CBRN and the Terrorist Connection

Jul 15, 2010

Post September 11, 2001, an increased sense of urgency has been paid to the threat of terrorism; more specifically, to the possibility that terrorists might resort to the use of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear resources in a deliberate act of aggression. This notion was certainly reinforced when, in 2001, a domestic terrorist(s) mailed letters containing anthrax through the United States Postal System.

Perhaps as no surprise, governments in Canada acknowledged the threat, and increased their investment in building capacity and capability to respond to such incidents. For example, the 2001 federal budget allocated 513 million dollars over a six-year period to enhance the ability to respond to a CBRN event. At a provincial level, the (Ontario) Office of the Fire Marshall offered Terrorism/HAZMAT awareness level training, and, at the local level, CBRN response capable paramedics – such as the ones in Calgary and Ottawa – were trained.

Despite all of the time, energy, and money spent on preventing, mitigating, and preparing for terrorist use of a weapon of mass destruction, we find ourselves all these years later wondering how real the CBRN threat actually is. After all, there have been no real causes for concern. ...Or have there?

The prospects of a terrorist using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in a device as part of an offense are both frightening and real. Whether domestic or non-domestic, terrorists have demonstrated they already possess some Weapons of Mass Destruction, and are actively pursuing others. The will by these extremists to use WMD is well established. The threat posed by rogue states, non-state actors and the decentralization of traditional terrorist structures contributes to the likelihood that someone will exercise this option.
If terrorists are going to be able to use Weapons of Mass Destruction in pursuit of their goals, one requirement is that they actually possess one. By many accounts, this precondition has already been met. In the case of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda specifically, intelligence sources admit to the presence of WMD in their arsenal. Regarding specific capabilities, Al-Qaeda is understood to have been successful at acquiring radiological material at least once, for use in a dirty bomb. The discovery of a laboratory in Afghanistan was indicative of their limited Chemical/Biological capability, and confirmed by Al-Qaeda’s video release in which dogs are exposed to an unknown chemical, believed to be cyanide.

Besides Al-Qaeda, there are others who possess Weapons of Mass Destruction, though their financial resources and network make it easier. Aum Shinrikyo’s noted chemical stockpiles and their subsequent release of Sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, the 2003 arrests of Algerian extremists in the United Kingdom for the production of the biological agent Ricin, and the possession of radioactive materials for use in bombs by Chechen rebels, all indicate that extremist acquisition is anything but trivial. While there is certainly no shortage of debate surrounding the ability of terrorists to inflict mass casualties, their possession of CBRN material is a historical fact.

The relative low cost and ease with which they can be obtained, certainly put CBRN well within reach of many terrorist entities. Consider first that many of the constituents used in the production of Chemical Warfare Agents have commercial uses. Simple Chlorine, used in the manufacturing of plastics, in pulp mills, in household bleach, and in the purification of water worldwide, was used as a weapon during World War I. During the Iraq war, chlorine-filled Vehicle Based Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) were used on many occasions. In fact, the sheer abundance and relative ease of availability of these toxic industrial chemicals makes them a more likely agent of choice for use in a weapon when compared to chemical warfare agents such as Sarin or Tabun.

Although there may appear to be tighter constraints on biological agents, such agents have been mail-ordered from legitimate sources or can be acquired from the natural environment. Radiological substances are common to medical diagnostic, therapeutic, and instrumentation applications. They are used to sterilize food as well as in gauging and measuring devices. Less potent sources can be found in exit signs, antistatic devices, and smoke detectors. While the processes of weaponization and dissemination that are required to produce mass casualties are significant technological obstacles, low-scale use of a biological or radiological WMD certainly exists. It is generally accepted that the greatest risk from nuclear attack of some kind is posed from state level sponsors of terror. Suffice it to say that, for the determined terrorist, the opportunity to acquire some kind of CBRN material for use in a device is not entirely inconceivable.

