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The Apocalyptic Terrorists : TOKYO : Lethal Cocktail of Weapons, End-of-the-World Thinking

March 26, 1995|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA." His most recent book is "Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb" (Knopf)

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The near-thing at the Kasumigaseki station in the Tokyo subway system last week, like the near-thing at the World Trade Center in New York City two years ago, has got terrorism experts worried as never before. In both cases, technically sophisticated "weapons" came terrifyingly close to killing hundreds or even thousands of innocent victims. And in both cases, the attacks seem to have been motivated by an irrational yearning for "apocalypse"--death and destruction for its own sake.

In Japan, crude devices containing the deadly nerve gas sarin, first developed by German scientists in World War II, were left on subway trains heading for the Kasumigaseki interchange at rush hour on Monday morning. The devices failed to distribute the sarin in its far more efficient and deadly gaseous form and, perhaps just as important, subway riders did not panic, failing to grasp the full extent of the danger.

But after a two-day crash course by the media in sarin and other deadly chemical and biological agents, nervous Japanese subway riders (and probably American subway riders in New York, Washington and even Los Angeles) are keeping one eye on the exit doors--a formula for tragedy if some future scare prompts everyone to run at once.

This is the classic goal of terror--fear, confusion and the riveted attention of the public. But what is the goal of these new terrorists?

The mysterious Japanese religious cult Aum Supreme Truth, suspected by Japanese authorities in the subway attack, has expressed none of the traditional political aims of terrorist organizations. Groups such as the Irish Republican Army, in Northern Ireland, and Hamas, in the occupied territories of Palestine, make no mystery of what they want. There is a logic to their goals and methods that helps authorities find countermeasures, and even offers hope for a negotiated solution. But how can a government negotiate with a religious zealot preaching that the end of the world is near, and fully prepared to use poison gas to make it happen?

This is what has experts in terrorism worried as never before--the combination of state-of-the-art weapons of mass destruction with a spirit of apocalyptic nihilism willing to destroy whole cities for reasons that defy rational analysis. End-of-the-world thinking has long been common among extreme religious groups. What is new is the real possibility that such groups might obtain weapons as big as their nightmares, going far beyond the gunpowder and dynamite used by political terrorists since the anarchist bombings of the 19th Century.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the collapse of Russian internal authority since, have allowed vast stockpiles of modern weapons--including nuclear weapons and materials--to slip from state control. Rumors abound of warheads making their way through the black-market pipeline, and Japanese authorities think Aum Supreme Truth may have obtained sarin gas or equipment from sources in Russia--where the sect is large and well-organized.

But atomic weapons built originally for the military, dangerous as they might be in the hands of such outlaw states as Iran, Iraq and Libya, are heavy, hard to deliver and complicated to detonate. It is small, portable, user-friendly weapons of mass destruction that promise a terrorist threat on a new scale.

The Tokyo attack has drawn attention to the dangers of chemical and biological agents. Far more lethal, according to the nuclear physicist Sam Cohen, who invented the neutron bomb, would be "pure fusion" weapons the size of a baseball or small enough to be carried in a lunch box--and lethal enough to kill everyone within 600 yards. That would include everyone in a football stadium, say, or everyone in Times Square on New Year's Eve, or the 20,000 people closest to the President on Inauguration Day.

The "pure fusion" weapons that worry Cohen depend on two principles--the flood of lethal neutrons, in addition to blast and heat, released by detonation of as little as two grams of deuterium and tritium; and the ability of specially treated forms of a chemical compound known as "red mercury" to create the heat and pressure required to set off fusion in the deuterium-tritium mix. According to Cohen, materials for such a bomb would be cheap, and none are illegal. U.S. government officials say red mercury is a myth. Some nuclear physicists say red mercury can't create the necessary heat and pressure. Cohen says they are denying the problem in the hope it will go away.

As a young man, Cohen helped invent the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, and he has been thinking about atomic bombs and nuclear policy ever since. After the neutron bomb was briefly adopted and then dropped by U.S. military authorities, Cohen began to argue publicly against prevailing wisdom that stressed bombs with a big bang.

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