Essay – Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Understanding the Threat

Terrorism in itself is an invasive and feared act in the modern world. Throughout the evolution of terrorism, tactical innovations have been made by terrorist organizations to complete their goals more effectively. In recent years, terrorist organizations have shown interest in using weapons of mass destruction to incite fear in their adversaries, but the viability of this threat is not fully understood.

The purpose of this article is to analyze whether or not the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) by terrorists is a legitimate threat to national and international security. The first portion of this article will be dedicated to understanding what WMD terrorism is, and the differences between chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry. After a brief description of the constituents involved in WMD terrorism, this article will discuss whether or not WMD terrorism is the presumable future of terrorist strategy, or if preventative measures have the ability to halt such a progression. Next, this article will discuss prominent terrorist groups, and the likelihood of each group using WMD terrorism as a means of carrying out their goals. This portion of the article will look specifically at Islamic fundamentalist organizations like al Qaeda, right wing extremists like Anders Berivik, and religious cults like Aum Shinrikyo. After looking at these three prominent terrorist threats, this article will discuss the reality of the threat of WMD terrorism by looking at statements of world leaders like Barack Obama, as well as analyzing facts and figures relevant to the likelihood of terrorist use of WMDs researched by prominent political scientists in the field. This article will prove that although terrorist use of WMDs does not currently pose a significant threat to national and international security compared to other security threats. However, it is imperative that governments ensure that counter-terrorism measures are in place to ensure terrorist organizations do not obtain the capability to carry out attacks using WMDs.

In order to understand the magnitude of the threat of WMD terrorism, it is necessary to first define weapons of mass destruction. For the purpose of this article, weapons of mass destruction will consist of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. According to John Parachini in his article Putting WMD Terrorism into Perspective, the escalating violence used in terrorist attacks, such as al Qaeda’s use of explosives and suicide bombs to carry out their goals show that supporters of a movement are becoming increasingly willing to use more alternative tactics.[1] It is difficult to imagine more drastic means of terrorism than the use of high powered explosives; however, WMDs clearly fit the description. Whether it is chemical, biological, or nuclear, WMDs have the ability to effect large amounts of people at a varying cost to the perpetrators.

Chemical weapons are extremely lethal man made poisons that can be disseminated as a gas, liquid or aerosol, and can easily kill several hundred people in high population densities.[2] Chemical weapons can be easily acquired by non-state actors with moderate technical ability. Sizable amounts of chemical weapons that are capable of mass casualty attacks can be manufactured almost anywhere.[3] Moreover, the use of chemical weapons by a terrorist organization seems to be an apt next step in the escalation of terrorist violence over time. Next, biological weapons, which pose a similar threat by disseminating pathogenic organisms to cause illness or death in humans, are also accessible to terrorists because the effects can be mistaken for a natural contagion which is dispersed slowly which would allow for the perpetrator to vacate the scene, and responsibility could be difficult to assign.[4] Similar to chemical weapons, biological weapons also seem like a viable option for terrorist organizations with the funds and man-power to execute such an attack.

Both chemical and biological weaponry seem insignificant when compared to the potential use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons release a massive amount of energy through one of two types of nuclear reaction, which is very costly, and can only be produced by technologically advanced states.[5] To put it into perspective, Richard Falkenrath in his article Confronting Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism states;

“A first-generation fission weapon like those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – would have an explosive yield of around 10,000 tonnes of trinitrotoluene (TNT). In comparison, the Oklahoma City bomb of April 1995 was equal to about two tonnes of TNT – about 5,000 times less powerful than a small nuclear weapon. Depending on population density, weapon yield and the severity of subsequent fires, a nuclear-fission detonation in a city could kill over 100,000 people and devastate an area extending a kilometre or more from the epicentre.”[6]

Moreover, although the threat of such expensive and difficult to acquire material coming into the hands of terrorists seems extremely unlikely, it is possible to replicate the materials to fabricate improvised nuclear weapons,[7] which would be a much more likely endeavour for a terrorist organization seeking this form of WMD. Although it is difficult to predict the natural progression of terrorist violence, it seems as though the cost effective and non labour intensive manufacturing of chemical weapons would make a chemical weapons attack by a terrorist group the most likely next step in the progression of terrorist violence.

