“Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.”
—PIRA statement to British government after failed bombing attempt, 1984161
The preceding two sections showed the long reach and stunning power of the 50 caliber sniper rifle, and documented their possession by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and other foreign and domestic terrorist groups. This section examines the specific threats presented by 50 caliber sniper rifles and their deadly armor-piercing and explosive ammunition in the hands of terrorists. Those threats fall into two categories: assassination, and materiel destruction, especially the destruction of critical infrastructure and hazardous chemical and industrial facilities.
“Death from Afar”—the Assassination Threat
The danger that comes first to mind from a sniper rifle capable of accurately hitting targets at 1,000 yards and blasting through armor and concrete is assassination. In light of everything we plainly know about 50 caliber sniper rifles, their ammunition, and the terrorists who own them, the reality of this threat would seem to most people to be a “no-brainer.” Yet, some 50 caliber defenders make light of it. “The presidential limo can withstand a rocket-propelled grenade,” wrote one Todd Browning in a 1999 letter to The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. “The .50-caliber might chip the paint.”162
It is not clear what Todd Browning’s expertise is, or the source of his information about the level of armor on the presidential limousine. He is identified only as “vice president of an insurance company.” The VPC does not pretend to know how heavily armored the presidential limousine is, and if we did know, we would not publish that information.s We do know, however, about the following points, elaborated in the text that follows:
- The U.S. Secret Service has been concerned for some time about the threat that 50 caliber sniper rifles present to its protective mission.t
- Wholly aside from the danger presented by Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists, other assassination warning flags, such as insurrectionist images, slogans and text, and assassination threats against public figures have been posted on popular 50 caliber enthusiast and general sniper Internet web sites.
- Potential targets of terrorist assassination include thousands of persons who do not customarily travel in the presidential limousine, but who do travel in airplanes, helicopters, and other means of transportation vulnerable to 50 caliber attack. These persons include senior federal government officials from all branches, foreign dignitaries, state government officials, law enforcement officers at all levels of government, high-profile celebrities, and key business and industry executives.
- Most armored limousines offered commercially do not feature levels of armored protection sufficient to defeat 50 caliber armor-piercing ammunition. Moreover, 50 caliber rounds do not have to actually penetrate armored vehicles to inflict death or injury on the occupants.
- In addition to penetrating vehicle armor, 50 caliber sniper rifles are capable of downing helicopters, destroying small aircraft, and penetrating the reinforced concrete and masonry walls of buildings.
Secret Service Concerns
Unlike armchair “experts” writing from the comfort of insurance company offices, or gun industry apologists spewing mere propaganda to boost their sales, the U.S. Secret Service and others charged with defending the nation’s highest human assets must take the threat from 50 caliber sniper rifles seriously.
“The Secret Service has to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Eljay Bowron, the former director of the Secret Service and now an executive security expert with a private firm, told MSNBC recently. “They go about their business as though there is someone out there with a .50-caliber weapon that you don’t want to have a .50-caliber weapon.”163
In an earlier interview with CNN, Bowron was more specific: “With this weapon, you don’t need to see the enemy. The enemy could be behind a bunker. It could be in a building. This weapon is going to penetrate that building from a great distance. You can riddle the building and have a high probability of casualties. That’s a concern from a security standpoint.”164
That possibility of a 50 caliber sniper blasting through building materials extends the range of targets far beyond armored limousines—whether capable of stopping rocket-propelled grenades or not—to offices, homes, and any other location not armored as heavily as a main battle tank. John C. Killorin, special agent in charge of the Atlanta Field Division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms described the Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifle as “a devastatingly powerful weapon against which most troops, most law enforcement, no civilians, have any means of defense.”165 Killorin added that the 50 caliber sniper rifle is “a tremendous threat” for “those most shocking and horrifying crimes, assassinations, murders, assaults on law enforcement officers.”166
The threat from Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, which has bought at least 25 Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles, need not be exaggerated. Nor need one review our modern history of assassinations and attempted assassinations of public figures. And, as documented in the preceding section, militia groups with 50 caliber sniper rifles in their inventory have plotted the assassination of senior federal and state officials.
