The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP


Canberra, 7 February 2006

Speech at the ASPI Seminar

Deadly Connections: Terrorists and Weapons of Mass Destruction


Thank you Peter Abigail, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am glad to talk to you today about- the real and disturbing possibility that terrorists could acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.

It is important to understand that the terrorist battlefield is a global one - no state can claim immunity against this threat.

Terrorists do not respect borders and do not abide by the accepted international rules of war.

Their targets are most frequently not armed forces but unarmed civilians - such as holiday makers or city commuters.

Because terrorists do not fit into the paradigms that we have traditionally associated with enemies of the state, the primary duty of governments to protect their citizens is made that much more complex.

And the combined threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is even more complex still.

WMD and Terrorism

I think it is very important that the Australian public is fully informed about the nature of this complex problem.

With this in mind, in October last year, I launched a Government publication called Weapons of Mass Destruction: Australia's Role in Fighting Proliferation.

That paper explains how the shift in our strategic environment since the end of the Cold War has changed the nature of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

The main threat to global security is no longer competition between superpowers to accumulate massive nuclear arsenals.

But we are increasingly challenged by the spread to an increasing number of countries of the industrial and scientific capability to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

And at the same time, we are faced with the emergence of a brand of transnational terrorism that is seeking ever more destructive and terrifying ways to pursue its perverted agenda.

As was starkly demonstrated by the exposure of the AQ Khan nuclear procurement network, some of these countries, or mercenary agents within them, are also willing to trade in this deadly expertise.

For all its many benefits, globalisation has facilitated the rapid transfer of WMD-relevant materials and technology, and also made such transactions easier to conceal.

In this security environment, the task of preventing terrorists from acquiring these most dangerous weapons is clearly formidable.

We can no longer rely solely on traditional approaches formulated in a different era to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

And this is why our gathering here today is so important.

The threat of terrorists acquiring WMD is a significant challenge.

Tackling it effectively requires flexibility, innovation and vigilance.

WMD Defined

What do I mean when I refer to weapons of mass destruction?

The generally accepted meaning of this term encompasses nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Clearly these weapons are not all equal - nuclear weapons are by far the most lethal.

Fortunately, they are also the most difficult weapons to make - requiring complex technology and infrastructure, as well as hard to obtain fissile material.

And while the ingredients for making chemical and biological weapons are more easily accessible than nuclear material, their weaponisation to cause mass casualties is difficult.

Without considerable assistance from an unscrupulous state or access to expertise and expensive infrastructure terrorists are less likely to acquire military-style weapons of mass destruction.

More easily within their reach is the development of crude, chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

An attack using a crude device would not result in the same mass casualties as military-style WMD.

However, the psychological impact on civilian populations would still be significant, preying on deeply rooted public fears about radioactivity and disease.

With similar motivations, terrorists might also seek to attack nuclear, biological or chemical manufacturing facilities using conventional means.

Or attempt to attack our livelihood by introducing plant or animal pathogens to our crops or livestock.

Clear and Present Danger

Unhappily, the threat of terrorists attempting such attacks is not a hypothetical problem.

There is more than enough evidence of both intent and attempts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.

Since before the 9-11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden had already been advocating their use by jihadists.

Radical Saudi sheikh Nassir Al-Fahd [pron: nah-sir al-fard] has argued religious justification for the terrorist use of WMD, issuing a fatwa stating "it is our obligation to fight [the infidels] with chemical and biological weapons".

There is evidence of the same deadly intentions in our own region.

A rudimentary chemical and biological manual was discovered in a Jemaah Islamiyah safe-house in the Philippines in 2003.

And in Indonesia, the spiritual leader of Jamaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, has stated that the use of nuclear weapons is justified "if necessary".

We know also that terrorists have sought to obtain such weapons.

One of the more disturbing findings of the United States' 9/11 Commission Report was that Al Qaida was developing an "ambitious" biological weapons program in Afghanistan in 2001 and was making "advances in its ability to produce anthrax".

And in 2004 the Jordanian Government foiled a plot by a terrorist group linked to the Al Zarqawi network to launch an attack involving toxic chemicals and explosive devices in Amman.

In December last year concerns over a possible attack were raised when a Belarus-born chemical weapons expert was arrested and charged with terrorism offences in a raid in Spain, along with over 20 other terrorist suspects.

Responding to the WMD threat

So, having covered the scope of the problem, I'd like to turn now to the options for preventing this chilling prospect from becoming a reality.

As I have mentioned, we must start by recognising that traditional tactics for containing the threat of WMD are not sufficient.

The central Cold War tenet of deterrence holds little value when we are dealing with extremist, decentralised networks which are uninterested in negotiation and form a nebulous target.

Nor can we rely on moral repugnance at the horrifying consequences of the use of WMD to constrain the actions of individuals who have shown themselves to be limited only by the tools at their disposal in the damage and death they seek to inflict.

In fact, it is the uniquely gruesome consequences of WMD which make them appealing to terrorists.

Terrorists are not accountable to international arms control agreements, nor can their procurement efforts be monitored easily.

The low visibility of their activities makes the task of preventing attacks that much more oblique.

