Chapter 4: The Global Challenge of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism

Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism

The Global Challenge of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism

Preventing the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons has been a top U.S. national security priority for decades. The past decade has seen a growing recognition that we must also be vigilant in preventing terrorist groups from obtaining the means and methods to acquire, develop, and/or deploy CBRN weapons. Thus, our strategic counterterrorism posture is strengthened by counter and nonproliferation programs that aim to reduce or eliminate CBRN material produced and stored by states; restrict the diversion of materials and expertise for illicit use; and prevent the trafficking of CBRN weapons and related material. While efforts to secure CBRN material across the globe have been largely successful, the illicit trafficking of these materials persists.

Utilization of CBRN materials and expertise remained a terrorist threat, as demonstrated by terrorists’ stated intent to acquire, develop, and use these materials; the nature of injury and damage these weapons can inflict; the ease with which information on these topics now flows; and the dual-use nature of many relevant technologies and material. As evidence of this challenge, the third report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism found that ISIS was responsible for a sulfur mustard attack in Marea, Syria on August 21, 2015. Given the well-understood ISIS interest and intent in CBRN capabilities, the United States has been working proactively to disrupt and deny ISIS’s (and other non-state actors’) CBRN capabilities.

A number of international partnerships have either the explicit or the implicit purpose of countering the CBRN threat from terrorists and other non-state actors. Organizations and initiatives, as well as international conventions and export control regimes, concerned with chemical and biological weapons use focus on: efforts to reduce or eliminate stockpiles of material; regulate the acquisition of dual-use technology and regulate trade of specific goods; mandate that states’ parties enact national implementing legislation, including penal legislation; and provide assistance against the use or threat of use. International nuclear and radiological initiatives and programs focus on promoting peaceful uses of nuclear material and technology, safeguarding materials and expertise against diversion, and countering the smuggling of radioactive and nuclear material. The United States routinely provides technical and financial assistance and training to partner nations to help strengthen their abilities to adequately protect and secure CBRN-applicable expertise, technologies, and material. U.S. participation within and contribution to these groups, is vital to ensuring our continued safety from the CBRN threat.

Nuclear Security Summits: The four Nuclear Security Summits (2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016) have garnered leader-level commitments to advance concrete plans and actions to achieve key nuclear security goals, including minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium, bolstering security at nuclear facilities, enhancing membership in key international instruments and organizations, and instituting measures to detect and prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials. Nations made joint commitments related to countering nuclear smuggling, mitigating insider threats, radioactive source security, information security, transportation security, and many other topics. Leaders at the fourth and final Summit in 2016 established Action Plans to strengthen nuclear security objectives in the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, INTERPOL, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and created a Nuclear Security Contact Group to ensure continued progress.

G-7 Global Partnership: The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (GP) was launched at the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Canada to prevent terrorists, or states that support them, from acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction. It was extended in 2011 and remains a vital forum for donor coordination and funding on capacity-building in nuclear and radiological, chemical, and biological security worldwide. To date, the Global Partnership has allocated well more than US $22 billion toward this effort. Highlights for 2016 included the submission of formal GP statements outlining support for the UNSCR 1540 Comprehensive Review, the Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial, the Biological Weapons Convention Inter-Sessional Work Program Review Conference, and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Security Ministerial, as well as implementation of an Action Plan instituted at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit.

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): Launched in 2003, the PSI has increased international awareness and capability to address the challenges associated with stopping the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), WMD-related components, and their means of delivery. The PSI remains an important tool in the global effort to combat CBRN material transfers to both state and non-state actors of proliferation concern. Since its launch, 105 states have endorsed the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles, by which states commit to take specific actions, consistent with their respective national legal authorities and relevant international law and frameworks, to support efforts to prevent the trafficking of WMD, related materials and their delivery systems. In 2016, there were 13 bilateral and multilateral activities designed to promote and exercise the Critical Capabilities and Practices to help ensure WMD do not fall into the hands of state and non-state actors of proliferation concern.

