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Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Terrorist Threat Synthesis Essay


In 1945, the U.S. caused an extensive obliteration when it dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also ended the Second World War. This incident made the whole world to come to terms with the threat that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) pose to the world security.

Regrettably, as the major countries have agreed to stop the use of WMD, terror groups have made efforts to acquire and use them for causing havoc in various places around the world. Worse still, technological advancement of this century has increased the possibility of their construction and smuggling for illicit use in almost everywhere in the world. This paper provides an assessment on how a significant terrorist WMD attack can be conducted.

Lacy and Benedek note, “WMD are used to kill large numbers of people, destroy large amounts of property, achieve political goals, and create terror, chaos, and social disruption” (2003, para. 2). They also say that the weapons include “biological or chemical agents, nuclear weapons, conventional bombs contaminated with radioactive materials, large conventional or “truck” bombs, and surprising sources such as hijacked airplanes” (Lacy and Benedek, para.2).

Recent horrific incidences such as the Japanese subway attack using Sarin nerve agent, which resulted in the death of thirteen individuals and severely injured several others, have raised the alarm of the possible terrorist use of WMD. In addition, North Korea and other regimes such as Iran have issued threats of possible use of different biological and chemical weapons for causing widespread destruction. Therefore, their use by terrorist organizations is a cause of worry for many nations around the world.

Chemical terrorism

Chemical weapons are made from chemical materials with toxic properties and they are meant to injure or incapacitate the enemy, or render a particular place unfit for productive use. Unlike conventional weapons or nuclear weapons, these dangerous weapons do not rely on explosive force to realize their goals; however, they rely on the unique characteristics of the chemicals in causing harm (Croddy & Wirtz, 2005).

In this century, approximately seventy different chemicals are available that can be used as chemical terrorism agents. During the First World War era, chemical weapons that were used were in the form of gases. In the modern era, however, terrorists can use liquids, solids, or gases having poisonous effects to cause mass casualties.

Terrorists can either use persistent or non -persistent chemical weapons to cause destruction. Non-persistent agents, such as chlorine and sarin, stay for a limited period before losing their effectiveness after dissemination; therefore, this makes them to be beneficial for terrorists who want to take over and control a target as fast as possible. On the other hand, persistent agents stay for many days before losing effectiveness.

Chemical terrorism can be effected by use of agents that are organized into five different groups based on how they cause harm to the human body. The five categories are blister (vesicant), blood (systemic), choking, nerve, and psychotomimetric agents. Blister agents refer to the chemicals that cause extreme skin, eye, and mucosal pain and irritation resulting in large, aching blisters on parts of the body of those affected.

The most common types of blister agents are sulfur mustards and lewisite, and they are heavier than air hence stay in the atmosphere for an extended period of time. Sulfur mustard is inexpensive and easy to manufacture, making it likely to be used by terrorists.

The agents readily penetrate the skin causing life-threatening symptoms such as skin pain and irritation, large fluid blisters that are prone to infection, and mild respiratory distress. Since the blister agents are not as lethal as are the nerve agents, they are less likely to be employed by the terrorists.

Blood agents, which are cyanide or arsenic based, get into the blood through inhalation or ingestion and cause death in a matter of minutes or seconds by inhibiting the conversion of oxygen into energy. At ambient conditions, the toxic chemical agents are volatile colorless gases, hence are more destructive when terrorists use them in confined areas.

They are normally disseminated as aerosols and saturate the blood when inhaled. In order to be effective, terrorists can consider using higher doses of the blood agents that can cause symptoms of dizziness, weakness, and nausea on those affected. Permanent brain damage and muscle paralysis might also occur.

A third type of chemical agent is a choking agent, which affect the victims breathing system by leading to a build-up of fluids in the lungs. The fluid-filled lungs render the affected individual unable to breathe and eventually suffocate. When the chemical agents are exposed to the eyes and skin, they corrode the surfaces leading to distorted vision and severe deep burns, and when they are inhaled, they cause multiple complications to the respiratory and the circulatory system.

Even though some individuals can survive choking agent attacks, they end up suffering from life-long breathing problems. Currently, some of the choking agents that terrorists might use to achieve their objectives include chlorine gas, chloropicrin, diphosgene, phosgene, and trichloronitromethane.

