Accounts vary over the ease with which al-Qaeda could acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons clearly remain the most powerful of the WMD triad in terms of the sheer destruction they can wreak. The demonstrated blast, heat and longer-term radiation effects of fission and fusion weapons mark them out as unrivalled in the history of warfare. Because of this, they are no doubt attractive from a terrorist standpoint: but how easy are they to acquire? Those who maintain that nuclear weapons are accessible for al-Qaeda point out that knowledge on ‘how to build a bomb’ is now freely available to anyone who has Internet access.
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They also point to documented lapses in Russia’s nuclear system during the 1990s that indicated a leakage of weapons-grade fissile material on to the black market and a striking level of vulnerability in Russia to theft of tactical nuclear warheads and smaller atomic demolition munitions (Chyba, 2004). However, there is general consensus that nuclear weapons are more difficult to obtain than their chemical and biological counterparts.
Despite some claims to the contrary, the core ingredients of weapons grade fissile material highly enriched uranium and plutonium—are scarce internationally and very expensive to produce in sufficient quantities to manufacture even the crudest of nuclear devices. Moreover, since the mid-1980s, tight export controls have been observed by the small group of countries able to supply nuclear materials and equipment worldwide (Martin, 2002). Even assuming that a terrorist organisation was able to amass enough fissile material to fabricate a nuclear device, the challenges of secure storage prior to use, the risks of being discovered transporting the device to the target area, and effective delivery would be prohibitive for all but the most sophisticated terrorist group.
A more readily attainable option would be acquiring the requisite materials to fabricate a radiological weapon, or ‘dirty bomb’ (i.e. conventional explosives laced with radioactive material aimed at propelling the latter across a wide area). There is some indication that elements of theAl Qaeda network have exhibited an interest in obtaining radioactive materials on the Russian black market for possible use in a ‘dirty bomb’, although it remains unclear whether their quest has been successful (Allison, 2004).
While yielding nowhere near the destructive effects of nuclear weapons, terrorist use of a radiological weapon could induce considerable panic among a target population by exploiting fears of radioactive poisoning. And unlike nuclear weapons, the materials required for a radiological weapon are widely used in ‘unsecured’ civilian applications such as medical imaging equipment. Although not usually included in the WMD threat template, radiological weapons could impose significant financial costs on the target state and would be an ideal terrorist weapon in severely disrupting public health and safety among a target population (Chyba, 2004).
As in the case of a complete nuclear warhead, however, al-Qaeda would still confront significant challenges in transporting a radiological device over land, sea, or air and delivering that device against an assigned target.
The requisite technologies for manufacturing viable biological warfare (BW) agents and chemical warfare (CW) agents are widely available. The inherent dual-use nature of these technologies means that many of the key ingredients comprising chemical and biological weapons can also be found in perfectly legitimate biotechnology and chemical industry sectors in any number of states around the world.4 Indeed, it is generally agreed that if a country possesses a functioning civilian chemical or biotechnology industry then it is in a position to acquire the necessary materials to manufacture CW and BW agents.
Certainly when compared with the difficulty of obtaining fissile material for manufacturing nuclear weapons, acquiring the requisite materials for constructing chemical and biological weapons is much less challenging for states and non-state entities alike. In many respects, a greater challenge for a terrorist organisation would be choosing the most appropriate CW or BW agent to weaponise for use against their designated target. As one authoritative US report has concluded, ‘the ease or difficulty with which terrorists could cause mass casualties with an improvised chemical or biological weapon or device depends on the chemical or biological agent selected’ (Steinhausler, 2003).
First, BW agents are far easier to acquire than nuclear weapons and it takes considerably less BW agent to produce the same killing impact as chemical weapons. Quantum leaps in biotechnology applications may mean revolutionary advances in drug discovery for treatment, but the very same quantum leaps can be used to broaden horizons for acquiring new, and refining existing, BW agents (Martin, 2002). Moreover, on a pound for pound basis, BW agents are far more potent than any of the most deadly CW agents which must be ‘delivered in massive quantities to inflict lethal concentrations over large areas’ (Allison, 2004).
As Chyba (2004) observes: [A] chemical attack that caused 50 per cent casualties over a square kilometre would require about a metric ton of sarin. In contrast, microorganisms infect people in minute doses and then multiply within the host to cause disease. For example, a mere 8,000 anthrax bacteria—an amount smaller than a speck of dust—are sufficient to infect a human being. As a result, a biological attack with a few kilograms of anthrax could inflict the same level of casualties over a square kilometer as a metric ton of sarin—provided that the anthrax was effectively disseminated.
