COUNTERPOINT: Responding to Dr. Koontz Interview (Oct. 17)

I respect Robert Koontz’s accomplishments in several fields in which I also take an active interest. I respect his meticulous research, and the manner in which he discovered the information on “coded” art cited in his interview with DefenseWatch on Oct. 17 (“Expert Warns al Qaeda Planning Major Biological Attack“).

I take issue, however, with his conclusions, specifically that the paintings he has presented contain coded communication or directives from a central controlling authority to the field soldier or agent of the al Qaeda.

I agree with Dr. Koontz that the painting titled “Downfall” clearly indicates that the artist had prior knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s plans. In my experience, however, people do not normally create convoluted communications systems that are prone to error. This is no more true than with an organization that needs to be nimble and light-footed. Initially, al Qaeda relayed on “disposable” cell phones for critical communications, and there is some evidence that this mode still is used for the most time-critical communications. For the most part, now however, they use couriers.

It makes absolutely no sense to create a series of paintings that may or may not be seen by the individuals responsible for taking action, especially in order to signal pre-developed plans at predetermined times. This only requires a go or no-go signal. I see the artwork as a coded means of inspiring the “faithful,” a way for a true believer to hang on his wall a symbol of what his action may help bring about.

I do not wish to minimize the potential threat these terrorists present, but I also do not want to overestimate their potential abilities.

You cannot spread Ebola using the backpack technique. It is impossible. Lacking sophisticated biochemical equipment and abilities, you need to import this disease in a living simian close to the human strain, such as a gorilla. Since the average lifetime of an infected creature is just a few hours, you will need to have a significant number of ready individuals, and will have to develop a technique for transmitting the infection from one to the next before the first expires, and keep this up until you can release the infection into the general population. This is tough to do!

Despite some public assertions to the contrary, there are only two caches of smallpox in existence, and we know where both are. I think we should destroy them, but in any case, we know where they are. If al Qaeda terrorists somehow got their hands on some, they still have a problem. Smallpox is only infectious during the “pox” stage, where the victim is generally so weak that he or she is bedridden. So causing a general epidemic is not a walk in the park. It will be recognized almost immediately, and steps taken immediately to minimize the effect. I don’t see it as a major threat. Since we have an effective vaccine, we should not make a big deal of this disease.

Anthrax is not normally fatal. Even when infected with the inhaled form, a properly educated public can avoid nearly all fatalities. This could be significantly enhanced by passing out two Cipro tablets to everyone, with instructions to take one only if a public announcement to this effect is made, followed by the second 12 hours later, and an immediate visit to the nearest clinic.

There are other biologic weapons, but the terrorists under bin Laden’s control are nowhere close to being sufficiently sophisticated to deal with these. The real threat is and continues to be explosives brought to specific locations by apparently unconnected groups of trucks and vans. Targets could be the Golden Gate Bridge, the Oakland Bay Bridge, one of the other significant bridges anywhere in the United States, one many significant tunnels under major rivers or even a dam.

Note, however, that most dams are sufficiently strong that no one could assemble a sufficiently large amount of conventional explosives nearby, so that a small nuke would be required to take them out. I do not believe the al Qaeda has a SADM or the Russian equivalent (if they ever really developed one). Remember that the Chinese had the plans for such a weapon for 10 years without being able actually to build one.

So let’s not chase our tails. These terrorists can keep us running in circles until hell freezes over simply by sending an envelope here and there if we don’t gain a national understanding of the real nature of the threat against us.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

(Click here for offsite response by Dr Koontz to this article)


Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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