The NATO’s Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force is a unique asset specifically trained to deal with CBRN events and/or attacks against NATO’s populations, territory or forces.

Source: NATO

Autor: Daniel Soukop (IMS FSV; King’s College)

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs or CBRN)[1] are undeniably a terrifying thing. Some of them have the capability of indiscriminately killing dozens, some hundreds and some even millions. Although CBRN terrorism has been widely considered only a low probability risk,[2] the possible high consequences of a successful attack has still kept many policy-makers awake at night. Preventing CBRN terrorism has been a constant aim of numerous official security doctrines across the world.[3]

There have been so far only a handful of terrorist incidents involving chemical, biological or radiological weapons, and none concerning nuclear weapons. To name a few, the Rajneeshee cult poisoned salad bars with salmonella in a small town in Oregon in 1984,[4] Chechen terrorists placed, but did not detonate a dirty bomb at a park in Moscow in 1996,[5] and Aum Shinrikyo repeatedly used botulinum toxin, sarin and VX in the early 1990s.[6] Fortunately, no terrorists were ever successful in using these weapons in an effective way.

However, this historic experience does not mean CBRN attacks cannot become a more common and deadly phenomenon. This essay will analyse whether the security threat of CBRN terrorism has increased over the years and how much. This essay will particularly assess the motivation of the fourth wave of terrorism and the overall accessibility of CBRN weapons. In essence, this essay argues that the overall threat has increased indeed, but it still belongs in the ‘low risk-high consequence’ category.

 

Motivation: Organizations Willing to Use CBRN Weapons

Building on David Rapoport’s scheme,[7] a close analysis of the four waves of terrorism shows that only the last one has a true motivation to use CBRN weapons. The first wave, represented by anarchist movements, never attempted to use CBRN weapons. During the second wave, the ethno-separatist, only the Tamil Tigers used chemical weapons, but only in battlefield use against armed forces.[8] Neither did the third, left-wing wave used CBRN weapons, even though there have been some allegations.[9] However, the current fourth wave is diametrically different from the previous three.

One of the usual suspects is Al Qaeda. The group, its affiliates and the global Salafi jihadist movement in general perceive the world only in shades of black or white.[10] That enables Al Qaeda terrorists and perhaps even motivates them to kill their adversaries en masse and indiscriminately, not excluding civilians.[11] Furthermore, Al Qaeda has openly claimed the divine right to kill four million Americans.[12] It seems difficult to imagine Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates would not use CBRN weapons if had the opportunity.

121024-AhmedRessam-vsmall.grid-4x2Al Qaeda actually tried to buy a nuclear warhead on the black market in the late 1990s.[13] Ahmed Ressam, an Al Qaeda member and known as ‘the millennium bomber’, claims that the organization has been training its operatives in Afghanistan how to use chemical weapons.[14] Furthermore, its Iraqi branch, the predecessor of the Islamic State (ISIS), remains the main suspect of more than a dozen of car bombings enhanced with chlorine gas in 2007.[15]

The Islamic State has repeatedly shown that it is willing to use all means necessary to achieve its aim. In 2006, it started a sectarian war against the Shia by bombing the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. Now, it seeks to defend and expand its current territory in lands formerly known as Syria, Iraq and Libya,[16] even by using chemical weapons, as Baghdad claims.[17]

One should not underestimate terrorist organizations coming from other religions. After all, the most active user of CBRN weapons was Aum Shinrikyo.[18] Similar religious sects, attempting to cause the Apocalypse with CBRN weapons, could theoretically originate anywhere.

Another possible CBRN terrorist category could be the radical right-wing. Similarly to religious extremists, the far-right perceives the world in black and white, it does not avoid using violence against members of other communities it deems inferior, and it is prepared to take justice into its own hands if the government fails to act accordingly.[19] The extreme right-wing is non-violent now, but it has the potential to become a serious security threat if it came to the conclusion that it cannot force political changes by peaceful means.english

In Europe, the right-wing with the greatest potential for the future can be seen in the current anti-Islam movement, represented for instance by the English Defence League and German Pegida. In the United States, CBRN terrorism seems the most probable coming from the local militias, which consist in total of approximately five million paramilitary-trained members.[20] In 1985, U.S. authorities seized illegal guns and ammunition, automatic rifles, hand grenades, a light anti-tank weapon, and 43 gallons of potassium cyanide at a headquarters of an Arkansan militia,[21] to name just a single example to demonstrate the security hazard.

