Emerging technologies: implications for CBRN terrorism

Emerging technologies: implications for CBRN terrorism

Emergent technologies are likely to have major implications with regards to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism. While the CBRN overall threat level is still low, developments in technology could leverage its impact in the future.

Concerns about CBRN terrorism are not a novelty, and starting from the 90s the potential of this threat appears to have become more concrete. The reason is twofold: the emergence of the so-called ‘new terrorism’ – characterized by religious and apocalyptic extremist ideologies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave rise to insecurity of Moscow’s CBRN stockpiles. So far, the CBRN threat has not fully materialised. However, emergent technologies might soon represent a game changer in such regard, facilitating violent non-state actors’ resort to CBRN terrorism. Among the developments in the technology sector that might enhance the CBRN threat, microreactors, advancements in bioengineering, 3D printing, cyber attacks, and drone technology represent some of the most worrisome additions.

3D Printing as a CBRN enabler

As discussed in a recent Global Risk Insights article, 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – represents an enabling technology for terrorist organizations. As such, it could bring about radical innovation in the production processes of many of those resources for which terrorists have currently to rely on external connections or other expedients. Similarly, additive manufacturing could potentially facilitate terrorist organizations’ endeavors in the CBRN realm. Indeed, as 3D printers can virtually produce any kind of goods, this technology could theoretically be employed to produce the detonators for explosives of a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) – more commonly known as ‘dirty bomb’. Likewise, 3D printers could increase terrorists’ chances of obtaining nanotechnologies, such as Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) or Nano Electro-Mechanical Systems (NEMS).

Advancements in nanotechnologies and bio-engineering are likely to increase the threats in chemical and biological  weapons development

Among MEMS, microreactors could facilitate terrorists’ acquisition of dangerous chemical materials and weapons. The most striking characteristic of microreactors is that it allows chemical reactions that were previously difficult or even impossible. Thanks to the confined space – ranging from the size of a coin to that of a notebook – microreactors allow for more control over pressure, temperature, and flow rate, while also reducing the potential of exothermic or explosive reactions. As A.E. Smithson explained in “Unconventional Weapons and International Terrorism: Challenges and New Approaches”, the implications for terrorists are a means for concern. Avoiding export controls, terrorist organizations may produce precursors of chemical weapon easily, and undetected.

In biological technology, the development of the gene editing technique CRISPR has raised several concerns over the ability of terrorists to create engineered versions of bacteria and viruses, unleashing disease and epidemic of extraordinary destructive potential. However, such claims are likely overstated. Indeed, CRISPR technologies do not appear to be among terrorists’ options in terms of capabilities – at least for the time being. Understanding that these enhanced bio-threats are premature at the moment, it must be stressed that a widespread availability of knowledge in the field of synthetic biology and bio-engineering will likely pose grave security concern.

Cyber terrorism as a means to disrupt CBRN facilities

Terrorist organizations might not have to acquire CBRN weapons in order to carry out CBRN attacks. As some experts have warned, cyber attacks could be used to disrupt CBRN facilities, such as chemical plants or nuclear power plants. Since such facilities are run by computers connected to a larger network, hacking those devices would allow the culprit to sabotage the control mechanisms. By doing so, a potential perpetrator would be able to regulate the flows and the equipment so that it would operate at unsafe levels, turning – in a worst-case scenario – the facility itself into a weapon of mass destruction.

Commercial drones as viable means of delivery

A further topic addressed by  Global Risk Insights surrounds the possibility of commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) as a mechanism for carrying out acts of CBRN terrorism. As the Iraqi intelligence thwarted an Al Qaeda plot in 2013 that involved the use of remotely controlled aircrafts to disperse diverse chemical agents – to include sarin gas and mustard agent -this is an avenue that terrorists have already considered. The advantage of using UAVs hails from the consideration that these devices could easily bypass traditional security mechanisms.

UAVs would represent an excellent means of attack, once the material and/or weapons are already available. In such regard, keeping terrorists’ hands off such materials would suffice to prevent UAVs attack with CBRN. However, terrorists could resort to UAVs in order to carry out attacks on chemical and nuclear facilities. In this case, procuring the required materials to manufacture CBRN weapon would not be necessary. Such threats have been acknowledged and are being dealt with: the US Department of Defense, for example, has recently received authorization to test and field countermeasures against UAVs, including CBRN ones.

Who might be interested in CBRN terrorism?

The spectre of CBRN attacks is often raised in relation to Islamist terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. However, there are in fact multiple cases of CBRN terrorism being carried out or attempted by secular groups. For example, in 1990 the Tamil Tigers stole drums of chlorine gas from a chemical facility and then used them against the Sri Lankan army.  In the past decade, 11 US-based groups from both the far-left and the far-right have reportedly managed to acquire CBRN materials, with the intent of using them against the public or government targets.

There is one important thing that must be understood when it comes to CBRN terrorism. Among the many violent non-state actors that populate the umbrella of terrorism, only a small percentage are actually willing – for a variety of reasons – to resort to CBRN terrorism. Within this smaller subset of willing groups, an even smaller percentage has the capability to engage in CBRN activities. The difficulties inherent to such an endeavor are well summarized in the experience of the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo, which – despite its vast resources, expertise, and immunity from government interference – fell short of expectation, as the group’s sarin gas assault in the Tokyo subway was not able to achieve the level of destruction desired. Identifying those groups that possess both the motivation and utility is a first step in thwarting the CBRN threat. However, as success within terrorist organizations can be determined by more subjective factors, such as for example problem-solving, or idiosyncratic leadership, establishing with incontestable certainty which group is going to be the next deploying CBRN weapons is a demanding task.

Overall, the likelihood of a major, successful CBRN attack is still remote. However, the landscape is changing rapidly, as emerging technologies disclose new opportunities for CBRN terrorism. Consequently, those measures that have contributed to thwarting CBRN terrorism so far might not be equally effective in the future. Just as terrorist organizations will adapt to the changing landscape, so must counter-terrorism measures if the CBRN threat is to be kept at a minimum.

About Author

Mauro Lubrano

Mauro Lubrano is an Analyst at Global Risk Insights, where he focuses mainly on emerging technologies, terrorism and Jihadism. Previously, he worked for the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. He holds a Master in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Research from the University of Frankfurt am Main (Germany) and a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Perugia (Italy). He is fluent in German and a native speaker of Italian.