Chapter 4 -- The Global Challenge of WMD Terrorism

Country Reports on Terrorism
Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
April 30, 2007

The nexus of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism poses one of the gravest potential risks to the national security of the United States and its global partners. A successful major WMD terrorist attack could result in hundreds of thousands of casualties and produce far-reaching economic and political consequences that would affect all members of the international community. This chapter outlines:

  • The key elements of the United States' National Strategy for Combating WMD Terrorism;
  • The various types of materials terrorists may use in a WMD attack;
  • The potential that resources of a state could be directed or diverted to facilitate WMD terrorism;
  • The emerging WMD terrorism threat presented by non-state facilitators; and
  • Transformational U.S. partnerships to combat this growing global risk.

The U.S. Government places the highest priority on working with a broad range of international partners, international organizations and national governments, as well as local governments and private sector organizations, to develop effective partnerships to meet the global challenge of WMD terrorism.

Diplomatic Strategic Priorities for Combating WMD Terrorism
U.S. diplomatic priorities for combating WMD terrorism build on the comprehensive approach set forth in the U.S. National Strategy for Combating WMD Terrorism. Specifically, our strategic approach hinges on the six objectives outlined in the National Strategy. We work across all objectives simultaneously to maximize our ability to eliminate the threat.

  • Determine terrorists' intentions, capabilities, and plans to develop or acquire WMD. We need to understand and assess the credibility of threat reporting and provide technical assessments of terrorists' WMD capabilities.
  • Deny terrorists access to the materials, expertise, and other enabling capabilities required to develop WMD. We seek to deny our enemies access to WMD-related materials (with a particular focus on weapons-usable fissile materials), methods of transport, sources of funds, and other capabilities that facilitate the execution of a WMD attack. In addition to building upon existing initiatives to secure materials, we are developing innovative approaches that blend classic counterproliferation, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism efforts.
  • Deter terrorists from employing WMD. A new deterrence calculus combines the need to deter terrorists, facilitators, and supporters from contemplating a WMD attack and, failing that, to dissuade them from actually conducting an attack. Traditional threats may not work because terrorists generally show a wanton disregard for the lives of innocents and, in some cases, for their own lives. We require a range of deterrence strategies that are tailored to the various WMD threats and the individual actors who facilitate or enable those threats. We will employ diplomatic strategies that seek to address extremism and diffuse volatile conditions to discourage populations from considering WMD an appropriate tool to address perceived injustices.
  • Detect and disrupt terrorists' attempted movement of WMD-related materials, weapons, and personnel. We will seek to expand our global capability for detecting illicit materials, weapons, and personnel transiting abroad or heading for the United States or U.S. interests overseas. We will use our global partnerships, international agreements, and ongoing border security and interdiction efforts. We also will continue to work with countries to enact and enforce strict penalties for WMD trafficking and other suspect WMD-related activities.
  • Prevent and respond to a WMD-related terrorist attack. Once the possibility of a WMD attack against the United States has been detected, we will seek to contain, interdict, and eliminate the threat. We will continue to develop requisite capabilities to eliminate the possibility of a WMD operation and to prevent a possible follow-on attack. We will prepare ourselves for possible WMD incidents by developing capabilities to manage the range of consequences that may result from such an attack against the United States or our interests around the world.
  • Define the nature and source of a terrorist-employed WMD device. Should a WMD terrorist attack occur, the rapid identification of the source and perpetrator of an attack would enable our response efforts and may be critical in disrupting follow-on attacks. We will maintain and improve our capability to determine responsibility for the intended or actual use of WMD via accurate attribution - the rapid fusion of technical forensic data with intelligence and law enforcement information.

As we move forward in the implementation of our diplomatic strategic priorities for combating WMD terrorism, we will take special care to work closely with the full range of foreign partners to prioritize and to tailor our capacity-building approaches to the regional and local conditions we face across the world.

The Material Threats

There are four generally accepted categories of weapons of mass destruction that terrorists may seek to acquire and use in a WMD terrorist attack: nuclear, radiological, biological, and chemical.

