Chapter 4: The Global Challenge of WMD Terrorism

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
April 30, 2009


The nexus of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism poses one of the gravest
risks to the national security of the United States and its global partners. A successful major WMD terrorist attack could result in mass casualties and produce far-reaching economic and political consequences. 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 United States places the highest priority on working with a broad range of local governments, Federal entities, domestic emergency responders, international organizations, foreign governments, and private sector organizations to develop effective partnerships to confront the global challenge of WMD terrorism.

Diplomatic and Strategic Priorities for Combating WMD Terrorism

U.S. diplomatic priorities for combating WMD terrorism build on the comprehensive approach set forth in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism ( Specifically, the U.S. strategic approach hinges on the six objectives outlined in the National Strategy. The USG works across all objectives simultaneously to maximize its ability to eliminate the threat.

  • Determine terrorists' intentions, capabilities, and plans to develop or acquire WMD. 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, with a particular focus on weapons-usable fissile materials, dangerous pathogens, and poisonous chemicals. Denial efforts extend to the methods of transport, sources of funds, and other capabilities that could facilitate the execution of a WMD attack. In addition to building upon existing initiatives to secure materials, develop innovative approaches that blend classic counterproliferation, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism efforts.
  • Deter terrorists from employing WMD. A new deterrence calculus seeks to deter terrorists, facilitators, and supporters from contemplating a WMD attack and, failing that, to dissuade them from actually conducting an attack. Traditional deterrence by punishment may not work because terrorists generally show a wanton disregard for the lives of innocents and, in some cases, for their own lives. Accordingly, develop a range of deterrence strategies that are tailored to the various WMD threats and the individual actors who facilitate or enable those threats. Employ diplomatic strategies that seek to address extremism and defuse volatile conditions in order to discourage consideration of WMD as a tool to address perceived injustices.
  • Detect and disrupt terrorists' attempted movement of WMD-related materials, weapons, and personnel. Expand our global capability for detecting illicit materials, weapons, and personnel transiting abroad. Utilize global partnerships, international agreements, and ongoing border security and interdiction efforts to promote detection capabilities. Continue to work with countries to enact and enforce strict penalties for WMD trafficking and other suspect WMD-related activities.
  • Prevent a WMD-related terrorist attack and develop a response capability. Once the possibility of a WMD attack has been detected, work to contain, interdict, and eliminate the threat. Continue to develop requisite capabilities to eliminate the possibility of a WMD operation and to prevent a possible follow-on attack. Prepare ourselves for possible WMD incidents by developing capabilities to manage the range of consequences that may result from such an attack.
  • 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 facilitate response efforts and may be critical in disrupting follow-on attacks. Work to maintain and improve our capability to determine responsibility for the intended or actual use of WMD via accurate attribution, using the rapid fusion of technical forensic data with intelligence and law enforcement information.

In December 2008, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism released its final report to Congress. This report highlighted several key observations including the high likelihood that a WMD would be involved in a terrorist attack within the next five years. The Commission concluded that the United States, and the world, must act quickly to slow the proliferation of WMD technologies and information to avoid such an act.

As the implementation of diplomatic strategic priorities for combating WMD terrorism move forward, special care must be taken to work closely with the full range of foreign partners to prioritize and tailor capacity-building approaches to the regional and local conditions that exist worldwide.


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


Chemical weapons represent a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of terrorists. Effectively dispersed and in sufficient dosages, chemical agents could cause mass casualties, as was demonstrated by the use of chemical weapons during World War I and more recently during the Iran-Iraq war. Today’s chemical terrorism threat ranges from the potential acquisition and use of chemical warfare agents and military delivery systems, to the production and use of toxic industrial chemicals and improvised dissemination systems, such as those used in the 1995 attack conducted by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway system. Perpetrators of that attack used sharpened umbrellas to puncture plastic bags filled with the nerve agent sarin causing the sarin to spill out and evaporate – killing twelve and injuring thousands. Terrorists also have sought to acquire and use commercially-available materials, such as poisons and toxic industrial chemicals. 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 toxic industrial chemicals and other commonly available chemical agents and materials as low-cost alternatives to traditional chemical weapons and delivery systems, though likely with more limited effects.