Among these chemical weapon agents, modern terrorists are likely to use phosgene since it is the most dangerous and since it is denser than air, it can remain in the air for a considerable amount of time. Chlorine is the most common and the degree of damage it causes depends on the level of contact one has with it.

It is believed that modern terrorists can try to simulate the massive use of these weapons, which occurred during the First World War. For example, on April 22, 1915, the German forces opened up 168 tons of chlorine gas on their enemies at the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium, which resulted in the death of many unprepared soldiers.

The fourth type of chemical agents is the nerve agents, which attack the victim’s nervous system by restricting the movement of the nerve impulses in the body. Therefore, the affected persons are unable to control their muscles, vomit and lose the ability to control their bladder, lungs stop working and they lose their ability to breathe. Eventually, the victims die by asphyxiation as control of the respiratory muscles is lost due to the effects of the agent.

A number of the deadly nerve agents are easily vaporized or aerosolized. They mainly enter the victim’s body through the respiratory system and they can also be absorbed through the skin. Since they are considered as some of the most powerful and lethal of all chemical weapons, they have the potential of causing mass casualties when used by terrorist organizations. Nerve agents fall into two classes: G-series, such as tabun and sarin, and V-series, such as VE, VG, and VM.

The fifth type of chemical weapons is the psychotomimetic agents, which affects a person’s mind. They make the victim to develop complications in his or her nervous system and reduces his or her ability to make decisions or move. The person becomes disoriented and can have delusions. The types of this agent that terrorists can use include 3-quinuclidinylbenzilate, Phencyclidine, and LSD

In order to achieve the intended goal of use of chemical weapons, terrorists must ensure that they are effectively delivered or disseminated to the targets since their effectiveness is highly dependent on the prevailing atmospheric conditions as many of them are in gaseous form. Inappropriate weather observations and forecasting reduces their effective delivery. The most probable forms of attack that terrorists might use are dispersion, thermal dissemination, and aerodynamic dissemination.

Dispersion techniques, such as the use of munitions, bombs, and spray tanks, are the easiest form of attack since they involve putting the agent on or next to a target immediately before dissemination, with the intention of efficiently using the material. Terrorists can use this technique by opening a container full of poisonous substances in a place full of people, for example, in a city bus stop.

Thermal dissemination is a dispersal technique of chemical weapons by the use of explosives or pyrotechnics and it offers the advantage of disseminating the agent over a considerable distance.

This may make it preferable to the terrorists over the dispersion technique. In disseminating the chemical agents, terrorists may use bombs or projectile shells, which expel the agent tangentially when detonation occurs. In spite of the limitations of the use of thermal dissemination devices, terrorists can efficiently use them in the early stages of chemical weapon development.

Another delivery method is aerodynamic dissemination method in which a chemical weapon is released from an airplane without any explosion. Aerodynamic stress then spreads the agent to the targeted area. Today, terrorists can opt for this method over the thermal dissemination technique since it eliminates some of its limitations. In addition, the advances in technology have allowed ideal conditions to be predetermined before disseminating the chemicals through aerodynamics.

Biological terrorism

Biological terrorism refers to the deliberate use of pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins, to kill, incapacitate, or seriously cause extensive harm to a person or persons. The biological agents normally exist in nature, but terrorists may try to modify them in order to increase their ability of causing illness or death to individuals. They can also be made to be resistant to medications or easier to move from one place to another.

The bioterrorism agents are spread through inanimate materials and they are not easy to detect when present in these means of dispersion. The agents can also take sometime, up to several days, before causing disease. Other significant attributes that make the bio-weapons attractive for terrorists include their ease of acquisition, ease of dissemination, and can cause mass panic and disruption of a society apart from the real harm they can cause.

In the past, bioterrorists have successfully used biological agents to cause harm to innocent people. For example, in 1993, a religious group in Japan tried to aerosolize anthrax spores in Tokyo but the attack was a total failure.

Only one person was infected. And in late 2001, letters infected intentionally with anthrax were sent to news media and the United States Congress and resulted in the death of five people. These instances, and many others not mentioned, illustrate that terrorist organizations are ready to obtain and use biological weapons to cause mass casualties.