Second, the effects of biological weapons on a target population would be extremely hard to counter. Administering vaccines and rendering more general medical assistance to a widely affected population would place unprecedented strains on emergency authorities (Nielsn, 2005). This is assuming that an attack using BW agents could be detected in a timely fashion. Indeed, one of the major obstacles for state authorities would be detecting that a covert attack using BW agents had actually taken place.
For instance, vaccination against the most contagious BW agent, smallpox, is only effective if administered within seven days of exposure to the virus. Yet during the early stages of contracting the virus, individuals merely exhibit flu-like symptoms making prompt diagnosis problematic. Left undetected for even a few days, smallpox has the potential to spread rapidly among the target population, creating an epidemic that could be impossible to contain (Chyba, 2004).
Although the necessary materials for manufacturing BW agents are relatively easy to acquire, it would be a mistake to assume that these materials can be easily weaponised for use against a target population. In order to ensure effective delivery to inflict mass casualties, a terrorist group would need to develop a powder or aerosol that could be disseminated over a wide geographical radius.5 This requires considerable scientific skill and expertise that, most analysts agree, is still beyond the reach of most terrorist organisations (Chyba, 2004).
One of the main reasons why the Aum Shinrikyo sect used the CW agent sarin in its 1995 Tokyo subway attack was that it had previously failed to develop sufficiently virulent BW strains of anthrax and botulinum toxin. This was despite the group being generously financed and its employment of some two dozen professionally trained microbiologists working in well-equipped scientific laboratories (Martin, 2002).
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Alternative avenues? Given the intrinsic difficulties associated with manufacturing a viable WMD device from scratch, would al-Qaeda have alternative avenues for acquiring such a capability? One possible scenario would be the theft of complete or partially complete devices from established state inventories. As noted earlier, the security and tracking systems for all categories of WMD remains woefully underdeveloped in the FSU, especially Russia. But this is not to say that the latter would be the only target for al-Qaeda intent on pilfering a WMD device. The 2001 anthrax attacks in the US were carried out with material that appears to have come from the US defence establishment, an establishment that has maintained some of the tightest security and tracking systems in the world (Allison, 2004).
Another scenario is that a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon could be provided to a terrorist organisation by a state that remains sympathetic to the terrorists’ motives and aims. This threat has gained increased currency in US policy-making circles, with the Bush administration linking international terrorist networks with individual states it alleges are actively seeking WMD capabilities— Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (Katona, 2006). Yet despite these states having demonstrated a willingness to sponsor terrorist activities in the past, it is doubtful whether any state would transfer WMD to a non-state entity, assuming they were in a position to do so.
It is difficult to imagine any state that would be willing to risk being discovered as having links with a terrorist group that had attacked US targets (for instance) with WMD, let alone one that would be willing to furnish such a group with a WMD capability. For as long as regime preservation remains the paramount credo in Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, it is highly improbable that ruling elites would risk certain US retaliation (probably with nuclear weapons) in the wake of a WMD attack on American territory.
However, this cautious approach could be revised if a leadership elite found itself in mortal peril. While regime preservation may be the overriding priority in Baghdad, if the regime judged that its demise was imminent in the latter stages of a war with the United States, then it is entirely plausible that it would attempt to use all the WMD assets at its disposal. This could well include nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons supplied to al-Qaeda for use against targets on the American mainland or targets in Israel.
With the regime’s demise imminent, there would be little, if any, incentive to exercise restraint and no fear of retaliation from the United States and its allies (Chyba, 2004). Other countries for whom ‘contracting out’ WMD terrorism may be an option are US adversaries (possibly including China) who fear the longer term strategic implications of National Missile Defence (NMD). If Washington successfully deploys NMD, these states may be more inclined to consider using terrorists as ‘delivery systems’ if the option of delivering their WMD payloads against US targets with long range missiles has been effectively nullified (Frost, 2005). In such a scenario these states may well calculate that they would not be identified as the source of an attack.
What is the likelihood of terrorists using WMD?