Other threats associated specifically with the burgeoning sniper subculture in America are only slightly more subtle.u The Internet web site Sniper Country, for example, posted a “warning to Minors and Militants” after the following incident:
Recently an incident occurred where we received an email from a reader. We had no way of telling if this reader was young or old, insane or just stupid. The message simply said that he was going to kill a well-known political figure. By his sending it to us, we felt he involved us in his “plot” and we could not stand by to become unwilling accomplices. After some deliberation we forwarded his note to the Secret Service.167
According to Sniper Country, the Secret Service found that the threat was made by a minor. “This is one reason we ask people under the age of 18 to stay out of our site. We have ALL been young—we remember how impressionable we were and how we easily latched onto ideas that were not necessarily good for us or particularly smart.”168 This is exactly a point that the VPC made in its first report: an 18-year-old can legally buy a 50 caliber sniper rifle and have the ideal tool to implement such dangerous ideas.
Sniper Country says on its web site that it is dedicated to the law enforcement and military sniper,v professions which have a legitimate use for the weapon. But other material easily accessible on the Internet, including especially a bulletin board at www.biggerhammer.net, is not as discriminating. The photograph on the cover of this report is an example of such material. The photograph was posted at the Biggerhammer bulletin board, and the tee shirt it depicts is being sold from a Florida location also posted on the bulletin board.w At a California gun show the slogan was sold on bumper stickers featuring a silhouette of former President Clinton in a rifle scope.169 A different image of the slogan is posted on an Internet web site called “Geoff’s Firearms and Freedom Images Page.”170
The Violence Policy Center urges that Americans from all walks of life ponder the meaning of the slogan, “Vote from the rooftops.” The VPC would submit that its plain meaning is an insurrectionist threat of assassination. The qualifying phrase “when all else fails” simply means `when a tiny but grandly disaffected minority decides that it is time to go out and kill someone with whom it disagrees.’ This is said to be necessary to protect “liberty,” or “freedom,” or “rights.” As Ron Gaydosh, state commander of the Michigan Militia told MSNBC, “As far as I’m concerned, the .50- calibers are our liberty teeth. They’re in our hands. We have them in our hands.”171
Insurrectionist Slogan Popular In Civilian Sniper Culture
This variant of the slogan shown on the cover of this report was taken from an Internet web site titled “Geoff’s Firearms and Freedom Images Pages.” Bumper stickers featuring the slogan and a silhouette of former President Clinton in a rifle scope were sold at a California gun show.
Here are some examples of insurrectionist postings from the 50 caliber enthusiast bulletin board on Biggerhammer.net:172
- [T]he cold hard fact is that the framers of the Constitution had in mind that someday the Government would become tyrannical and it’s [sic] people would need to take up arms against the beast again.
- I will NOT kowtow to this PC horse shit thats [sic] being thrust down our throats by every moron in this increasingly godforsaken country….If they come and try to take my guns, I will kill them. Or be killed by them in the process of defending myself, my family and my rights. Is that clear enough?
- I will gladly give up my guns when they come for them, bullets first.
- And guess what? They’re right! WE ARE A THREAT!!! Oh great now I’ve gone and done it, ruined our image as target shooters 🙂
- Whose security? Theirs maybe. I’d say they were right—we are a threat. They’d better send in the foreign mercenaries to save the children from us. I hope they do it soon—I’m not getting any younger. Grrrrrr.
Some of the implied threats posted on Biggerhammer.net have more specific targets:
Referring to a Member of Congress: When the fighting starts I think he’d better deport himself immediately for his own safety. Otherwise I’m quite positive that he’ll be feeding the Liberty tree.
This posting’s reference to “the Liberty tree” is an allusion to a sentence from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson that “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” a quote popular among the radical right and extreme gun enthusiasts. It was printed on the back of the tee shirt that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested on the day of the bombing, after a routine traffic stop revealed that he was carrying a concealed handgun.173
Referring to the author of this report: All this will be sorted out in short order and all the socialist bastards like Tom Diaz can choose to stand against us on the battlefield and fight for what he believes in, or go cower away with the other rats in their hiding places.
Referring to a senior FBI official and an FBI sniper: It will not be long until the Larry Potters & Lon Horiuchis of this world will be located & dealt with by some individual with the moxie & self-destructive energy of a Tim McVeigh….Trust me folks, the feds [sic] time is-a-comin’….If you have to shed blood, don’t shed innocent blood. Hope you are reading this, Mr. Horiuchi.
The point is not that any of these necessarily represents a criminal threat, but that collectively they bespeak a dangerous and arrogant attitude, destructive of the traditional free dialogue and democratic action of the American people. Since they come from among a self-identified group of 50 caliber sniper rifle enthusiasts, they raise a clear warning not only to public policymakers at all levels of government, but to every American citizen who believes in the democratic foundation of our nation.
