A New Paradigm for Terrorism: September 11 and Strategic Trade Controls to Prevent the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction

After the attacks, the international community developed new forums for international cooperation to oppose WMD proliferation and terrorism

I walked six miles from downtown Washington to home as the buses had stopped running on that beautiful fall weather day, with almost no human-made sounds around me other than jets flying combat air patrol above.  As I walked, I knew the arc of my life would change because of the terrorist attacks, but I had no idea by how much.  On a personal level, security personnel would be immediately outside my front door for months, and the mailbox across the street would be draped in crime-scene tape as part of the Anthrax attacks investigation.  More long lasting were the changes stemming from that day, for not only the course of my personal and professional life, but for the entire field of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). 

Since the 1980s, most of my academic research and public service focused on getting countries to develop effective systems to manage their trade in what are called “dual-use” items, i.e., goods, technologies, and services that have primarily commercial but also military applications, such as highly accurate machine tools or very advanced sensors, especially those that those seeking WMD might use.  By the end of the Cold War, the capacity to trade in dual-use items related to chemical, biological, nuclear, missile, and advanced conventional weapons had spread beyond the several dozen – mainly Western – countries that had effective export control systems and that collaborated in the four main export control “supplier” groups.1The Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Wassenaar Arrangement.  Convincing the governments of the emerging supplier countries to adopt and implement such controls, however, had proven very difficult, with few successes even with years of outreach by and assistance from governments, companies, and civil society.  Many officials saw these controls as inhibiting their export promotion policies or that their countries produced, consumed, or traded in few of these items – in most cases mistaken but powerful beliefs.  As important, even among the traditional supplier countries, many officials did not believe that terrorists would seek to cause mass casualties, so did not see WMD terrorism as a serious threat, even when presented wit strong evidence to the contrary, such the chemical attacks conducted by the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan in the mid-1990s.

September 11 changed all of that.

After the attacks, the international community saw the development of a range of new forums for international cooperation to oppose WMD proliferation generally and WMD terrorism specifically.2 These include, among others, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), the Nuclear Security Summits.  The attacks also prompted the adoption of new security objectives for the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Financial Action Task Force and other institutions. For me, the most important development was the creation and adoption of United Nations Security Council resolution 1540 (2004).  In the resolution, for the very first time, the Security Council recognized proliferation of WMD as a threat to international peace and security.  Its many obligations were aimed squarely at the issue of terrorists or other criminals acquiring and using WMD.  

On a personal level, 9/11 prompted me to leave academia to join the government, largely to improve nonproliferation export control programs in the United States and elsewhere. In government, I also had the opportunity to contribute to the interagency efforts that went into the creation of resolution 1540.  Although I returned to academia by 2004, by the next year I began to serve as an Expert for the Committee, which later led to me becoming the US Special Coordinator for 1540 at the Department of State, and now to my work on the same issues at the Stimson Center.  Resolution 1540 made nonproliferation export controls mandatory for all UN Member States, something I did not imagine was possible only a few years before — I had seen it as an unobtainable personal as well as professional goal.  With the resolution in hand, one could say that proliferation and managing trade in dual-use items were not just “Western” interests, but they were interests for all. 

Be it issue fatigue, dissensus among global powers, the difficulty of the export control challenge, or something else, twenty years on, the consensus on the threat and risk of WMD terrorism and the norms of nonproliferation have diminished.  Nonetheless, where before we had made no progress, the understanding that terrorists or other criminals could and would cause or abet mass casualty events – and that the United Nations had made controls mandatory in response – prompted important emerging suppliers adopted new or more effective nonproliferation export control systems, reducing the risks we all face.

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