Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Will Ahmadinejad's rhetoric provide early warning of attack?

Stephen Peter Rosen at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard wonders whether it is possible to use the statements of national leaders like Ahmadinejad as an early warning indicator of his willingness to use biological weapons. Rosen says each historical case of the use of biological weapons "was preceded by an escalation of rhetorical campaigns to demonize and dehumanize the targeted enemy." He wonders whether Ahmadinejad's reference to Israel as a "dirty microbe" and "savage animal" in response to Imad Mughniyeh's death is anything to worry about.

Rosen writes:

On the basis of my historical research, my recommendation was that a significant shift in discourse of this character be used as a indicator that we should focus intelligence collection assets on a target that is now suspected of being willing to engage in mass killing by unconventional means, and to issue specific deterrent threats of retaliation. I do not know if either of these measures has been adopted by the government of Israel, or the United States, but it would seem prudent for them to do so.

A CDC paper says, "Among weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons are more destructive than chemical weapons, including nerve gas. In certain circumstances, biological weapons can be as devastating as nuclear ones: a few kilograms of anthrax can kill as many people as a Hiroshima-size nuclear weapon."

So how can one know when an enemy state or terrorist organization is preparing to use it? Without prejudice to Rosen's ideas, the condition of an enemy state's civil defense system is probably a better indicator of a regime's willingness to use biological weapons.

Why? because biological weapons are hard to control. The Nixon administration destroyed the entire US stock of biological weapons because their effects could not be limited in scope. If a hypothetical pathogen was contagious it could "blow back" on the user. A contagion unleashed on Israel would easily migrate to Mecca, and via the Haj infect every Muslim nation on earth. Unless Muslim nations like Iran were prepared to withstand the very plague they released it might literally go ill with them.

Even where non-contagious pathogens, like anthrax, are used to attack a target the attacker must be prepared for retaliation. Here there again it becomes a duel of public health systems. If the Israeli public health system is better than the Iranian then unleashing such an exchange may be a losing proposition for Teheran.

The only known technological countermeasures to a biological attack are detection and therapy. Therefore the advantage goes to the more technically advanced and better organized society. Detection allows civil defense officials to recognize the attack in its early stages and if possible cordon off the stricken area. Homeland Security's BioWatch program is an example of one such detection system. If Iran starts building a detection system that might give a clue to its intentions.

A country like the United States, and to a lesser extent Israel have many built-in civil defense advantages over a country like Iran. They have a first-class communications through which to warn the population and organize civil defense. Teheran is far more poorly provided, besides any Israeli response to an Iranian biological attack will probably be accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of their telephone exchanges, television transmitters and international data cables by conventional weapons making a response to the attack practically impossible.

Secondly, countries like America have "more of everything", a key advantage in a biowar scenario. Stocks of food, water systems, medical personnel are critical to riding out a biological attack when movement must be curtailed. In contrast most Third World households have enough food for a few days only. Water supplies are less abundant especially in desert countries; and have limited supplies of canned or preserved food. There is no way their populations can be immobilized for any length of time without risking starvation or thirst.

Thirdly, countries like Israel and the US have a large degree of 'compartmentalization'. Local supplies of food, the common availability of weapons in households, etc means that civil disorder is less of a threat. On the other hand, Third World countries often experience large-scale looting following a natural catastrophe. They are fragile societies which can go to pieces in the face of huge catastrophe like a biostrike.

The critical nature of these variables implies that any enemy country or terrorist organization contemplating a strike must game things out beforehand. This would probably take the form of a deniable test attack to see how Israel or the US respond. Or perhaps an unrelated Western country could be chosen as the guinea pig to see how an equivalent society would fare in the face of a similar threat. Without a test run to gauge the effects of their weapons an enemy force would run too great a risk that the strike would fail, exposing them to a devastating response. Second, even primitive enemies would probably take steps to protect their core assets from a riposte by investing in low-tech precautions like creating redoubts in distant areas to which key personnel could retreat. Again, the key to early warning is to detect enemy defensive or planning operations first.

