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Permanent Monitoring Panel -
Mitigation of Terrorist Acts

Members of the Panel:

Richard L. Garwin (USA)

Members and Associate Members:
KDiego Buriot (France); Vasiliy Krivokhizha (Russia); Sally Leivesley* (UK); Ramamurti Rajaraman, Annette Sobel (USA); Friedrich Steinhaeusler (Austria); Richard Wilson (USA); [in process of augmentation]

(Associate PMP Members are a community of scientists who provide support and expertise for the working of the Permanent Monitoring Panel. The designation "*" identifies "co-ordinators" who have agreed to assist the Chair in organization and conduct of the PMP)

Summary of the Emergency

While the history of terrorist acts goes back many centuries, 'terrorism' as we understand it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The latter half of the 20th century saw increasing effectiveness and sophistication, not least during the Cold War period when various conflicts were given tacit or direct support by the USA and USSR as they sought to gain advantage in their conflict with each other. Some of these terrorist campaigns continued or found new focus in the post-communist era, but the events of 11 September 2001 and subsequent developments focused the attention of the contemporary world on this issue in a very particular way, not least because of the response of the USA and the resultant impact of its so-called 'War on Terror' on the structure and functioning of global society.

Priorities in dealing with the Emergency, and the WFS response

The World Federation of Scientists immediately reacted to '9/11' as it became known by beginning its consideration of the subject, first in its Annual Session in 2002, and then by establishing a Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism at its next Annual Session in August 2003. The Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism was established with the objective of identifying scientific and 'do-able' solutions to contain and possibly eliminate the growing scourge and its impact.

The PMPT brought together a group of eminent scientists and scholars in regular sessions in Erice each May, and it quickly became clear that while the technical aspects of mitigating terrorist attacks particularly benefited from the expertise and research of the applied physical sciences, addressing the motivations of those who engaged in terrorism required especial input from the applied social sciences, and two sub-groups emerged dealing with Mitigation and Motivations. These two groups view the problem from different angles, but the two approaches are entirely complementary, and neither can succeed in resolving the problem alone. Neither group has addressed police work or intelligence that might play a role in reducing the overall impact of terrorism, regarding this topic as inappropriate for the WFS.

By 2007 the work had evolved to the point with these two strands of work - the Mitigation of Terrorism and the Motivations for Terrorism - that it was decided with the approval of the President of WFS to have two PMPT's addressing these different elements, but cooperating closely.

The Permanent Monitoring Panel on the Motivations for Terrorism, chaired by John, Lord Alderdice (U.K), continues with the same objectives as before, monitoring research that is being conducted, organising scientific workshops to channel research efforts and reconcile conflicting views on scientific and related ethical issues, helping disseminate relevant scientific data and information, developing recommendations for use by governments and international agencies, elaborating project proposals to conduct research in collaboration with scientists and others from relevant countries, and seeking to operationalize the results of scientific research in the cause of deeper understanding and for the purposes of the cause of peace rather than war.

The Permanent Monitoring Panel on the Mitigation of Terrorist Acts has considered nuclear and biological megaterrorism, first to determine and to explain the magnitude of the hazard and then, in the case of biological megaterrorism, to identify the great benefit potentially available in the case of a terrorist-initiated pandemic of contagious disease such as smallpox by non-pharmaceutical interventions such as hand sanitation, improvised masks, air purification, use of household bleach - all to reduce the reproduction factor R of the disease from one generation of illness to the next "serial interval." Evidently, rapid development, production and use of an appropriate vaccine for the disease will minimize the serious economic and social burden of draconian public health measures.

The PMP Terrorism-Mitigation will continue to maintain an overview of the capability in principle and in practice of detecting the flow of fissile material that might be used by terrorists to build nuclear weapons; of the monitoring capability for the early detection and identification of disease that might be terrorist-induced or for that matter a natural outbreak, taking into account that terrorist-induced disease might have many foci. Mitigation involves rapid assessment of the hazard - e.g., the extent and nature of radiological contamination in case of the dispersal of radioactive materials, to minimize further contamination and exposure of the population, as well as the tools and procedure to decontaminate where possible and warranted. The response involves not only systems analysis informed by physics and chemistry, but notably the hard work of defining and sharing "best practices" and of sketching materials that would most effectively limit the damage from a pathogen.

That this effort has much in common with what might most effectively counter an avian flu pandemic is regarded as a virtue, because it increases both motivation and value of the PMP's activity. But identifying best practices and materials to be stockpiled by families, businesses, schools, and churches is only the beginning of the solution; the world's structure for public health is far from adequate to distribute and implement such initiatives. Solutions must be tempered by awareness of their cost and of the lack of resources in many societies - problems worsened because megaterrorism will not be a daily occurrence, so that training and practice are not likely to be at a high level.

Radioactive contamination from a radiological dispersal device (conventional explosive or perhaps an aerosol generator fed by a solution of radioactive material) must be assessed, prepared analyses and plans consulted, advice communicated to the public, and decontamination of people and places initiated on a suitable time scale.

It is urgent to have tested communications means and information packages ready for distribution within minutes to avoid panic that may worsen the consequence of a terrorist act. Meetings at Erice have included heads of fire and public safety departments from abroad and could well involve officials from universities and businesses who are tackling the difficult problems of what to do in emergencies, and how to get people to do it.

What to do, what to say, and how and when to say it is a vast problem that will be addressed at the meeting of the PMPT-Mitigation in Erice May 27-28, 2008. The PMP on Motivation of Terrorism will meet at the same time, and close collaboration between the Mitigation and Motivation groups will continue.

Some Statements, Papers and Reports (online)

Papers and Publications

  • World Scientific Publications -the International Seminars on Nuclear War and Planetary Emergencies Series - The 29th Session - Erice May 2003 - The Cultural Emergency: Focus on Terrorism
  • World Scientific Publications - the International Seminars on Nuclear War and Planetary Emergencies Series - The 31st Session - Erice May 2005 - The Cultural Emergency: Focus on Terrorism