Now that it has been established that WMD terrorism can be classified by the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons by a terrorist organization to complete their goals, it is important to evaluate which terrorist groups are likely to employ this strategy. This article will look specifically at Islamic fundamentalists, right wing extremists, and religious cults; however, it is important to note that there is substantial variety within these broad categories. There are also several other types of terrorist organizations that do not fall into these categories that are as intimidating.

Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al Qaeda have captured the attention of the western world with their size and brutality in recent years. After constructing massive attacks against western capitalist ideology in New York City and London, they have become a very well known entity that could easily be referred to as the face of terrorism today. According to Bruce Hoffman in his article Terrorism and WMD some Preliminary Hypothesis, the growth of religious terrorism in recent years has been the driving force behind the lethality of modern terrorist attacks.[8] Although religious terrorism can account for many religious groups with fundamentalist terrorist sections, it is important to note that Islamic fundamentalism is certainly the largest and most notable of these types of terrorist groups.

Islamic fundamentalist groups, like al Qaeda, have exhibited an interest in fabricating a radiological weapon by obtaining materials on the Russian black market.[9] By obtaining and weaponizing radioactive materials, al Qaeda would essentially have what is known as a ‘dirty bomb’ that would fall into the category of a nuclear WMD.[10] In his article Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Serious is the Threat?, Andrew O’Neil states; “terrorist use of a radiological weapon could induce considerable panic among a target population by exploiting fears of radioactive poisoning…radiological weapons could impose significant financial costs on the target state and would be an ideal terrorist weapon in severely disrupting public health and safety among a target population”.[11] Based on O’Neil’s statement, it is clear that a fabricated nuclear bomb would deliver the desired effects that al Qaeda is looking for in an attack. The sovereignty of Western capitalist ideology took a major hit in al Qaeda’s past terror attacks on New York City and London; however, the deployment of a WMD by al Qaeda would be much more deadly and alarming than their previous attacks. Moreover, the fact that al Qaeda has explicitly expressed interest in obtaining the ingredients to produce a nuclear WMD makes the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack much more viable.

Although Islamic fundamentalist groups can have much support and access to funds, many of the most deadly terrorist attacks on Western soil in recent times have been carried out by right wing extremists. The most contemporary and notable case of right wing extremism can be seen in the attack on Oslo, Norway by Anders Breivik. Breivik, who was apparently working on behalf of the unknown right wing extremist terrorist group known as the ‘Knights Templar’, wrote a lengthy manifesto that explains his organizations desire to use WMDs in the future. According to Anders Breivik’s manifesto called A European Declaration of Independence, the Knights Templar franchise has cells already in the process of acquiring chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials.[12] Although Breivik and the Knights Templar organization are only one known group of right wing extremists, it is clear based on Breivik’s manifesto that in order to pursue their goals, right wing extremist groups are not opposed to the use of WMDs. Breivik goes on to state “Efforts must be made to employ precision WMD’s when fighting the cultural Marxist/multiculturalists regimes… Other types of WMDs (Biological/Chemical) must be considered as a realistic option as well.”[13] Moreover, the use of WMDs is on the agenda of right wing extremist groups, just as it is for Islamic fundamentalist groups, however, with the limited financial resources and presumably small population that modern right wing extremist groups have, it would be relatively difficult to obtain powerful WMDs. Terrorist groups of this nature would most likely seek chemical or biological weaponry that has the ability to kill a large number of people with very small amounts of material.[14] Because of the small nature of these groups, nuclear and radioactive weaponry would be less suitable than chemical or biological weapons.