Proliferation of 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles in America
This map, posted on the www.biggerhammer.com bulletin board, shows locations of 50 caliber civilian owners willing to identify their location. It represents only a small sample of total 50 caliber sniper rifle civilian ownership. No one knows how many civilian owners there are, who they are, or where they live.
“Leaderless Resistance” and the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle
Experts on executive protection say the 50 caliber sniper rifle is a particularly dangerous threat in the hands of a terrorist carrying out his actions as a “lone wolf,” much the way Timothy McVeigh is said to have acted. As MSNBC reported, “The range and power of the fifty-caliber greatly escalates the potential threat in [former Secret Service Director] Eljay’s worst-case scenario: a rogue operator committing what he calls a ‘leaderless act’ of terrorism.”174Many hate groups now tailor their message to such disaffected individuals and small cells, doing away with larger, formal structures that are targets for infiltration and compromise by law enforcement agencies.175 This strategy to avoid detection while at the same time continuing action against the state was given the name “leaderless resistance” in a long essay by former Ku Klux Klansman and neo-Nazi Louis Beam:
No one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them….It goes almost without saying that Leaderless Resistance leads to very small or even one-man cells of resistance.176
The gun expert’s opinion quoted in Section One confirms the 50 caliber sniper rifle’s threat in the hands of such a one-man terror cell: “The fifty caliber’s ability to be deployed by one individual and give that person the capability of discretely engaging a target at ranges of over one mile away are definitely alluring from a tactical standpoint.”177 Barrett’s description of the power of its Model M82A1 also speaks to that capability: “This revolutionary .50 caliber semi-automatic rifle allows sophisticated targets to be destroyed or disabled by a single soldier.”178
A comment posted on the Biggerhammer.net bulletin board in a string discussing the Oklahoma City bombing sums the problem up:
“Anti-government” movement didn’t dry up: It just got more dedicated, and practices better OPSEC [operational security].179
Vulnerability of Limousines and Other Means of Travel
Some government and industry executives now move about in public in armored vehicles, as protection against a variety of threats. Publicly available information raises the question of whether those vehicles are capable of resisting attack by terrorists armed with 50 caliber sniper rifles firing armor-piercing rounds. This is even more doubtful if the rounds are of the more powerful SLAP and Raufoss MP type described in Section One, which demonstrated that military armored personnel carriers can be defeated by 50 caliber rounds. There is no apparent reason to believe civilian armored vehicles would fare any better than military fighting vehicles.
There is other evidence. For example, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) at the Department of Justice has published minimum performance standards for testing ballistic resistant materials (armor).180 The standards establish uniform tests for classifying specific grades of protective material, so that law enforcement and other agencies can assess commercially offered armor. The highest level of those standards covers armor-piercing ammunition—but only at the 30 caliber level.
In addition to the NIJ standard, many armored car manufacturers cite other ballistic standards in describing the resistance of the ballistic materials used in their vehicles, including European, German, and Underwriters Laboratories standards. Like the NIJ standard, 30 caliber is the highest armor-piercing caliber addressed in those standards.181
This is not to say that it is impossible to get a commercial armored car that can resist 50 caliber armor-piercing rounds. At least one company appears to offer such vehicles.182 But this is not the norm. If the proliferation of 50 caliber sniper rifles forces protection to be raised to this level, it will impose much greater costs on those who need it.
Finally, some experts warn that “even the best armoring materials, certified to defeat specific weapons, are of limited use when improperly installed.”183 They warn of cases in which “the first round dislodged the armor and allowed penetration of subsequent rounds,” and of screws improperly installed so that “the bullet may stop but the screw may fly into the passenger compartment with enough force to sever an artery.”184 The hammering that 50 caliber ammunition delivers would certainly quickly ferret out any such defects.
Travel by other means of transport—including aircraft, helicopters, and even water craft—is also vulnerable to an assassination attempt with the 50 caliber sniper rifle. The U.S. Coast Guard uses Robar 50 caliber sniper rifles to disable so-called “fast boats” used by drug smugglers.185 As documented in Section One, aircraft are specifically among the materiel targets that the Barrett Manufacturing lists as among the “sophisticated targets” capable of being “destroyed or disabled” by a single soldier using its Model M82A1.186 Military manuals and manufacturers’ materials also include aircraft among the targets suitable for anti-armor, incendiary, SLAP, and Raufoss ammunition.187 One published book includes a diagram showing exactly where a 50 caliber sniper should shoot at a helicopter in order to down it.x Of course, such targets will be more or less vulnerable, depending on where they are in the journey. Common sense tells one that a taxiing aircraft or a hovering helicopter are easier targets than in flight.
