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As bad as they are, why aren't terrorists worse? With biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons at hand, they easily could be. And, as this chilling book suggests, they soon may well be. A former member of the National Security Council staff, Jessica Stern guides us expertly through a post-Cold War world in which the threat of all-out nuclear war, devastating but highly unlikely, is being replaced by the less costly but much more imminent threat of terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction.
According to SternThe Ultimate Terrorists depicts a not-very-distant future in which both independent and state-sponsored terrorism using weapons of mass destruction could actually occur. But Stern also holds out hope for new technologies that might combat this trend, and for legal and political remedies that would improve public safety without compromising basic constitutional rights.
[Stern's] research is breathtakingly thorough, and the prose, so often describing complex technological detail, surprisingly lucid. The era of 'the ultimate terrorists', implying nuclear, biological or chemical weapons may not yet have dawned in any real sense, but the potential and the danger, as this book illustrates, are all too obvious...[Stern] has written a valuable book that should serve as a timely warning about a potentially dreadful future.
— Sean O'Callaghan
[A] thought provoking book...Stern's background in the security community, where she ran the Nuclear Smuggling Interagency Group, allows her to write with firsthand knowledge about the disturbing consequences of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Having directed the group for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs, Stern places a particular emphasis on how volatile that region has become...Terrorism may always exist, but Stern's recommendation that we find ways to minimize its ability to cause horror, panic, and alarm might be the ultimate weapon against it.
— Charles Davis
This important volume is powerfully suggestive of what in all probability will be a potent and dangerous force in the international arena during the coming century—terrorists willing and able to employ weapons of mass destruction in pursuit of their political and ideological aims...Stern has opened a door into a complex realm of politics and policy that defies easy categorization and crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. Explaining the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction necessarily involves a substantial degree of scientific and technical expertise, and the author wields this knowledge effectively.
— David W. Thornton
[The Ultimate Terrorists] combine[s] serious scholarship with practical wisdom.
— Gideon Rose
This slender volume is largely free of hype, and is characterized by fair reporting and sober analysis...It presents an immensely valuable snapshot of where the world stands vis-à-vis the threat, and how the worst possibilities might be minimized.
— Leonard A. Cole
This brief but surprisingly thorough book deals with the means, modes, and the likely terrorist actors in several situations...This is a serious book by an author with an intimate knowledge of her subject. Though not a lofty academic treatise, this important policy text gives the reader a reasoned, careful, and thoughtful glimpse into a dark corner of science, politics, and war. Strongly recommended for all libraries.
— E. Lewis
[Stern's] expertise should convince policymakers of [her proposals'] wisdom, as well as raise public awareness of the danger.
— Gilbert Taylor
The ominous-sounding title The Ultimate Terrorists can't outweigh the balanced and blessedly concise arguments that Jessica Stern presents in the book itself. The threat of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has given rise to a panic industry; Stern -- a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former head of the National Security Council's Nuclear Smuggling Interagency group and an early WMD alarmist -- has emerged as one of a few influential voices of calm.
Her study is one of several recent books (including Bruce Hoffman's Inside Terrorism and Philip B. Heymann's Terrorism and America) that suggest a new consensus on the threat of terrorism. The Ultimate Terrorists lays out three main points. First, the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism is indeed significant, and the emergence of nontraditional terrorist groups -- religious fanatics, death cults and disturbed activists -- adds a shiver of uncertainty to the mix. Second, more fitting defense efforts -- assisting in the disposal of Russian "loose nukes," beefing up detection efforts at airports, preparing emergency health responses -- will bolster both U.S. and international security. ("Ballistic missiles are the least likely method of delivery," Stern writes, "and yet Congress regularly allocates more money to ballistic-missile defense than the Pentagon says it can use -- roughly ten times what is spent to prevent WMD terrorism.") Finally, the threat of WMD terrorism, real as it is, has been exaggerated to the point of needless panic.
In her examination of nontraditional terrorism, Stern points to a practical divide between will and ability. State-sponsored terrorists can do the most damage, but they're constrained by fear of retribution and of bad publicity. Fringe groups, on the other hand, may have the will to destroy, but they lack the money or the sponsorship to cause much damage. But the book's strongest chapter concerns the threat of loose Russian materials (the area that was Stern's metier at the NSC). Stern's knowledge of security in Russia -- and of how nuclear material could be (and may already have been) stolen -- gives these sections a punch that most reporting on this issue has so far lacked.
The same can't be said for sections in which Stern has to rely on secondary-source material. While her scheme of terrorist types is generally helpful, it raises some questions. How do we classify religious fanatics who are also state-sponsored political groups? For that matter, where do we put Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, a fringe cult that attracted massive funding and international membership (and whose Tokyo subway gas attack apparently represented a mere fraction of the hell it might have raised)? Stern considers Aum Shinrikyo an unusual case, which it certainly seems to be; but the group's success challenges her clear-cut distinction between traditional and nontraditional terrorism.
Since The Ultimate Terrorists gets much of its power from the assumption that terrorist activities are on the rise (although various data can be made to tell various stories), these aren't incidental points. You may find yourself occasionally wishing that the author would dispense with the overviews and get back to topics she has direct experience with. And in fact her anecdotes about encounters with fringe groups hint at the even more intriguing book she is working on now: a study of religious extremists at home and abroad. If any topic is subject to more Chicken Little mystification than the threat of weapons of mass destruction, it's the rise of extremist groups, and so no subject could better benefit from Jessica Stern's mix of clarity and caution. -- Salon
Trojan Horses of the Body
Getting and Using the Weapons
Who Are the Terrorists?
The Threat of Loose Nukes
The State as Terrorist
What Is to Be Done?
Posted July 5, 2005
A thorough review of the types of weapons of mass destruction available to terrorists and how they would gain access to and deploy them. However, a survey of known weapons fails to account for potentially more devastating types that can readily be developed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.