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) has classified the biological weapons into three different categories based on the degree of danger that every agent can pose to the population. This also depicts how a significant bioterrorism attack can be conducted.

Category A consists of high-priority agents that pose a significant risk to national security, “since they can be easily disseminated or transmitted from one person to the other, they have the ability of causing high deaths, are able to result in major public panic and social disruption, and need exceptional action for public health vigilance” (Friedewald, 2006, xxviii).

The agents in this category are the ones that terrorists are likely to use for carrying out an attack and they consist of “tularemia, anthrax, smallpox, botulinum toxin, bubonic plague, and viral hemorrhagic fevers” (Porteus, 2006, para.9).

Tularemia or rabbit fever is caused by a very infectious bacterium called Francisella tularensis, which causes fever, localized skin ulcerations, sore throat, systemic infection, and sometimes pneumonia. Infection to individuals is usually caused by breathing or intake of tainted food materials. Since Francisella tularensis widely occurs in nature, terrorists can isolate and grow it in large quantity in a laboratory for carrying out an attack.

Anthrax is a non-communicable ailment caused when the spores of the organism called Bacillus anthracis are inhaled into the lungs where they become active and multiply producing massive bleeding and swelling in the victim’s chest. The person then dies due to blood poisoning. As illustrated in the earlier sections of this paper, terrorists have attempted to use anthrax in several occasions.

A highly notorious virus called variola causes smallpox and it is transmitted through the atmosphere from one infected person to the other. Smallpox has a high mortality rate of between twenty to forty percent. Although the World Health Organization declared its complete eradication in 1980, some cultures can still be found in Russia and the U.S. It is believed that the crumple of the Soviet Union made some nations to acquire virus samples of smallpox.

This can fall in the hands of terrorists, which they can use to achieve their goals. Other significant threats as forms of biological warfare agents in this category include botulinum toxin and bubonic plague.

Category B biological weapons consist of those that are second highest priority agents “since the terrorists find it moderately easy to disseminate, lead to moderate levels of ailment and low casualty rate, and need specific public-health action such as enhanced diagnostic and detection procedures” (Porteus, 2006, para. 10).

Some of these agents or diseases include “brucellosis, food safety threats such as the Salmonella species, water supply threats such as vibrio cholerae, glanders, ricin, and Q fever” (Porteus, 2006, para. 10). Lastly, Category C is the third highest priority agents. They consist of emerging disease causing organisms that terrorists can modify for mass dissemination.

This is because they are readily available, are fairly easy to manufacture and distribute, and are capable of causing mass casualties. Some of these agents or diseases include “nipah virus, yellow fever, the tickborne hemorrhagic fever, yellow fever, and tuberculosis” (Porteus, 2006, para. 11).

Probable forms of attack by use of biological weapons exist, but the means of delivery depends on the target chosen and the extent of damage anticipated. The first means of dissemination that terrorists might use is through the air by aerosol sprays. To accomplish the intended goals, a biological weapon must be made airborne so that an individual can be able to inhale a sufficient quantity of the pathogens to cause disease and eventually death.

Second, the biological agents can be delivered by use of explosive devices. However, this method is not as effective as aerosolizing the agents since some agents are damaged by the blast leaving about five percent of the agent to reach the intended target. Third, terrorists can deliver them by contaminating food or water.

This can be done either at the source or at some point in the distribution process. Another way can be through direct human contact. For example, a number of ricin-tipped umbrellas have been employed in different assassination attempts. Lastly, biological agents can also be delivered indirectly by means of infected animals or inanimate objects.

Nuclear terrorism

Terrorists’ use of nuclear weapons is the most destructive of all weapons of mass destruction. It involves the terror groups acquisition and use or threat of use of nuclear weapons or materials whereby sustained fission reaction takes place (Cameron, 1999).

This implies that nuclear terrorism is confined to the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium (Pu); nevertheless, some people use the term to allude to any type of terrorist weapon using radioactive materials, which involves the use of radiological dispersal devices (RDDs).

Terror organizations, with the intention of causing mass casualties in a place, can employ RDDs materials, for example, cesium -137, strontium -90, and cobalt-60. These elements are readily available in several places around the world.