Attacks on Major Sports Events
Unfortunately, the possibility of terrorist attacks has become a routine part of planning for high-profile sports events,y such as the Super Bowl and Olympic competitions.188 Last May, the Bush Administration’s Justice Department asked Congress for $32 million for FBI security and investigative duties at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.189
Now, such terror scrutiny has been extended to regular weekend sports events, such as college and NFL football games.190 Much of the reported planning has to do with screening patrons and parking lot security. The tremendous range of the 50 caliber sniper rifles that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations possess have forced security planners to consider line-of-sight locations within thousands of yards.z Terrorists could use the maximum-range capability of the 50 caliber sniper rifle in such an attack, since they would be less interested in any single target, and more interested in the shock effect such an attack would have on the nation even if only random victims were struck.
Turning Targets Into Bombs—the Anti-Materiel Threat
In the wake of the horrendous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, both using commercial aircraft as giant bombs, experts have said that our anti-terror analysis must focus on simultaneous attacks mounted by relatively simple conventional means, but capable of inflicting catastrophic damage.191 Americans should be alert to the leveraged use of low or hitherto benign technology to cause high-tech results.
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. This section of the report describes how terrorists such as Al Qaeda can use the long reach of the 50 caliber sniper rifles they are known to possess—combined with the powerful effects of their armor-piercing and incendiary ammunition—to create catastrophe.
The Violence Policy Center will be making a restricted appendix available to Member of Congress and government officials with law-enforcement or counter-terrorism responsibility in the hope that it will impress on them the need to “think outside of the box” about the threat of these weapons being leveraged to achieve unconventional effects. Each of the specific dangers described in the following section are clearly within the capability of the 50 caliber sniper rifle. The targets described have either been the targets of foreign or domestic terrorist attacks, or have been the subject of warnings by responsible experts. They include:
- Catastrophic attacks on aircraft and aviation facilities
- 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.
- Damaging critical infrastructure networks sufficiently to cause widespread disruption.
Some of the more catastrophic scenarios described below could result in the deaths of the attackers themselves. However, given the mass suicide attacks we have already seen, this is no bar to the feasibility of such operation. “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.”192
Bombs on the Ground—Aircraft and Aviation Facilities
A 1995 RAND report identified 50 caliber sniper rifles as a serious threat against the security of U.S. Air Force bases.193 After noting the success of Barrett sniper rifles with Raufoss bullets against light armored vehicles in the 1991 Gulf War (discussed in Section One), the authors noted:
Such weapons also give light forces a portable and quite deadly option against parked aircraft….These rifles are effective against man-sized targets up to 1,600 meters away and could hit aircraft-sized targets at even greater ranges; one expert marksman has reported consistently hitting 8-X-10-foot targets over 2 kilometers distant. Further improvements are undoubtedly on the way….The Barrett’s popularity appears to be spreading beyond the 17 countries that now use it. It seems only a matter of time before these or similar weapons find their way into the arsenals of potential adversaries, if they have not already done so.194
As demonstrated in Section Two of this report, Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifles had in fact already made their way into the arsenal of at least one real adversary—Al Qaeda—even before those words were written. Barrett and other 50 caliber sniper rifle manufacturers advertise the specific ability of their rifles to attack aircraft and other materiel found on airfields. In addition to the Barrett promotional material quoted in Section One, for example, EDM Arms argues on its Internet web site that its Windrunner 50 caliber rifle is superior to Barrett’s in meeting the Army’s mission for an advanced sniper rifle, which includes attacking “various materiel targets such as parked aircraft, radar sites,…petroleum, and various thin skinned materiel targets to include lightly armored vehicles.”195
In the light of these capabilities, the RAND report’s description of the variety of targets at a typical air base as “rich” is instructive:
An air base is a classic “target-rich environment.” Besides the aircraft themselves, air bases offer fuel-storage facilities, munitions bunkers, the control tower and operations center, navigation aids, crew housing, maintenance facilities, and aerospace ground equipment….Fuel storage has proven to be particularly vulnerable to attack. Storage tanks are large, thin-skinned targets that, for routine safety purposes, are often placed on the base periphery. This location, however, exposes them to attack from direct-fire weapons….off-base tank farms are generally even more vulnerable than fuel-storage sites on-base.196
Putting aside the threat to U.S. military air bases at home and abroad,aa it takes no imagination to project the identical threat to civilian airports. They have all the targets of air bases except munitions bunkers. Moreover, it is simplistic to think of the threat as only that of “shooting down” an aircraft. An attack could be the far simpler one of turning aircraft and fuel trucks into enormous bombs by striking them at long range with the incendiary ammunition we have shown is easily available. In light of the September 11 attacks, the concept of jetliners being turned into bombs is no longer a foreign idea. As the publisher of a jet-fuel industry newsletter recently observed, if a commercial jet can be turned into a bomb in the air, “It’s also a bomb sitting on the runway and…at the terminal.”197
The danger is that many lay persons unaware of the 50 caliber’s reach and power tend to think of airport security in terms of simply keeping unauthorized personnel away from the immediate area.198 This is, of course, important. But those concerned about security should extend their vision to the rifles, their range, and the unique danger such weapons present to turn aircraft and fuel trucks into bombs on the ground.
