In the minds of many, the use of unconventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by a terrorist group represents a grave security threat. However, terrorist groups are highly unlikely to use a WMD because it matches neither their rationale nor their capabilities.
The recent Paris terrorist attacks have been a turning point in bringing renewed attention to the issue of chemical, biological and radiological weapons (CBRNs). Bretton-Gordon claims that the Islamic State will inevitably acquire WMDs. But is important to add nuance to the ongoing paranoia about CBRN attacks. Subsequently, there is a need to understand why terrorist groups are unlikely to use unconventional weapons and to also analyze the different challenges they would face.
High investment and low return: CBRNs are the wrong choice for rational terrorists
Terrorist groups act as rational actors and this would make it unlikely for them to use WMDs. Terrorist groups follow the “rational actor model” because they rely on a cost/benefit analysis to inform their actions. The most popular way for terrorist groups to reach their goals is to create political instability, recruit, raise popular support and to create an atmosphere of fear.
However, the set of available resources is also a factor in determining the more appropriate action to take. For example, a terrorist group has to consider the full price of the action it wants to perpetrate, including the value of the utilized weapon, the cost of planning the attack, but also the loss of group members. Considering all the costs of planning a CBRN attack, such a possibility seems unlikely.
The example of Aum Shinrikyo demonstrates that CBRN attacks require enormous investments, without any guarantee of success. Aum Shinrikyo was a well-financed and well-coordinated terrorist group totaling between $300 million and $1 billion dollars and some 10,000 to 60,000 members including numbers of expert scientists. Despite its intellectual, financial and technological resources, the group failed several times to disseminate biological agents prior to 1995. Furthermore, their sarin attack failed because of the weaknesses of their delivery mechanism, only causing 12 casualties while it could have caused thousands.
Acquisition of CBRN agents: a security and economic struggle
Due to technical hurdles, terrorist groups are unlikely to use WMDs. Before committing to such an attack, terrorist groups need to undertake three technical stages, which are increasingly difficult: acquisition, production, and delivery. The acquisition of biological agents requires overcoming security measures around germ banks or research laboratories.
Even though medical centers may not maintain the highest level of security, the terrorist group willing to steal biological agents needs to be well coordinated in order to be able to break in and carry out agents without endangering themselves. Most of all, the group needs to acquire a biological agent of sufficient virulence, which certainly represents the greatest challenge.
Chemical and radiological agents seem to be more accessible at first glance. Indeed, chemical agents can be found in pesticides or food-processing equipment and radioactive sources can come from cesium-137 from a hospital X-ray machine. Even thought they are commercially available, they are logistically and economically difficult to acquire.
Smithson argues that a mustard production facility would cost between $5 to $10 million, while a plant production for sarin would approximately cost $20 million, considerably reducing the number of terrorist groups that could acquire a chemical weapon. With respect to radiological agents, it must be pointed out that despite the wide availability of radiological sources, only a few are suitable for building radiological devices. The latter are highly monitored and secured.
Producing the CBRN agents: a life-threatening process
The second stage is the production of the agent. It is necessary to first highlight the limited usefulness of available technical data on the internet. Manufacturing such agents requires highly technical procedures, which are unlikely to be mentioned in terrorist cookbooks.
For example, in order to manufacture a biological agent, the correct temperature and acidity are essential. These conditions are necessary to ensure the stability and predictability of the agent. One mistake will result in the failure of the biological agent. Such technical meticulousness cannot be achieved without being highly trained in microbiology or pathology.
Moreover, manufacturing is not enough. Enough biological and chemical agents have to be produced in sufficient quantity in order to ensure the lethality of their attack. If the goal is to contaminate drinking water, for example, the terrorist group must produce a sufficient quantity of agent in order to contaminate the endless stock of water. For example, 15 tons of chemical agents could kill 50% of the people in a 60 square kilometer area.
Finally, the manipulation of those agents is also deadly. A biological agent can be easily spread during the production stage, whereas a chemical agent is extremely dangerous during the distillation process. Finally, the sufficient amount of radioactive material required to built a dirty bomb can cause instant death from radiation poisoning.
Delivering a CBRN agent: producing enough and dealing with the environment
Delivery is the most difficult stage to efficiently achieve. While radiological agents are easy to deliver, they are less likely to cause mass casualties since the radioactive particles do not disperse beyond the target area. In this respect, if a large-scale attack was planned, the group would need a satisfactory amount of radioactive materials which would be relatively easy to detect.
For biological and chemical agents, the main hurdle remains the environment. If the terrorist group wants to attack via an open-air delivery method, the meteorological conditions and the effectiveness of the agents under those conditions must also be considered. For example, if a chemical agent was dispersed outside, 90% of the agent would not reach the target.
Due to all these factors, terrorist groups are unlikely to use a WMDs. Lead by the cost/benefit analysis, terrorists will only perpetrate an attack if the potential benefits are likely to be high. Furthermore, technical difficulties are too prominent a factor for terrorist groups to overcome.
Due to their complexity of development and delivery, both biological and chemical agents are highly unlikely to be acquired, produced and delivered by terrorist groups. Nevertheless, this challenge will steer terrorist groups to use conventional weapons but in more creative ways. This undeniably constitutes the real threat for the international community.