 

Capability: Accessibility of CBRN Weapons

Accessibility of chemical weapons can be assessed as fairly easy. Chemical components to dangerous agents can usually be easily found on the open market. Experts deem the nerve agent tabun to be the easiest to make[22] and a skilled chemist could prepare sarin in his own kitchen as its components can be found for instance in gasoline additives, paint solvents and antiseptics.[23] As for the laboratory equipment, it gets cheaper and more accessible every year, like it is with all modern technology. Aum Shinrikyo worked for years with dual-use equipment without raising suspicion.[24]

chemical-weapons-q-a_70868_600x450

The more difficult task, when it comes to chemical weapons, is the dispersion. If aerosol is prepared poorly, it will not cause many casualties.[25] Thus terrorists might prefer to steal already weaponized and tested chemical weapons. Because of the Arab Spring, this task might be easier than ever before. The revolutionary wave destabilized particularly Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately, these countries also had active chemical programmes in the past.[26] Troublesome could be especially Iraq because Saddam-era chemical weapons were found in recent years[27] and no one can tell if there are more to be found.

The same problem is regarding biological weapons as Libya, Egypt and Iraq had invested into researching biological warfare as well.[28] As for acquiring non-weaponized agents, some are extremely easy to make, particularly toxins like botulinum and ricin. Terrorists may be also very interested into anthrax, which was demonstrated by Aum Shinrikyo or Bruce Edwards Ivins.[29] As it was with chemical weapons, dual-use laboratory equipment would suit terrorists the best and the greatest challenge lies within the delivery mechanism.[30]

Radiological weapons are arguably the easiest to obtain and weaponize. Nine isotopes are considered a high security risk should they lose physical protection or become abandoned.[31] Three of them (caesium-137, cobalt-60 and iridium-192) are strong gamma emitters which can be easily found in standard hospital or mining equipment.[32]

A terrorist can either simply attach the source to a conventional explosive, which is generally known as the dirty bomb. While panic and some economic damage would be guaranteed, experts doubt this kind of attack would cause many casualties.[33] Another option would be to disperse the radiological source in the form of aerosol, which would be more lethal,[34] but it again requires a sophisticated dispersal device. Furthermore, the perspective of people dying weeks, months or even years after the initial attack due to cancer does not seem too dramatic, which is something terrorists usually crave for.nuclear-weapon-button

While nuclear weapons might be the most desired CBRN weapon, they are by all means the most difficult to obtain. Because the implosion device is a tremendously complex mechanism, terrorists are indefinitely more likely to use the much simpler gun-type design, if they ever acquired at least 55 kilograms of high enriched uranium (HEU).[35] The IAEA registered only sixteen incidents involving HEU or plutonium with the total weight being not even close to the needed mass.[36] Extreme security measures have so far served as a sufficient deterrent against nuclear terrorism.

Conclusion

The overall threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction has clearly increased over the years. The fourth wave of terrorism, represented by Salafi jihadists, apocalyptic religious cults and the extreme right-wing, has little respect for life of everyone who does not share their beliefs. This black and white perspective of the world helps them justify killing of civilians in large numbers.

Chemical and biological weapons are the most likely CBRN weapons to be used. First, some chemical and biological agents or their components are accessible on the free market. Second, laboratory equipment gets cheaper every year. And finally, the Arab Spring severely destabilized several countries which had chemical and biological weapons. On the other hand, radiological and nuclear weapons do not seem likely to be used by terrorists in the near future. The former for its ineffectiveness and the latter for its complexity and inaccessibility of fissile material.

However, it would still seem farfetched to claim that CBRN terrorism would become an increasingly common phenomenon in the future. Although the overall threat of chemical and biological terrorism is definitely much higher than a decade or two ago, it is still quite difficult to access the required agents in sufficient numbers, weaponize them and acquire an effective dispersal device, especially without gaining attention of the authorities and intelligence services.

 

Bibliography

  1. a) Primary sources

Bin Laden, Osama. “Bin Laden’s Letter to America”, The Guardian, 24 November 2002. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver

IAEA. “Gamma Irradiators for Radiation Processing”, accessed 16 March 2015. http://www-naweb.iaea.org/napc/iachem/Brochgammairradd.pdf

IAEA. “Incident and Trafficking Database”, accessed 17 March 2015. http://www-ns.iaea.org/security/itdb.asp

National Security Strategy of 2010, published 27 May 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf

Shanghai Cooperation Organization, “Astana Declaration of the 10th Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation“, 15 June 2011. http://www.sectsco.org/EN123/show.asp?id=294

United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism, published in March 2010. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100418065544/http:/security.homeoffice.gov.uk/news-publications/publication-search/cbrn-guidance/strat-countering-use-of-CBRN?view=Binary

 

  1. b) Secondary sources

Acton, James M., M. Brooke Rogers, and Peter D. Zimmerman. “Beyond the Dirty Bomb: Re-Thinking Radiological Terror”, Survival 49, no. 3 (2007), pp 151-68.

