Chapter 4: The Global Challenge of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism

Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
July 31, 2012

Nonproliferation efforts have been a top U.S. priority for decades, reducing the amount of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) material produced and stored by states, restricting the diversion of materials and expertise for illicit use, and preventing the trafficking of CBRN weapons and related material. Yet CBRN materials and expertise remain a significant terrorist threat based on: terrorists' stated intent to acquire and use these materials; the nature of injury and damage these weapons can inflict; the ease with which information on these topics now flows; and the dual-use nature of many relevant technologies and precursors, making them difficult to control. While efforts to secure CBRN material across the globe have been largely successful, the illicit trafficking of these materials persists, including instances involving highly enriched uranium in 2010 and 2011. These examples suggest that caches of dangerous material may exist on the black market and that we must complement our efforts to consolidate CBRN materials and secure facilities with broader efforts to detect, investigate, and secure CBRN materials that have fallen outside of proper control. We must remain vigilant if we hope to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining the means and methods for generating CBRN weapons.  

A number of international partnerships have either the explicit or the implicit purpose to combat the CBRN threat from terrorists. Organizations and initiatives concerned with chemical and biological weapons use international conventions and regulations to reduce stockpiles of material, regulate the acquisition of dual-use technology, and eliminate trade of specific goods. Nuclear and radiological initiatives and programs focus on promoting peaceful uses of nuclear material and energy, safeguarding against diversion, and countering the smuggling of radioactive and nuclear material. U. S. participation within, and contribution to these groups is vital to ensure our continued safety from the CBRN threat.

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): Announced in 2003, the PSI has increased international capability to address the challenges associated with interdicting Weapons of Mass Destruction, their related components, and their means of delivery. The PSI remains an important tool in the global effort to combat CBRN material transfers to both state and non-state actors of proliferation concern. As of December 31, 2011, 98 states have endorsed the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles, by which states commit to undertake specific actions to halt the trafficking of WMD and related materials. In 2011, the PSI countries engaged in the following activities:

  • The Department of State led Ship Boarding Agreement bilateral workshops with Mongolia, Colombia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines;
  • U.S. Africa Command sponsored maritime security Exercise Phoenix Express;
  • U.S. Southern Command sponsored Panama Canal security exercise PANAMAX;
  • U.S. Pacific Command sponsored Critical Capabilities and Practices (CCP) Workshop, a Regional Operational Experts Group (OEG) meeting in Hawaii, and a Global OEG meeting hosted by Germany in Berlin.

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT): The GICNT, which is co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is an international partnership of 83 nations and four official observer organizations dedicated to strengthening individual and collective capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to a nuclear terrorist event. Partners engage in multilateral activities and exercises designed to share best practices and lessons learned on a wide range of nuclear security and terrorism issues. To date, partners have conducted nearly 50 multilateral activities, and 7 senior-level meetings, in support of these nuclear security goals. In 2011, eight activities occurred to promote the sharing of best practices on the topics of nuclear forensics, nuclear detection, crisis messaging, and emergency preparedness and response.

Nuclear Trafficking Response Group (NTRG): The NTRG is an interagency group focused on coordinating the U.S. government response to incidents of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials overseas, including radiation alarms. The NTRG works with foreign governments, and the international facilities where diversions occurred, to secure smuggled nuclear material, prosecute those involved, and develop information on smuggling-related threats including potential links between smugglers and terrorists. The Department of State chairs the NTRG, which includes representatives from the nonproliferation, law enforcement, and intelligence communities.

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 relies upon bilateral partnerships to improve these capabilities and on donor partnerships for financial support. The NSOI has completed Joint Action Plans and developed anti-nuclear smuggling cooperative projects with nine countries, including completion of new joint action plans with Moldova and Slovakia. The NSOI has also developed donor partnerships with 12 countries and three international organizations

Preventing Nuclear Smuggling Program (PNSP): The U.S. Preventing Nuclear Smuggling Program (PNSP) works closely with the NSOI and other U.S. programs to address critical gaps in countries at risk for illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials. The PNSP looks for opportunities to leverage foreign funding, or for situations in which no other assistance is available, to improve partner capabilities to respond to nuclear smuggling. The PNSP leads a U.S. effort aimed at developing specialized counter nuclear smuggling teams for foreign partners that integrate layers of response expertise including law enforcement, intelligence, prosecution, and technical capabilities. To coordinate each layer of response expertise, PNSP helps partner countries develop and exercise national response plans.  The PNSP also works to promote international nuclear forensics cooperation, a priority identified in the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit Work Plan. 

Export Control and Related Border Security Program (EXBS): Through the EXBS Program, the Department of State leads the interagency effort to build independent capabilities to detect, deter, interdict, investigate, and prosecute illicit transfers of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), WMD-related items, and advanced conventional arms in over 60 countries. EXBS delivered over 500 training activities in 2011, promoting the adoption, implementation, and enforcement of comprehensive strategic trade controls. These trainings improve the capability of partner states to prevent transfers of dual-use items to end-users for purposes of proliferation or terrorism. EXBS is also actively involved in efforts to combat WMD smuggling through enhanced border security and has provided equipment and training to develop the ability to detect, deter, and interdict illicit smuggling of radioactive and nuclear materials, WMD components, and other weapons-related items at ports of entry and across borders. In 2010-11, EXBS conducted over 50 bilateral and regional training activities, and delivered detection and identification equipment to bolster border security in 35 countries. EXBS works in harmony with, and complements, the Department of Homeland Security Container Security Initiative, the Department of Energy International Nonproliferation Export Control Program, the Second Line of Defense Program, the Megaports Initiative, and other international donor assistance programs. EXBS programs improve the ability of partner nations to combat WMD proliferation threats and fulfill important U.S. and international commitments, including UN Security Council Resolution 1540, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

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 their capabilities to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking of special nuclear and radiological materials across international borders. The SLD Program provides mobile radiological detection equipment to selected countries for use at land borders and internal checkpoints and includes two components: the Core Program and the Megaports Initiative. The Core Program began with work in Russia, and has since expanded to include former Soviet states in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and other key regions, providing equipment for land border crossings, feeder seaports, and international airports.

Global Threat Reduction (GTR): GTR programs work to prevent terrorists from acquiring CBRN expertise, materials, and technology across the globe. By engaging scientists, technicians, and engineers with CBRN expertise, GTR seeks to prevent terrorist access to knowledge, materials, and technologies that could be used in a CBRN attack against the U.S. homeland. In 2011, GTR was actively engaged in front line countries including 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 proliferation.

Biological Weapons Convention Inter-Sessional Work Program: An agreement was reached at the December 2011 Five-Year Review Conference to restructure work for the next five years to include:

  • Standing agenda items on strengthening national implementation measures, which are critical to nonproliferation, promoting public health, and combating bioterrorism;
  • Identifying and responding to relevant developments in science and technology and steps to guard against the misuse of science; and
  • Promoting greater cooperation and assistance, particularly in countering and responding to outbreaks of infectious disease.  

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. While efforts to mitigate the consequences of the use of biological weapons are dealt with through other policy and strategic frameworks, federal agencies have developed detailed implementation plans and are actively coordinating efforts in support of the Strategy's seven key objectives:

  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