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The chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threat: exaggeration of apocalypse soon?

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The Standing Advisory Committee on Commonwealth/State Cooperation for Protection Against Violence [SAC-PAV]


The University of Tasmania

GLOBALISING TERROR: Political Violence in the New Millennium


Exaggeration of Apocalypse soon?

Dr Francois Haut

University of Paris France


September ll, 2001 has relieved us of the need to sensitise the public to

emerging terrorist threats or developing theories regarding terrorist aims

and methods. One had been able to see the live reality of world chaos.

WTC and Pentagon actions were immediately followed by the discovery

of letters, each contain ing a little of anthrax germs killing, several

persons and revealing another type of threat many people doubted of,,

even if its origin isn't obvious.

If today's terrorism has been able to change its nature or origins,, it is also

able to change its tools,, adapting itself to more and more sophisticated

techniques,, according to their availability in the new world disorder.

Most alarming of these upgrading capabilities of terrorism,, and not

improbable today, is the use of so called weapons "of massive

destruction" - chemical, biological or nuclear or "NBC". If the use of such

weapons becomes a standard like hijacking,, various questions arise:

what are these weapons? What are the limits of their use? Woud they

really be used as mass destruction devices by terrorists?

An academic author,, Rodney Stark, gives us an interesting definition:

1 : RADS, BUGS, AND GAS: THE THREAT OF NBC TERRORISM, Thesis, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies Southwest Missouri State University, 14 May 1999, Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies

"NBC terrorism is the purposeful or threatened use of politically, socially, economically or religiously motivated violence via nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons conducted by a terrorist group, whereby the primary mechanism to influence the target is through the inducement of fear, anxiety, andlor destruction. "

We know that NBC terrorist threat exists. It is by nature

asymmetrical, even more than "classical" terrorim.

So, we have more than ever to try and understand this threat and figure the new rules it induces.


We will first analyse potential NBC risk.

NBC threat comes,, at least, from two different sides.

* First side, conventional attacks, like bombings,, could hit NBC


* Second side,, terrorist could use NBC "weapons" and it has already


A- Conventional attacks on NBC targets One knows these targets are quite weak,, even if their security has been significantly reinforced.

We remember Sevezo in the 70's. In 1984,, the catastrophe at Bhopal induced 2 500 dead following a problem which has occurred in a pesticide factory. The same year in Mexico City,, the explosion of liquid gas tanks induced 4248 dead.

Everyone has in mind the nuclear accident at Tchernobyl in 1986, that demonstrated the structural vulnerability of some reactors.

Terrorism was not the cause but these events show that our societies have many vulnerable targets.

What occurred by accident could happen voluntarily tomorrow. Let us remember that one hundred years ago,, it was necessary to enter each house to plunge a village in the darkness. Nowadays,, it is eno@ gh to destroy an electric generator.

Becoming more complex and more sophisticated,, our world is also more vulnerable to sabotage.

To date, terrorists' modus operandi have utilized predominantly conventional weapons.

Theses weapons, as explosives, could be used against plants,

nuclear for instance, according to Bruce Hoffmann2, to create hostage situations, blackmail, stealing of nuclear material,, or to destroy the facility and why not to blow it out to create a

Tchernobyi-iike situation. Oklahoma-City bombing illustrates what a truck bomb attack could do to a concrete building.

As one notes that today suicide operations are generalized with muslim fundamentalists,, involving not only poor and desperate people but educated ones,, accustomed to western way of life, this type of attack is even more concievable, with the huge effects one can guess.

B- NBC weapons and examples of use

a) Some "ammunitions" of NBC terrorism


In theory, nuclear terrorist ammunition range from ready-made weapons to components.

Pre-assembled nuclear weapons were alledgedly avaible from

2 Bruce Hoffman, "Terrorism in the United States and the Potential Threat to Nuclear Facilities," Rand, Santa

Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, January 1986.

former Soviet Union where massive stockpile is said to exist3.

Pre-assembled weapons could be "suitecase nukes" weighing less than 35Kg as welle as artillery projectiles.

But it's also said that one can build "home made" nuclear bombs: it's not so easy to manufacture because of the necessary raw materials and technology but this threat cannot be completly put aside.

In June of 1996, German authorities arrested a Slovak engineer on suspiscinon of smugling a 6.1 pounds of Uranium into Germany. In april 1997, Russian police arrested a group which tried to sell 11 pounds of Uranium-235 stolen from a production plant on Kazakstan. Not enough to manufacture a full scale nuclear bomb...

But the fissile material of non bomb grade could also be used directly4 with a fair amount of success: injuries, economical dusruption and a great amount of fear.

Aside immediate death, nuclear devices cause radiation exposure which is measured in RADS, or "Radiation Absorbed Doses". Short-term exposure to 1,000 RADs affects the central nervous system, inflict coma, convulsions, and death within days.