Norms and strategic value
Just as the issue of WMD accessibility for al-Qaeda is contested, so too is the question of whether such groups would actually use WMD in certain circumstances. Scepticism towards the notion that terrorists will seek to use WMD is largely predicated on accepting the much-quoted observation of US terrorist expert Brian Jenkins that ‘terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening, not a lot of people dead’ (Bennett, 2004).
Traditionalists like Jenkins, who maintain that the WMD threat is exaggerated, point to the fact that historically few terrorist groups have shown an active interest in acquiring a capability to inflict mass casualties in the thousands or tens of thousands. According to this line of thinking, the best assurance we have that a mass casualty terrorist attack involving WMD will not happen is that it hasn’t happened yet. While terrorist groups by their very nature aim to effect radical political and social change, an attack on this scale could not be vindicated by any conceivable ideology (Parachini, 2003). No terrorist group, so the argument goes, would risk attracting the international opprobrium such a mass casualty attack would provoke.
From this perspective, although terrorists may be violent, they are also rational and calculating; they understand that a mass casualty attack using WMD would serve no instrumental purpose in propagating their ideology and objectives. However, this traditionalist argument overlooks several important variables which suggest that, far from being remote, the likelihood of al-Qaeda that have acquired nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons using these weapons is increasingly plausible. The most conspicuous of these variables is that non-state actors in international relations do not, as a general rule, operate according to the same normative constraints as sovereign states (Bennett, 2004).
While there is strong circumstantial evidence to support the claim that a norm of WMD non-use has evolved over time among states, there are few grounds for assuming that terrorist organisations will necessarily adhere to this norm. Indeed, the inherent shock value of terrorism is essentially based on the willingness of al-Qaeda to flout generally accepted international norms of behaviour. (Nielsn, 2005)
Moreover, the perceived strategic merits of WMD are likely to outweigh any normative considerations for most terrorists. Due to the unprecedented mass casualties that they can cause, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are optimal instruments for achieving the asymmetric warfare strategy that lies at the heart of terrorist operations. Avoiding confrontation with a target state where it is strongest (in conventional military terms), the modus operandi of al-Qaeda has been to strike states where they are most vulnerable to attack (in densely populated cities). From a terrorist perspective, using WMD would graphically illustrate a capacity to inflict maximum damage against a stronger power at a time and place of the terrorist group’s own choosing.
The rise of ‘new’ terrorism
But the single most important variable that makes terrorist use of WMD increasingly credible is the changing nature of the underlying philosophy of al-Qaeda themselves. International terrorism has, over time, become a more complex phenomenon. Long gone are the days when terrorism was exemplified by the gun-toting anarchist seeking to overturn a corrupt political order within the strict confines of state borders.
The terrorist of the twenty-first century is exemplified by the operative who is part of a loose, yet sophisticated, transnational network whose goal is to overturn global trends that are deemed to be in profound conflict with their core religious or political beliefs (Bennett, 2004).
Throughout the last decade of the twentieth century, the capacity of al-Qaeda to organise themselves into transnational networks for the purpose of coordinating operations across different continents was significantly enhanced by the rapid globalisation of information technologies. The most well-known of these groups, Al Qaeda, used coded e-mail communications and posted encrypted messages on various Internet web sites to coordinate several high profile attacks during the 1990s as well as the 11 September attacks on the American mainland (Parachini, 2003).
Examples of the new terrorism include extremist fundamentalist organisations, millenarian and apocalyptic-inspired sects, and radical anti-government ‘hate’ groups. In marked contrast to the old terrorist groups, who invariably rationalised violence as an instrument for achieving a clear-cut political strategy, the violence employed by al-Qaeda is far less discriminating and far more lethal as a consequence. As evidenced over the last decade, the terrorist operations performed by these groups have frequently (and deliberately) failed to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ targets symbolising ‘corrupt’ state authority (such as military installations and police barracks) and civilian sectors of the population.
The single most influential element uniting al-Qaeda has been hard-core religious dogma. Groups such as Al Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, and the various Christian Identity organisations active in the West are each inspired by the doctrine of ‘cosmic war’, in which violence is seen as the only means to achieve ‘moral restoration’ (Katona, 2006). According to this mindset, violent acts ‘are ‘sanitised’ because they are symbolic, enacted on a cosmic stage’ (Bennett, 2004).