A significant nuclear terrorism act can be conducted by the use of either of the two basic types of nuclear weapons: those that produce their explosive energy through nuclear fission reactions alone or through nuclear fusion reactions alone. Nuclear weapons that give out large quantity of energy by means of nuclear fission reactions are commonly called atomic bombs or atom bombs and their active material is enriched uranium or plutonium.

Because of technological advances of this century, terrorists can easily manufacture them by use of either gun assembly or implosion method. The gun assembly method is whereby one piece of fissile uranium is fired into another so as to ignite an exponentially growing nuclear chain reaction. In the implosion method, either uranium or plutonium, or both, are compressed until they reach a critical mass. However, since this method is more complicated than the former, terrorists are less likely to use it in causing mass destruction.

The second type of nuclear arsenal that terrorists can consider using is that which produces energy by means of nuclear fusion reactions and they are usually called thermonuclear weapons or hydrogen bombs. The bombs depend entirely on fusion reactions that take place involving the isotopes of hydrogen; though, they obtain a major part of their power from the ensuing fission reactions.

In contrast to fission weapons, hydrogen bombs lack inherent limits to the energy they can produce, hence they are more powerful than the uranium- or plutonium-based fission bombs. In a typical thermonuclear weapon, the explosion of a fission bomb compacts and increases the temperature of lithium deuteride, resulting in the emission of neutrons, which strike the lithium atoms leading to the production of tritium.

As the temperature of the fission reaction increases, tritium and deuterium are fused together leading to the production of helium and neutrons by both fission and fusion reactions. The reaction then continues through a series of chain reactions until it ends in an enormous explosion accompanied by a blast of neutron radiation. In addition to the two basic types of nuclear weapons, there are others that terrorists can consider using.

Examples are the boosted fission weapon, which uses fusion reactions to enhance its efficiency, neutron bombs which can be specially designed to yield enormous quantity of neutron radiation, and “suitcase” bombs which are portable and could be about 48,000 cm3.

The probable forms of attack that terrorists can use to deliver the nuclear weapons to their target include the use of gravity bombs, ballistic missiles, or cruise missiles. In order to successful, terrorists must consider the significant costs related to the delivery of nuclear weapons. Gravity bomb, whereby a bomber airplane is used to deliver the weapon, is the most traditional method of delivering nuclear weapons and it is much simpler since it does not offer limitations on the size of the weapon.

On the other hand, it restricts the range of attack as well as the number of bombs that can be released. Currently, with the advancement in technology, terrorists can deliver nuclear weapons by the use of strategic bombers, with or without state sponsorship. Terrorists can increase the efficiency of delivering nuclear weapons to targets when they are mounted on missiles, which also lowers the chances of missile defense.

Modern technologies, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVS) make the delivery of nuclear weapons possible in any part of the world with maximum accuracy. Cruise missiles have a shorter range and terrorists can target them to any place on the earth.

Terrorists can prefer using cruise missiles to ballistic missiles because they are more difficult to detect and they have the ability of maneuvering anti-missile systems. Other potential terrorist forms of attack are the use of artillery shells and land mines.

In addition to causing harm to individuals through their impact and detonation, nuclear weapons also affect individuals by the enormous quantity of radioactive material that they give out. The radiation can reach people through a number of ways. First, the radiation can reach the body of an individual when it is absorbed through an exposed portion of body parts such as the skin.

Second, contamination takes place when radioactive substances gets into the atmosphere as minute particles and get inside the body of a person through the lungs, digestive system, or wounds on the skin. The radioactive substances can be in the form of solids, liquids, or gaseous particles. Lastly, body tissues and organs can be contaminated when they absorb gamma radiation, beta radiation, or alpha radiation. The contamination can occur before radiation drops to trace levels after an explosion has taken place.

Radiological weapons

Many atomic experts believe that terrorist organizations are likely to prefer using radiological weapons in causing mass destruction. This is because, in contrast to nuclear bombs, they are able to spread radioactive substances over a wide area. This increases the possibility of causing destruction to people, animals, and infrastructure. A radiological weapon is principally referred to as a dirty bomb or salted bomb as it employs conventional explosives, such as wastes from nuclear power industries, to spread the deadly radioactive material.