Bioterrorism, another deadly threat, is the deliberate dispersal of pathogens through food, air, water, or living organisms to cause disease. The Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (See The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism) concluded that it is more likely that terrorists would be able to acquire and use biological agents than nuclear weapons due to the difficulty in controlling the proliferation of biotechnologies and biological agent information. If properly produced and released, biological agents can kill on a massive scale and, if terrorists use a pathogen that can be transmitted from person to person, the disease could quickly spread across oceans and continents through air travel before authorities realize their nations have been attacked.

Developing a bioterrorism capability presents some scientific and operational challenges. However, the necessary technical capabilities are not beyond the expertise of motivated scientists with university-level training. Unlike most other types of CBRN threats, the materials required to produce a biological weapon are available in laboratories worldwide, and many threat agents could be isolated from nature. International laboratories are often not safeguarded and secured up to preferred U.S. standards, making access to dual-use equipment and potentially dangerous pathogens possibly more accessible. Even the use of a badly-designed weapon can have a limited health impact but cause significant disruption. A small-scale bioterrorism attack such as the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, which resulted in five Americans killed and an additional 17 individuals infected, had a substantial economic impact with the costs of decontamination, medical treatment for those exposed, decreased commercial activity, social distress, and lost productivity. The terrorists can often meet their objective of creating disruption and fear without causing large numbers of casualties.

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


Some terrorists seek to acquire radioactive materials for use in a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or "dirty bomb." Radioactive materials are used widely in industrial, medical, and research applications and include devices used for power supply in remote locations, cancer therapy, food and blood irradiation, and radiography. Their widespread use in nearly every country makes these materials much more accessible than the fissile materials required for nuclear weapons. Most radioactive materials lack sufficient strength to present a significant public health risk once dispersed, while the materials posing the greatest hazard would require terrorists to have the expertise to handle them without exposure to incapacitating doses of radiation or detection during transit across international borders. Public panic and economic disruption caused by setting off an explosive radiological dispersal device, however, could be substantial, even if a weak radioactive source is used.


Some terrorist organizations, such as al-Qa’ida, have openly stated their desire to acquire 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 crude nuclear weapon. The complete production of a nuclear weapon strongly depends on the terrorist group's access to special nuclear materials as well as engineering and scientific expertise. Certainly with recent nuclear proliferants among less stable countries, such as North Korea, the number of potential sources of an unsecured nuclear weapon or materials is challenging world-wide efforts to control and account for nuclear materials. 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 currently or formerly involved in a national nuclear program.

Dual-Use Materials, Equipment, Research, and Technologies of Concern

Reducing the risk of terrorist acquisition of, access to, and use of dual-use materials, equipment, research, and technologies remains a critical challenge. Terrorists have shown an interest in taking advantage of this trend when developing improvised devices. This challenge has only been compounded by the diffusion of dual-use information on the Internet and in academic venues. Attacks in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 involving improvised devices using chlorine cylinders, a dual-use chemical used in water treatment facilities, offered a notable example.

The United States maintains dual-use export controls based on its multilateral commitments in the export control regimes, but also maintains unilateral controls on a wide range of dual-use items predominantly for antiterrorism reasons. 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. Implementing the use of substitute materials in technologies is one way to limit the spread of sensitive materials around the world. For example, recent technological developments allow the use of low enriched uranium as a substitute for highly enriched uranium for production of the medical isotope Mo99.

In this era of commercial globalization, control of exports is not limited to national borders, but also extends to U.S. research universities, laboratories, and industry. The reduced domestic pool of qualified scientists and engineers has driven many U.S. companies, universities and laboratories to recruit foreign nationals in order to remain competitive. The employment of talented foreign science and engineering staff or students carries the risk of WMD technology transfers by way of deemed exports. A deemed export is the release of information pertaining to the design and manufacturing of dual-use technology or source code to a foreign national within the confines of the United States borders. In accordance with the Export Administration Regulations, several USG departments and agencies support a national effort to better control foreign access to sensitive dual-use technologies to prevent unauthorized transfers.