Engaged in a cosmic struggle where ‘a satanic enemy cannot be transformed, only destroyed’, the intensity of the violence used in specific terrorist acts is unconstrained by ‘worldly’ ethical considerations (Nielsn, 2005). As Allison (2004) has observed: The prevalence of radical religious imperatives [ …] has significant implications for the lethality of terrorism. For the religious zealot, there is essentially no reason to show restraint in the perpetration of violence. The main objective is to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible, with the enemy typically denigrated as fundamentally evil and beyond all redemption. In sum, al-Qaeda subscribing to this form of ideology are much more likely to be attracted to the mass destructive properties of WMD than terrorist organisations have been in the past.
Has the WMD terrorist threat increased since 11 September 2001?
Would a terrorist group actively attempt to acquire and use WMD when the events of 11 September 2001 showed that spectacular attacks can be staged using fully fuel-laden hijacked civilian airliners? The short answer is that a successful large-scale use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons would make the events of 11 September pale in comparison. The mass casualties resulting from a large-scale WMD attack against US urban centres has been the most important issue exercising the collective minds of American national security agencies post-11 September.
A leaked US intelligence report in March 2002 estimated that a ten kiloton nuclear device (of similar yield to the Hiroshima bomb) detonated in lower Manhattan would kill over one hundred thousand people instantly, poison several hundred thousand people with radiation sickness, and level all infrastructure standing within one kilometre of the blast’s epicentre (Katona, 2006).
An extensive attack against an urban centre with an acutely lethal chemical weapon such as the nerve agent sarin could potentially kill thousands and render the surrounding area a heavily contaminated zone for an extended period of time. While slower in its impact, a successful large-scale attempt to target densely populated centres with a highly contagious BW agent such as smallpox would trigger an epidemic of unparalleled scope in the modern era.
On balance, the likelihood of a terrorist organisation using WMD has increased in the wake of the 11 September attacks for two reasons. First, the events of 11 September exposed—much more dramatically than did the 1993 World Trade Centre attack and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—the vulnerability of open societies like the United States to large-scale terrorist strikes.
The Al Qaeda operatives who carried out the 11 September attacks were inserted into the US, received flight school training in the US, coordinated their pre-attack planning in the US, hijacked the airliners from US airports, and successfully struck high value targets on American soil without warning. To be sure, any terrorist group with a serious grudge against the United States and its democratic allies will take heart from the events of 11 September. While the United States and allies including Australia have taken some significant steps to bolster early warning and crisis response capabilities (Parachini, 2003), their cities will continue to remain extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks involving WMD.
Second, the events of 11 September set an entirely new benchmark, or threshold, for future terrorist attacks. There can be little doubt that the motivation to ‘surpass 11 September’ will be a strong incentive for future al-Qaeda contemplating the use of WMD. Never before had thousands been killed in a single terrorist attack. That the most powerful country in the international system was the target merely added potency to its psychological impact.
As Bennett (2004) has argued, the events of 11 September created ‘a new level of destruction toward which other terrorists will strive’. Rather than being cowed by the 2001 attacks, the Bush administration responded forcefully by declaring a ‘War on Terrorism’ and expelling Al Qaeda from its home base in Afghanistan. Yet, it is far less certain whether the United States would be able to cope with a massive WMD strike against a key urban centre such as Los Angeles, with fatalities ranging in the tens of thousands.
Allison Graham. (2004) ‘Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe’. Publisher: Times Books.
Bennett, D. (2004) ‘Terrorists and unconventional weapons: is the threat real?’ Low Intensity Conflict and Law Enforcement, 12(1): 20-50.
Chyba, C. F. and Greninger, A. L. (2004) ‘Biotechnology and bioterrorism: an unprecedented world,’ Survival, 46(2).
Frost, R. (2005) ‘Nuclear terrorism: the ultimate preventable catastrophe,’ Survival, 47(1): 173-183.
Katona Peter, Sullivan John P. (2006) ‘Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network.’ Routledge Publishers.
Martin, S., (2002) ‘The Role of Biological Weapons in International Politics: The Real Military Revolution’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 25, 1: 63–98.
Nielsn Daalgard. (2005) ‘Transatlantic Homeland Security?: Protecting Society in the Age of Catastrophic Terrorism’. Publisher: Routledge.
Parachini, J. (2003) ‘Putting WMD terrorism into perspective,’ Washington Quarterly, 26(4): 37-50.
Steinhausler, F. (2003) ‘What it takes to become a nuclear terrorist,’ American Behavioral Scientist, 46(6): 782-795.