Our response is complicated also by the difficulty of predicting likely methods of attack and, indeed, the impact of attacks.

For example, the consequences of a successful terrorist attack using small pox would be devastating on many fronts…

…but such an attack remains unlikely because the only known sources of the disease are two highly-secure research centres in Russia and the United States.

On the other hand, attacks using more familiar diseases are more probable but less likely to have the same impact - either on human health, the economy, or public fear.

For instance, the anthrax letter attacks which caused significant disruption in the US in 2001 could have caused far greater loss of life if the disease used had been contagious.

It is clear that no single tool or approach is sufficient to thwart terrorists' attempts to get their hands on these deadly weapons.

Our strategy must be flexible and multidimensional and applied at the international, national and regional levels.

International Action

Let me take the international level first.

The overriding imperative must be to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction by anticipating and preventing the means by which they attempt to procure materials and technology.

Proliferation Security Initiative

One important example of the kind of international innovation required to meet this challenge is the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is focused on direct and practical action to prevent illegal trade in WMD items from reaching its destination.

The 70 or so countries that have subscribed to the principles of the PSI have agreed that they will undertake measures to impede or disrupt such trade, including to "non-state actors".

Participants have already undertaken 19 exercises to integrate individual and collective operational capability - held in Asia, Europe and North America - as well as a series of expert level meetings.

Such a direct approach to intercepting illegal WMD-related trade has already proven effective.

The PSI interdiction of the vessel BBC China, which was destined for Libya laden with an illegal cargo of centrifuge parts for uranium enrichment, was followed shortly afterwards by Libya's decision to renounce its nuclear and chemical weapons program.

Australia Group

New export control measures are also required to monitor and control the destination of WMD-related materials.

Through our role as chair of the Australia Group, Australia is at the forefront of international efforts to develop these new strategies to address the increasingly sophisticated and devious tactics being used to source illicit WMD-relevant materials and technologies through legitimate trade channels.

Australia is also working closely with regional countries to strengthen export control systems.

Multilateral Architecture

We are also working with the global community to strengthen international mechanisms against proliferation.

The adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 which, among other obligations, commits states to applying effective controls to prohibit terrorist development or acquisition of WMD is a welcome creative approach to strengthen international defences against WMD proliferation.

The existing global non-proliferation architecture must evolve to maintain its relevance to the threat of a WMD terrorist attack.

We continue to work to strengthen the international non-proliferation treaties.

Despite their clear limitations, these treaties play a fundamental role in preventing the spread of WMD, including indirectly to terrorists.

As the adoption of Resolution 1540 demonstrated, much can be done by taking fresh approaches to the existing tools at our disposal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has made a significant contribution to improving global protection against acts of terrorism involving nuclear or radiological materials through its Nuclear Security Fund.

And recent amendments to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material have strengthened controls against sabotage of nuclear facilities and trafficking in nuclear materials.

Domestic Action

Just as important as these international efforts is the strengthening of our domestic defences.

Evidence suggests that in most instances terrorists will seek to avoid border controls by sourcing weapons materials to use in attacks from within the target country.

So we need to ensure that the national response includes relevant Government agencies and operates at the federal, state and territory levels.

To this end, the Government has established a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Strategy Group to provide whole-of-government strategic direction to our national response.

We are also providing $17.3 million over five years to establish a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Data Centre and $2.4 million towards the establishment of a Chemical Warfare Agents Laboratory Network, which will provide a network of laboratories across Australia for the analysis of chemical agents.

Options for enhancing domestic controls on potential sources of weapons-relevant substances - including toxic chemicals and biological agents - are under review by the Council of Australian Governments.

And the Government has recently funded the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency to address and reduce the risks posed by radiological terrorism through the implementation of its national strategy for the security of radioactive sources.

Regional Approaches

Looking at the region, it is clear that we face enormous challenges.

With a large proportion of the world's trade passing through Asia-Pacific ports, the risk of proliferators attempting to divert WMD-related trade through the region is high.

Encouragingly, growing awareness of the very real risk of an attack using even deadlier weapons has bolstered regional cooperation to address this threat.

Australia has advocated and fostered the greater priority now being given to these issues in the ASEAN Regional Forum.

This same issue will be an important focus for our hosting of APEC in 2007.

We are working closely with regional countries to raise awareness of risks, provide training on the implementation of obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention and to help secure potentially dangerous materials, technology and knowledge against terrorist acquisition.

We led discussion on ways to strengthen regional barriers against the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism when I hosted the ministerial-level Asia-Pacific Nuclear Safeguards and Security Conference, attended by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr El Baradei, in 2004.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is also providing training and technical assistance to regional countries to secure and protect vulnerable radioactive sources against unauthorised access or transfer.


I hope it will be clear from my remarks this morning that this is a complex field, and our responses have many layers and many dimensions.

This is an emerging area of work for us all and I make no claim to having all the answers.

It is a sad and disturbing reality that our preparedness to respond to a terrorist attack using WMD or a similar crude device remains a necessary plank in our defence.

Your debate here today will help us in our urgent task of ensuring that this unimaginable threat does not become a reality. I wish you a lively and inspired discussion.