Some terrorist organizations, such as AQ, have openly stated their desire to acquire and use nuclear weapons. The diffusion of scientific and technical information regarding the assembly of nuclear weapons, some of which is now available on the Internet, has increased the risk that a terrorist organization in possession of sufficient fissile material could develop its own nuclear weapon. The complete production of a nuclear weapon strongly depends on the terrorist group's access to fissile material and scientific expertise. Terrorists may, however, seek to link up with a variety of facilitators to develop their own nuclear capability. These facilitators include black market proliferators or transnational criminal networks that may seek to profit from the sale of nuclear material, a weaponized device, or technical knowledge gathered from nuclear experts involved in a national nuclear program.

Some terrorists seek to acquire radiological materials for use in a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or "dirty bomb." Most radiological materials lack sufficient strength to present a public health risk, but public panic and the economic disruption caused by a radiological dispersal device would be significant. Radiological materials are used widely across the medical industry including medical isotopes and sources used in some X-ray machines; and in the oil industry they are used in well-logging devices and other measuring instruments. Its widespread use makes radiological material significantly easier to procure than fissile nuclear material.

Biological weapons, another deadly threat, consist of pathogens that are deliberately dispersed through food, air, water, or living organisms. If properly produced and released, biological weapons can kill on a massive scale, even spreading across oceans to distant continents and population centers.

Like other WMD, developing a biological weapons capability represents scientific and operational challenges. The quality of a biological weapon greatly determines its ability to harm people. It requires scientific expertise to assemble a biological weapon or develop and disperse a suitable pathogen such as the one used in the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. Some terrorist organizations, however, remain interested in developing a bioweapons capability.

Among present-day terrorist organizations, AQ is believed to have made the greatest effort to acquire and develop biological weapons. U.S. forces discovered a partially built biological weapon laboratory near Kandahar after expelling the Taliban from Afghanistan. Although it was not conclusive that AQ succeeded in obtaining a biological weapon, the discovery demonstrated a concerted effort to acquire a biological weapons capability.

Chemical weapons represent another highly dangerous potential tool in the hands of terrorists. Effectively dispersed and in sufficient dosages, chemical weapons could injure tens of thousands. Not since the 1995 sarin attack conducted by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway system has an attack been conducted with a sophisticated chemical device. Since then, only materials with legitimate dual uses, such as pesticides, poisons, and industrial chemicals, have been used. The growth and sophistication of the worldwide chemical industry, including the development of complex synthetic and dual-use materials, may make the task of preventing and protecting against this threat more difficult. Preventing chemical terrorism is particularly challenging as terrorists can, with relative ease, use commercial industrial toxins, pesticides, and other commonly available chemical agents as low-cost alternatives to conventional attacks - though likely with limited effects rather than mass casualties.

Dual-Use Materials, Equipment, Research and Technology of Concern
Reducing the risk of terrorist acquisition of, access to, and use of dual-use materials, equipment, research, and technology of concern also remains a critical challenge. Terrorists have shown an interest in developing improvised devices leveraging such capabilities, and the diffusion of information on the Internet regarding dual-use research of concern has compounded this challenge. Recent attacks in Iraq involving improvised devices containing chlorine, a dual-use chemical used in water treatment facilities, offer a notable example. Effective partnerships with private sector organizations - industry, academia, and the scientific research community - as well as with local governments will play an important role in mitigating the risk of dual-use capabilities falling into the wrong hands.

State Sponsorship of Terrorism: A Key Concern
A state that directs WMD resources to terrorists, or one from which enabling resources are clandestinely diverted, may pose a potentially grave WMD terrorism threat. Although terrorist organizations will continue to seek a WMD capability independent of state programs, the sophisticated WMD knowledge and resources of a state could enable a terrorist capability. State sponsors of terrorism and all nations that fail to live up to their international counterterrorism and nonproliferation obligations deserve greater scrutiny as potential facilitators of WMD terrorism.

Non-State Facilitators: An Emerging Threat
State sponsors of terrorism represent just one facet of the overall risk of WMD terrorism. Non-state facilitators have emerged as a growing WMD proliferation threat in recent years. In 2003, the United States and its international partners succeeded in interdicting a shipment of WMD-related material destined for Libya's then active nuclear weapons program. As facts emerged regarding this shipment and its origin, the U.S. Government gained insight into an emerging WMD terrorism risk. Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had developed a transnational nuclear proliferation network reaching from Southeast Asia to Europe, and was making available sensitive technology and WMD-related materials to nations willing to pay.