A level of 800 RADs induces diarrhea and vomiting, which in

3 : Thomas B. Cochran, Robert S. Norris, and Oleg A. Bukharin, Making the Russian Bomb: From Stalin to Yeitsin, Oxford: Westview Press, 1995.

4 :usually called a radiological dispersal device (RDD).

some instances can be confused with conventional shock. Recovery is unlikely and death occurs within three weeks of exposure. With 400 RADs exposure the victim will experience mouth ulcers, loss of teeth and hair, and immune deficiency; death can come after about 30 days. Survival is possible but unlikely. With exposures of 150 RADs or less the victim can recover with proper treatment after experiencing symptoms of nausea5

Chemical agents

Sarin: neurotoxic agent, invented by the German before the Second World War. Colourless to dark yellow liquid; sometimes a discrete odor of painting. Respiratory and cutaneous penetration. Immediate effects: tackles central nervous system, convulsions, paralysis of the respiratory centers, quick death. In theory (if used with the suitable aerosol), a coffee spoon of sarin can kill 10 000 people.

Soman: colourless to dark brown liquid, odor of camphor.

Tabun: colourless to dark brown liquid, odor of painting.

VX: invented by the American during the Fifties, odourless and colourless. Similar to the Sarin, but 300 times more toxic. Oily consistency. Mortal in a few minutes after convulsions and great sufferings. According to revelations made in 3uly 1998 to the British daily newspaper "The Independent" by General Wafiq

5 : John Norris and Will Fowler, NBC: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare on the Modern Battlefield,

Herndon, VA: Brassey's LTD, 1997.

AI-Sammara'f, former head of the Iraqi military information,, gas VX was

used on April 17 and 18,, 1988 against the Iranian Guards of the

Revolution during the battle of FAO, provoquing panic in their ranks.

Biological agents

Anthrax: very stable bacillus, used as weapon by the United States in the Fifties. Sores or blisters form on hands and forearms; non-specific chest cold symptoms followed by respiratory distress, fever, shock, or death. Death results from pneumonia,, systemic infection, and organ failure. In theory, 1 gram of spores of anthrax could kill out 50 to 80 million people. Possible vaccination; only known treatment: fast administration of massive quantities of antibiotic.

Botulinum: 1 to 12 hours incubation. First symptoms are drooping eyielids, dry mouth and throat,, difficulty of talking and swallowing, blurred and double vision. Paralysis resulting in asphyxia. Death occurs within 24 to 48 hours. In theory, under ideal dropping conditions, 35 g of Botulinum could kill 60 million people.

Ricin: biological toxin, very easy to produce. 6 000 times more toxic than cyanide; no known antidote. As fast as 5 minutes to 1 hour incubation; otherwise 1 to 12 hours. The likely symptoms are coughing,, tightness of the chest, difficulty breathing, nausea and muscle aches. This progresses to respiratory duress and death within 36 to 48 hours. This is the poison used in London in 1978, in the case known as "The Bulgarian umbrella".

Pulmonary plague: bacillus with strong capacity of contamination; respiratory tract; 2 at 6 days of incubation; high fever, headaches, general aches,, extreme weakness,, glandular swelling,, pneumonia,, hemorraghes in skin and mucous membranes possible, extreme lymph node pain. This disease only lasts for 1 to 2 days before death occurs.

Ebola fever,, Marburg fever, smallpox,, etc: correctly widespread, these exotic pathogenic agents can cause artificial epidemics,, in theory more lethal than a chemical or even a nuclear attack. In October 1992. during an epidemic of Ebola fever, some "chemists" of the Aum sect went to Zaire to collect strains of the virus for their apocalyptic program.

b) examples of actual use or attempts

A laboratory, in a safe house of the Red Army Fraction. in Paris, was found to have made quantities of botulinum toxin; it is believed that none was used.

The first confirmed case of use of chemical agents by terrorists is recent. In March 1995 several groups of the Aum sect spread in the subway of Tokyo with bags filled with gas sarin -6 or 7 liters,, approximately 30% pure. There were more than 5 500 injured and 12 death people.

When police carried out the systematic searching of the buildings of the sect, they found various biological agents and a great quantity of chemicals dedicated to the manufacture of sarin, but also of VX and mustard gas.

The attacks of confined surroundings were studied in many countries, of which France. The Paris metro was subject of a detailed analysis: what comes out is that one cannot dominate the flows of air circulating in the underground areas of the network. For example. if a terrorist spreads a radioactive substance using the ventilation network (easily accessible from the outside) or uses an aerosol to spray a chemical or biological substance inside the network, the contamination will be very quick. The only answer would be to stop the trains immediately and proceed to evacuation of all passengers.