UN Security Council Resolution 1540: In 2016, the United States was actively engaged in strengthening implementation of UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1540 (2004) through partnerships with other UN member states and international and regional organizations. The United States also continued to strongly support the 1540 Committee, which has become a part of the international framework to control proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery to non-state actors. In support of the second comprehensive review of the implementation of the resolution, the United States submitted 25 proposals to the 1540 Committee – by far the most of any contributor. The majority of the U.S. proposals were included in the final report of the second comprehensive review, which was endorsed in UNSCR 2325 (2016). The report and the new resolution will add to the urgency, relevance, and effective implementation of UNSCR 1540 (2004).

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT): The GICNT, which is co‑chaired by the United States and Russia, is an international partnership of 86 nations and five official observer organizations dedicated to strengthening global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to a nuclear terrorist event. Partners engage in multilateral activities and exercises designed to raise awareness of the threat of terrorist use of nuclear and radioactive materials, and to provide opportunities for countries to share information, expertise, and best practices in a voluntary, non-binding framework. Since it was launched in 2006, the GICNT has held more than 80 multilateral activities, produced seven important foundational guidelines documents, and developed a body of best practices that have all served to uplift national capacities. In 2016, partner nations hosted eight multilateral activities under the auspices of GICNT across the areas of nuclear forensics, nuclear detection, and emergency preparedness and response. The GICNT also commemorated its tenth anniversary with a senior-level meeting in The Hague June 15‑16, 2016, which underscored the GICNT’s lasting durability and its unique role in the global nuclear security architecture.

Nuclear Trafficking Response Group (NTRG): The NTRG is an interagency group focused on coordinating the U.S. government response to incidents of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials, including radiation alarms that occur in foreign countries. Elements of the NTRG work with foreign governments to secure smuggled nuclear material, prosecute those involved, and develop information on smuggling-related threats, including potential links between smugglers and terrorists. The Department of State chairs the NTRG, which includes representatives from the U.S. government’s nonproliferation, law enforcement, and intelligence communities.

Counter Nuclear Smuggling Program (CNSP): Securing dangerous radioactive and nuclear materials in illegal circulation before they reach the hands of terrorists or other malicious actors is critical to U.S. national security and that of U.S. allies. Using CNSP funds, the Department of State conducts outreach and programmatic activities with key governments to enhance their counter nuclear smuggling capabilities. Bilateral Joint Action Plans developed and implemented with 14 partner governments identify strategies to improve the partners’ abilities to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear and radiological smuggling attempts. As part of these Joint Action Plans, the United States commits to seek U.S. and foreign donor assistance to address needs outside the capacity of the partner nation. In 2016, more than US $80 million in foreign donations had enabled implementation of Joint Action Plan-identified actions.

Through workshops and engagement activities, the Department of State uses CNSP funds to facilitate the integration of law enforcement, intelligence, and technical capabilities to counter nuclear smuggling. More broadly, CNSP programmatic support has enabled more than 20 partner nations to address goals that include enhancing nuclear smuggling response procedures, improving nuclear forensics capabilities, and enabling the successful prosecution of smugglers, while helping partners build cross-border and regional cooperation to counter nuclear smuggling.

Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) Program: Through the EXBS Program, the Department of State leads the interagency effort to strengthen adherence to nonproliferation norms by helping to build effective national strategic trade control and border security systems in countries that produce or supply strategic items as well as in key transit and transshipment hubs. EXBS works in 67 partner countries to improve national capabilities to regulate trade in sensitive items and prevent irresponsible transfers that may contribute to proliferation; detect and interdict illicit trafficking in proliferation-sensitive items at and between ports of entry by targeting high-risk shipments; investigate and prosecute violations of strategic trade control laws and regulations; and build and sustain a community of policymakers and technical experts committed to meeting international nonproliferation obligations and implementing effective strategic trade controls.

In 2016, the EXBS Program oversaw more than 435 bilateral, regional, and international activities to promote the adoption, implementation, and enforcement of comprehensive strategic trade controls and trained more than 2,100 foreign officials. These activities improve the capability of partner countries to prevent the transfers of dual-use items and conventional weapons that contribute to proliferation, terrorism, or regional instability and include training on state-of-the-art detection, inspection, and interdiction equipment to detect, deter, and interdict illicit smuggling of radioactive and nuclear materials, weapons of mass destruction components, and other weapons-related items at air, land, sea, and rail borders.

