The Evolving Chemical/Biological Terrorism Threat

by Ashley Frohwein

On 1 January 2017, British Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace warned that the Islamic State group (IS) has no moral qualms about carrying out a mass casualty attack with chemical weapons in Britain, and pointed to a December 2016 Europol report warning that IS may use chemical and biological (CB) weapons against European targets. The threat is growing.

Ashley Frohwein headshotAs stated in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2017 President’s Budget Submission, CB threats are constantly expanding; the rapid advancement of CB capabilities, as well as their global proliferation, “greatly extends the spectrum of plausible actors, agents, concepts of use, and targets.” In the past, many counterterrorism experts discounted the likelihood of CB attacks against Western targets by terrorist groups because many of these armaments tended to be expensive, hard to acquire, and difficult to weaponize and deploy. All this has changed. This article addresses a number of recent developments that have broadened the range of CB terrorism threats and made it easier for terrorists to obtain CB weapons. These developments suggest that the terrorist CB threat against the West – including both Europe and the U.S. homeland – is growing.

There is ample evidence that IS seeks to increase its CB capabilities. In November 2015, U.S. and Iraqi intelligence officials warned that IS had established – with the help of scientists from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Mideast – a branch to aggressively develop chemical weapons. Iraqi intelligence reports have alleged that IS also has a biological weapons development program. Although IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate has shrunk considerably since the onset of the U.S.-led campaign against the group in Iraq and Syria, the group will continue to have a relatively safe haven to develop and gain experience with CB weapons so long as it continues to control territory. Also, IS’s increased presence in the United States – the Federal Bureau of Investigation has investigated IS suspects in all 50 U.S. states – and other Western countries has created more opportunities for the group to smuggle CB weapons and plot and launch attacks with them in the West.

The Chemical Threat

Chemical weapons, unlike nuclear, biological, and radiological ones, have already been used by terrorist organizations. The Aum Shinrikyo Japanese doomsday cult successfully used sarin in five coordinated attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. From late 2006 through mid-2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq employed crude chlorine bombs. That group’s successor, IS, has made extensive use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, where it has gained experience developing, as well as commandeering, these weapons and has acquired tactical understanding of how to deploy them.

In late 2015, IS claimed that it seized weapons-grade chemicals from Syrian government stockpiles, although U.S. defense and intelligence officials expressed skepticism that these weapons were acquired from the Assad regime. Regardless of the validity of IS’s claim, the Syrian government’s failure to declare all elements of its chemical weapons program and to have them removed in accordance with the deal brokered by the United States and Russia in 2013 means that IS could potentially acquire these weapons as the chaotic Syrian civil war continues.

Even as IS’s increasing use of chemical warfare became undeniable, commentators emphasized that the group had employed only rudimentary commercially available chemicals, such as chlorine and the agricultural fumigant phosphine, rather than more complex and deadlier ones. But as senior U.S. intelligence officials stated in early 2016, IS has somehow acquired and used the blister agent sulfur mustard, which has no use other than in chemical warfare, in Syria and Iraq. It is unclear whether IS manufactured the agent themselves, or if the group obtained it from undeclared stocks in Syria. Either way, IS’s possession and use of sulfur mustard demonstrates that the group’s offensive chemical capabilities have grown.

Beyond IS’s chemical warfare experience, two broader factors also indicate that the terrorist chemical weapon threat, from IS as well as other terrorist groups, is rising. The first is the rapidly increasing growth and sophistication of the worldwide chemical industry, including the development of a greater number of dual-use materials – that is, materials that can be used for both commercial applications and WMDs – which is partly driven by the emergence of nanotechnology. Terrorists were previously able to use various toxic industrial chemicals and other commonly available chemical agents to create chemical weapons, but they now have a far wider range of chemicals from which to choose. The other broad factor is the increasing online availability of materials and recipes for manufacturing various threats, including chemical weapons. This online availability of CB know-how, coupled with the recent proliferation of encrypted communications technologies, makes it easier for hostile actors to acquire this information while simultaneously complicating law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ efforts to interdict and disrupt these threats.

The Evolving Chemical/Biological Terrorism Threat

The Biological Threat

Terrorist groups have long sought to acquire biological weapons. For example, al-Qaeda began pursuing biological weapons in the early 1990s, when the organization was still small and located in the Sudan. However, as noted by the authors of a late-2015 report by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reforms Needed to Optimize Efforts, the threat from biological weapons is “real and growing.” This threat is growing partly because it now takes far less time to develop some biological weapons and because “it is reasonable to believe that what the United States could accomplish more than 40 years ago, [individuals] can accomplish now.”

Scientific and technological advances, some of which improve abilities to prevent and cure deadly diseases, also make it more feasible for states and non-state actors to develop biological weapons. One such advance is genome editing, a way of making specific changes to the DNA of a cell or organism. Genome editing has the potential to fundamentally change mankind’s ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases. However, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2016, genome-editing research conducted by countries with regulatory or ethical standards different from those of Western countries likely increases the risk that potentially harmful biological agents or products will be created. Relatedly, the recent proliferation of commercially available genome-editing kits – some of which sell for less than $200 and are advertised as being appropriate for users with “zero experience with biotechnology” – makes it easier for individuals to cheaply, quickly, and independently develop dangerous pathogens.

The recent growth in the number of medical research facilities, both in the United States and abroad, authorized to possess lethal biological pathogens or toxins heightens the risk that terrorists, or hostile actors willing to sell these substances to them, could steal these biological agents. In December 2016, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel (mentioned above) released a follow-on report, Biodefense Indicators: One Year Later, Events Outpacing Federal Efforts to Defend the Nation. In it, the authors noted that, despite biocontainment advances, the accidental release of pathogens from laboratories is an ongoing threat because laboratory safety remains inadequate. The United States’ highest-level laboratories continue to release organisms accidentally, they noted. Additionally, as the U.S. State Department has noted, many international laboratories that possess dangerous pathogens are often inadequately secured.

CB threats present unique challenges for intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and first responders. As terrorists’ CB capabilities continue to grow and evolve, so too must the approach to preventing, protecting against, and responding to them.

Ashley Frohwein is a senior research specialist in CNA’s Safety and Security Division. His research interests include counterterrorism and state- and national-level homeland security preparedness assessment. CNA is a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of CNA or any of its sponsors.