Allison, Graham. Nuclear Terrorism. London: Constable, 2004.

Barnaby, Frank. How to Build a Nuclear Bomb: And Other Weapons of Mass Destruction. London: Granta Books, 2004.

Bellany, Ian. “Manufacturing the Means of Apocalypse: Aum Shinrikyo and the Acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction”, in: Ian Bellany (ed.), Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Responding to the Challenge. Oxon: Routledge, 2007, pp. 53-80.

Bowen, Wyn Q., and Jasper Pandza, “Preventing Radiological Terrorism: Is There a Role for Deterrence?”, in: Andreas Wenger and Alex Wilner (eds.), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012, pp 180-197.

Carus, W. Seth. “The Rajneeshees”, in: Jonathan B. Tucker, Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp 115-137.

Central Intelligence Agency, The Chemical and Biological Weapons Threat. Washington D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, March 1996.

Cole, Benjamin. The Changing Face of Terrorism. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Dando, Malcolm. Bioterror and Biowarfare. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2006.

Dolnik, Adam. Understanding Terrorist Innovation. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Fergusson, Charles D., Tahseen Kazi and Judith Perera. Commercial Radioactive Sources: Surveying the Security Risk. Monterey, CA: Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2003.

Hoffman, Bruce. “The First Non-State Use of a Chemical Weapon in Warfare: the Tamil Tigers’ Assault on East Kiran“, Small Wars and Insurgencies 20, no. 3-4 (2009), pp 463-477.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Koblentz, Gregory D. “Predicting Peril or the Peril of Prediction? Assessing the Risk of CBRN Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence 23, no. 4 (2011), pp 501-520.

Mueller, Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Rapoport, David. “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism”, in: Audrey Cronin (ed.), Attacking Terrorism: Elements of Grand Strategy. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004, pp 46-68.

Sageman, Marc. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Stern, Jessica Eve. “The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Cord”, in: Tucker, Jonathan B. Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp 139-157.

Tucker, Jonathan B. Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Wehling, Fred. “A Toxic Cloud of Mystery“, in: Andreas Wenger and Alex Wilner (eds.), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012, pp 273-293.

Weinberg, Leonard. “On Responding to Right‐Wing Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence 8, no 1 (1996), pp 80-92.

 

  1. c) Internet sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Radioisotope Brief: Cesium-137 (Cs-137)“, October 16, 2014. http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/isotopes/cesium.asp

Chandler, Adam. “Has ISIS Crossed the New Red Line?”, The Atlantic, 24 October 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/iraq-Accuses-isis-Of-chemical-weapons/381920/

Chivers, C. J. “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons”, New York Times, 14 October 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/10/14/world/middleeast/us-casualties-of-iraq-chemical-weapons.html

ISOFLEX. “Iridium-192 (192Ir)“, accessed 16 March 2015. http://www.isoflex.com/iridium-192

Monterey Insitute of International Studies, “Chronology of Aum Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities”, 2001, http://cns.miis.edu/reports/pdfs/aum_chrn.pdf

van Linge, Thomas. “The Situation in Iraq”, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 1 March 2015. https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/2000px-iraq6.png

van Linge, Thomas. “The Situation in Libya”, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 16 February 2015. https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/2000px-libya.png

van Linge, Thomas. “The Situation in Syria”, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 1 March 2015. https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/2000px-syria5.png

 

Appendixes

Appendix 1: The Situation in Iraq (1 March 2015)

 

1

Source: Thomas van Linge, “The Situation in Iraq”, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 1 March 2015. https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/2000px-iraq6.png

 

Appendix 2: The Situation in Syria (1 March 2015)

 

 

2

Source: Thomas van Linge, “The Situation in Syria”, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 1 March 2015. https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/2000px-syria5.png

 

Appendix 3: The Situation in Libya (16 February 2015)

 

3

Source: Thomas van Linge, “The Situation in Libya”, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 16 February 2015. https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/2000px-libya.png


[1]
This essay focuses only on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The essay does not assess the use of other weapons which might be considered as WMDs by other researchers, like conventional explosives or incendiary weapons.

[2] Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism (London: Constable, 2004), pp 15-18.

John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Free Press, 2006), pp 1-10.

Gregory D. Koblentz, “Predicting Peril or the Peril of Prediction? Assessing the Risk of CBRN Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence 23, no. 4 (2011), pp 501-520.