But what Israel and the US should really watch out for are signs enemy nations are building genetically tailored or binary biological weapons. The BBC reported the horrifying fact that scientific advances now make it possible to create diseases that are specific down to the family group:

Advances in genetic knowledge could be misused to develop powerful biological weapons that could be tailored to strike at specific ethnic groups ... genetic information is already being used to "improve" elements of biological weapons, for example by increasing their antibiotic resistance. These developments raise the spectre of highly targeted biological weapons being used on the battlefield. Weapons could theoretically be developed which affect particular versions of genes clustered in specific ethnic or family groups.

Could Iran come up with a "Jew killer"? Unlikely because there are Jews of varying ethnic backgrounds: Ethiopians, Russians, Chinese, etc. More frightening is the prospect of a binary biological weapon: one in which a population can be pre-marked with a clinically undetectable substance which a subsequently released pathogen can selectively attack. Medical science already has drugs which work only on cancer cells. This emphasizes why detection is everything. A program to "mark" a target population prior to attack can itself be detected by detection systems or data mining medical records.

The idea of a targeted weapon whose effects could be escaped by a marker was described in Exodus, Chapter 12.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.

Enemy nations are unlikely to have this technology in the near term. This type of sophisticated weapon is probably going to be sought from a Western lab or developed under cover as a pharmaceutical product using enemy billions rather than created in some makeshift al-Qaeda cave. But it is not impossible that they will seek to buy the technology to build one. Again, the first warning of danger will come from routine intelligence sources, like following the money transfers of suspected individuals or from a biological detection system that might throw up trial attacks.

In sum, while Ahmadinejad's rhetoric may provide some clue to his intentions, what will really provide early warning is a close examination of a) their civil defense systems; b) their biological-related expenditures. Cancel the FISA anybody?


Blogger Elijah said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/20/2008 09:15:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...


You seem to like these Haavad eggheads. This is the third or fourth quote in the past couple weeks.

One of the problems with close parsing of Dinner Jacket's verbiage is that it was first said in Persian and then translated. I saw some quotes of the relevant speech that called Israel a cancer and others that referred to a microbe. All seemed to refer to radiation, as in radiation therapy, which would seem to only apply to cancer, and not microbes.

I do agree that there has been an increase in the shrillness from Persia. Of course the death of their golden boy in Syria has something to do with this. When you get a good shot against the Muslims their normal response is rhetoric. I keeeel you.

There have been remarks along the lines of "things will move in a new unexpected direction" and "the Israelis will soon leave the earth" that have made me wonder if there was something new in the wind. Of course the Muslims always talk big and overplay their hand so it's hard to say.

Having said all that, an attack with biological or chemical weapons would certainly be a new phase. I think that such an attack would have to come from HB or Syria. Iran is too far away and I don't think they could put enough of the agents on the ground to really have an effect. The Iranians do have some submarines also, which could conceivably participate in such an attack.

I don't know if Israel has these weapons. If not they might go nuclear right away. I know I would if I was them. For several reasons they can't allow themselves to be targeted by WMDs. They are a small country, with a modest population. They need to maintain deterrence. They would be justified in going nuclear at the first confirmed missile containing a NBC weapon used against them. I find it hard to see why Syria would be part of such an attack given the likely Israeli response.

All sides know this. The Iranians can be subtle and they would surely try to provoke the Israelis and/or US into shooting first so they could then respond in any way they wish. Perhaps they are planning on providing "proof" that Israel is behind the killing of their golden boy and then they will respond with BC weapons.

I don't think there has been any real use of BC weapons (since WWI) and it's possible that their attack would fail to be effective. Quite a risk.

2/20/2008 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger Elijah said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/20/2008 09:26:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

The problem with genetically-based disease is that it may have unintentional victims. For example, despite the popularity of inbreeding in Middle Eastern society, it would not be surprising if Mahmud Ahmadinejad had Jewish ancestry. And much as Adolf Hitler sought to erase his genealogical records when he came into power, one wonders if the principal reason for Mr. Ahmadinejad's hatred of Jews is because he can't stand to look at himself in the mirror.

