BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 21.10.01

Film: Paul Wilenius looks at the threat of terrorists using biological or chemical weapons and how well prepared Britain is to withstand such an attack.

PAUL WILENIUS: The fear of germ warfare can cause almost as many problems as the germs themselves. It can infect a normally rational population , creating the deep unease seen recently in America and elsewhere. So far Western governments have avoided panic , but still have a lot do to reassure their anxious publics. Though there has been no specific threat against Britain, there are still real worries. MALCOLM DANDO: A hundred kilograms of anthrax spores, distributed in the right way, under the right conditions across Washington DC would cause between one and three million fatalities. FRED BROUGHTON: We have faced terrorist attack before in the last thirty years in this country but I think we clearly understand this is the biggest crisis facing our country since the Second World War. WILENIUS: There's an air of anxiety now hanging over Britain's tallest buildings like Canary Wharf. The area was bombed by the IRA ,but it was nowhere near the scale of the carnage unleashed on New York on September the eleventh. . So now there is real concerns about the type of terrorist attacks we might face and the of the government to cope with them. The destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center traumatized the world. It showed that there was no longer any moral restraint on acts of terror. Osama Bin Laden's network now appears willing to use any weapon it can against the West. It's already told Muslims to stay out of planes and tall buildings. And, those in a position to know, say the British government must be ready for any kind of terrorist response. RICHARD BUTLER: I don't think it would be wise to assume that these people would restrict themselves to hunting after Americans. I suspect that people in the UK as the UK is aligned in this fight against terrorism, I suspect that people in the UK should be aware of the possibilities that action against the UK could also be taken. COLONEL MIKE DEWAR: We have to realise that we have put ourselves in the firing line by aligning ourselves so obviously with the United States and being brave enough to do so. So yes, I think we face tanker lorries, I think we face political assassination is a possibility, we face biological warfare, we face car bombs, we face unfortunately the whole array of terrorism. WILENIUS: The War Report commissioned a poll to determine the scale of the Fear of Terrorism. We asked: "How worried are you about the prospect of chemical or biological weapons being used in a terrorist attack on the UK?" We found that fifty per cent were worried while forty nine per cent were less so. Women are also twice as likely to be concerned as men. Sixty four per cent of women are anxious compared to just thirty five per cent of men. In New York people were trying to get back to normal and put the horrific plane attacks behind them . But in recent days a new deadly threat has been delivered to America's door. Although it's difficult to use anthrax for mass attacks and only a few people have been infected, it's bred fear and deep worries that this may only be the beginning. DANDO There are other agents which have been weaponised and some of those are even more dangerous than anthrax. The anthrax is a bacterium, another bacterium is plague. Everyone knows the historical record as regards plague. If you, if a terrorist was to get hold of plague and to be able to use it and it was effective then it's different from anthrax because it causes infection after the first victim. So you would have the possibility of an epidemic spread and that would be extremely difficult to deal with. BUTLER: If one looks at the Iraqi programme, Iraq did have in its biological weapons programme, and I assume still does today, not only anthrax but botulism toxin, gangrene gas, plague and there are reasons to think that it may have been trying to acquire or find some way of getting into smallpox. If people had said to you before September eleventh that some persons were going to take civilian aircraft and turn them into missiles, fly them into the World Trade Center towers, I think we all would have fallen on the floor laughing. So, you know, we've got to think again in today's world. WILENIUS: To reassure anxious members of the British public major cities have been flooded with police in recent weeks. This very public display of force, is meant to deter terrorists and show that our guard is up. Fear of a potential threat posed by car and tanker bombs, led to the sudden appearance of new concrete barriers in front of Parliament itself. BROUGHTON: Our responsibility is very clear, we have to reassure the public, we have to identify and stop terrorist attacks, I mean that's very clear to us, that's a very difficult job, but at the moment the attack might be diverse, it could from, from bombs or it could be from biological attack, so it's very complicated at the moment but we understand that's clearly our responsibility. DEWAR: Most of the policemen you see on the streets of London, isn't it funny, you never see a bobby for months on end and then suddenly hundreds of them appear from nowhere? Most of those have been drafted in from the suburbs to Central London and quite frankly most of them are there for public reassurance purposes, it's a PR exercise if you like, it's to make us feel better. WILENIUS: Security around key government buildings , airports, oil refineries, ports and nuclear power stations has been tightened. But what of the threat posed by flying hi-jacked jets into big cities? DEWAR: That is still a possibility and we should not rule it out and that is why for instance Tornado interceptors have been brought further south from Lucas in Scotland and stationed in Lincolnshire and there are now procedures in place to intercept clearly hijacked aircraft or unauthorised aircraft. So precautions have been taken. WILENIUS: Although the police and emergency services in London are used to dealing with terrorist outrages , there are doubts about their ability to cope on their own, if there was a massive terrorist attack . IAN HOLT: If we had something that happened you know in any county in this country on the scale of what happened in New York, then it's obvious that the local responding agencies would be completely overwhelmed by that. And in that sort of instance we would be looking to a very strong lead from central government taking as an umbrella over-arching approach and leading the response. BROUGHTON: All of us in the police service in the last week or so have been looking at what exactly we do and how we do that in relation to a chemical or biological attack. And the answer is we've not faced that threat before on the scale that we may face it in the next few weeks. And so what's happening at the moment is, is assessing exactly how we're going to deal with that and what training is necessary- it's pretty clear that we need to first of all look at the American experience in recent days and to make sure that we prepare ourselves for any such attack. WILENIUS: Our poll showed that a small majority of the country thinks the Government is doing enough. When asked "How well prepared do you think the Government is for an attack using chemical or biological weapons?" forty five per cent felt it is prepared but forty per cent of the public said it was not. Emergency planners all over the country like Ian Holt were issued with new guidelines last week on how to deal with any chemical or biological weapons attacks. Underground crisis command centres like this one in Hampshire have been fired up. Thousands of doctors have been put on alert, and millions of doses of anthrax medicine have been ordered. But there are those who feel more needs to be done. HOLT: If you asked the government, you asked ministers, they would want this country to be prepared for whatever emergency disaster situation we may face in the future. If they do want that to happen, then obviously they've got to put their money where their mouth is. We in the Emergency Planning Society we'd like to see a ballpark figure of in the region of hundred million pounds put towards the function." WILENIUS: Our poll asked "Do you feel you have been given sufficient information about what you should look out for or do if a chemical or biological attack is made in the UK?" seventy six per cent said they hadn't, while only twenty per cent said they had. So the public IS seeking more information from the authorities. They are not alone. The War Report tried for over a week to get a senior Metropolitan Police Officer to come on the programme and address the public's concerns. But repeated requests failed to produce a spokesman . DANDO: I think it's absolutely essential that people are given more information, so that we don't get wild panics driven by misinformation. To the extent possible, the government should be trying to give clear accurate information to the public, so that people understand what the risks are and understand what needs to be done to reduce them. WILENIUS: In the event of a major terrorist attack, Ministers would set up a crisis centre here in the Cabinet Office . But they need to do more to reassure a jittery British public that we can cope with anything the terrorists can throw at us. For in the long-term, even some experts fear the worst. WILENIUS: Before September the eleventh I felt it was, bio-terrorism causing mass casualties was a very low risk. In part because of the technical difficulties but more because I felt there was a moral restraint which would prevent, would prevent terrorists from doing this kind of thing. It was difficult to see any political reason why anyone would want to kill large numbers of people. What September the Eleventh did was remove that assumption. So we're now down the technical restraints against mass casualty bio-terrorism. WILENIUS: Images like these have heightened the public's concern. But one of the leading experts on weapons of mass destruction has an even greater worry: that terrorists could one day get their hands on the ultimate weapon. BUTLER: My biggest fear is nuclear weapons. There are far too many nuclear weapons in the world and as long as they are there it is inevitable and this is dangerous right, it's a prediction but I'm here to make it with you on the BBC, it is inevitable that one day a terrorist group will get hold of nuclear weapons or weapon and use it, and I think that's the greatest danger we face. WILENIUS: There's little doubt that there's a clear and present danger of further attacks on innocent civilians. But the exact scale of that threat is still unknown. Experts agree there are considerable technical difficulties which terrorists would need to overcome, before they could use such apocalyptic weapons against the West. The public will be hoping they don't overcome those difficulties, before they're finally hunted down .
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.