Approximately 25 attempts of use of biological or chemical lethal agents are publicly known,, mostly simple threats with financial motivations rather than political serious attempts. This figure is thus a minimum which does not take into account the similar actions which were not revealed. The most worrying known cases were certainly the following:

- In 1972. in Chicago,, a right-wing extremist,.member of the Order of the Rising Sun, was arrested in possession of 35 to 40 kilograms of typhoid bacteria cultures with wich he planned to contaminate water tanks of the city, St Louis and other major Midwestern towns.

- In 1976,, letters were mysteriously sent to mayors of various American cities. The adhesive of their envelope contained mortal germs.

- In 1983,, an US police unit arrested two brothers in possession of about tens grams of lethal biological agents.

- In September 1984,, a sect contaminated salads in the restaurant of an Oregon village "to influence the result of a local election"; 751 people suffered salmonella.

- the routine of laboratories can sometimes contribute to the diversion of microbe cultures. In September 1984,, a bulb containing a culture of tetanus was thus defrosted and sent through the mail in the suburbs of New York.

- In 1989 an American scientific team showed that a fly of Mediterranean origin whose larva develops in orchard fruits, had been voluntarily introduced into various places of California. The mayor of Los Angeles and some newspapers recieved a letter in which a group asserted this act to express its opposition to Californian husbandries.

- In January 1994, the British "Animal Liberation Front" sent by the mail various envelopes containing the remains of syringes infected by HIV virus.

In March 1995, four members of the "Minnesota Patriots Council". Douglas Baker. Richard Oeirich, Dennis Henderson and Leroy Wheeler, were convicted of conspiracy charges under the "Biological Weapons Antiterrorism Act" of 1989 for planing to use Ricin against Federal Agents.

The same year, the preparation of an attack by neurotoxic agents in

Disneyland was stopped by the police.

- In May 1997,, the British police stopped five Islamists related to

the GIA in possession of the formula of the sarin and various

products used for its manufacture.

- In 1998, there were threats - real or false? - of contamination by

anthrax spores of items bought in Great Britain.

- The first example of nuclear terrorism in the post-Cold War era

occurred in November 1995 when Chechen rebels placed a

package of radioactive material in a Moscow park. Chechen

separatists placed a box containing some 30 pounds of

Cesium1376 at the entrance of the park. The perpetrators

omitted explosives that,, if used to detonate the box, would have

spread radioactive material throughout the park, contaminating

the blast area for some time.

6 Cesium-1 37 is a radioactive material that causes cancer and other severe health problems when it comes into

contact with human skin, is ingested, or is inhaied.


Then one must know the limits of the threat: terrorists cannot use the

NBC means the same ways States could.

First,, they need to acquire these weapons and,, Second they may

have technical difficulties to use them.

A- Obtaining limits

These weapons can theoretically be obtained from States but some of them could also be manufactured by the terrorists

a) From countries alledgedly manufacturing NBC weapons

If some States may have an NBC arsenal,, it's not likely that they would share it with terrorist groups they do not control. And, as we know nowdays,, State sponsored terrorism is almost inexistant, at least for large scale action in Western world

b) Self-Manufacture

But lessons learned form Afghanistan show that some groups could try and manufacture some of these weapons. Biological warfare agents are, for the most part,, inexpensive and readily obtainable,, and ""cookbook' approaches are readily available.One such book is Silent Death, by an author who calls himself Uncle Fester7. Other titles from the same publisher include "The Poisoner"s Handbook" and "Crimes Involving Poisons".

7: Loompanics Unlimited, 1989

As we noticed earlier, nuclear devices are slightly more difficult to produce even if some handbooks exist like the "Poor Man's nuclear bomb"8 .

B- Limits of the use of NBC weapons for terrorist purposes (technical limits)

The theoretical effects allotted to NBC agents should not be extrapolated into reality due to some existing stabilizing factors, for example:

- the spreading or dispersion method;

- the purity,, the volatility of the products.

The low number of victims in Tokyo metro attack is due to the wrong choice of dissemination method. There were only vapors of sarin and not pulverization by the means of an aerosol, which would have resulted much more lethal.

The rescue teams worked very quickly and the system of ventilation of the subway of Tokyo is particularly efficient compared to Paris. A similar attack in Paris subway would turn out with much more deaths.

At the end of May 1998,, during the lawsuit of one of the leaders of the sect Aum,, one learnt that a team of this organisation had started in April 1990 a biological attack against various American military bases in Japan by propagating germs of the botulinum. Whereas this product is one amongst the more lethals, nothing happened.

8 : Delta Press

The Aum sect made a new attempt in 1993 using Anthrax which resulted quite as disappointing. The method of dispersion of these products was undoubtedly ineffective.

Spreading of the manufactured agent is the most delicate stage. It can be carried out in several ways: contamination of food or liquids, dispersion by spreading, using aerosols or vapors in closed area or open air and also using either small or powerfull explosive loads.