2/20/2008 09:58:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

The only sure way of preventing WMD atttacks by hostile regimes is to pre-emptively depose them. There is no other way to be certain. This is why America owes it to itself to simply go about dismantling Islam in general. Muslim majority nations will only breed up more terrorism on an ever larger scale until they are neutered.

There are no benefits to be derived from Islam's continued existence. Any scenarios involving a future with Islam included point towards Infidel death tolls. Better that we set about eliminating the danger now while it is poorly armed than waiting around for it to become the significant threat it guarantees to be.

One way or the other we will learn to take Islamic tyrants like Ahmadinejad at their word. If they call for America's destruction, we must seek to assure theirs first.

2/20/2008 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger Starling said...

Wretchard said: "So how can one know when an enemy state or terrorist organization is preparing to use it? Without prejudice to Rosen's ideas, the condition of an enemy state's civil defense system is probably a better indicator of a regime's willingness to use biological weapons."

I would draw a distinction between intention/willingness on one hand and preparedness for/timing of an attack on the other. I think "escalation" of rhetoric gives clues as to the former while "the condition of enemy state's civil defense system" is a better indicator of the latter, i.e. the when and how.

As for the former, there are many rather sophisticated analytical tools for tracking and analyzing rhetorical strategies and shifts therein. This link provides an example of what is in the public domain. I have had occasion to use several of these programs in the past, mostly for the study rhetoric in the business and technology domains.

While I am sure these programs could be used to analyze the vicious and malignant rhetoric described above, I seriously doubt that any of the programs would be useful for predicting if and when it would be followed up by action.

2/20/2008 11:06:00 PM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...


Thanks for the link. Have you found that any one of those programs is head and shoulders better than the others?

I need double the brain size and double the life span to get through it but am still fascinated by everything I read about Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Does your research take you into a similar area?

2/21/2008 01:54:00 AM  
Blogger Barry Meislin said...

What is rather curious / interesting is the yawns and general lack of interest, world-wide, that such Iranian declarations seem to elicit.

(Though it can't be denied that there is the occasional gasp of Dr. Seussian consternation over such unpolitic remarks.... something along the lines of "This cannot do; this is not right!")

Iran wants to destroy Israel? The response seems to be either "So what?" or "They don't really mean it" or "It's only for internal consumption", all this buttressed by the general progressive/humanistic view that Israel deserves it.

Along these lines, it would appear that Israel is the Number 1 Cause Of War In The World simply because its enemies have not yet succeeded in destroying it. (Keeping in mind, of course, that Noam Chomsky is the world's leading intellectual.)

As such, it appears that Iran has succeeded in convincing significant numbers that putting an end to Israel---or attempting to do so---would be a positive endeavor / achievement.

Meanwhile, the world can yawn, Walt-Mearsheimer et al. can wax indignant over the Israel Lobby; and foreign policy wonks along with a large chunk of "concerned" intellectuals, not to mention politicians, can blame the US for not engaging Iran/Syria/Hezbullah/Hamas in meaningful dialogue....all the while decrying pre-emptive war. (Keeping in mind the increasingly fashionable view that Israel was the aggressor in the 1967 war.)

The truly fascinating thing about all of this is that we've been here before. It is not new (even if all the usual suspects would deny this vehemently.)

One therefore must wonder whether Israel will be sacrificed with as much determination (and, on the other hand, indifference) that the Western powers required of Czechoslovakia.

And because one knows that Israel clearly will not acquiesce to being a second Czechoslovakia, the more relevant question becomes, to what extent will Israel be successfully pressured to do nothing in her self-defense---all, of course, in the interest of not rocking the boat, of not muddying the waters, in the interest of world peace---until the intended knock out blow is launched. One wouldn't, after all, be able to say that thre was no warning....

(I suppose it's only a matter of time before concerned individuals start flocking to Iran to volunteer as human shields....)

2/21/2008 02:40:00 AM  
Blogger said...


I think you are correct to make the distinction between preparing for an attack and preparing for a defense. It's also interesting to note how preparations for defense in WMD matters are sometimes interpreted as preparations for an attack.

