissed as far-fetched.

"The 9/11 attacks encouraged imagination and audacity," they add, noting that if the attacks had succeeded at killing even only a handful of people, they would have resulted in panic and widespread alarm.

But, the public concern over chemical-biological attacks were also inflamed by allegations of Iraqi development of those weapons that turned out to be false. In any case, "by mid-decade the poison fad was over," they add, noting that multiple conventional explosives (as demonstrated by successful strikes in London and Madrid) became the new prototype for terrorist attacks.

For more:
- download the report, "Carnage Interrupted: An Analysis of Fifteen Terrorist Plots Against Public Surface Transportation" (.pdf)

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