Turning Hazardous Chemical Facilities Into Weapons
A substantial amount of attention has been given in recent days to the subject of Osama bin Laden’s interest in obtaining and using chemical weapons, and analyzing the likelihood of his acquiring them.199 Yet counter-terror experts have warned 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. In another similarity to Al Qaeda’s known means of operation, experts note that using such low-tech means has the added benefit of a lower operational profile, harder to detect by authorities.
Here again is a case in which the 50 caliber sniper rifles in the hands of Al Qaeda and other terrorists present specific capabilities that can be turned to catastrophic opportunity.
This low-tech threat was addressed by a blue ribbon panel that reported in 1999 to the President and Congress on the threat from chemical and biological terrorist attack. After noting the obstacles to mounting an attack with chemical weapons, the panel addressed an alternate avenue:
Given these impediments, 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. Common industrial and agricultural chemicals can be as highly toxic as bona fide chemical weapons and, as the 1984 Bhopal, India, catastrophe demonstrated, just as (if not even more) effective when unleashed on a nearby population.200
According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Bhopal incident, which involved the release of methyl isocyanate into the air, resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries.201
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice also issued a 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.”202
Last May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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.”203 The advisory warned facilities “with chemicals or explosive storage” to take site security measures.204
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.”205
The threat of this type of engineered chemical attack is so serious that many federal agencies have within recent days scrubbed data about hazardous locations from their Internet web sites.206 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 infrastructurebb are located at or near reporting hazardous sites. “Disruption of even one of these facilities could wreak havoc on an entire region or locality,”207 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.”208
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 1997.209 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.210 The plot was foiled because an informant tipped off authorities, but the potential is nevertheless instructive.
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—Congress instructed the Justice Department to study how well chemical plants are prepared to prevent terrorist attacks, but did not fund the study.211 Chemical facilities were put on alert after the September 11 terror attacks.212 But, the question is, what likely means of attack are they on the alert for?
Just as in the case of the RAND warning on vulnerability of airbase fuel tanks, it takes little imagination to understand the threat from the 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 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, present a staggering array of 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.
The RAND study noted the vulnerability of fuel storage at airfields to attack from 50 caliber sniper rifles. If the threat is not self-evident, to grasp its dimensions 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, countless rail cars loaded with hazardous material such as fuels and chlorine gas, and another 50,000 gasoline tanker trucks that serve local gas stations (each truck carrying as much fuel as a Boeing 757) and the reach of a ruthless terrorist to inflict damage with the heavy firepower of the 50 caliber sniper rifle becomes almost unimaginable.213
This is not mere conjecture. Terrorists in the United States have actually 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. The VPC urges that this step be taken.
Consider, for example, the ubiquity of propane gas storage facilities and the transportation of it on public roads and rail nets 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.214 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 1984.215 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.216
A Clear and Present Danger
50 caliber armor-piercing incendiary rounds widely available in the U.S. civilian market can easily ignite fires like this by striking bulk fuel tanks, tanker trucks, and railroad tank cars from thousands of yards away.