Just recently there was a lot of talk about how building a missile defense was "provocative" and "destabilizing". And the reason normally given is that by creating a missile shield we are somehow disturbing the balance of terror.

Now it is often argued that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East known to possess nuclear weapons. It alone probably has the expertise to build tailored biological weapons. Rhetorically one might ask, 'why shouldn't Israeli civil defense activities' be seen as preparations for an Israeli attack? Here we come to both the strengths and limits of analytical tools "for tracking and analyzing rhetorical strategies and shifts therein".

If we started seeing the Prime Minister of Israel starting to talk about exterminating "Arab microbes" and "beasts" that would probably be more serious cause for alarm than an instruction, say to prepare sealed rooms in every house, which obtains even now. Somehow a shift in rhetoric is probably a better predictor of Israeli belligerence than a civil defense upgrade.

But in the case of Iran my problem is as follows. The Ayatollahs are given to hyperbole and blood-curdling threat as a matter of routine. So if one observed Teheran calling the Jews "microbes" would it be as telling as discovering they were stockpiling smallpox vaccine?

My feeling is that the Western democracies are more constrained by intent than capability. America and to a lesser extent Israel have the capability to incinerate nations. What holds them back is intent. Therefore any indication that a war-mongering lunatic has taken office would represent a danger because the capability is already there. On the other hand, entities like Iran and al-Qaeda, etc are constrained less by intention than capability. So changes in capability are often what we look for because the intent is assumed to be malignant. But is it always malignant? I would say 'not always'.

But how then to distinguish between legitimate defensive preparation and defense preparatory to attack? The experience of Saddam is instructive. A lot of what seemed menacing now looks like it was pathetic bluffing by the former President of Iraq. All his noises about possessing WMDs turned out to be for the benefit of the gallery. To scare away the Iranians and the US.

So yes, one should distinguish between truly defensive and pre-offensive actions, though I'm bound to say the analyst can be fooled.

2/21/2008 02:47:00 AM  
Blogger Starling said...

PeterBoston said: "Thanks for the link. Have you found that any one of those programs is head and shoulders better than the others?"

You're most welcome. As for quality and usefulness of the programs, I would say (in typical academic fashion) that "it depends." The primary concerns are the nature of the research question, the audience to which one is speaking (...they vary in their expectations), and the data one has available.

One distinction I would draw regards the semantic unit of analysis. Some programs merely count words, e.g. Concordance 2.0, others count and assign them to meaningful categories, e.g. Diction 5.0. Others examine underlying structure and meaning of larger blocks of text. One of the best of these is Docuscope (not listed on that page) which is conerned with what it's authors term "patterns of language."

I have some experience with each of these and think each can provide valuable insights into what is being said. But as we all know, words can mislead.

As for my research interests, they have been stictly confined to 1) stock market reactions to press releases about information technology investments and 2) analysis of abstracts of software and business method patents. The methods and software packages I have employed are surely applicable to other domains, but I have not had the time or interest to consider them in my academic work.

That said, if memory serves me correctly, the first post I ever wrote on my old "Rhetorical Flourishes" blog was an analysis of a speech given in early 2005 by Hassan Nasrallah, perhaps just after the death of Hariri. I think it was entitled something like "Nasrallah talks people to death." If I can find the link, I'll send it along.

2/21/2008 03:30:00 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

zenster:"The only sure way of preventing WMD atttacks by hostile regimes is to pre-emptively depose them. There is no other way to be certain."

The problem is that effective bio weapons can be developed in little more than a network of garages. So if we go bombing every garage of everyone who looks at us wrong, we create more terrorists than we destroy. We have to fight intelligently as well as ruthlessly because we can't preemptively depose of every hostile regime through overwhelming military force. (Which would include several nuclear powers who'd likely become even more hostile if we ever nuked one of their terrorist state "friends".) Our own people wouldn't let us, much less the world.

And FWIW, Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is much more an "early warning sign" of oil prices than of attacks. Make an outrageous threat, win an billion euros.

I've noticed over the last decade that al Qaeda only warns of attacks when it can't.

