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Deadly connections: terrorists and weapons of mass destruction: speech to the ASPI Seminar: Canberra: 7 February 2006.

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Speech by

The Hon Alexander Downer MP

Minister for Foreign Affairs


ASPI Seminar

Deadly Connections: Terrorists and Weapons of Mass Destruction

7 February 2006, Canberra (Check Against Delivery)


Thank you Ian Buchanan, Peter Abigail, distinguished guests,

ladies and gentlemen.

I am glad to escape the cut and thrust of politics for a short time,

to talk to you about a topic that is rather more deadly serious -

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


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


Tackling it effectively requires flexibility, innovation and


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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



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


As the adoption of Resolution 1540 demonstrated, much can be

done by taking fresh approaches to the existing tools at our


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


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


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


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


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


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.