A biological or nuclear attack is likely to occur somewhere around the globe during the Obama administration or shortly thereafter, a new congressionally mandated report has warned.
The report, titled "The World at Risk," starkly states, "The commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
The ominous study by the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism and obtained by ABC News, will be released Wednesday.
The biggest threat is a biological attack, which the report considers to be a greater possibility than a nuclear or radiological attack.
"Terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon. The commission believes that the U.S. government needs to move more aggressively to limit the proliferation of biological weapons and reduce the prospect of a bioterror attack," it says.
"The acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device," the report argues.
While terror groups lack the expertise to make biological weapons, the study warns that "terrorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists."
As a cautionary example, "The World at Risk" cites the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, which the FBI and Justice Department have maintained were conducted by the lateBruce Ivins, a bio-weapons researcher at Fort Detrick.
The new report drew the same conclusions as a separate study released last month by the National Intelligence Council. That report, titled Global Trends 2025, predicted the threat from biological weapons would grow. "For those terrorist groups active in 2025, the diffusion of technologies and scientific knowledge will place some of the world's most dangerous capabilities within their reach. The globalization of biotechnology industries is spreading expertise and capabilities, and increasing the accessibility of biological pathogens suitable for disruptive attacks," it warns.
Pakistan Nuclear Stockpile Seen as Vulnerable
The commission said that Pakistan posed a particular danger for a WMD attack because al Qaeda reportedly has a safe haven in Pakistan's wild tribal areas, the instability in the government and Pakistan's nuclear weapons stockpile.
"Pakistan is an ally, but there is a grave danger it could also be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the United States -- possibly with weapons of mass destruction," it claims.
The report notes that Pakistan's nuclear weapons stockpile consists of about 85 nuclear warheads and that China has recently agreed to build two nuclear power plants in Pakistan, which could help exacerbate a regional nuclear arms race with its nuclear armed neighbor India.
"Though most U.S. and Pakistani officials say that these weapons and their components are safe from inside or outside theft, the risk that radical Islamists -- al Qaeda or Taliban -- may gain access to nuclear material is real."
"America's margin of safety against a WMD attack is shrinking. But we also want to assure the people that there is ample and solid ground for hope about the future," the report states.
It makes a series of 13 recommendations for the incoming administration, which includes conducting a comprehensive review of domestic stocks of deadly pathogens and tightening security at those biological labs and research facilities.
While security has been known to be inadequate at bioresearch facilities overseas, especially in the former Soviet Union, the report makes mention of a recent GAO study that found that security at several of the United States' top biological laboratories containing the world's deadliest diseases and viruses was inadequate.
The report also recommends that the United States should bolster rapid response ability and pharmaceutical stocks to mitigate mass casualties and should advance bioforensic capabilities.
Other recommendations include for the United States to push internationally for countries to address the issue of biosecurity, enhance disease surveillance networks and push for the adherence of the Biological Weapons Convention, which countries are to review in 2011.
Nuclear Ambitions of Iran and North Korea Must Be Stopped
On the issue of nuclear security, the report recommends that the United States needs to strengthen the current nuclear nonproliferation treaties and seek a "restructuring" of the US-Russian relationship.
Concerning Iran and North Korea, the commission recommends that "As a top priority, the next administration must stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. In the case of Iran, this requires the permanent cessation of all of Iran's nuclear weapons–related efforts. In the case of North Korea, this requires the complete abandonment and dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."
The study was conducted over six months, and included more than 250 interviews with government officials. Overseas site visits ranged from the U.S. national laboratories to Moscow. The commission was to travel to Pakistan, but the trip was cut short after the September bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. The commission notes in the report that it came within hours of staying at the hotel.