2/21/2008 04:28:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Barry Meislin: "One therefore must wonder whether Israel will be sacrificed with as much determination (and, on the other hand, indifference) that the Western powers required of Czechoslovakia."

It is easy to picture Mr. Obama in the Neville Chamberlain role, too.

2/21/2008 06:09:00 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

W, you write:

In sum, while Ahmadinejad's rhetoric may provide some clue to his intentions, what will really provide early warning is a close examination of a) their civil defense systems; b) their biological-related expenditures.

Most of what you say makes sense, but I wonder what happens when the Iranians know "a" and "b" as well.

These guys are smart, and if they are really serious about destroying Israel we must assume they've gone conceptually deep on the idea.

Any attack large enough to destroy Israel will have an obvious-enough State signature to ensure massive retaliation on all probable principals. Let's say to the Iranians this is an acceptable cost. The only way an attack like that would be successful is if it came with minimum forewarning.

Now, both we and the Mullahs know that Iranian civil preparations would heighten precautions on the other side. And we both know that any preparations taken would mitigate only marginally any subsequent damage caused by an Israeli counterstrike. Thus, there is little to be gained and much to be lost by taking any civil preparatory actions at all. Make the decision on high, alert only a minimal cast of players, and move forward with delivery -- this is the rational course of action.

But you can go even more complicated than that if your goal is constant panic and the inevitable decay of the Israeli state into factions and emigrants -- rather than total destruction. The degrees of freedom are much higher for that type of action.

If Iran could somehow move a cell into Israel with the requisite biological material, then Iran's ability to manipulate perception leading up to the attack is asymptotically absolute.

Off the top of my head, Iran could use a Hunt for Red October tactic: sudden internal mobilization of military and intelligence assets, an urgent recall of diplomats, State silence for a few days to really get the anxiety in the region flowing, and then -- the announcement by Iran's shaken ambassador that a quantity of anthrax has been stolen by a rogue group inside Iran and the culprits have disappeared. All help in finding the non-existing thieves is desperately requested. Iran suddenly becomes willing to share intelligence, cooperate with the UN, etc. Westerners see what they want to see, which is an Iran which was merely acting belligerent, for strategic purposes, but who is, at bottom, just as abhorred by the prospect of war as we are.

Israel of course will go on high alert. Before they can settle in, release the attack. Iran gains plausible deniability, Israel suffers and her people get one step closer to abject weariness.

Do you think this could work? I do. I also think whatever Iran will do will be at least twice as sophisticated -- if they really are serious about outlasting Israel.

2/21/2008 09:17:00 AM  
Blogger LarryD said...

"... It's also interesting to note how preparations for defense in WMD matters are sometimes interpreted as preparations for an attack.

Just recently there was a lot of talk about how building a missile defense was "provocative" and "destabilizing". And the reason normally given is that by creating a missile shield we are somehow disturbing the balance of terror."

Hmm, couldn't Universal Health Care be construed as building a defense against bio-attack, and thus provocative?

2/21/2008 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger said...

Hmm, couldn't Universal Health Care be construed as building a defense against bio-attack, and thus provocative?

Although the US suffers from the effects of medical monopoly, countries with "universal health care" suffer from medical rationing. In a country I don't want to name with "universal health care" there are chronic shortages of beds in emergency hospitals; only one or two emergency hospitals in a district and long waiting lines for certain types of procedure. In the UK, for example, people wait for months to get hip surgery. They fly to India to get knee surgery. One Canadian woman had to wait in California for months before a bed became "available" for her treatment back home. Just check out the web and you'll see that long waiting lines are chronic in places with "universal health care".

That's because "universal health care" systems are optimized to deal with a normal profile of cases. To a certain extent the US suffers from that handicap too, but I think, to a lesser extent. If 600 people were seriously injured in one city in Canada what would happen? If 6,000 people were critically injured or sickened in the UK in a single incident, how would it's National Health Service cope?

I'd say offhand that countries with "free health care" aren't any better off than those with private provider.

2/21/2008 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Mətušélaḥ said...