Because of these reasons, it is not recognized as a true nuclear bomb. Terrorist organizations can successfully employ radiological weapons for causing fear and death in an area with a large number of people. Because of the adverse effects of radiological weapons, they can make areas contaminated by radioactive dusts and smokes to be inhabitable for a considerable period, unless expensive decontamination efforts are carried out.

Even though terrorists have not used radiological weapons before, previous incidences have raised the concern that terrorists may acquire and use them for causing mass casualties. For example, some radiological materials planted by Chen rebels were discovered and disarmed in 1995 and 1998. Moreover, some terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, have publicly expressed their willingness to acquire these weapons.

Possible means of deployment of the radiological materials include the use of either radiological dispersal devices (RDD), which spreads the material into the environment, or radiological emission devices (RED), which uses an immobile radioactive source to make people come into contact with high levels of radiation. The source of RED can remain undiscovered for a considerable period of time such as the accident that took place in Goiania, Brazil in 1987 in which four people died and several others suffered from contamination effects.

Terrorists’ use of RDD is likely to be more catastrophic, causing massive disruption and widespread panic among the population. If the RDD uses a chemical explosive, the preliminary outcome would come from the huge impact used to disperse the radioactive substance, and the radioactive fallout from this little “dirty bomb” would spread over a wide area.

A “dirty bomb” is easily available to terrorists. It is a conventional chemical explosive laced with lower-grade radioactive substance that spreads when the bomb detonates, and it kills people through the initial impact as wells as through the resulting airborne radiation and contamination.

Terrorists can deliver dirty bombs through various devices such as artillery shells, dynamite, and TNT. Radiological weapons can be employed in poisoning animals, aquatic life, and foodstuffs. Since they are not soluble in water, terrorists cannot poison water sources using them. Terror organizations can also launch a systemic attack in a nuclear plant. They can achieve this by overloading the reactor so that it functions as a radiological weapon.

Potential terrorist targets

The potential terrorist targets by the use of weapons of mass destruction are inexhaustible. If the chosen target will make the terrorist to realize his or her objectives, then is a viable quarry. Ideal targets may consist of, but not limited to, a place where there is large gatherings of individuals, packed stadiums, restaurants, office buildings, shopping malls, trains, subway systems, airliners, dams, oil refineries, seaports, nuclear power plants, and hazardous cargo on trucks and trains.

It is important to note that terrorists may find some targets to be more attractive than others may be. For instance, a bus stop with no people may be less attractive to a terrorist than a full bus stop on a busy Monday. In using weapons of mass destruction, a terrorist is attracted to highly populated targets where many people can lose their lives and excessive damage on infrastructure can occur.

The modern terrorist is usually attracted to symbolic targets; that is, places considered to be the might of a country. The September 11 attacks on the U.S. soil illustrate this. The terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, which symbolized the economic strength of the U.S. and also represented the globalization that Muslim fundamentalists found to be so objectionable.

Soft targets; that is, places that are poorly defended, also rank high on the modern terrorist’s target list. Examples are institutions of learning, hospitals, and shopping malls. These places are highly vulnerable to terrorists’ attack by the use of weapons of mass destruction since they lack adequate physical security necessary to deter terrorist.


To this end, it is clear that terrorists’ use of weapons of mass destruction is a major threat that must be countered in this century. Nevertheless, efforts can be made to counter its effects by adopting appropriate measures for prevention, detection, and action. Terrorism will not be completely obliterated from the face of the earth if individuals settle down and stop making efforts to win the war that has been fought since the beginning of recorded history.

This calls for establishment of drastic measures that can prevent them from obtaining or accessing chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological weapons. Consequently, with the adoption of these counter strategies, the war on terror can be won significantly.

Reference List

Cameron, G. (1999). Nuclear terrorism : a threat assessment for the 21st century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Croddy, E., & Wirtz, J. J. (2005). Weapons of mass destruction : an encyclopedia of worldwide policy, technology, and history. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Friedewald, V. (2006). Clinical guide to bioweapons and chemical agents. Notre Dame, Indiana: Springer Verlag.

Lacy, T. K., & Benedek, D. M. (2003, July). Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Managing the Behavioral Reaction in Primary Care. Medscape Today. Retrieved from

Porteus, L. (2006, June). Weapons of Mass Destruction Handbook. Fox News. Retrieved from

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Terrorist Threat'. 15 January.

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