The world may be focused on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction, especially in Iraq. But a more widespread threat to US security - and to individual Americans - may be the vast number of relatively simple and cheap conventional arms.
Lightweight shoulder-fired "MANPADS" (man-portable air defense systems) such as US-made Stingers; Russian SA-7's; and Chinese, Egyptian, and Pakistani equivalents are everywhere today. Not only have they been supplied to countries with terrorist elements, but their relative simplicity has made it easy to "reverse engineer" them and build new variants.
With the exception of Israel's national airline, El Al, and a few business jets, commercial air carriers have no defense against such attacks. And according to a General Accounting Office report last week, even the US military has "serious reliability problems" with some of its systems meant to defend against missiles.
But beyond one-man antiaircraft weapons (thousands of which exist around the world today), the proliferation of other light conventional weapons poses a mounting threat. Estimates of small arms around the world now range from 500 million to one billion. These include assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, portable antitank and antiaircraft weapons, light mortars, land mines, and explosives.
"In some areas of the world an AK-47 assault rifle can be bought for a bag of maize or $20-$30," reports the United Nations.
Michael Klare, an expert on defense policy and arms trade at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., warns that "the most deadly combat system of the current epoch is the adolescent human male equipped with a Kalashnikov assault rifle." In Somalia, the 1993 US debacle described in "Black Hawk Down" was caused by a couple of rifle-propelled grenades fired at US helicopters, and it seemed as if everybody above the age of 12 in Mogadishu had his own AK-47.
Will the same be true in Baghdad?
"If I was a GI, I wouldn't be worried about weapons of mass destruction but about house-to-house fighting in Baghdad," says Dr. Klare. And even if the war against the Saddam Hussein regime is over quickly, that doesn't mean an end to the danger to US forces from small arms. More threatening, says Klare, may be factional fighting - "separating the Sunnis from the Shiites and the Kurds ... and getting caught in the middle of shooting matches."
In Iraq, training camps for children give instruction in the proper use of small arms and light weapons. Most Kurdish men and boys are armed.
The steady increase in small arms and light weapons around the world, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, has several causes. Among them: a growing arms trade fueled by criminal activities involving drugs, diamonds, and other black-marketed goods; few international restrictions of the type governing chemical and biological weapons and land mines; the increase in terrorist groups; "failed states" marked by poverty and lawlessness, and countries newly independent but lacking a strong central government.
"In Albania, for example, there was massive looting of government arsenals," says Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst specializing in conventional arms at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "Those weapons made their way through the civilian population to other countries." Others have noted that post-Soviet Russia's notoriously underpaid Army - from privates to generals - has been a major source of weapons sold to black marketeers.
While figures on such weapons are sketchy at best, "Small Arms Survey 2002: Counting the Human Cost" published by the University of Geneva puts the total at approximately 639 million worldwide. The survey also found that more than 1,000 companies in some 98 countries produce such weapons.
In some cases, weapons have been sold to countries where terrorist groups were home-based. The United States has supplied arms to 16 of the 18 countries in which 28 terrorist groups operate. Ms. Stohl points out that in some of these countries - such as Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka - "the risk of diversion is high."
"Partners today may not be on the same side tomorrow," says Stohl. "The reality is, these are the weapons that have been killing hundreds of thousands of people over the past decade."
Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda has long been linked to insurgent, criminal, and terrorist groups throughout the world.
"A lot of what Al Qaeda did in connection with these organizations was to facilitate the trade in guns, smuggling arms throughout Asia and Southeast Asia with shipments going to Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Africa and also to rebel groups in Chechnya and Uzbekistan," says Klare.
This may have included some of the 1,000 Stinger missiles, which the US Central Intelligence Agency gave to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet army in the 1980s.
The CIA has been able to track down and buy back some of those missiles. But many are unaccounted for, and some reportedly have ended up with rebel groups in Algeria, Chechnya, and Tajikistan. Others are thought to have been captured by Iran, with still others sent by Pakistan to China where engineers designed a copycat version.
Such weapons threaten not only US military forces in combat situations but civilian aircraft as well. Over the years, Stinger-type missiles have shot down 24 civilian airplanes. The firing of Russian-made missiles at an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya last week was the latest attempt.
Experts say other forms of small, conventional arms are an increasing threat to civilians as well. In 1997, Islamic extremists using assault rifles attacked and killed 58 German tourists in Luxor, Egypt. "That's the sort of thing I'd worry about," says Klare. "We've seen this pattern of attacks on so-called soft targets - some with explosives and some with small arms fire."
Then too, box cutters and a mixture of fuel and fertilizer - not what are commonly thought of as weapons of mass destruction - were the weapons of choice in the two previous spectacular terror attacks in the US.