[3] For instance: National Security Strategy of 2010, published 27 May 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf

United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism, published in March 2010. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100418065544/http:/security.homeoffice.gov.uk/news-publications/publication-search/cbrn-guidance/strat-countering-use-of-CBRN?view=Binary

Shanghai Cooperation Organization, “Astana Declaration of the 10th Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation“, 15 June 2011. http://www.sectsco.org/EN123/show.asp?id=294

[4] W. Seth Carus, “The Rajneeshees”, in: Jonathan B. Tucker, Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp 115-137.

[5] Adam Dolnik, Understanding Terrorist Innovation (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp 104-126.

[6] Monterey Institute of International Studies, “Chronology of Aum Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities”, 2001, http://cns.miis.edu/reports/pdfs/aum_chrn.pdf

[7] David Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism”, in: Audrey Cronin (ed.), Attacking Terrorism: Elements of Grand Strategy (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004), pp 46-68.

[8] Bruce Hoffman, “The First Non-State Use of a Chemical Weapon in Warfare: the Tamil Tigers’ Assault on East Kiran“, Small Wars and Insurgencies 20, no. 3-4 (2009), pp 469-471.

[9] In particular, the allegations concerned Weather Underground in 1970, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in 1975 and the Red Army Faction in 1980.

Jonathan B. Tucker, Toxic Terror, pp 43-53, 95-106, 107-113.

[10] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), pp 1-21.

[11] Osama Bin Laden, “Bin Laden’s Letter to America”, The Guardian, 24 November 2002. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver

[12] Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism, pp 87-89.

[13] Ibidem, p 3.

[14] Benjamin Cole, The Changing Face of Terrorism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), pp 55-64.

[15] Fred Wehling, “A Toxic Cloud of Mystery“, in: Andreas Wenger and Alex Wilner (eds.), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), pp 277-279.

[16] See Appendixes 1-3.

[17] Adam Chandler, “Has ISIS Crossed the New Red Line?”, The Atlantic, 24 October 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/iraq-Accuses-isis-Of-chemical-weapons/381920/

[18] Adam Dolnik, Understanding Terrorist Innovation, pp 58-80.

[19] Leonard Weinberg, “On Responding to Right‐Wing Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence 8, no 1 (1996), pp 82-83.

[20] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp 105-120.

[21] Jessica Eve Stern, “The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Cord”, in: Jonathan B. Tucker, Toxic Terror, pp 139-157.

[22] Frank Barnaby, How to Build a Nuclear Bomb: And Other Weapons of Mass Destruction (London: Granta Books, 2004), pp 60-64.

[23] Central Intelligence Agency, The Chemical and Biological Weapons Threat (Washington D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, March 1996), pp 9-16.

[24] Ian Bellany, “Manufacturing the Means of Apocalypse: Aum Shinrikyo and the Acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction”, in: Ian Bellany (ed.), Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Responding to the Challenge (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 53-80.

[25] Benjamin Cole, The Changing Face of Terrorism, pp 33-50.

[26] Frank Barnaby, How to Build a Nuclear Bomb, pp 85-94.

[27] C. J. Chivers, “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons”, New York Times, 14 October 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/10/14/world/middleeast/us-casualties-of-iraq-chemical-weapons.html

[28] Frank Barnaby, How to Build a Nuclear Bomb, pp 85-94.

[29] Ibidem, pp 41-53.

[30] Malcolm Dando, Bioterror and Biowarfare (New York: Rosen Publishing, 2006), pp 110-127.

[31] Charles D. Fergusson, Tahseen Kazi and Judith Perera, Commercial Radioactive Sources: Surveying the Security Risk (Monterey, CA: Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2003), pp 13-14.

[32] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Radioisotope Brief: Cesium-137 (Cs-137)“, October 16, 2014. http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/isotopes/cesium.asp

IAEA, “Gamma Irradiators for Radiation Processing”, accessed 16 March 2015. http://www-naweb.iaea.org/napc/iachem/Brochgammairradd.pdf

ISOFLEX, “Iridium-192 (192Ir)“, accessed 16 March 2015. http://www.isoflex.com/iridium-192

[33] Wyn Q. Bowen and Jasper Pandza, “Preventing Radiological Terrorism: Is There a Role for Deterrence?”, in: Andreas Wenger and Alex Wilner (eds.), Deterring Terrorism, pp 181-190.

[34] James M. Acton, Brooke Rogers, and Peter D. Zimmerman, “Beyond the Dirty Bomb: Re-Thinking Radiological Terror”, Survival 49, no. 3 (2007), pp 151-68.

[35] Frank Barnaby, How to Build a Nuclear Bomb, pp 107-120.

[36] IAEA, “Incident and Trafficking Database”, accessed 17 March 2015. http://www-ns.iaea.org/security/itdb.asp