On the night of June 27, 1994, a refrigerator truck cruised silently through the narrow streets of the historic castle town of Matsumoto, Japan. No one took notice of it. No one had any idea of the sinister plans of its occupants nor the presence of the deadly cargo that it contained.
Shortly before 11:30 p.m., the driver parked the truck at the edge of a pond in one of Matsumoto's more affluent neighborhoods. Then he and other members of a powerful cult called Aum Shinrikyo ("Religion of Truth") unleashed death in the form of sarin nerve gas into the warm night air.
Their target was a group of judges presiding over a lawsuit against the cult. But in the next 12 hours their attack would kill seven people and injure 500.
Faced with an unprecedented crime, the Japanese police focused their investigation on a single Matsumoto resident who had stockpiled pesticides for his garden and whose wife was one of the victims. Nine months later that gentleman would be cleared of any wrongdoing, in the worst possible way. On March 20, 1995, Aum members perpetrated another sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 and injuring more than 6,000.
Most sources will tell you that the Aum incidents were the first successful WMD attacks staged by a terrorist group against unarmed civilians. Whether that's true is debatable, but one thing that's not debatable is that the Matsumoto and Tokyo incidents were a rude awakening for public safety officials in the world's largest metropolitan.
Before Aum, lethal chemical weapons were thought by most public safety officials to be available only to government and military entities. Sure some thriller writers had posited that terror groups could acquire such weapons, but that was fiction. Now, law enforcement agencies worldwide were dealing with a new and particularly disturbing reality. And they weren't prepared for it, especially not here in the United States.
Fifteen years ago most law enforcement agencies had no personal protective equipment (PPE) to shield their officers from chemical and biological weapons. If they had gas masks, what they had were Vietnam War-era surplus items that the troops could don in case they had to use chemical agents for riot control. That started to change in the late 1990s.
And then Oklahoma City was hit with a truck bomb. And jihadists flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And there were Anthrax letters. And a lot of people in public safety started to worry about the possibility of chemical, biological, radiological, and even nuclear attacks on U.S. soil.
A decade has now passed since the World Trade Center towers burned and imploded on national TV. There have been no other catastrophic terror attacks on American soil, but men and women on the front lines of counter terrorism say they will come and when they do they will likely involve some element of gas or biologicals. FBI officials have been quoted saying there is a 100 percent chance of a WMD attack on America in the near future.
A future WMD attack could come from numerous sources. It could be an organized al-Qaeda operation; it could be the work of a domestic terror group, or it could be just the final Götterdämmerung act of an angry lone wolf. Either way, law enforcement must ask if it's ready to respond to such an unthinkable act.
The good news is that law enforcement has come a long way in its ability to both prevent and respond to WMD scenarios. Since 9/11 billions of federal dollars have been allocated toward supplying local public safety agencies with the resources needed to operate in a WMD environment.
Some of that money has been spent wisely on training and equipment. Some not so much. And unfortunately, some of it was spent on equipment that is now obsolete or expired.