EXBS works with and complements the Department of Defense’s International Counter‑Proliferation Program and Cooperative Threat Reduction Program; the Department of Homeland Security’s Container Security Initiative, the Department of Energy’s International Nonproliferation Export Control Program and Office of Nuclear Smuggling, Detection, and Deterrence (NSDD); and the State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program and International Narcotics and Law Enforcement assistance programs, as well as other international donor assistance programs. The EXBS Program fulfills important U.S. and international commitments helping partner countries fulfill their international obligations and commitments, including those related to UN Security Council resolution 1540 (2004) and adherence to the guidelines of multilateral export control regimes.

Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD): The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (formerly known as Second Line of Defense) collaborates with partner countries to build their capacity to deter, detect, and investigate illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials. NSDD’s assistance to partner countries’ national nuclear detection architecture is commensurate with regional threat and country-specific infrastructure and, accordingly, can include deployments of radiation detection technologies for use at land border crossings, airports, seaports, and tactical interior locations. NSDD also provides training, workshops, and exercise support in the operation and maintenance of radiation detection systems and technical nuclear forensics capabilities. NSDD coordinates its capacity-building activities with other international nuclear security assistance entities such as INTERPOL, the European Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Global Threat Reduction (GTR): GTR is a unique and flexible tool for countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) terrorism. Through GTR, the Department of State’s Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) trains and equips foreign security and law enforcement forces to disrupt WMD terrorism plots, and works to secure biological, chemical, and nuclear materials to prevent terrorist groups such as ISIS from acquiring WMD in countries around the world. CTR leverages diplomatic relationships to rapidly deliver critical capabilities to the most austere, high-threat environments.

In 2016, to support critical coalition efforts, CTR provided support to Iraqi forces charged with detecting, disrupting, and responding to ISIS’s chemical weapons plots. In response to the ISIS threat, CTR provided needed chemical weapons detection and protective equipment during the Mosul operation, and delivered a shipment of specialized material to neutralize an ISIS-ignited Sulphur plant fire that posed a risk to Iraqi and coalition forces and served as an area denial tactic.

Biological Weapons Convention Inter-Sessional Work Program (BWC): The November 2016 BWC Review Conference adopted a final document with new language on countering bio‑terrorism but did not agree to a program of work for the coming years, something the United States will seek to rectify in 2017. In 2016, the United States pressed for greater efforts in this forum to acquire better information about and promote international cooperation on BWC States Parties’ measures to implement the Convention. More effective national implementation and enhanced international cooperation could contribute to a range of efforts aimed at addressing the threat posed by terrorists and other non-state actors, including to criminalize and deter malicious use of biological agents; promote sustainable, effective approaches to laboratory biosecurity; raise international awareness of the need for appropriate, balanced oversight of dual-use life science research with significant potential for harm; and identify and address impediments to international coordination and response in the event of a bioterrorism attack or a significant disease outbreak of unknown origin.

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW): In response to the growing concern about chemical weapons use by state and non-State actors, the OPCW continues to find ways to enhance its ability to provide support to Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) States Parties to both prevent and respond to a CW use. Specifically, the OPCW Director-General established a Sub-Working Group on Non-State Actors (SWG) under the OPCW’s Open-Ended Working Group on Terrorism (OEWG-T), with the aim of stimulating discussion and generating specific recommendations that the Technical Secretariat and/or States Parties could implement to address the threat posed by non-State actors. Since the group’s establishment in October 2015, it has made great strides in identifying actions that States Parties and the OPCW Technical Secretariat can take to address the non-State actor challenge. Additionally, the Director-General established a Rapid Reaction and Assistance Mission (RRAM) to effectively and efficiently provide assistance to States Parties impacted by CW use by both State and non-State actors.

Additionally, in August and October, the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) determined that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces was responsible for three incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria in 2014 and 2015 and that ISIS was responsible for one use of chemical weapons in Syria. The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) continues to investigate credible allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria to determine if use or likely use occurred. Such cases will be referred to the JIM for attribution. The United States fully supports the JIM, the FFM, the OEWG-T, the SWG, and RRAM initiative and continues to provide subject matter expert participation and briefings to meetings on this subject.