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Will Bin Laden's "Dead Hand" Reach Out From Its Watery Grave?

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After the audacious mission that took down the mastermind of 9/11, speculation has been rampant as to whether the perverse legacy of this man -- his "dead hand" -- will continue to control or influence future jihadist terrorist actions.

No one knows for sure. Our intelligence agencies are still methodically analyzing the so-called trove of documents and data -- "a bonanza of intelligence" -- our brave Navy SEALs captured during their daring raid.

Some experts agree that bin Laden's death is not a fatal blow to al-Qaeda: That his "death will not render al-Qaeda impotent;" that al-Qaeda has the ability to "quickly and seamlessly replace each dispatched leader."

Others differ. For example, Fareed Zakaria writes "Dangers remain, but the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden should finish al-Qaeda." However, he cautions, "There are still groups that call themselves al-Qaeda...[that] will still plot and execute terrorist attacks."

I agree. Whether such groups call themselves al-Qaeda or not; whether the al-Qaeda organization and its command and control structure are in disarray; whether the head of the snake has been cut-off, bin Laden has had more than a dozen years to assemble and put in place his own "Dead Hand," his own "doomsday machine," that could launch the most horrific attacks and inflict unspeakable carnage on the "infidels."

Of course this "Dead Hand" allegory alludes to the macabre, Soviet "automatic system" that would have launched a devastating, retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States if the Soviet Union had been crippled -- its leadership killed or incapacitated -- by a surprise, first nuclear strike by the U.S. during the Cold War.

David E. Hoffman chillingly describes this doomsday scenario in his superb, exhaustively researched book, The Dead Hand, The Untold Story of The Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. He also chronicles the secret and deceptive Soviet programs that produced massive arsenals of the most hideous and lethal chemical and biological substances, agents and weapons, capable of inflicting death and suffering on a scale heretofore never imagined -- in addition to the well documented, massive-overkill hoards of nuclear weapons.

More alarming, Hoffman paints a disturbing picture of the total breakdown in internal control and accountability over these weapons of mass destruction after the Soviet regime collapsed:

Russian scientists began losing their jobs, and weapons facilities and nuclear materials were often left undefended. .. terrorist organizations and rogue regimes rushed into this breach to acquire these horrific weapons, while U.S. officials worked furiously to prevent them from falling into hostile hands.

And, "[Russian] Microbiologists and bomb designers were scavenging for food for their families..."

Osama bin Laden's lackeys may also have been scavenging across the Russian steppe, in addition to North Koreans, Iranians, etc. In the epilogue to The Dead Hand, written two years ago, Hoffman describes bin Laden's reported morbid interest in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack with the deadly nerve agent sarin.

According to Hoffman, the attack that killed 12 people, injured over one thousand and caused mass panic, involved only 159 ounces of sarin -- a little more than a gallons -- and was used by a cult that was plagued by "technical problems, leaks, and accidents." Hoffman points out that, by contrast, in a remote compound in western Siberia, "there are still 1.9 million projectiles filled with 5,447 metric tons of nerve agents," some so deadly that "one drop could kill a human being."

Elsewhere in The Dead Hand we learn about the massive Soviet effort to develop an immense, lethal arsenal of biological pathogens and weapons -- plague, anthrax, tularemia, smallpox and others -- that could cause millions of fatalities:

A single gram of anthrax contains around a trillion spores. Odorless and colorless, the spores are extremely stable, and can remain dormant for as long as fifty years or more...According to one estimate, 112 pounds of anthrax spores released along a 1.2-mile line upwind of a city of 500,000 residents would result in 125,000 infections -- and kill 95,000 people.

Many such "residual" weapons, pathogens, capabilities, skills and knowledge are still untraceable and available -- often to the highest bidder -- and can still fall into the wrong hands, into bin Laden's Dead Hand.

In addition to being interested in chemical weapons, bin Laden and al-Qaeda have seriously explored biological weapons of mass destruction. In 1998, they launched "a serious chemical and biological weapons effort, code named Zabadi, or 'curdled milk...' and in 1999 they recruited a Pakistani scientist to set up a small biological weapons laboratory in Kandahar."

In a recent Washington Post article published after the death of bin Laden, Bob Graham asks: "What do we do now? What are al-Qaeda's capabilities to do us harm?"

...the fruits of bin Laden's efforts to acquire non-conventional weapons will be available to the new leader. Advances in technology have reduced the necessity of a significant organizational capacity for such weapons to be secured and utilized. A small group whose organizing principle is hatred of Americans could concoct a lethal brew of pathogens in a basement laboratory and stealthily disperse it through a vaporization machine in the back of a pickup truck, killing tens of thousands in a major American city.

While a congressional commission concluded in 2008 that "it would be difficult for terrorists to weaponize and disseminate significant quantities of a biological agent in aerosol form," it might not be so difficult to find someone to do it for them, says Hoffman.

Finally, Hoffman leaves us with these ominous words:

Today one can threaten a whole society with a flask carrying pathogens created in a fermenter in a hidden garage -- and without detectable signature. The Dead Hand of the arms race lives on .

In the euphoric aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death, we must not forget that his perverse legacy, his Dead Hand, can still reach out from the depths of the Arabian Sea. It is an insidious and abhorrent prospect to which we must remain ever vigilant.


David E. Hoffman won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction with his The Dead Hand.