The Global Challenge of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
August 18, 2011


Chemical. Preventing chemical terrorism is particularly challenging since terrorists can use toxic industrial chemicals and other commonly available chemical agents and materials as low-cost alternatives to traditional chemical weapons and delivery systems. Today’s chemical terrorism threat ranges from the potential acquisition and dissemination of chemical warfare agents with military delivery systems to the production and use of toxic industrial chemicals or improvised dissemination systems for chemical agents. The growth and sophistication of the worldwide chemical industry, including the development of complex synthetic and dual-use materials, makes the task of preventing and protecting against this threat more difficult.

Biological. Bioterrorism involves the deliberate dispersal of pathogens (viruses, fungi, and bacteria) through inhalation, ingestion, injection vectors to cause disease. Even though the necessary technical skills are not beyond the expertise of motivated scientists with university-level training, developing a mass-casualty bioterrorism capability presents some scientific and operational challenges. International laboratories that store and work with dangerous pathogens are often not adequately secured. Moreover, many Select Agent pathogens, such as anthrax, are widely available in nature. Equipment suitable for cultivating and disseminating such materials is almost entirely dual-use and is widely employed for legitimate purposes.

Radiological. Radioactive materials are used widely in industrial, medical, and research applications. They may be employed in 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 for deployment in a radiological dispersal device (RDD), often referred to as a “dirty bomb,” than the fissile materials required for nuclear weapons.

Nuclear. 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 significant engineering and scientific expertise.

Dual Use Materials, Equipment, and Technologies. Dual-use materials, equipment, and technologies have legitimate commercial applications but may be used in the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and advanced conventional capabilities. Terrorists have shown an interest in acquiring sophisticated dual-use technologies to advance their own weapons programs and are taking advantage of the availability of such material and expertise and diverting it to illicit end-uses. As a result, reducing the risk of terrorist access to and exploitation of dual-use science remains a critical challenge.

The United States regulates export, re-export, transit, transshipment, and brokering of dual-use goods based on its international commitments in the multilateral export control regimes. The United States 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 governmental scientific communities, play an important role in mitigating the risk of dual-use capabilities falling into the wrong hands.

A state that directs CBRN resources to terrorists or does not secure dual-use resources poses a grave CBRN terrorism threat. Although terrorist organizations will continue to seek a CBRN capability independent of state programs, the sophisticated CBRN 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 continued scrutiny as potential facilitators of CBRN terrorism.

State sponsors of terrorism with CBRN programs represent just one facet of the overall risk of CBRN terrorism. The non-governmental entities (terrorist groups and smugglers) state sponsors use to facilitate their CBRN programs have emerged as a growing proliferation threat in recent years that could eventually provide terrorists with access to materials and expertise particularly hard to acquire.

The first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington, April 12-13, 2010. Forty-six nations were invited to participate; all accepted, and the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Commission also participated. The United States was very pleased with the outcome of the 2010 Summit, which helped develop a common understanding of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism and achieved broad political agreement on effective measures to secure nuclear material and prevent nuclear smuggling and nuclear terrorism. The Summit’s Joint Communiqué and detailed Work Plan articulate a common commitment among countries to evaluate the threat, improve security as conditions change, and continually exchange information, best practices, and practical security solutions.

Since September 11, 2001, the international community has made significant strides in responding to the threat of CBRN terrorism. States are working together bilaterally and multilaterally to address these threats and protect their populations. 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 (GICNT), the United States has taken a leadership role in reducing the threat of CBRN terrorism. Some of these efforts are focused on preventing threats from non-state actors and terrorists; others aim at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to states as well as non-state actors.

UN Security Council Resolution 1540: In 2004, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1540, which requires states to take measures to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including adopting and enforcing laws to prohibit the transfer of WMD and related materials to non-state actors. While the Resolution is legally binding on all UN Member States, universal compliance with the resolution has not yet been achieved. Several states lack the capacity to comply with the resolution’s requirements and need assistance to do so. The United States is one of the leading providers of such assistance. Several programs are in place to help countries develop their abilities to combat illicit trafficking in WMD and related materials. Other sources of assistance include other developed nations, international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and a variety of non-government organizations (NGOs).

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): Announced in 2003, the PSI has led to a number of important interdictions over the last eight years and is an important tool in the overall global effort to combat WMD proliferation to both state and non-state actors. In its eighth year, the PSI is a cooperative 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. The PSI relies on voluntary actions by states, using existing national and international legal authorities to put an end to WMD-related trafficking. PSI partners take steps to strengthen those legal authorities as necessary, share information, and cooperate on interdiction activities. States that wish to participate in the PSI endorse its Statement of Interdiction Principles, by which states commit to undertake specific actions to halt the trafficking of WMD and related materials. As of December 31, 2010, 98 states have endorsed the Statement. Each year, PSI endorsers conduct a series of activities, including exercises, workshops, and expert’s group meetings, to improve operational capabilities to conduct interdictions, share information, and develop new operational concepts.

