The nightmare scenario unfolds like this: Shortly after U.S. forces invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein realizes that the end is nigh. Faced with imminent defeat and near certain death, Saddam decides to authorize one final, gruesome act of terror. He plucks a loyal operative from his security service and orders germ scientists to inject him. The operative is slipped out of the country and put on a commercial airliner bound for the U.S. Dozens of passengers within spitting distance of the Iraqi agent are unknowingly infected. Just as U.S. troops arrive in Baghdad, thousands of American civilians begin experiencing fever, nausea and backache--all the symptoms of smallpox.
At the highest levels of the U.S. government, officials seriously believe this sequence of events is possible. No one knows for sure whether Saddam possesses smallpox, and no one is sure he would actually try to use it. The Iraqi regime insists that it does not have any weapons of mass destruction, including biological ones. But the Bush Administration is sufficiently worried about a possible smallpox attack against the forces set to invade Iraq that last month it ordered vaccinations for 500,000 frontline military personnel.
Beneath the Administration's confidence that a war with Iraq can be won quickly with limited U.S. casualties lurks an anxiety about the catastrophic events an invasion might trigger. "We can overthrow Saddam Hussein, no doubt about it," says a Central Command planner. "The question is, Can we do it and keep his weapons of mass destruction bottled up at the same time?" The answer to that, warns Saddam's eldest son, is no. "If they come," said Uday Hussein last week, "Sept. 11, which they are crying over and see as a big thing, will be a real picnic for them, God willing."
The President and his strategists like to affirm that disarming Iraq is central to the war against terrorism. But that means the risk of retaliation against Americans is not confined to the battlefield. Faced by the difficulty of outfitting missiles with chemical and biological warheads, Saddam may conclude he will have better luck setting up terrorist free-lancers with unconventional weapons to use against innocents outside the theater of war. A Rand Corp. report estimates that a smallpox attack carried out by teams of special-ops troops on the 10 largest U.S. airports could infect between 5,000 and 100,000 people.
In the meantime, U.S. military and counterterrorism officials are concerned that al-Qaeda may be preparing to take advantage of a crisis by staging attacks on Israeli and Western targets, including strikes inside the U.S. "If I were an al-Qaeda type, and I had a plan even halfway in the can for something major," says a senior U.S. intelligence official, "I would try to accelerate it as much as I could."
Even as Bush Administration officials privately brace for the worst, they have been hesitant to raise public alarms about the possibility of terrorist retaliation. But others are less restrained. Last week British Prime Minister Tony Blair said an al-Qaeda attack in Britain is "inevitable." According to the New York Times, U.S. officials believe that Islamic militants arrested in London early this year for allegedly manufacturing ricin--a castor-bean-derived poison that Saddam may also possess--may have been plotting to tamper with food served to British troops at least at one nearby base.