The final group that this article will discuss as a terrorist organization that could potentially use WMDs to carry out their goals is religious cults. Religious cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, who in 1995 used the chemical weapon  ‘sarin’ to kill 5 and injure hundreds in the Tokyo subway system[15] clearly indicates that mass death and destruction is on the agenda of select religious cults. Members of dedicated religious cults like Aum Shinrikyo are extremely susceptible to cults of personality; therefore, cults of this nature do not vanish quickly. Aum Shinrikyo, for example, is still currently accepting members, organizing offices, and pursuing apocalyptic goals which make them a significant terrorist threat.[16] According to Kyle Olson in his article Aum Shinrikyo: Once and Future Threat, “The cult’s leader elected to pursue weapons of mass destruction and the violent overthrow of the established order”.[17] Furthermore, the use of chemical weapons by the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo clearly shows that religious cults with destructive goals are capable and inclined to use WMD terrorist tactics if they are available.

Notable terrorist groups, like al Qaeda, the Knights Templar, and Aum Shinrikyo clearly show a desire to obtain and use WMDs of a nuclear, chemical, or biological nature to complete their goals. However, although they may desire the use of WMDs, is it reasonable to assume they can acquire them? There are two prominent sides of the debate. Some believe that terrorists will come into possession of WMDs, as incentive for increased death tolls and mass causality attacks has become the standard. Others believe that it is unrealistic to assume terrorists groups will be able to develop and use anything that can be considered a massive threat to national and international security. In order to fully understand the likelihood of terrorist use of WMDs, one must first establish the likelihood of a terrorist attack of any nature occurring. According to John Mueller in his article A False Sense of Insecurity, for all of the attention that terrorism gets on an international scale, the chances of a terrorist attack effecting us individually is very unlikely, and the damaged caused by terrorist attacks is rather small in comparison to other security issues.[18] Mueller attempts to put this into perspective by stating; “Even with the September

11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts”.[19] Furthermore, the extremely low number of deaths caused by terrorist activity in a Western nation like the United States goes to show that there are much more dangerous security threats out there.

Although one cannot simply ignore the worldwide fixation on terrorism, regardless of how realistic the threat might be. The fact of the matter is that terrorist attacks do occur, and organizations like al Qaeda, the Knights Templar, and Aum Shinrikyo have expressed a desire to use WMD terrorism to advance their agenda’s, if they have not done so already. Next, it is important to understand the likelihood of terrorist organizations using WMDs in the future. The most difficult aspect of WMD terrorism is definitely the acquisition of the materials required for production. It is unlikely in the modern day that terrorist acquisition of the required materials to create a catastrophic WMD device would actually materialize. According to Paul de Armond in his article Right Wing Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction, the greatest barrier for terrorist use of WMDs is the difficulty to obtain sufficient quantities of the required material, as well as the deficiency of technical skills required for weapons of this calibre.[20] Although Armond’s statement that terrorist organizations lack the technical skills required to produce and use WMDs has been proven false by Aum Shinrikyo’s use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway attacks, it must be noted that it takes a collaboration of experts to just produce these highly specialized weapons, and most terrorist organizations do not have this type of expertise at their disposal. Armond’s initial statement that it is extremely difficult for non state actors to gather the required materials for a WMD is supported vastly by scholars in the field. According to O’Neil; “it remains very difficult for all but the most technologically advanced terrorist organizations to successfully weaponize nuclear material and chemical weapons and biological weapons agents for delivery against targets. This is particularly the case with respect to nuclear weapons, but also holds true for chemical and biological weapons.”[21] Moreover, it is not reasonable at this point in history to believe that terrorist use of WMDs is a massive threat to national and international security, as WMDs are extremely difficult to acquire and develop.