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT): The GICNT, which is co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is a cross-cutting strategic framework of 82 partners and four observers who are determined to strengthen individual and global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to a nuclear terrorist event. These partners have endorsed a set of core nuclear security principles encompassing the full spectrum of deterrence, prevention, detection, and response objectives. Partners utilize multilateral activities and exercises to share best practices and lessons learned in order to strengthen individual and collective capacity to combat nuclear terrorism. To date, partners have conducted over 40 multilateral activities and six senior-level meetings in support of these nuclear security goals. Through these activities, partners have improved international understanding in emerging nuclear detection technologies, emergency response and preparedness practices, and anti-smuggling assistance programs. The Initiative is open to nations that share in its common goals and are committed to combating nuclear terrorism on a determined and systematic basis.

Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative (NSOI): The NSOI seeks to enhance partnerships with key countries around the world to strengthen capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to incidents of nuclear smuggling. It focuses on both bilateral partnerships to improve such capabilities and donor partnerships to support these improvements. In its bilateral partnerships, NSOI engages those countries seen to be most important to the global effort to combat smuggling of nuclear or highly radioactive materials. In its donor partnerships, NSOI engages those countries that have resources or expertise that can be provided to improve the capabilities of other countries. The NSOI team works with the governments of potential donor partners to identify their particular interests and assets for such assistance. NSOI has to date completed Joint Action Plans and developed anti-nuclear smuggling cooperative projects with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Armenia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has engaged several additional bilateral partners with whom it plans to complete such documents soon, and it plans to engage several more over the coming years. NSOI has also developed donor partnerships with ten countries and three international organizations and hopes to create more such partnerships over the coming years.

Export Control and Related Border Security Program (EXBS): The EXBS program is the U.S. government’s premier initiative to assist other countries in improving their strategic trade control systems. EXBS seeks to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, as well as destabilizing accumulations of advanced conventional weapons by helping to build effective national export control systems in countries that possess, produce, or supply strategic items as well as in countries through which such items are most likely to transit. EXBS is directed by the Office of Export Control Cooperation in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State (ISN/ECC), which also leads the U.S. government interagency working group that seeks to coordinate U.S. government nonproliferation export and border control assistance and ensure EXBS is harmonized with and complements the Department of Homeland Security’s Container Security Initiative, the Department of Energy’s Second Line of Defense Program, the Megaports Initiative, and other international donor assistance programs. EXBS programs improve partner countries’ capabilities to combat proliferation threats and fulfill their commitments as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and UNSCR 1540. EXBS currently has 23 Program Advisors stationed globally and is active in over 60 countries.

Second Line of Defense (SLD): Under its 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 partner nation capabilities to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking of special nuclear and other radiological materials across international borders. 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 regions. Mobile detection equipment is also provided to selected countries for use at land borders and internal checkpoints.

Global Threat Reduction (GTR): GTR programs work globally to prevent terrorists from acquiring CBRN expertise, materials, and technology. GTR is actively engaged in a variety of countries including the front line countries of Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. GTR programs have expanded to meet emerging CBRN proliferation threats worldwide and focus on promoting biological, chemical, and nuclear security in those countries where there is a high risk of CBRN terrorism or proliferation. The programs also engage scientists with WMD and WMD-applicable skills. By engaging biological, chemical, and nuclear, scientists with dual-use expertise, and helping to secure dual-use material, GTR seeks to keep CBRN and dual-use materials, technology, and expertise away from terrorists who would use these materials against the US homeland.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI): The goal of GTRI, announced by the United States on May 26, 2004, in Vienna, Austria, is to secure, remove, or facilitate the conversion of final arrangements for disposal of materials as expeditiously as possible, including nuclear and radioactive materials in civilian applications around the world that have been identified as vulnerable or posing a potential threat to the international community. GTRI focuses on minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium in research reactors and isotope-production processes around the world as well as protecting or removing unwanted or unused plutonium and high-activity radioactive sources. Approximately one hundred international partners cooperate with GTRI programs under this initiative.

Biological Weapons Convention Intersessional Work Program: In response to a proposal from the United States, the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 2002 embarked on a series of expert exchanges aimed at raising awareness, sharing best practices, and facilitating assistance on topics related to implementation of the BWC and reducing the threat of BW use, with a new emphasis on the terrorist threat. Work has included exchanges on national legislative and regulatory frameworks; laboratory biosecurity; outreach to promote responsible conduct by members of the scientific community; and investigation of and response to suspect attacks.

National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats: In November 2009, President Obama approved a new national strategy to provide greater policy cohesion and coordination for U.S. efforts to prevent state or non-state actors from acquiring or using biological weapons. (Efforts to mitigate the consequences of use are dealt with through other policy/strategy frameworks). Federal agencies have developed detailed implementation plans and are actively coordinating efforts in support of the Strategy’s seven key objectives, which are to:

1. Promote global health security
2. Reinforce norms of responsible/beneficent conduct
3. Obtain timely/accurate insight on current/emerging risks
4. Take reasonable steps to reduce potential for exploitation
5. Expand capability to disrupt, apprehend and attribute
6. Communicate effectively with all stakeholders
7. Transform international dialogue on biological threats