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

Bureau of Counterterrorism



Preventing proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons has been a top U.S. national security priority for decades. The past decade has seen a growing recognition that we must also be vigilant in preventing terrorist groups from obtaining the means and methods to develop and/or deploy CBRN weapons. Thus, our strategic counterterrorism posture is strengthened by counter- and nonproliferation programs that aim to reduce or eliminate CBRN material produced and stored by states; restrict the diversion of materials and expertise for illicit use; and prevent the trafficking of CBRN weapons and related material.

While efforts to secure CBRN material across the globe have been largely successful, the illicit trafficking of these materials persists. CBRN materials and expertise remain a terrorist threat as demonstrated by 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 material.

A number of international partnerships have either the explicit or the implicit purpose of countering the CBRN threat from terrorists and other non-state actors. Organizations and initiatives concerned with chemical and biological weapons use international conventions and regulations to reduce or eliminate stockpiles of material, regulate the acquisition of dual-use technology, and regulate trade of specific goods. International nuclear and radiological initiatives and programs focus on promoting peaceful uses of nuclear material and technology, safeguarding materials and expertise against diversion, and countering the smuggling of radioactive and nuclear material. The United States routinely provides technical and financial assistance and training to partner nations to help strengthen their abilities to adequately protect and secure CBRN-applicable expertise, technologies, and material. U.S. participation within, and contribution to these groups, is vital to ensuring our continued safety from the CBRN threat.

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): Launched in 2003, the PSI has increased international capability to address the challenges associated with stopping the trafficking of WMD, WMD-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, 2014, 104 states have endorsed the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles, by which states commit to take specific actions, consistent with national legal authorities and relevant international law and frameworks, to support efforts to halt the trafficking of WMD and related materials.

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 85 nations and four official observers 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 over 70 multilateral activities and eight senior-level plenary meetings in support of these nuclear security goals. In 2014, there were nine multilateral activities to promote the sharing of best practices on the topics of nuclear forensics, nuclear detection, 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, including radiation alarms that occur in foreign countries. The NTRG works with foreign governments to secure smuggled nuclear material, prosecute those involved, and develop information on smuggling-related threats – including potential links between smugglers and terrorists. The U.S. Department of State chairs the NTRG, which includes representatives from the U.S. government’s nonproliferation, law enforcement, and intelligence communities.

Counter Nuclear Smuggling Program (CNSP): Securing dangerous radioactive and nuclear materials in illegal circulation before they reach the hands of terrorists or other malicious actors is critical to U.S. national security and that of U.S. allies. Using CNSP funds, the U.S. Department of State conducts outreach and programmatic activities with key governments to enhance their counter nuclear smuggling capabilities. Bilateral “Joint Action Plan” agreements developed and implemented with 13 partner governments identify strategies to improve the partners’ abilities to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear and radiological smuggling attempts. As part of these agreements, the United States commits to seek U.S. and foreign donor assistance to address needs outside the capacity of the partner nation. More than US $75 million in foreign donations have enabled implementation of Joint Action Plan-identified actions. Remaining needs may be addressed by specific CNSP-developed and -funded programs. The U.S. Department of State uses CNSP funds to facilitate, through workshops and engagement activities, integrating law enforcement, intelligence, and technical reach-back capabilities to counter nuclear smuggling. More broadly, WMDT’s CNSP programmatic support has enabled 17 partner nations to address goals that include enhancing nuclear smuggling response procedures, improving nuclear forensics capabilities, and enabling the successful prosecution of smugglers, while helping partners build cross-border and regional cooperation to counter nuclear smuggling.

Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) Program: Through the EXBS Program, the U.S. Department of State leads the interagency effort to strengthen export control systems by helping to build effective national strategic trade control and border security systems in countries that produce or supply strategic items as well as in key transit and transshipment hubs. EXBS works in over 65 partner countries to improve national capabilities to regulate trade in sensitive items and prevent irresponsible transfers that may contribute to proliferation; detect and interdict illicit trafficking in proliferation-sensitive items at and between ports of entry by targeting high-risk shipments; investigate and prosecute violations of strategic trade control laws and regulations; and build and sustain a community of policymakers and technical experts committed to meeting international nonproliferation obligations and implementing effective strategic trade controls.

In 2014, the EXBS Program oversaw over 260 bilateral, regional, and international activities, involving more than 80 countries to promote the adoption, implementation, and enforcement of comprehensive strategic trade controls. These activities improve the capability of partner countries to prevent the transfers of dual-use items and conventional weapons that contribute to proliferation, terrorism, or regional instability. EXBS is also actively involved in efforts to combat WMD smuggling through enhanced border security, and in 2014, provided 23 countries with state-of-the-art detection, inspection, and interdiction equipment and training to enhance the ability to detect, deter, and interdict illicit smuggling of radioactive and nuclear materials, WMD components, and other weapons-related items at air, land, sea, and rail borders.

EXBS works with and complements the DoD’s International Counter-Proliferation Program and Cooperative Threat Reduction Program; DHS’s Container Security Initiative, the Department of Energy’s International Nonproliferation Export Control Program (INECP) and the Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD) Program (formerly the Second Line of Defense Program); and the State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program and International Narcotics and Law Enforcement assistance programs, as well as other international donor assistance programs. The EXBS Program fulfills important U.S. and international commitments, helping partner countries fulfill their international obligations and commitments – including those related to UNSCR 1540 (2004) and adherence to the guidelines of multilateral export control regimes.

Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD): The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence Program (formerly known as Second Line of Defense) collaborates with partner countries to provide radiation detection systems, associated training and sustainability assistance to enhance their capacity to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking of special nuclear and other radioactive materials out of regulatory control. The NSDD Program assistance to partner countries’ national nuclear detection architecture is commensurate with the regional threat and country-specific infrastructure and, accordingly, can include deployments of fixed, mobile, and hand-held radiation detection technologies at land border crossings, airports, seaports, and tactical interior locations. NSDD coordinates its capacity building activities with other international nuclear security assistance entities such as the European Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Global Threat Reduction (GTR): GTR program activities aim to prevent terrorists from acquiring CBRN expertise, materials, and technology, focusing primarily in countries where there is a high threat of CBRN proliferation or WMD terrorism. By engaging scientists, technicians, and engineers with CBRN expertise and securing related material and infrastructure, GTR seeks to deny terrorist access to the knowledge, materials, and technologies that could be used in a CBRN attack against the U.S. homeland and assets abroad. In 2014, GTR was actively engaged in countries and regions at high risk of proliferation and terrorism, adapting as necessary to meet emerging CBRN threats.

Biological Weapons Convention Inter-Sessional Work Program (BWC): The December 2011 BWC Review Conference adopted a program of work aimed at strengthening international capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to the proliferation or use of biological weapons, whether by state or non-state actors. In 2014, the United States continued efforts in this forum to: acquire better information about BWC states’ implementing measures, and enhance such measures, which criminalize and help deter malicious use of biological agents; promote sustainable, effective approaches to laboratory biosecurity; raise international awareness of the need for appropriate, balanced oversight of dual-use life science research with significant potential for harm; and identify and address impediments to international coordination and response in the event of a bioterrorism attack or a significant disease outbreak of unknown origin.