A state that directs WMD resources to terrorists, or one from which enabling resources are clandestinely diverted, poses a 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.


State sponsors of terrorism with WMD programs represent just one facet of the overall risk of WMD terrorism. The non-state entities they use to facilitate their WMD programs have emerged as a growing WMD proliferation threat in recent years that could eventually provide terrorists with access to materials and expertise that are particularly hard to acquire. 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. The facts surrounding this shipment revealed a transnational nuclear proliferation network reaching from Southeast Asia to Europe, developed by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. This network was making available sensitive technology and WMD-related materials to nations willing to pay. There is a serious risk that such non-state facilitators and their networks could provide their services to terrorist groups.

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 the development of extended proliferation networks that may facilitate 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.


Since September 11, 2001, the international community has made 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 United States announced the first National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. Through a variety of multinational initiatives such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the United States has taken a leadership role in reducing the threat of WMD reaching the hands of non-state actors and terrorists.

The Proliferation Security Initiative: Announced in 2003, the Proliferation Security Initiative 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, its delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern worldwide. The PSI relies on voluntary actions by states, using existing legal authorities, national and international, to put an end to WMD-related trafficking. PSI partners take steps to strengthen those legal authorities as necessary. States that wish to participate in the PSI are asked to endorse its Statement of Interdiction Principles, which identifies specific measures participants commit to undertake for the interdiction of WMD and related materials. As of December 31, 2008, 94 states have endorsed the Statement. PSI participants conduct approximately seven exercises per year to improve their operational capabilities to conduct interdictions and meet periodically to share information and develop new operational concepts. The PSI has led to a number of important interdictions over the last five years and is an important tool in the overall U.S. strategy to combat WMD proliferation to state and non-state actors.

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT): President Bush and Russian Federation President Putin announced the GICNT on July 15, 2006 with the intention of expanding and accelerating the development of partnership capacity against one of the most serious threats to international security. The Global Initiative offers a comprehensive approach to strengthening all defensive layers necessary to prevent, protect against, and respond comprehensively to the nuclear terrorist threat.

By agreeing to the Global Initiative’s Statement of Principles, partner nations commit 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 and financial or economic resources to terrorists seeking to acquire or use nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances;
  • Ensure respective national legal and regulatory frameworks, which are 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 laws and international obligations to protect the confidentiality of any information which they exchange in confidence.

In the beginning of 2007, the partnership consisted of 13 nations; by the end of 2008, the partnership had grown to 75 partner nations representing all regions of the world.1 The IAEA and the EU also participate as observers. Partner nations created a Plan of Work, committing themselves to host or co-sponsor events in furtherance of the goals in the Statement of Principles.

In 2008, nine countries conducted 11 Plan of Work activities and three exercises, implementing all eight of the principles. Additionally, the co-chairs launched the Global Initiative Exercise Planning Group (EPG), which guides and supports the development of exercises and planning scenarios to enhance the capabilities of GICNT partners to accomplish the objectives described in the GICNT Statement of Principles. The Global Initiative continued to engage the private sector and local governments, both of which have an important role to play in preventing, protecting against, and responding to acts of nuclear terrorism.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI): The goal of GTRI, announced by the United States on May 26, 2004, in Vienna, Austria, is to identify, secure, remove, or facilitate the disposition, as quickly and expeditiously as possible, of vulnerable nuclear and radioactive materials and equipment around the world that pose a potential threat to the international community. International partners are key participants in this initiative, and GTRI has undertaken cooperative activities in over 90 countries. In particular, GTRI seeks to facilitate globally the reduction or elimination of the use of highly enriched uranium in civilian nuclear applications and to remove or protect other vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials at civilian sites worldwide. Specific activities include the conversion of reactors used for research, testing, and medical-isotope production from the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to low enriched uranium (LEU); repatriation of fresh and spent HEU fuel to its country of origin (the United States or Russian Federation); enhancement of physical protection at sites utilizing such materials; and removal of unwanted radiological sources and other nuclear materials not otherwise covered by the fuel-return programs.


