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Sat. November 26, 2022
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Assessing the Threat of WMD Terrorism
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By Abhinav Dutta

One of the gravest potential risks for the world today is the probable nexus between Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and terrorism. A successful WMD terrorist attack not only can cause hundreds and thousands of casualties but can have disastrous economic and political consequences for the international community.[1] WMDs typically refer to nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. These are generally the accepted categories of weapons that the terrorists may seek to get hold of and launch a WMD terrorist attack.

One of the gravest concerns regarding WMDs is security and protection of nuclear weapons and fissile material.[2] Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda have openly stated their desire to acquire and use nuclear weapons. With the availability of scientific and technological know-how, and the right kind of material, terrorist organizations can build nuclear weapons.[3] Moreover, terrorists groups are unlikely to be hesitant before using such weapons.

Biological weapons, disease-producing agents including viruses, bacteria, pathogens, and germs are the deadliest weapons ever produced. The 2001, anthrax letter attacks in the United States (US) raised the debate on the possibility of ‘bioterrorism’, and revived international efforts to keep a check on the production and the misuse of such biological weapons.[4] Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda manifested their intent of acquiring such weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks. Once dispersed and disseminated successfully, biological weapons have the ability to spread across oceans and to distant continents, and therefore, it will be extremely difficult to limit the number of mass casualties from such attacks. Terrorist organizations are likely to get hold of such weapons in a scenario where it is sponsored by some state, or the technical know-how being shared by technicians and scientists earlier affiliated to any state program.[5]

Chemical weapons have received less attention compared to nuclear and biological weapons, but history suggest that chemical weapons have been the most widely used and proliferated WMD. Chemical weapons use toxic chemical to cause harm ranging from discomfort to death, and some of the examples include chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent), and mustard gas.[6] Chemical weapons are relatively cheap, and technologically less demanding compared to nuclear and biological weapons. Therefore, non-state actors have particular interests in developing such weapons. The international community has been wary of the consequences if such weapons fall into the wrong hands, and therefore, stringent measures are being taken to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons, and to keep a check on the technologies that are used to produce them.[7]

Radiological terrorism involves the intentional dispersion and dissemination of radioactive materials to contaminate people, to inflict physical injury, loss of life, and destruction of property. Radiological dispersive devices (RDD), also sometimes referred as ‘dirty bombs’, are generally used to carry out such attacks. Radioactive materials can be collected from numerous possible sources, as they are used in medical centers, laboratories, and industrial plants. Radiological effects are not contagious and do not cause endemics. However, there are high medical risks and can have long-term effects, depending on the exposure to radiological material.[8] Radiological weapons potential to carry out mass casualties are limited and therefore, these are sometimes referred as weapons of ‘mass disruption’, as they spread fear and disrupt daily life.[9] Radiological terrorism could be the future form of WMD threat that the world may face and therefore, the international community has been taking measures to curb challenges emanating from such threats.

The growing threat of WMD terrorism is one of the gravest challenges that the world faces for international security. Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been renewed focus on the threats from WMD terrorism, which is turning out to be one of the biggest strategic challenges in the modern age. The terrorists may use WMDs as ‘weapons of terror’, and therefore, the international community has taken proactive steps to ensure that the terrorist organizations do not engage in proliferation-related activities. Other than the various United Nations (UN) treaties and conventions that seek out solution for the prevention of proliferation of various categories of WMDs by nation-states, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1540 in 2004, with a special mandate to look into proliferation risks especially by terrorist groups, that could endanger international peace and security. The UNSC Resolution 1540 makes it mandatory for all member states to follow strict export control regimes, so that sensitive materials that could be used for development of WMDs and the means of delivery of such weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. Resolution 1540 makes it obligatory for the member-states to follow the mandate of the resolution, and to ensure that threats from such danger are curtailed.[10] However, actual enforcement of export control laws and other legal practical matters could be some additional challenges a country may face to keep a check on proliferation-related activities.[11] Therefore, stringent enforcement of export control laws and ‘prevention’ of WMD proliferation should be the ultimate priorities for nation-states. The international community has been watchful regarding probable chances of proliferation of WMDs, and measures are being taken to make sure that threats to international peace and security are contained, and ultimately, eliminated.

Abhinav Dutta is currently working on his MA in Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, India.  He holds a B Sc in Geology (Honors) from the University of Delhi, Delhi, India. His research interests are International Relations Theory, International and Strategic Negotiations, Political Thought and Theory, and US Foreign Policy.

 


[1] “The Global Challenge of WMD Terrorism”, United States Department of State, see http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/65477.pdf, accessed on 3 November 2015.

[2] Arvind Kumar, “Threats Emanating from Weapons of Mass Destruction”, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, see http://www.idsa.in/cbwmagazine/ThreatsEmanatingFromWeaponsofMassDestruction_akumar_0110, accessed on 3 November 2015.

[3] n.1.

[4] “Understanding the Biological Threats”, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), see http://www.nti.org/threats/biological/, accessed on 3 November 2015.

[5] n.1.

[6] “Chemical Weapons”, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), see http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Chemical/, accessed on 4 November 2015.

[7] “Understanding the Chemical Weapons Threat”, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), see http://www.nti.org/threats/chemical/, accessed on 4 November 2015.

[8] “What You Should Know about the Emotional Impact of Radiological Terrorism with an RDD ("Dirty Bomb")”, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), see http://www.nctsnet.org/trauma-types/terrorism/radiological, accessed on 4 November 2015.

[9] Michael A. Levi and Henry C. Kelly, “Weapons of Mass Disruption”, Federation of American Scientists (FAS), see http://fas.org/ssp/docs/021000-sciam.pdf, accessed on 4 November 2015.

[10] “UNSC Resolution 1540 (2004)”, The United Nations (UN), see http://www.un.org/en/sc/1540/, accessed on 5 November 2015; The UNSC Resolution 1977 (2011) extended the mandate of the 1540 Committee for a period of ten years until April 25 2021.

[11] Sibylle Bauer, “Punishing Acts of WMD Proliferation: more easily said than done”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), April 2009, see http://www.sipri.org/media/newsletter/essay/apr2009, accessed on 5 November 2015.

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