The CBRN Threat

Past, Present and Future

In recent years world leaders, news media and experts have warned of the global security threat from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) material and weapons. Last December, a bipartisan U.S. commission cautioned that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”1 In parallel with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is interesting to highlight the Cold War origins of many modern-day CBRN challenges. At the same time, this article explores how newer developments have been infusing additional complexity into the global CBRN threat landscape.2

From Cold War to the present: continuity and change


Quite a few states built up CBRN stockpiles during the Cold War, spurred on by arms races and the security logic of deterrence. Although a bipolar strategic stability did emerge, wherein many states joined one of two superpower alliance blocs led by the United States or the Soviet Union, there existed a palpable risk that war could break out leading to the catastrophic use of CBRN weapons. For example, in the nuclear area the superpowers prepared detailed plans for fighting and “winning” a nuclear war. Anxiety-filled episodes like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 Able Archer exercise underscored the danger. Despite the conclusion of Cold War-era agreements such as the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), new nuclear-armed states continued to appear — and biological and chemical arsenals proliferated. For their part, both the United States and the Soviet Union produced abundant quantities of biological and chemical weapons. Although nuclear arms were not used after the Second World War, states regularly professed their willingness to do so. As well, chemical weapons were deployed on multiple occasions with deadly results, such as during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Beyond the threat of deliberate use of CBRN weapons in a conflict, the Cold War threat extended to unintended CBRN mishaps. The fateful 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster was perhaps the most visible accident. Yet, this chapter of history was replete with technical and human failures related to CBRN weapons, delivery systems and laboratories which easily could have been more tragic.3 For example, the long list of Cold War nuclear weapons accidents includes four separate incidents between 1961 and 1962 in which 1.4-megaton U.S. thermonuclear weapons stationed in Italy were hit by lightning. In two of these cases, the weapons were partially armed when tritium-deuterium gas was released into the warhead core.4 Likewise, nuclear missile early-warning systems often malfunctioned, whereupon decision makers had just seconds or minutes to decide if an alert was genuine before launching a retaliatory counter-strike. Similarly, the threat of biological accidents is illustrated by an incident in 1979 at Sverdlovsk in which anthrax spores escaped into the air from a Soviet bio-weapons facility, killing dozens of people in the nearby area. Even though the end of the Cold War was a major turning point in history, some things haven’t changed that much. With regard to CBRN challenges to global security, many present-day problems are of Cold War vintage. While concerns have shifted from prospective CBRN conflict between dual superpowers to regional and non-state CBRN proliferators, the fact remains that just one true case of nuclear disarmament has occurred – in South Africa – meaning the risk of interstate nuclear war lingers. Meanwhile, nuclear arsenals remain on high alert status and vulnerable to hasty launch decision making and technical failure.5 In the biological and chemical areas, the lack of international verification under the BWC has allowed secret arms programs to endure whereas the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), although an important post-Cold War commitment by many states to chemical prohibition, has not been universally embraced. One significant CBRN peril which has grown thornier after the Cold War is the risk of non-state terrorist or criminal use.

Between 1993 and 2008, the IAEA has registered 1,562 confirmed incidents of illicit nuclear trafficking

