Module 3:

Chemical Terrorism

What is chemical terrorism?

  • Chemical terrorism is the use or threatened use by non-state actors of toxic chemicals with the intent to cause injury, death, economic destruction or area denial, for political, religious, or ideological reasons. (Blackmail involving toxic chemicals is a form of chemical terrorism.)
  • Chemical weapons precursors are widely available due to the globalization of the chemical industry, which requires many of the same chemicals and industrial processes for peaceful applications as are used in chemical warfare.
  • Both state and non-state actors interested in developing chemical weapons can also take advantage of the availability of millions of relevant internet “how to” files.

Have terrorists carried out chemical attacks in the past? And are groups interested in chemical terrorism today?

Yes, terrorists have carried out chemical attacks in the past, and some are demonstrably interested in doing so again. Other non-state actors have also attempted chemical attacks, including criminals and cults.


How could terrorists or other non-state actors acquire chemical weapons?

Chemical Weapons Theft A terrorist group could steal toxic chemicals from industrial or research facilities. Less toxic chemicals that are widely used in civilian applications, such as chlorine, would be easiest to steal or buy. Schedule 1 chemicals—chemicals that are only used in chemical weapons—are not present in most countries. Schedule 2 chemicals—including some nerve agent precursors—are typically well-guarded and more difficult to steal.
Abandoned Chemical Weapons A terrorist group could acquire abandoned chemical weapons, which are still being recovered in some countries, including China and Iraq.
Indigenous Manufacture Indigenous manufacture using commercially available civilian technologies may be feasible. A terrorist group would need some expertise in molecular biology, chemistry, and engineering to synthesize the most lethal agents.
Transfer of CW from a Sympathetic Government A terrorist group could acquire the chemical precursors, equipment, delivery systems, or chemical agents from a sympathetic government.

How difficult would it be for non-state actors to carry out a chemical weapons attack?

Effective dispersal of chemical agents—key to a successful chemical weapons attack—would be challenging for terrorist groups, which typically have less sophisticated technical and engineering capabilities than states. The level of difficulty would depend on the type of agent, the type of munition, and the type of delivery system a terrorist group chose. There are generally 3 steps in the process.


Agent Selection

Terrorists choose and acquire a CW agent.


Munitions Nanufacture

Assuming they do not steal or otherwise acquire one from a state, terrorists develop a munition. Designs for basic workable munitions (e.g., a bursting smoke device) are widely available. Advanced munitions are much more difficult to manufacture, and less likely to be produced by terrorists (e.g., a binary warhead suitable for delivery on a missile).


Delivery Systems

The technical sophistication of advanced delivery systems, such as missiles, poses the most serious obstacle to terrorist groups in carrying out an effective CW attack. Chemical agents require specific environmental conditions for maximum effectiveness that may be difficult for a terrorist group to manage. Improvised delivery—such as an improvised explosive device (IED) containing chemical agent—is within the capabilities of most terrorist groups. However, improvised delivery systems would not be as effective as more sophisticated delivery techniques such as missiles.

Photo Credit
Header Image: Improvised Explosive Device in Baghdad, Iraq. Source: U.S.Government via WikiMedia Commons.