The dismantling of the A.Q. Khan network revealed an uncomfortable truth about globalization. The very trends driving globalization - improved communications and transportation links - can enable development of extended proliferation networks that may facilitate the terrorist acquisition of WMD. Globalization requires that partner nations work together closely to prevent, detect, and disrupt linkages that may develop between terrorists and facilitators such as A.Q. Khan.

Transformational Partnerships to Combat WMD Terrorism
Since September 11, 2001, the international community has taken significant strides in responding to the threat of WMD terrorism. States are working together bilaterally and multilaterally to address these threats and protect their populations. The United States has taken concrete measures to build a layered defense against the WMD terrorism threat. In 2003, the U.S. Government announced the first National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. Through a variety of multinational initiatives such as the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, and the Proliferation Security Initiative, and most recently, through the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the United States has taken a leadership role in reducing the threat of WMD in the hands of non-state actors and terrorists.

The Proliferation Security Initiative
Announced by President Bush in 2003, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) deserves special mention as a particularly well received and effective international initiative. The PSI is a global effort that aims to stop the trafficking of WMD, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern worldwide. States that wish to join the PSI are asked to endorse a Statement of Interdiction Principles that identifies specific measures participants intend to undertake for the interdiction of WMD and related materials. PSI participants also conduct exercises to improve their operational capabilities to conduct interdictions, and meet periodically to develop new operational concepts and share information. PSI has led to a number of important interdictions over the last two years and is an important tool in the overall U.S. strategy to combat WMD terrorism.

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism
Presidents Bush and Putin announced the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism on July 15, 2006 to expand and accelerate the development of partnership capacity against one of the most serious threats to international security. Although PSI has marshaled resources to support interdiction, the Global Initiative focuses on strengthening the other defensive layers necessary to prevent, protect against, and respond comprehensively to the nuclear terrorist threat.

Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States agreed to and endorsed a Statement of Principles and Terms of Reference for the Initiative in a meeting in Rabat, Morocco on October 30-31. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) attended as an observer. By agreeing to the Statement of Principles, partner nations committed themselves to:

  • Develop, if necessary, and improve accounting, control, and physical protection systems for nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances;
  • Enhance security of civilian nuclear facilities;
  • Improve the ability to detect nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances in order to prevent illicit trafficking in such materials and substances, to include cooperation in the research and development of national detection capabilities that would be interoperable;
  • Improve capabilities of participants to search for, confiscate, and establish safe control over unlawfully held nuclear or other radioactive materials and substances or devices using them;
  • Prevent the provision of safe haven to terrorists and financial or economic resources to terrorists seeking to acquire or use nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances;
  • Ensure adequate respective national legal and regulatory frameworks sufficient to provide for the implementation of appropriate criminal and, if applicable, civil liability for terrorists and those who facilitate acts of nuclear terrorism;
  • Improve capabilities of participants for response, mitigation, and investigation, in cases of terrorist attacks involving the use of nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances, including the development of technical means to identify nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances that are, or may be, involved in the incident; and
  • Promote information sharing pertaining to the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism and their facilitation, taking appropriate measures consistent with their national law and international obligations to protect the confidentiality of any information which they exchange in confidence.

Additional U.S. Efforts Supporting a Global Layered Defense
The United States has also worked with partner nations through the United Nations and the IAEA to reduce the threat of WMD in the hands of terrorists. In the past few years, the UN Security Council has passed two important resolutions related to the prevention of terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. In 2001, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1373, which requires all UN member states to refrain from providing any support, active or passive, to terrorists, and to work together to limit terrorist movement and safe haven. In 2004, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1540, which requires all UN member states to refrain from providing support to non-state actors that attempt to develop or acquire WMD and their means of delivery. The United States remains committed to full implementation of both UN Security Council Resolutions 1373 and 1540 and stands ready to support our partners in this area.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (Nuclear Terrorism Convention). The United States was one of the first signatories. There are now over 100 signatories to this Convention, and the United States is taking steps to prepare for ratification. The adoption of the Nuclear Terrorism Convention, and the recent adoption of the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, both U.S. initiatives, underscore the importance that many countries are now placing on cooperating to reduce the risk of WMD terrorism.

The potential threat of terrorists acquiring and using WMD poses one of the greatest security challenges facing the United States and our international partners today. During the past year, the U.S. Government has built on a range of activities and launched new efforts to prevent, protect against, and respond to the threat or use of WMD. Together with partner nations and international organizations, the United States will continue to take the initiative to reduce the global risk of WMD terrorism.