Weapons of Mass Destruction
Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is a term that has become increasingly familiar through its use in the media. Not everyone means precisely the same thing when they use the term, but the definition used by the U.S. military may be the simplest and most generally understood. WMD are
. . . chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons capable of a high order of destruction or causing mass casualties (DOD, 2019).
The use of biological weapons was cited as early as two thousand years ago when the Assyrians poisoned the public well of their enemies with ergot fungus. In the fourteenth century, the Tartars poisoned with plague the city of Kaffa (now in the Ukraine), which poisoning eventually created one of the great pandemics of Europe. Within our nation, early colonial British soldiers used soiled bedding of smallpox victims to infect Native Americans during the French and Indian wars (Flora, 2020).
The use of bioterrorism continued to expand during World War I with the use of mustard gas; despite international treaties proscribing chemical weapons, World War II saw experiments with plague, nerve agents, and even anthrax on prisoners in various countries of the Axis.
In the 1960s, only four countries had ability to develop biological weapons; this is compared to more than twenty countries who had that capability by the late 1990s. Today, recipes for making biological weapons and explosives are readily accessible to anyone on the internet.
The possibility that terrorists might resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction is of grave concern. The four types of WMD vary in their ability to cause damage, in their ease of production and use, in the kinds of physical and human damage they can be expected to cause, and in their likelihood of use by terrorist organizations.
All four types of WMD offer both advantages and obstacles to their perpetrators. Some require a certain level of skill, others require access to controlled or illegal substances, and still others require significant capital and the cooperation of people in positions of security or power. Some weapons could produce significant damage with high death tolls, while the greatest effects of others would be widespread panic and expensive cleanup operations.
Bioterrorism and Chemical Terrorism
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define bioterrorism as:
. . . biological agents (microbes or toxins) used as weapons to further personal or political agendas. Acts of bioterrorism range from a single exposure directed at an individual by another individual to government-sponsored biological warfare resulting in mass casualties. Bioterrorism differs from other methods of terrorism in that the materials needed to make an effective biological agent are readily available, require little specialized knowledge and are inexpensive to produce (CDC, 2020).
According to the CDC:
A chemical emergency occurs when a hazardous chemical has been released and the release has the potential for harming people's health. Chemical releases can be unintentional, as in the case of an industrial accident, or intentional, as in the case of a terrorist attack (CDC, 2018a).
Some chemicals that are hazardous have been developed by military organizations for use in warfare beginning in World War I. Examples are nerve agents such as sarin and VX, mustards such as sulfur mustards and nitrogen mustards, and choking agents such as phosgene. It is possible for terrorists to get these chemical warfare agents and use them to harm people (CDC, 2018a).
Since the World War I and II, there has been research and stockpiling of chemicals by many countries, but mutual nonproliferation agreements have generally prevailed. In 1997 the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty (CWC), agreeing to destroy any remaining stockpiles of chemical warfare agents no later than April 29, 2012 (CDC, 2018b). One hundred ninety-three (193) countries have signed all or elements of the CWC, which not only requires destruction of chemical weapons but prohibits, among other things, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, and transferring of these weapons (NTI, 2021; ACA, 2018). Only Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have not signed the CWC or acceded to the convention.
Many hazardous chemicals that have been used in biological terrorism are used in industry (e.g., chlorine, ammonia, benzene). Others are found in nature (e.g., poisonous plants). Some could be made from everyday items such as household cleaners. These types of hazardous chemicals could be maliciously obtained and used to harm people, or they could be accidentally released (CDC, 2018b).
The techniques for making destructive chemical weapons are well understood and the necessary equipment is commonly available. Once made, these weapons can be easily concealed. In 1995 a Japanese cult group known as Aum Shinrikyo made and dispersed the nerve agent sarin several times in the Tokyo subway, killing 17 people and sending 5,500 to the hospital. These incidents made it clear that even small groups could manage the manufacture and dispersion of deadly chemical weapons (NTI, 2021).
Chemical and Biological Weapons
Chemical weapons use the toxic properties of chemicals to cause harm and even death. Only a relatively small amount of a chemical agent is needed to produce significant physical and psychological effect. Historically, chemical weapons have been the most widely used and proliferated type of WMD, but they receive far less attention than do biological and nuclear weapons (NTI, 2021). The difference between a chemical and biological weapon is that a chemical weapon uses the toxic property of a chemical, whereas the biological weapon uses the toxic property of biological pathogens.
Biological weapons utilize microorganisms and natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals, or plants, and “gram-for-gram, . . . are the deadliest weapons ever produced” (NTI, 2021). Derived from a variety of sources, these compounds, when paired with a delivery system, become weapons. The potential danger of a given weapon is measured by its lethality—how effectively it kills; its infectivity—how easily it spreads; and its virulence—how likely it is to cause disease. Other important considerations include how easily is it dispersed, whether it can be treated medically, whether there is a vaccine, what dosage is needed to cause disease; and the compound’s stability.
Chemical and biological weapons are financially and logistically easier to acquire than are radiologic or nuclear weapons. They cause more casualties and have a greater psychological impact than conventional weapons, but cause less destruction than devices involving radiation. Chemical weapons are somewhat easier than other weapons for terrorist groups (or even individuals) to manufacture because the manufacturing knowledge is readily available, many precursor chemicals have legitimate uses and are thus legally available, there is poor security around these chemicals in some countries, and small chemical manufacturing equipment is commonly available.
Radiologic and Nuclear Weapons
Radiologic and nuclear weapons rely on the same sources for damage—explosive power and radiation—but there is a distinction in their forms. In addition, true nuclear weapons produce tremendous heat, which can cause burns and start fires. In the last fifty years, most radiation injuries have been the result of accidents; however, the intentional deployment of a nuclear or radiologic device is a potential terrorist threat (NTI, 2015 a, b, c, d).
Modern nuclear threats can be divided into five general categories:
- An attack on nuclear power plants
- A malevolent act using simple radiologic devices
- Terrorist use of a radiologic dispersal device
- Detonation of an improvised nuclear device
- Detonation of a sophisticated nuclear weapon (Dainiak, 2018)
Both radiologic and nuclear devices can damage and contaminate any living organism from the epicenter of exposure widening to large perimeters. Incidents involving simple devices like Radiation Exposure Devices (REDs) and Radiologic Dispersal Devices (RDDs)—any device that causes intentional dissemination of radioactive material without a nuclear detonation—could cause a limited number of casualties; however, those involving Improvised Nuclear Devices (INDs) and small nuclear weapons would result in mass casualties (ORISE, 2017).
Radiologic Dispersal Devices (RDD)—commonly known as “dirty bombs”—are seen as more likely to be used by terrorists. These devices require only a little more skill than is needed to make a conventional bomb and their components are easier to acquire. RDDs utilize conventional explosives to disperse a radioactive material packaged in the device, as opposed to a nuclear device, which creates radiation with its explosion.
While it is unlikely that many people would die from radiation poisoning as a result of the explosion of an RDD, there would be some deaths and injuries and the costs of cleanup could be considerable. These devices are attractive to some groups because they are relatively easy to create, and they will not generally do a great deal of damage, but they play on the heightened fear of radiation among the general public in order to cause widespread panic and disruption, which is often the group’s real goal. Because of this, public education and good response preparation are important counter measures (ORISE, 2017).
Nuclear weapons present significantly higher obstacles in terms of the skill needed to produce them and the financial and logistical support needed to acquire materials, prepare the devices, and transport them (ORISE, 2017). The great concern is the potential for damage, injuries, and death is much higher because they are significantly more powerful weapons.