How real is CBRN/WMD threat from terrorist groups?

By Pramod Raj Sedhain.



Widespread global terrorism threat has become multidimensional in recent times. Conventional terrorism has been a nightmare scenario since they take control of the ground from various nations. Modern terrorist groups are unlikely to follow the traditional groups of the 20th century.

Terrorist groups have been trying to use and obtain various modern tools. Assumptions are that global terrorist groups’ obtaining of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has been gradually becoming reality since they have been holding the grounds in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Acquiring WMD weapons has been Al Qaeda’s and Islamic State’s (IS) top priority. This motivation is an alarming sign for every country. The key concern now is how intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies thwart terrorist groups’ ambitious goals. Easy availability of modern multi-purpose technology could go to the wrong hands and could lead to potential making of dirty bomb, which has been considered as a major challenge in the new century. The U.S. has been taking active initiatives after the devastating 9/11 Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Last year, an EU report alarmed high possible of IS ‘dirty-bomb’ attacks against the West. Some of the E.U. nations, especially France, Germany and Belgium are still alert with the contingency plans for possible terrorist WMD attacks. ISIS has used mustard and chlorine gases in Iraq and Syria several times. IHS Markit report indicated that IS has used chemical agents more than 52 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Al Qaeda’s top leadership has continued seeking to acquire CBRN or WMD. Islamic State (IS) has been able to gain deadly toxins stockpiled in Syria and Iraq has been a greater concern for western intelligence agencies. In 1998, Laden himself had mentioned his desire to acquire WMD. The then Deputy, now chief Ayman Zawahiri, highlighted his vision to obtain WMD from former Soviet scientists in Central Asia in December 2001. Al-Qaeda officially declared terrorist network goals to kill millions of Americans by WMD in 2002. Their intense preparation to gain or obtain WMD still exists through manufacturing, buying, stolen via their affiliates, sympathizers, traffickers, middlemen or simply through any means.

The realizing the possibility of less likely to conduct another 9/11 style major terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Al-Qaeda has been planning various terrorists plots including the use of WMD. The U.S. intelligence and security agencies have continued to thwart Al-Qaeda orchestrated several large scale terrorist attacks since 9/11. Al-Qaeda could prepare or intensify its efforts to acquire WMD for mass casualties after series of failed coordinated terrorist plots in the U.S. soils. They have been making efforts to acquire these deadly materials from former experts from former Soviet Union countries, Libya, Syria or Pakistan.

Global terrorist groups had received some chemical agents from captured Syrian regime army bases. Chlorine and sarin gas, which was stored in regime barracks later went in the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front (currently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) and IS hands. Former extremist militants claimed seizing of barrels filled with chlorine, sarin, and mustard gas.

After the Syrian regime’s deadly Chemical attack on August 2013, the U.S. declared military response holding the regime accountable but the Russian proposal to surrender control over regime chemical weapons changed the diplomatic resolve. Effectively removal of the chemical weapons remain unclear which could go to wrong hands.

IS has been able to seize Iraq’s various chemical agent’s sources as well as former dictator Saddam Hussein’s WMD experts. Notably, IS seized sulfuric compounds from chemical factory in Mishraq, Iraq as well other chemical sources. Thought these materials were not direct chemical weapons, they could be potentially dangerous in terrorist purposes. Since then, the U.S. has paid close attention to eliminate new weapons of mass destruction programs threat from IS terrorist group.

Successful targeted killing of Hussein’s Muthana chemical weapon factory expert Abu Malik (Salih Jasim Muhammed Falah al-Sabawi) on January 30, 2015 limited the group’s ability to obtain dangerous weapons. His past experience and expertise has been seen as a threat that he could provide training to IS to produce a chemical weapons capability.

US captured the IS’s WMD mastermind Sleiman Daoud al-Afari from Badoosh near Mosul in February 2016. The U.S. foiled IS’s various plots to procure biological and radiological weapons before reaching its goals either by airstrikes on facilities or targeted killing on involvements. Despite all these, the group still possesses crude WMD materials. The U.S. continued covert sabotage efforts forced IS attempts goal incapacitated but their motive still remains undeterred.

Fortunately, terrorist group’s full technical ability to develop WMD has been extremely limited. However, they could entice, penetrate or even infiltrate former Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian or Libyan scientists and experts to obtain these weapons. Foiled IS plan to attack on France’s and Belgium’s nuclear power plants were an alarming sign, which still requires vigilance against such possible plans. Terrorist group Al-Qaeda has been aiming to acquire WMD since 1990’s. Global terrorist groups are making efforts to obtain dirty bomb for catastrophic attacks against western nuclear plants.

Terrorist groups’ motive has been clear. They simply want mass-casualty in Western homeland anyways. Therefore, these groups are still determined to acquire such weapons. Terrorist intentions to use these weapons will be real and dangerous not only to the civilians but is equally dangerous to economy and ecology.

Therefore, the counter terrorism forces must realize the escalating danger and should learn lessons learn from Pakistani A.Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling network. Western countries were under dark about Khan’s nuclear smuggling network for nearly 2 decades. Some rogue states still threaten global security and stability which could have a serious financial problem and even engage trade for illicit nuclear fissile materials for hard-currency. If such a deal is made through illegal means or reach to any person running Khan-style smuggling, this could go to wrong hands, this will have a bitter and unfortunate consequences.  

The scale of CBRN threat from global terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and Islamic State is real. Terrorist’s wisdom must not be underestimated at any cost. Counter terrorism efforts still require pro-active approaches against such loose-operating terrorist groups. Western intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies are yet to acquire success in preventing such materials from going to the wrong hands.

Modern global terrorist circumstance has been unpredictable which needs to pay greater attention over alarming terrorist groups multidimensional threats, trends and tactics. Without making an effective surveillance, the former Iraqi, Syrian, Libya, Pakistan nuclear factory experts’ catastrophic consequences could happen anytime. Such incidences cannot be ruled out. Terrorist’s plans remain in dark, however, it is prerequisite to go for a systematic tracking on proliferation networks.


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