Sitting Ducks – Section Two: Industrial Targets and the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, experts have said that anti-terror analysis must focus on simultaneous attacks mounted by relatively simple conventional means, but capable of inflicting catastrophic damage.37

The materiel-destroying capability of the 50 caliber sniper rifle is precisely such a means: leveraging readily available low technology to achieve disastrous high-technology results. The 50 caliber rifle’s anti-materiel capabilities include:

  • Turning chemical or other industrial facilities into bombs, with the potential for mass casualties.

  • Explosive attacks on bulk fuel carriers or storage depots, including the risk of fratricidal explosions spreading damage to catastrophic levels.

The more catastrophic scenarios could result in the deaths of the attackers themselves. However, given the suicide attacks we have already experienced, this is no bar to the feasibility of such operations. “Closed-circuit TV [monitoring] works with the IRA, because their method is they don’t want to be caught,” a British transit police official explained recently. “It wouldn’t work with a suicide operator.”38

Turning Hazardous Chemical Facilities Into Weapons

A substantial amount of attention has been given to the interest of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations, in obtaining and using chemical weapons, and analyzing the likelihood of it acquiring such weapons.39 But experts have warned also of the threat of another type of attack, similar in concept to using commercial aircraft as bombs—turning hazardous industrial facilities themselves into chemical weapons.

As noted in the Introduction to this report, a 1999 blue-ribbon panel report to the President and Congress warned that “a terrorist interested in harming large numbers of persons might prefer to attempt to engineer a chemical disaster using conventional means to attack an industrial plant or storage facility, rather than develop and use an actual chemical weapon. In this way, significant technical and resource hurdles could be overcome, as well as reducing the profile of the terrorist organization to potential detection by intelligence or law enforcement agencies.”40

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a 2000 report in which it “concluded that the risk of terrorists attempting in the foreseeable future to cause an industrial chemical release is both real and credible. Increasingly, terrorists engineer their attacks to cause mass casualties to the populace and/or large-scale damage to property. Terrorists or other criminals are likely to view the potential of a chemical release from an industrial facility as a relatively attractive means of achieving these goals.”41

In May 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an alert that appeared to respond to the 1999 blue-ribbon panel’s report. EPA warned local chemical disaster advisory committees that “a terrorist may seek to transform a target into a weapon by focusing on facilities that handle explosive, toxic, or volatile chemicals.”42 The advisory warned facilities “with chemicals or explosive storage” to take site security measures.43

One might think that this is a rare threat affecting only a few people unfortunate enough to live in a heavily industrial area. That would be a mistake. The most hazardous chemical and industrial facilities in the United States are required to report on their plans for dealing with escape of substance off-site. Of some 15,000 that had reported as of last year, almost half reported that “over 1,000 people live in zones that could be affected by the release of toxic chemicals from those facilities.”44

The threat of this type of engineered chemical attack is so serious that many federal agencies have within recent days removed data about hazardous locations from their Internet web sites.45 What must also be asked is: what kind of weapons would be ideal for such attacks?

An engineered attack on such a facility could have disastrous ripple effects as well. Numerous facilities critical to the nation’s infrastructured are located at or near hazardous sites. “Disruption of even one of these facilities could wreak havoc on an entire region or locality,”46 the Justice Department warns. “A chemical release may be more effective than a bomb in causing such disruption, since a leak of toxic chemicals may necessitate large-scale evacuation.”47

Foreign and domestic terrorists alike have already considered such schemes. For example, members of the Ku Klux Klan plotted to bomb a hydrogen sulfide tank at a refinery near Dallas in 1997.48 According to the chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorist section, they discussed the potential of hundreds of deaths, including children, which they hoped to use as a diversion for a planned armored car robbery.49 The plot was foiled because an informant tipped off authorities, but the potential is nonetheless instructive.