Many experts privilege the attacks in closed areas - subway stations,, covered stadiums,, etc. Governmental buildings,, national monuments or hotels could also be privileged targets.

Experts disagree on the capability of poisoning the population of a city through reservoirs of drinkable water: important quantities of polluting agents should be needed, and there is no clearly defined ratio between volume of water in the reservoirs and consumption of drinkable water by the urban community.

Most systems of water treatment are very active (filtration,, chlorination. etc.) ; some of the water will never be in contact with the population and may remain in the reservoir during several months (which is enough to deteriorate some biochemical agents) - and/or will mainly have everyday uses such as the watering of the lawns. But what would happen if the reservoir of a residential building was poisoned?


Accordiniz to these factors, what could be potential NBC terrorist tactics?

9/11 taught us many lessons, but what's next?

The so-called AI Qaeda has revealed its protoplasmic nature.

That means each group, which is linked, to this fuzzy entity has

autonomy to decide the way it will fight the "Jihad" according to a

general guideline.

That implies we cannot figure an action pattern with a certain amount

of logic and predictability, like it used to be at the time of Middle-Eastem terrorism of the eighties.

Today's terrorism has no centralized planning and figuring an

operational scheme would be a pure guess, except if based on

reliable intelligence sources.

That means nothing clearly indicates that these terrorists would use

NBC weapons despite what happened in the post 9/11 in the US.

But, with this case, if we don't know the authors neither the origins of

the germs, we have realized the effects of such disnttive action.

Anyway, on the basis of former experiences, we have to be proactive

and figure how could some people use NBC weapons.

NBC terrorism is clearly a threat for our societies but it has tight

technical limits.

According to what 1 have just said, could such attacks be really set

to generate massive destruction as a State could?

I do not think so.

One can reasonably figure that terrorists would rather choose to create a "NBC Damocles effect" that would be more adequate to these weadons and to own their cgpacities.


A- NBC terrorism, a "Damocies effect"?

Arguing about a definition of terrorism is useless and I'll basically would say that it's a criminal activity generating a situation of terror among people, using small -assymmetrical means to achieve political goals.

The key words are, of course, "situation of terror". When a Nation-State is the key actor, this situation of terror makes people frightened every morning. If it's a terrorist group using an invisible threat, peuple are afraid of living. Everything is the vector of terror: the air you breath, the food you eat, the water you drink, the letters you recieve...

In March 1989, the most intensive food safe ty investigation in FDA history took place when a terrorist threatened to poison this nation"s fresh fruit supply,, to focus attention on the living conditions of the lower classes in Chile. The terrorist made good on his phone call to the FDA, as two grapes were found faced with small amounts of cyanide.

Fortunately no one was poisoned,, but the incident cost millions of dollars to investigate and had a significant impact on Chiie"s national economy, where fruit and vegetable exports are second in importance only to copper.

A biological toxin could have been used just as easily as cyanide in this instance. The amounts of toxin needed to obtain the desired effect are exceedingly small. For example, about 30 grams of ricin,, easily concealed anywhere, would be sufficient to lethally poison one batch of 150 pounds of meat, enough to produce 1,500 hot dogs.

The threat is real and the knowledge required is not esoteric.

As with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 2001 anthrax strikes have been conducted using simple,, unconventional methods converting America's communications infrastructure into a delivery method for bioagents. A few mailed letters have resulted in several thousand false alarms and hoaxes tying up police, fire, medical and hazmat teams,, stirring panic among the populace, interfering with mail delivery and worrying politicians and the military.

This kind of actions could easily be repeated in. several places, with or without warning calls, with or without claims, allowing some deaths,, then stop. And this could be randomly repeated in different ways, different places, with different products.

One can easily figure there is no need for large amounts of NBC products or a mass destruction of people to create a real panic.

Most asymmetrical! This kind of actions could really create a "Damocies Effect", with officials and people living in a permanent situation of terror and paralysis created by this psywar,, fearing that anytime,, as in the legend, the horse hair breaks.

B- What issues?

Consider the relatively small costs involved and huge troubles caused,, spendings it generates for preventive measures,, we call that the "principle of precaution",, are huge, out of proportion.

Nevertheless,, events of September 11 have created a need to very carefully assess our defense needs and ensure that the resources we spend for security are aligned with the most pressing security threats. The elements summarized here show that the NBC threat is quite real,, quite serious,, and deserves a vigorous response of all kinds.

However,, we must face the brutal reality that no technological remedies can provide complete confidence that we are safe from NBC attacks. Terrorist groups might still find a way to use NBC weapons as their goal is to terrorise or kill innocent people and harass our countries, even more likely,, we know it today,, as they have no regard for their own lives.

Thus. would'nt NBC terrorism be the ultimate terror?