Defending Your Campus Against WMDs

Hospital, university and school security professionals can't afford to just have good disaster response plans when weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are involved. Understanding the various types that could be used, the kinds of risks a site could face and the appropriate preventive measures available can help campuses ward off an attack.

Published: February 28, 2006

The year was 1346 and some now-forgotten warlord was perplexed as to how he could gain the upper hand against a city he was attacking. This warrior needed a new weapon that could not only kill but also demoralize and intimidate the enemy.

A better sword or bow and arrow wouldn’t do. His foes had been using these weapons for centuries and were well prepared to respond. No — this evil genius needed something that would strike terror in the hearts of his opponents.

The answer? Catapult disease-laden human and animal cadavers over the walls of the city under siege, spreading disease and paralyzing its inhabitants with fear. Thus began the sordid legacy of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Since then, WMDs have become more sophisticated with advances in technology, chemistry, biology and delivery devices. With the emergence of formalized terrorist groups and loosely affiliated extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the New World Order, the threat of a WMD attack remains very real. Add to that the prevalence of biological, chemical and radiological agents in campus research facilities, hospital oncology units, community or campus toxic industrial infrastructures, and even in seemingly harmless items we use everyday, and it would be foolish to not acknowledge and prepare for the possibility that these elements might end up in the wrong hands.

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Fortunately for campus safety and security professionals, there is a lot of intelligence sharing and physical and electronic security equipment that can help an institution avert an attack. Campus police and directors of security can also learn about the various types of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive devices available, and the kinds of risks they could face so they can prevent rather than just respond to a disaster.

Terrorists Prefer Traditional Bombs
Conventional explosives seem to be the WMD of choice for terrorists, as well as other less politically motivated criminals. Traditional pyrotechnics were used in the recent Madrid, London, Bali and Saudi Arabia attacks as well as the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings of the 1990s. Because of this history, experts believe conventional explosives pose the most significant risk to campuses.

The explosive materials normally used (because they are more easily obtained), such as nitrate-based fertilizer or dynamite, can be detected relatively easily. By contrast, military-grade explosives are difficult to detect but are also difficult to obtain.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), such as vehicle bombs, pipe bombs, satchel (or backpack) bombs, homemade grenades, mines, projectiles (rocket-propelled grenades), package bombs or letter bombs can cause massive devastation on their own. If detonated near buildings or facilities containing large amounts of nuclear or chemical materials, they can be particularly destructive. Even seemingly innocuous equipment like large refrigerators or air conditioners could pose risks.

According to Bob Durstenfeld, director of corporate marketing for San Jose, Calif.-based RAE Systems, a manufacturer of hazardous environment detection devices, “The higher likelihood is that someone is going to use something much easier to get or make. I truly believe that the larger threats, once terrorists figure it out, involve our toxic industrial infrastructure. A hospital, for example, probably has a walk-in refrigerator for medical storage. That refrigerator runs on anhydrous ammonia that is a very strong oxidant and is very flammable.”

Some Chemical Agents Are Commonly Available
The fact that some chemical agents, such as chlorine and ammonia, are commonly used on campuses and are readily available make them especially attractive to potential terrorists. Of particular concern with regard to other chemical weapons is the fact that rogue nations as well as terrorist organizations have not been afraid to use them in the recent past. Saddam Hussein, for example, ruthlessly gassed Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s. The nerve agent sarin was used in two terrorist subway attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series