"Here we come to both the strengths and limits of analytical tools.."

Not really.

Iran is an Imperial entity. And this is where your analysis regards aggression and expansionism should start and finish.

2/21/2008 05:43:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

I have heard reports many cities now monitor the sale volume of various over the counter medications. For example, if City X notes a spike in the sale of anti-diarrhea medication it will start investigating. Interesting, national immunity and infection fighting.

As far as monitoring defensive measures goes I seem to recall the USSR was aware of Greenbrier and was monitoring congress for a surge to the place as sign of imminent attack. IIRC that was a story they noted on the History Channel but can not find any online backing of the story.

As far as Iran letting loose a biological plague/attack (again on the History Channel they presented some sort of explanation of the last plague visited upon Egypt) I guess it all depends on how seriously they believe in Martyrdom.

2/21/2008 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Some infectious agents can take hold in the human body with just a handful of individual cells, but for others the human body can resist several thousand critters without its defenses being overwhelmed.

In the spring of 1993 the water supply for the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin was contaminated by Cryptosporidium parvum protozoa and oocytes (female germ cell, from which an egg will develop.

Of a population of more than 1.5 Million souls in the greater metropolitan area, almost 900 THOUSAND people suffered serious symptoms --- fever, stomach cramps and vomiting, weakness, exhaustion, and diarrhea enough to cause dangerous dehydration. The metabolic disruptions of dehydration means loss of metabolytes, increased concentrations of metabolic wastes in the blood, and in the worst cases, insufficient water for sweating, and formation of kidney stones.

Oh, yeah... and death.

In Milwaukee, almost half a MILLION people were sick enough to seek medical treatment, and over a hundred people died, mostly people who were elderly or had compromised immune systems.

In addition to cryptosporidium there are lots of other enteric microbes and their eggies that can cause serious problems for humans if they show up in the water supply. In this case neither origin of the cryptosporidium nor cause of the outbreak have been established.

In any sufficiently devastating disaster, natural or man-made, dead animals and humans tend to contaminate the water right away, even if the water hasn't already been dirtied by flooded or shattered sewage and septic systems. Throughout the world, the single most common cause of death for children in the 20th century was from dehydration as a result of diarrhea from water-born pathogens.

Even though 99+percent of all microbes are either benign or actually beneficial for humans, the fraction of one percent that remain as pathogens sorta make up for all the others.

I suspect terrorists have already invested a lot of effort studying the vulnerabilities of municipal public water systems. That approach has the potential for causing enormous damage that can't easily be traced to a terrorist agent. And there is a built-in asymmetry, since many of the terrorists are the product of third-world regions in which there is enhanced resistance to water-borne pathogens just because the hygiene practices are historically much more primitive.

But at one level, it doesn't matter whether it's terrorist acts or simple decay of the infrastructure --- it clearly shows the vulnerability of municipal systems to biological contamination. For many decades we all took the safety of public water supplies for granted, but we can't any longer.


There's a very concise Wikipedia article, too, with links.

2/21/2008 10:16:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Gee Whiz, Mr. WretchardtheCat...

I'm shocked that ***YOU*** would give the benefit of the doubt to that miserable miscreant Saddam about the WMD issue. I thought you of all people would at least mention the massive truck and air transport effort emptying out all sorts of un-identified stuff from Iraqi military storage compounds in the last six months before the invasion.

Yes, yes, I know there was not a big sign on the border saying "Only 113 more days till the next scheduled INVASION," but I seem to recall that Bush gave Saddam a specific deadline to comply with all the UNSecurity Council Ultimata.

A number of well-informed folk assert that Saddam took advantage of that time (with a lot of Russian assistance) to move any evidence of WMD materials to Syria.

In that context, it's mighty interesting to recall that in September of 2004 or thereabouts, the German daily newsjournal Die Welt reported that Syrian commercial jets carried military teams and chemical weapons to the Sudan. There were subsequent reports that chemical weapons attacks had been carried out by forces of the Khartoum government against the people in Darfur.


Just where do you suppose those darn things came from?

2/21/2008 10:40:00 PM  

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