The Threat of WMD Usage by Terrorists

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) is a former Soviet military term which was euphemistically used to denote nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It is now widely used, despite debate over its appropriateness, and its definition has broadened to include radiological weapons. (Bowman, 2002, pp. 4). Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive weapons are nowadays clubbed together under the acronym of CBRNE. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre the term WMD has however come to imply the following inherent characteristics in a weapons system:

Capability to cause massive casualties and physical destruction. ii. the casualties or devastation is indiscriminate by nature. iii. a technological or compositional make-up that is beyond conventional weapons. iv. usually falling into any one of the categories defined as nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological. (The Stanley Foundation, 2006) A worry that has persistently troubled the world at large is the possibility of the acquisition and deployment of WMDs by terrorist groups or rogue states.

The reported disappearance of ‘suitcase’ nuclear devices from the new states that have replaced the erstwhile USSR and the anthrax scare in the US just after the 9/11 attacks have added to the apprehensions. What needs to studied however is how realistic are these concerns of a WMD terrorist threat? Are terrorist attacks utilizing WMD actually as inevitable as they have been made out to be by a large section of the popular media?

This paper seeks to examine the feasibility of WMD threats with reference to the people or groups, the logistics and the technologies that would be involved in making the worst nightmare of the Twenty-first Century a reality. Changing Terrorist Profiles Let us take the human factor first. The approach, rationale and objectives of terrorist groups that are likely to be involved in WMD attacks would be a determining factor behind every such probable attack. Use of WMD as such has not been a very attractive proposition for any terrorist group.

It is a risky endeavor for them. WMD attacks would be uncertain in their effects and could carry the possibility of severe retaliation. There are other factors that have restricted terrorist groups from utilizing WMDs. Most terrorists have political goals and have traditional, ethnic, nationalist or ideological associations that are contra-indicative of use of WMDs. Terrorist organizations prefer more to draw attention than to reduce their support base. “Terrorists want lot of people watching, not lots of people dead” (Jenkins, 1988).

Moreover, even if the terrorist groups wanted to inflict a greater number of casualties or damage, conventional weapons could achieve the same or greater results in terms of casualties as has been demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks and the conventional bomb attack in Oklahoma City. However, reports of increasing terrorist interest in WMDs from dependable sources had led the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies to conduct a study on the terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) (Tucker, 2000).

The study found that the two common characteristics of groups which have used CBWs were lack of outside constituency and a sense of paranoia or grandiose. Religious millenarian groups, small terrorist cells and brutalized groups seeking revenge or destruction qualify for groups possessing these characteristics. These would make al-Qaeda and groups such as the Aum Shinrikyo potential WMD terrorists. Even if terrorist groups want to resort to the use of WMDs, it would not be a very easy proposition in terms of infrastructure and skill requirement for acquisition of raw materials, development and deployment.

Attempt to use nuclear weapons would pose the most formidable challenges to any terrorist group. The fear that security lapses at Russian nuclear facilities could facilitate acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists has proved to be largely unfounded (Kamp, 1999). Even if a terrorist group succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons it would face considerable problems in using or detonating them as strategic nuclear warheads are bulky and huge.

Tactical nuclear warheads, such as artillery projectiles, are much lighter and easier to conceal, but the are more often than not linked with Permissive Action Links (PALs) or other protective mechanisms designed to prevent accidental or unauthorized detonations which would be very difficult for terrorists to circumvent. Analyzing the Threat of Nuclear WMDs Developing or building a nuclear weapon would be comparatively far more difficult. Acquiring Sensitive Nuclear Material (SNM) such as Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) or Plutonium (Pu) would be considerable hurdle to surmount.

However, the risk of illicit access to weapons-grade plutonium stockpiled in Russia is a serious threat enough. But the mere availability of SNM would only be the first step. Other resources being available, the technologies and infrastructure required to develop a nuclear weapon is far too sophisticated and complicated for any terrorist group to muster even with state support. The examples of the failures of states like Iraq and Iran, with considerable resources and technology know how to develop the ‘bomb’ is proof enough.