U.S. military manuals and manufacturer advertising identify bulk fuel storage as intended targets of 50 caliber anti-materiel sniper rifles. The first tank farm below illustrates a collateral hazard—it is within yards of a major interstate highway. The second fuel tank farm below illustrates a similar collateral hazard—it is located next to a shopping mall and commercial strip in a residential suburb of a major East Coast city. Attacks with armor-piercing ammunition on similar sites storing toxic chemicals could endanger tens of thousands of nearby inhabitants.

The threat of an engineered chemical disaster is clearly real. How capable the country is of responding to such a threat is another open question—in 2000, Congress instructed the Justice Department to study how well chemical plants are prepared to prevent terrorist attacks, but did not fund the study.50 Chemical facilities were put on alert after the September 11 attacks.51But, the question is, what likely means of attack are they on the alert for?

It takes little imagination to understand the threat from a 50 caliber sniper rifle firing a dramatically explosive and incendiary round like the Raufoss MP from a distance of several thousand yards (or even more, since the target is likely to be big enough to be hit at the farthest manageable range).

Attacks on Explosive Materials in Transit or Bulk Storage

Bulk storage of hazardous chemicals and fuels, and their transportation in bulk by truck and rail networks, presents many other targets for catastrophic attack by terrorists armed with 50 caliber sniper rifles and the armor-piercing, incendiary, and explosive ammunition widely available for them. In addition to the direct effects of explosions or contamination such attacks would cause, collateral effects could be shutdowns and massive dislocations throughout surface transportation and communications networks, and other vital parts of the critical infrastructure.

If the threat is not self-evident, one need only consider the vast number of bulk fuel storage facilities in the United States—such as gasoline and propane—and match that number with the incendiary power of the advanced 50 caliber rounds available to terrorists. Add to that problem the 50,000 trucks hauling millions of pounds of toxic, flammable, and explosive cargo over America’s highways, and countless railcars loaded with hazardous material such as fuels and chlorine gas, the ability of a terrorist to inflict damage with the explosive firepower of the 50 caliber sniper rifle becomes almost unimaginable.52

This is not conjecture. Terrorists in the United States have plotted assaults on such facilities. Disastrous accidents involving bulk storage and bulk transport of hazardous materials have shown the potential consequences of a terrorist attack. The potential effects of a carefully planned attack could go far beyond the random effects of an accident. It is worth noting that 50 caliber enthusiasts trade tips over the Internet about the best ways to shoot commercially available propane tanks to cause them to explode. What is missing is an official response tying these strands together.

Consider, for example, the ubiquity of propane gas storage facilities and the transportation of propane on public roads and rail networks all over the country, every working day. The propane industry goes to great lengths to make delivery and use safe, but the fact remains that it is a highly explosive fuel when improperly released. “A propane fire is a more powerful monster than the fires these heroes [firefighters] usually face,” advised one materials-handling publication.53 The second most deadly chemical accident in history—after Bhopal—was a catastrophic chain of explosions set off at a propane gas distribution center in Mexico City in 1984.54 The death total was nearly 500, at least 4,000 were injured, 2,000 houses in a 20 block area were leveled, and thousands were left homeless.55

The United States has not been immune to serious accidents involving propane facilities.56 An accidental propane release and fire near Des Moines, Iowa, in 1998 caused the evacuation of 10,000 residents and the closing of an interstate highway.57 An EPA official described a 1989 explosion involving ethylene and isobutane, “both of which have similar flammability characteristics as propane” as being “the equivalent of 10 tons of TNT.”58

The potential for unleashing disaster by igniting a propane tank has not escaped domestic terrorists. A plot by members of a militia group to blow up a giant propane storage facility in Elk Grove, California, was derailed when federal agents arrested them in December 1999 after an undercover investigation.59 The facility holds about 24 million gallons of propane and is a few hundred yards from a busy state highway and other industrial buildings. A study by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory concluded that, had the attack been successful, it would have caused a firestorm that would have reached about 10 miles from the facility and caused a fatality rate as high as 50 percent up to five miles away.60

On a far smaller scale, an environmental terror group in Maine attempted to blow up a fish and game club with a propane tank, but a club member who was a fireman noticed the device and disabled it.61

There are about 33,000 propane facilities nationwide.62 Bulk storage tanks at these facilities range in size from 6,000 to 120,000 gallons, and several tanks of various sizes may be found at any one facility.63

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “propane releases are a leading cause of death in hazardous material transportation.”64 Semi-trailer bulk cargo tank vehicles that distribute propane over long-haul distances have capacities ranging from 9,000 to 17,000 gallons.65 Smaller “bobtail” trucks deliver propane locally to customers that have propane containers on site, and have tank capacities from 750 to 6,500 gallons.66 Railroad tank cars that deliver from refineries and gas plants to bulk tanks have capacities of between 11,000 and 34,500 gallons.67

Attacks on liquid oxygen in bulk storage or being transported by tank trucks, as illustrated here, or on railcars could have explosive consequences. A well-planned attack on a location near key infrastructure would have devastating collateral effects. Tens of thousands of fuel trucks travel on highways every day, vulnerable to attack by long-range 50 caliber incendiary ammunition. Unintentional fires have already had devastating effects on transportation networks. Deliberate attacks could be far worse.

Terrorists have already targeted bulk transporters. In 2000, for example, two anarchists in Oregon tried to ignite a 12,000-gallon gasoline tanker, using a crude milk-jug bomb with a delayed igniter. The device failed, but police said it would have caused a catastrophic explosion had it succeeded.68 The consequences of a successful attack with armor-piercing incendiary rounds on such a bulk tanker, or a bulk storage facility, could be disastrous—even if the attackers were themselves incinerated in the resulting explosion.

A successful attack with armor-piercing incendiary rounds on railcars or trucks carrying flammable or explosive cargo could create geometrically increasing ripple effects if the attack occurred at or near a crucial site, such as a key bridge or tunnel, a national security facility, or a hazardous industrial site. This issue is addressed in the next paragraphs.

Damaging Critical Infrastructure Networks Sufficiently to Cause Widespread Disruption

There are a variety of ways in which a successful attack by a terrorist exploiting the 50 caliber sniper rifle’s capabilities could cause widespread disruption involving critical infrastructures.

One of the more obvious was alluded to in the preceding section—the collateral consequences of a successful attack with armor-piercing incendiary rounds on a bulk truck or rail carrier of fuel or other highly flammable material at a key location. “It strikes me that railroads are far more vulnerable in many ways than our airplanes,” West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller said during a recent Senate hearing on the risk of terror to the nation’s surface transportation systems.69

Gasoline tanker fires have had serious collateral effects. A three-truck accident that set off a gasoline-tanker truck explosion on a bridge shut down a major artery between Pennsylvania and New York for days, forcing tens of thousands of vehicles to find alternate routes.70

Instruction in the potential consequences abound in examples of accidents. Earlier this year, for example, a train fire in a tunnel under Baltimore caused an “enormous snarl” in rail traffic on the Eastern seaboard for nearly a week, drawing attention to a large number of potential bottlenecks in the railroad system.71 The fire in the tunnel also destroyed fiber-optic cables, slowing Internet traffic all over the country,72 and released toxic chemicals from ruptured tank cars.73 Similar explosions last year shut down a major bridge in Jacksonville, Florida, and a highway in Nevada.74

A Florida collision between a gasoline-tanker truck and a tractor-trailer hauling 20 tons of ammonium nitrate threatened to cause an enormous explosion, had the gasoline mixed with the chemical, the major ingredient of many truck bombs such as the one Timothy McVeigh set off in Oklahoma City in 1995. Firefighters were forced to stand by and let the fire die down, rather than risk dispersing the gasoline and mixing it with the spilled ammonium nitrate.75

These examples were accidents. It does not take a great deal of imagination to project the mentality of a terrorist, the range of the 50 caliber sniper rifle, and the incendiary effects of its ammunition to imagine carefully planned scenarios with even greater immediate and collateral effects.

d) The critical infrastructure includes such things as water supply, military installations, utility companies, natural gas distribution, as well as electrical and communications networks.

Back to Table of Contents