The United States has not been immune to serious accidents involving propane facilities.217 An accidental propane release and fire near Des Moines, Iowa caused the evacuation of 10,000 residents and the closing of an interstate highway.218 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.”219
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.220 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% up to five miles away.221
On a smaller scale, an environmental terror group in Maine attempted to blow up a fish and game club with a propane tank, but a member who was a fireman noticed the device and disabled it.222
There are about 33,000 propane facilities nationwide.223 Bulk storage tanks at these facilities range in size from 6,000 to 120,000 gallons, and several tanks of various size may be found at any one facility.224
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “propane releases are a leading cause of death in hazardous material transportation.”225 Semi-trailer bulk cargo tank vehicles that distribute propane over long-haul distances have capacities ranging from 9,000 to 17,000 gallons.226 Smaller “bobtail” trucks deliver propane locally to customers that have propane containers on site, and have tank capacities from 750 to 6,500 gallons.227 Railroad tank cars that deliver from refineries and gas plants to bulk tanks have capacities of between 11,000 and 34,500 gallons.228
Terrorists have actually targeted bulk transporters. Last year, 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.229 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 rail cars 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.230
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.231
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.232 The fire in the tunnel also destroyed fiber-optic cables, slowing Internet traffic all over the country,233 and released toxic chemicals from ruptured tank cars.234 Similar explosions last year shut down a major bridge in Jacksonville, Florida and a highway in Nevada.235 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 died down, rather than risk dispersing the gasoline and mixing it with the spilled ammonium nitrate.236
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 effect.
Elements of the national critical infrastructure other than transportation systems are also vulnerable to the 50 caliber sniper. Barrett suggests that radar dishes and communications vehicles are subject to the “quick strike capability of the Barrett 82A1” in its advertising material. It is little reach from there to telecommunications facilities, electrical power grid transformers, exposed pipeline equipment, and on and on as far as the imagination can reach.
The 50 caliber sniper rifle has many applications as the ideal tool for assassination and terror. In the next section, we show that there has been a dramatic surge in the civilian market for 50 caliber sniper rifle “super guns.”
s) In fact, until this report, no VPC report or spokesperson has addressed any specific target of the threat of assassination that 50 caliber sniper rifles present. We felt this letter to be such egregiously obtuse misinformation, however, as to demand a specific response. It is also worth noting that several U.S. Army armored Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket propelled grenades wielded by irregular militia in Mogadishu, Somalia in October, 1993, a stunning reminder that low-tech weapons can find the weak spot in high-tech equipment with devastating effect.
t) The Secret Service protects the President, the Vice President (and persons elected to those offices), their immediate families, former Presidents, visiting heads of foreign states or governments, and major party candidates within 120 days of a general Presidential election. The Uniformed Division of the Service also protects the White House and other Presidential offices, and foreign diplomatic missions. U.S. Department of the Treasury Internet web site, at http://www.ustreas.gov/usss/protection.htm downloaded on October 3, 2001.
u) For a general overview of that culture, see Violence Policy Center, One Shot, One Kill: Civilian Sales of Military Sniper Rifles (May 1999), Section Three, “The Sniper Rifle Subculture.”
v) If that is so, one can only wonder why there was need for “deliberation” before the site’s managers decided to contact the Secret Service about the threat.
w) The slogan on the shooter’s hat is a Greek phrase, Molon Labe, said to have been shouted by Spartan warriors in response to Persian demands to lay down their arms. It means, “Come and get them,” and has been adopted as a slogan by some hard-line gun rights advocates. See, e.g., the posting on The Firing Line, an Internet forum, at http://www.thefiringline.com/HCI/molon_labe.htm.
x) This graphic and a citation to its source are included only in the restricted appendix to this report.
y) Similar planning for a Republican national convention in San Diego considered the possible scenario of an airplane being crashed into the site. “We ended up solving all the problems but the plane crashed into us,” said one security official. “No one knew how to stop that plane.” “Two Minute Warning,” Security Management, January 1998, p. 34.
z) The maximum range of the 50 caliber round is between 7,000 and 8,000 yards, depending on the specific ammunition. John L. Plaster, The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Military & Police Snipers (Boulder: Paladin Press, 1993), p. 217. This is the maximum distance a fired 50 caliber bullet can travel, considerably more than the distance that a round can be accurately fired. The latter, called the “maximum effective range,” is discussed in detail in Section One. It is certainly at least 1,000 yards and about 2,000 yards in skilled hands.
aa) The Air Force, at least, has taken the threat seriously and is conducting counter sniper training for its base security forces. See, U.S. Force release, “Cops Graduate from Second Countersniper School,” 17 August 2001 quoted in Regulatory Intelligence Data.
bb) The critical infrastructure includes such things as water supply, military installations, utility companies, natural gas distribution, and the electrical and communications networks.