Second Line of Defense (SLD): Under its Second Line of Defense (SLD) Program, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) cooperates with partner countries to provide radiation detection systems and associated training to enhance host nation capabilities to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking of special nuclear and other radiological materials across international borders. The SLD Program complements first line of defense threat reduction efforts which ensure that protections are in place to lock down and protect material at the source in civilian and military facilities. The second line of defense thus serves as a key component in a layered defense system, seeking to detect trafficking in material that may have been removed from these facilities as it is moved across international borders and through the maritime shipping network. The SLD Program includes two components: the Core Program and the Megaports Initiative. The Core Program focuses on providing equipment to land border crossings, feeder seaports, and international airports. This work originally began in Russia and has since expanded to include former Soviet states, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and other key areas. The Megaports Initiative began in 2003 and provides equipment to scan containerized cargo as it moves through the global maritime shipping network. In identifying ports of interest for engagement under the Megaports Initiative, DOE/NNSA considers a number of factors, including volume of containers and regional terrorist threat. To date, DOE/NNSA has completed deployments at over 230 sites around the world.

Global Threat Reduction (GTR): GTR programs aim to prevent proliferators and terrorists, anywhere in the world, from acquiring WMD expertise, materials and technology. GTR is actively engaged in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other regions that are vulnerable to proliferators or that harbor terrorists who have expressed an interest in acquiring WMD. GTR programs have expanded to meet these emerging WMD proliferation threats worldwide and focus on promoting biological, chemical, and nuclear security in those countries where there is a high risk of WMD terrorism or proliferation. The programs also engage and redirect former weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union, Iraq, and Libya. By engaging biological, chemical, and nuclear scientists, and helping them to secure dangerous pathogens, improve chemical security, and adopt nuclear safety best practices, GTR seeks to keep WMD and dual-use materials, technology and expertise away from proliferators and terrorists. GTR outreach has helped at-risk facilities deter attempted thefts of dangerous pathogens, and engaged WMD scientists worldwide, among other nonproliferation successes.

Additional U.S. Efforts Supporting a Global Layered Defense: The United States has also worked with partner nations through the UN and the IAEA to reduce the threat of WMD in the hands of terrorists. 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.

The Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (Nuclear Terrorism Convention) entered into force on July 7, 2007. On September 25, 2008, the Senate passed resolutions of advice and consent to ratification of the Nuclear Terrorism Convention to the Senate, the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the Protocol of 2005 to the Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, and the Protocol of 2005 to the Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf. Collectively, these treaties will enhance international cooperation with regard to the prevention of WMD terrorism and proliferation of WMD, as well as the investigation and prosecution of such acts.


The threat of terrorists acquiring and using WMD poses one of the greatest security challenges facing the United States and the international community today. During the past year, the USG 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.

1 The following countries are Global Initiative Current Partner Nations:

1. Afghanistan 26. Hungary 51. Panama
2. Albania 27. Iceland 52. Poland
3. Armenia 28. India 53. Portugal
4. Australia 29. Ireland 54. Republic of Korea
5. Austria 30. Israel 55. Republic of Macedonia
6. Bahrain 31. Italy 56. Romania
7. Belgium 32. Japan 57. Russian Federation
8. Bosnia 33. Jordan 58. Saudi Arabia
9. Bulgaria 34. Kazakhstan 59. Serbia
10. Cambodia 35. Kyrgyz Republic 60. Seychelles
11. Canada 36. Latvia 61. Slovakia
12. Cape Verde 37. Libya 62. Slovenia
13. Chile 38. Lithuania 63. Spain
14. China 39. Luxembourg 64. Sri Lanka
15. Cote d’Ivoire 40. Madagascar 65. Sweden
16. Croatia 41. Malta 66. Switzerland
17. Cyprus 42. Mauritius 67. Tajikistan
18. Czech Republic 43. Montenegro 68. Turkey
19. Denmark 44. Morocco 69. Turkmenistan
20. Estonia 45. Nepal 70. Ukraine
21. Finland 46. Netherlands 71. United Arab Emirates
22. France 47. New Zealand 72. United Kingdom
23. Georgia 48. Norway 73. United States
24. Germany 49. Pakistan 74. Uzbekistan
25. Greece 50. Palau 75. Zambia