The current world economic situation may create a situation whereby terrorists are more readily able to acquire WMD materials or technologies from those who are willing to trade this off for financial gain. Consider that in 1998 impoverished workers at a Russian nuclear weapons facility conspired to steal 18.5 kg of highly enriched uranium, presumably to sell on the open market, or notions that Bin Laden has been able to recruit scientists to aid him in his pursuit of WMD. While these points suggest that chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN) materials and/or the knowledge surrounding them are available for a price, the pressures being created by the global economic slump suggest increased opportunity for terrorist acquisition.

Rogue states certainly contribute to the increased likelihood of terrorist acquisition of CBRN weapons, especially considering that many of them have varying degrees of CBR or N capability already. These states are characterized as willing to take risks, whose leaders are not averse to using terror, and potentially Weapons of Mass Destruction, as a means to achieving their goals. Whether the differences with these states are historical, fundamental, or ideological, their direct or indirect sponsorship of terrorism is a concern. The lack of inhibitions characterizing rogue states, combined with their material potential, demands serious consideration. Instigated by the current political climate and foreign policy, there is a good chance that they could feel as though their interests and security are being subjugated. This could very well result in their contributing to extremist CBRN weapons aspirations.

The Will
While possession of CBRN materials is one necessary component, terrorists have both stated and demonstrated their willingness to employ them. Bin Laden has repeatedly declared war on the United States and threatened the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, including the use of chemical weapons. In both its 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 Public Reports, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) reiterated that Canada has been specified as a target by Al-Qaeda. The reports goes on to mention that groups which include Al-Qaeda continue in their endeavor to acquire, manufacture, and use CBRN materials, and that the probability that such a device will be used somewhere in the world is likely to increase.

Still, the last decade or so is wrought with examples of both foreign and domestic terrorist CBRN use. In 2007, there were 844 injuries worldwide resulting from terrorist use of CBRN material. In April 2004 Jordanian authorities disrupted a plot by Islamic extremists to generate a cloud of cyanide gas in Amman. In the same year, a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Transport not only included a sealed container of ricin with a corresponding caution to use appropriate protection, but it also advised that attacks using this agent were imminent unless certain demands were met. Anthrax spores were mailed to Senators Daschle and Leahy of the U.S. Senate in 2001; and, in 1984, a U.S. domestic terrorist group successfully contaminated food in an Oregon restaurant in order to influence local elections. A broader perspective reveals that between 1975 and 2000 there were no fewer than 342 cases of terrorist use of a chemical or biological substance worldwide. While these are but a few examples and are by no means a comprehensive listing, they demonstrate that the threat from domestic and foreign extremists is real.

Increasing the pressure on regimes such as the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda has resulted in a decentralization of the traditional structure. Operatives are now dispersed and free to pursue their own agendas. Though state sponsors and even Osama Bin Laden could be considered to be more calculating in the use of CBRN, in the words of U.S. Senator Richard Lugar referring to fanatics, small disaffected groups, and sub- national factions: “Such individuals are not likely to be deterred…by the classical threat of overwhelming retaliation.” Has-beens and wannabes who choose notoriety above all else will pose a particular danger, as they become less constrained by centralized constructs, concepts of morality, and inhibitions.

It has been said that when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. While terrorist aggression was not the impetus for these words of wisdom, there is merit in the context. Assessing the probability of use of a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, weapon on a national basis alone is a major risk. In fact, it could lead to complacency. We cannot afford to dismiss worldwide precedents as alarmist, thinking that because it has not happened here as often, that the CBRN threat is an idle one. The materiel resources and know how for an offensive CBRN attack is not beyond the means of would-be terrorists or their supporters, especially considering the current economic and political climate.

The threat posed by rogue states as willing and able supporters of terrorism certainly contributes to the likelihood that someone will exercise the CBRN option. The decentralization of traditional terrorist organizational structures means increased autonomy for factions. This dispatch increases the potential for a terrorist CBRN attack by those groups or individuals who equate it with their own sense of purpose. History has already demonstrated that terrorists have CBRN substances within their possession, and that they are willing to use them. Canada must maintain its vigilance in light of this. The consequences of not doing so are well established.

Mario D’Angelo is a Senior Program Officer at Public Safety Canada.
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