Such danger is not without Cold War roots—for example, as early as 1986 an international task force conducted a study on preventing nuclear terrorism.6 Moreover, the vulnerability of Cold War-era CBRN material and scientific expertise has fed CBRN terrorism concerns. However, specific developments in the wake of the Cold War have amplified the complexity of the threat, especially at the dawn of the 21st century. First of all, the Soviet Union’s disintegration loosened controls over Soviet CBRN programmes, leading the international community to scramble to secure poorly guarded CBRN material and fund projects employing newly jobless former Soviet weapons scientists who possessed CBRN knowledge. Revealingly, this work remains unfinished today, opening up opportunities for terrorists or criminals to acquire CBRN material and expertise. Second, the globalization of technology in the post-Cold War world, facilitated by the Internet and compact digital storage and transfer, has played a role. The global nuclear black market network run by Pakistani metallurgist and nuclear bombmaker A.Q. Khan, publicly exposed in early 2004, is illustrative. Khan and his associates managed to transmit nuclear weapon blueprints and related technology around the world with the help of digital media such as CD-ROMs. The fact that Khan’s racket circumvented controls for years suggests that clandestine rings could also illicitly transfer advanced CBRN hardware or expertise to malicious non-state groups. Third, beyond the matter of technical wherewithal, experts have pointed to the emergence of “super-terrorists” willing to deploy CBRN weapons to achieve extremist ideological or religious objectives. Apocalyptic cults like Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway attacks with the chemical nerve agent sarin, exemplify a rising willingness by certain non-state groups to carry out mass casualty terrorist attacks. Just how formidable is the current terrorist and criminal CBRN threat? For certain, significant technical hurdles to potential mass-destruction CBRN terrorism exist. In most cases, terrorists will opt for more accessible conventional means. Furthermore, “CBRN weapons” encapsulates a wide variety of substances, lethality levels and technical requirements. For example, technical or other obstacles may lead a terrorist organization to use a less sophisticated “dirty bomb” (which spreads radioactive material using conventional explosives) rather than exploding a more advanced and deadlier fissile nuclear device. Finally, terrorist and criminal motivations and objectives vary widely; it is important to understand such distinctions and consider that not all organizations will approve of indiscriminate murder with CBRN weapons. Indeed, organized criminal groups likely value some socioeconomic stability, causing aversion to the economic and psychological disruption a CBRN attack could bring.7 Nevertheless, convincing evidence exists of terrorist capability and willingness to carry out CBRN strikes — a situation attributable to both the Cold War legacy and developments thereafter. Statistics compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) attest to the worldwide availability of nuclear and radiological material, crucial ingredients for nuclear or dirty bombs. Between 1993 and 2008, the IAEA has registered 1,562 confirmed incidents of illicit nuclear trafficking. Of these, approximately 65 percent of incidents of lost or stolen material involve material that has never been recovered.8 One study has also documented 27 incidents of terrorist possession of or interest in dangerous biological agents.9 Terrorist organizations like Aum Shinrikyo and al-Qaeda have tried to acquire or deploy biological agents. Specific incidents highlight the present-day CBRN terrorist danger. For example, in 1995, Chechen separatists hid a dirty bomb containing cesium-137 in Moscow’s Ismailovsky Park. Three years later, an explosive mine attached to radioactive material was discovered near a railway line outside Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. Fortunately, neither device was detonated. More recently, in 2001, 5 people died and 17 fell ill in the United States when the biological agent anthrax was mailed to government offices, newsrooms and post offices. The anthrax incidents were later attributed to a microbiologist working at a military laboratory, suggesting that insiders such as molecular biologists with access to equipment and pathogen strains pose a difficult challenge — especially were they to manifest sociopathic tendencies or offer their services to a terrorist group.

Emerging bio-threats

Scanning the horizon, the next technological revolution will likely be biological and could worsen some of the aforementioned problems. Synthetic and nano-biotechnologies promise great benefits but also bear potential for misuse. These intertwined technologies are poised to become the 21st century’s game-changing innovations.
Largely owing to the ongoing advancement of automated machines that can synthesize (or “write”) genetic material (DNA), synthetic biology will make it possible to engineer new or altered biological components and even entire microorganisms that do not exist in nature and perform specialized functions, such as the production of pharmaceuticals, the destruction of cancer cells, the remediation of pollutants and the generation of biofuels. For example, scientists have engineered the bacterium E. coli in order to synthesize the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which currently must be extracted from the Annual Wormwood plant at high cost. Because living cells are organized on the nanoscale, nano-biotechnology offers the insights and tools to transform biosystems while, on the other hand, taking inspiration and components from biological materials and principles to create new devices and systems. In medicine, nano-biotechnology is expected to provide new and improved systems for medical diagnostics, targeted drug delivery, as well as enhanced therapeutics and vaccines.
As with every new technology, however, predictable and unforeseeable risks for society are created, ranging from unintended harm to human health and the environment to deliberate misuse.10 Due to the “dual-use” problem, whereby the same CBRN materials and technologies can often be applied to either peaceful or weapons uses, many beneficial applications could be inverted for hostile purposes. The ability to destroy cancer-derived cells, for instance, also provides the basis for detrimental processes that kill healthy cells.
Scientists have shown that it is possible to build small viruses entirely from scratch, such as the polio virus or the influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, which killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. As progress in DNA synthesis technology accelerates, it will be possible to synthesize and “enhance” the properties of any virus whose DNA sequence is known or to engineer artificial pathogens. In addition, nano-biotechnology might provide the tools to enhance the virulence, environmental resistance and transmissibility of biological agents. All of this could lead to the development of new and more deadly bioweapons.
However, these disciplines are still in their infancy and the technical impediments are enormous, with the required know-how concentrated within a small scientific community. Regarding the synthesis of a known pathogenic virus, a number of experts believe it is presently much easier to obtain many of these from naturally occurring sources. As for synthesis of an entirely artificial pathogen, the technical challenges are even more daunting. With the current pace of developments, though, this could change within the next decade or two, which requires that the potential dangers are addressed early while allowing for unhindered development of beneficial applications.

Solutions needed

Even if modern-day CBRN perils can frequently be traced to the Cold War, the CBRN terrorist threat has evolved in recent years and requires 21st-century solutions. Terrorist and criminal CBRN attacks today remain of lower probability than conventional scenarios, but the potential for catastrophic effects calls for effective countermeasures. Unfortunately, multilateral agreements like the NPT and BWC were designed decades ago to regulate the activities of states, not non-state terrorists. Newer international efforts such as United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) and the 2005 Nuclear Terrorism Convention, both of which call on states to criminalize and enact controls to prevent harmful non-state CBRN activities, are moves in the right direction. But implementation has been neither universal nor comprehensive. Even more innovative policy solutions could be drawn up. For example, such measures might entail raising scientists’ awareness of the dual-use dilemma, reviewing experiments of concern and possibly restricting access to respective research results as well as greater harmonization of international oversight.
That being said, common sense dictates that policy makers should not lose sight of elemental priorities and plausible threats. There is need for better collection and analysis of information on the nature of CBRN risks, while stepped up international coordination would help synchronize approaches and resources. In addition, the likeliest dangers will stem from places where specific technical capabilities are within reach. For instance, in the nuclear area, this includes the risk of a dirty bomb or sabotage of a nuclear facility. In the bio area – one of high terrorist interest – it remains likely that terrorists will employ rather crude biological weapons for the foreseeable future. Yet, in view of the alleged architect of the 2001 anthrax attacks, decision makers might also do well to be “less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists.”11

*Andrew Prosser is Analyst and Sergio Bonin is Project Officer in the Security Governance/Counter-Terrorism Laboratory at UNICRI.

(1) Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (2008). World at Risk. New York: Vintage Books, p. xv.

(2) Chemical weapons kill or harm through the toxic properties of toxic chemicals or precursors (including blister, choking, blood or nerve agents). Biological weapons kill or harm through the dissemination of disease-causing organisms or toxins (including bacteria, viruses, fungi, prions and rickettsiae). Radiological weapons are devices which release harmful radioactive material. Nuclear weapons are devices which produce an uncontrolled release of nuclear energy as the result of a fission or fusion reaction.

(3) See Sagan, S. D. (1993). The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

(4) Hansen, C. (2000). The Oops List. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 56, no. 6, 64-67.

(5) See Blair, B. (2007). Primed and Ready. The Defense Monitor, vol. 36, no. 3, 1-5.

(6) International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism (1986). Report of the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Control Institute,

(7) See Laqueur, W. (1996). Postmodern Terrorism. Foreign Affairs, vol. 75, no. 5, 24-36.

(8) IAEA (2009). Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) Factsheet. Vienna: IAEA, http://www-ns.iaea. org/downloads/security/itdb-fact-sheet-2009.pdf. Such material often originates in the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

(9) Carus, W. S. (2001). Bioterrorism and Biocrimes: The Illicit Use of Biological Agents Since 1900. Washington, D.C.: Center for Counterproliferation Research.

(10) For more on the risks of synthetic biology, see Tucker, J. B., and R. A. Zilinskas (2006). The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology. The New Atlantis, Spring, 25-45.

(11) Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (2008). World at Risk. New York: Vintage Books, p. 11.