Terrorist use of WMDs has been proven an unlikely threat to national and international security; the likelihood of terrorist use of WMDs in the future is low, but not zero and future acts of WMD terrorism must not be considered impossible.[22] Further cooperation is required to ensure that materials used in WMDs are controlled and kept away from terrorist groups with destructive intentions. Scholars also propose the development of standardized methodologies for conducting thorough qualitative studies of terrorist groups that can yield indicators of a group’s or individuals future terrorist potential for various types of violence, and use of WMDs.[23] The destructive nature of WMDs makes it a very difficult threat to assess, as it is a low-probability, high-consequence threat, and a single act of WMD terrorism can have devastating effects of the targeted society.[24] Moreover, it is imperative that international nuclear non-proliferation, as well as comprehensive controls on dangerous substances be employed to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring WMDs or and dangerous materials required for their construction. Next, it is important to establish a framework to properly gauge terrorist threat levels, and the likelihood of each terrorist group employing a WMD strategy.

This article argues that although terrorist use of WMDs seems as though it is a logical next step in the inclining destructive nature of terrorist organization, use of WMDs is not an immediate threat because the necessary components for the creation of a highly effective WMDs are extremely difficult to acquire, and the technological skill required to weaponize these materials is scarce. The first portion of this article looked to define WMD terrorism by establishing ‘what is considered a WMD?’ After exploring the three most notable types of WMDs; nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, this article looked at three different types of terrorist organizations that have used, or have an expressed interest in using WMDs to complete their goals. It was found that Islamic fundamentalists, right wing extremists, and religious cults are all the most likely terrorist candidates for the use of WMDs, however, because of resources and limitations, chemical and biological weapons are much more likely to be used by these groups that nuclear weapons. After discussing the capabilities of each group, this article discussed the reality of the threat by looking at the unlikely nature of a terrorist attack effecting us on an individual level, as well as evaluating several scholars opinions that WMDs are too difficult to acquire and develop to be considered a massive threat to national and international security. In conclusion, this article established that although terrorist use of WMDs in the future is a very low possibility, it is not impossible; therefore, counter-terrorism measures from a policy and scholarly standpoint must be employed to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring WMDs or WMD materials.

By Andrew Majoran



[1] John Parachini, “Putting WMD Terrorism into Perspective” The Washington Quarterly 26(2003):4. 37.

[2] Richard Falkenrath, “Confronting Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Terrorism” Survival 40(1998):3. 47.

[3] Ibid, 47.

[4] Ibid, 46.

[5] Richard Falkenrath, “Confronting Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Terrorism” Survival 40(1998):3. 45.

[6] Ibid, 45.

[7] Ibid, 45.

[8] Bruce Hoffman, “Terrorism and WMD: Some Preliminary Hypothesis” The Nonproliferation Review 4(1997):3. 50.

[9] Andrew O’Neil, “Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Serious is the Threat?” Australian Journal of International Affairs 57(2003):1. 102.

[10] Andrew O’Neil, “Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Serious is the Threat?” Australian Journal of International Affairs 57(2003):1. 102.

[11] Ibid, 102.

[12] Anders Breivik, A European Declaration of Independence. (London: 2011). 1022.

[13] Ibid, 951.

[14] Ibid, 951.

[15] Kyle Olson, “Aum Shinrikyo: Once and Future Threat?” Emerging Infectious Diseases 5(1999):4. 513.

[16] Ibid, 516.

[17] Ibid, 515.

[18] John Mueller, “A False Sense of Insecurity: How Does the Risk of Terrorism Measure up Against Everyday Dangers?” Regulation 27(2004):3. 42.

[19] Ibid, 42.

[20] Paul de Armond, “Right Wing Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Motives, Strategies and Movements” Public Good Project (1999). 9.

[21] Andrew O’Neil, “Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Serious is the Threat?” Australian Journal of International Affairs 57(2003):1. 109.

[22] Richard Falkenrath, “Confronting Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Terrorism” Survival 40(1998):3. 45.

[23] Andrew Blum, editor, “The Forum: Nonstate Actors, Terrorism, and Weapons of Mass Destruction” International Studies Review 7(2005):1. 141.

[24] Richard Falkenrath, “Confronting Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Terrorism” Survival 40(1998):3. 44.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Europe, Middle East, North America

Subscribe & Connect

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: