Global trends in cbrn terrorism: Implications for pathogen security Dr Robert Stagg

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Global trends in CBRN terrorism: Implications for pathogen security

  • Dr Robert Stagg

  • Department of Defence

The CBRN terrorism threat in context…

  • Terrorism is likely to remain the preferred tactic of non-state actors to violently address grievances

  • Most terrorist groups have and will probably remain ‘tactically conservative’

    • Explosives will continue to be the overwhelmingly preferred tactic
  • Some will continue to seek CBRN to

  • achieve tactical and/or strategic goals

    • Most organisations don’t start with CBRN but escalate
    • Potential to increase fear, attention and scale
    • Requires a degree of organisational learning
    • Acquisition of expertise and material


  • Mass casualties can be achieved without CBRN

    • 9/11 attacks killed 3000 people after hijacking four planes with box cutters
  • Most interest in CBRN is not for the purposes of causing mass casualties

    • Typically insurgents pursuing discreet and small-scale targets
  • But… CBRN attacks do represent one of the most viable ways for terrorists to inflict mass casualties

Who pursues CBRN?

  • Lone actors – with personal grievances and ready access to CBRN materials or expertise. eg 2001 ‘Amerithrax’ attacks

  • Insurgencies – where most CBRN activity is seen

    • A small proportion of insurgents invariably consider CBRN
    • Discreet targets, low scale, crude in nature
  • Religious cults - perpetrators of historical CB attacks

  • Terrorists with local grievances

    • Political, nationalist, religious, issue-motivated
    • Low-level interest in CBRN that is rarely put into practice
  • Violent global Jihadists (AQ and AQ-inspired)

    • Seek WMD-like CBRN capabilities
    • Prepared to invest time and resources in sophisticated effort

Crude vs. sophisticated

  • Crude

  • Extension of conventional tactics and goals

  • Often improvised or requires little preparation

  • Requires minimal expertise and uses readily available materials

  • Purchase or theft of off-the-shelf toxic chemicals or radiological material

  • Dispersal by IEDs, food supplies, conventional munitions

  • Expect low scale casualties

  • Sophisticated

  • Usually for the explicit purpose of causing mass casualties (civilian targets)

  • Requires access to specialised expertise – experienced scientists

  • Requires specialised materials – CW agents, BW agents, fissile material

  • Technical challenge of weaponisation (varying difficulty)

  • Time consuming and relatively heavy investment of resources

  • Potential to cause tens of thousands of casualties

Examples of crude CBR terrorism

  • Crude CBR devices incorporate readily available materials

    • Require little to no manipulation – cyanides, pesticides, chlorine…
    • Terrorists utilise existing expertise – recognition of additional fear factor, increased casualties & complication of the response process
    • Most cases use explosives to disseminate the CBR material
  • Chlorine IEDs in Iraq (AQI), acid IEDs in Thailand

  • Terrorists in Afghanistan continue to seek poisons

Comparative difficulty

Sophisticated CBRN over time

Rajneeshees: The first sophisticated CBRN terrorists (1984)

  • Religious cult who sought to win County elections (USA)

  • Aimed to incapacitate opposition voters

Aum Shinrikyo: The most sophisticated CBRN effort

  • A Japanese-based apocalyptic cult

  • > 10 000 members including dozens of scientists with post-graduate qualifications

  • Hundreds of millions of dollars of assets

  • WMD development was the centrepiece of the group’s goals

    • Investigated acquisition of fissile material
    • 1993 – commenced program to manufacture VX and sarin
    • 1994 – Tested sarin and VX on sheep in Australia
    • 1994 – Used sarin in assassination attempts – 7 killed
    • 1995 – Tokyo subway attack – sarin kills 12, thousands injured
    • Attempted anthrax attacks – but used vaccine strain

Afghanistan: AQ’s WMD efforts (1999 – 2001)

  • Commenced about 1999 but went unnoticed

    • Recruited multiple scientists and established multiple labs
  • Concentrated on traditional agents

  • Outreach to Jemaah Islamiyah to acquire ‘appropriate’ expertise

    • Recruitment of Yazid Sufaat – a U.S. trained biochemist - to isolate and culture Bacillus anthracis in a laboratory near Kandahar
    • Isolation almost certainly failed
  • Considered weaponisation

    • Interest in crop dusters for dissemination of agent
  • Disrupted by Coalition invasion

    • Removal of safe haven and key operatives
    • Without disruption, WMD efforts may have been successful

AQ post 2001

  • AQ have not realised WMD ambitions (yet)

  • Maintained intent (rhetoric), but what about in practice?

    • Have they had significant time/ space/ resources to achieve development of relatively sophisticated agents?
  • Possibility of ongoing highly compartmented projects

    • Increasingly difficult with CT efforts
  • AQ doctrine offers religious sanction, strategic preference and practical justification for using WMD and specifically CBRN

  • AQ has been able to influence elements of other groups with overlapping ideology

    • JI bombings against Western targets in Indonesia
  • Some groups susceptible to AQ’s influence have greater access to expertise and materials

Bioterrorism: The worst of a bad bunch

  • Bioterrorism probably represents a greater threat than chemical, radiological or nuclear terrorism

  • Compared to bioterrorism:

    • Radiological terrorism has lower potential to cause casualties
    • Nuclear terrorism is very unlikely to occur
    • Chemical terrorism has less potential to proliferate

What can bioterrorists achieve?

  • Disruption, annoyance, fear

    • White powder scares
  • Augment conventional attacks

    • Increase impact and complicate response to IED attack
  • Poisoning of food or water

    • Suitable for attacking a discreet group of people
    • But why not use chemicals? Incapacitate instead of kill?
  • Agricultural terrorism

    • Economically devastating
  • Mass casualties

Bioterrorism threat: a product of intent and capability…

  • ‘Low impact’ bioterrorism could meet the goals of many terrorist groups

    • Few groups have shown intent in the past
  • ‘High impact’ bioterrorism only meets the goals of very few groups

    • AQ and affiliates
    • ‘Lone scientist’
    • Apocalyptic cults
  • Capability of terrorist group

    • Financial & logistical resources
    • Knowledge/skill acquisition
    • Materials & technology acquisition
    • Production, weaponisation and delivery

Biological agents of concern

  • Agricultural diseases

    • eg Foot and Mouth Disease, wheat rust
    • Huge costs to a country’s economy
  • Human pathogens suitable for ‘low impact’ bioterrorism

    • Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli, influenza and other respiratory viruses, malaria, TB, HIV etc
    • Relatively low fatality rate
    • The Rajneeshee Salmonella attacks
  • Human pathogens suitable for ‘high impact’ bioterrorism

    • Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis, Clostridium botulinum…
    • Suitable for weaponisation (inhaled, environmentally hardy)
    • High fatality rate
    • No terrorist group has ever obtained a suitable strain

Terrorist interest in biological agents

  • Predominantly traditional biological warfare agents

    • Recognition of state development as weapons
    • Volume of reporting and experimental data on internet
    • Media coverage of agents eg AQIM & plague
    • Preparation by governments to respond to the threat
  • Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis, Clostridium botulinum, toxins including botulinum toxin, ricin, etc.

  • List of potential agents is almost endless

    • Particularly if mass casualties are not a priority
    • Selected agent will be influenced by availability & expertise

The science fiction side

  • Artificial manufacture of BW agents

    • Synthesis of smallpox virus
  • Genetically modified ‘super germs’

    • Interleukin or toxin expressing viruses
  • Theoretically possible and increasingly within the capabilities of states or elite researchers

  • Non-state actors have shown little to no interest

  • Non-state actors do not have the expertise or resources to attempt such efforts

    • Exception of ‘lone scientist’?

Successful tactics proliferate

  • Driven by media exposure and ease of information sharing

  • Chlorine IEDs in Iraq

    • Idea proliferated on the internet and in extremists circles
    • Has not resulted in proliferation of chlorine attacks
  • Consider bioterrorism

  • Expect that once acquired, a BW-suitable agent would proliferate

    • Highlights the importance of preventing initial acquisition (pathogen security)

Importance of biosecurity

Some thoughts on biosecurity

  • Traditionally, biosecurity has focused on containing the pathogen rather than securing the facility.

    • Some biosafety practices contribute to biosecurity
  • Biosecurity requires multiple different security layers that, when combined, dramatically reduce terrorist access to pathogens

    • Vetting of staff
    • Culture of responsibility
    • Controlled access to material
    • Improved facility security
    • Inventory control
    • Management of infectious material
  • Understanding where pathogens are housed

    • Importance of considering ‘small’ facilities

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