The current instability in the Middle East, particularly the conflict in Syria and the ongoing Sunni insurgency in Iraq, has energized the salafi-jihadi groups and has emboldened their supporters to orchestrate large-scale casualty attacks. More harrowing is the fact that salafi-jihadi groups have been linked to several CBRN terrorist attacks. Horrific images and witness accounts have led to claims that local Sunni militants used chemical weapons against Kurdish militants in Syria and security forces in Iraq.
CBRN attack modes appeal more to religious terrorist groups than to other types of terrorist organizations because, while more “secular” terrorist groups might hesitate to kill many civilians for fear of alienating their support network, religious terrorist organizations tend to regard such violence as not only morally justified but expedient for the attainment of their goals.
The Islamic State’s success in attracting foreigners has been unparalleled, with more than 20,000 foreign individuals joining their group. University educated foreign jihadists potentially provide the Islamic State with a pool of individuals with the requisite scientific expertise to develop and use CBRN weapons. In August 2014, a laptop owned by a Tunisian physics university student fighting with the Islamic State in Syria was discovered to contain a 19-page document on how to develop bubonic plague from infected animals and weaponize it. Many in the counter-terrorism field have concerns that individuals with such a background could be given a CBRN agent and then trained to orchestrate an attack. They might even return to their countries of origin to conduct attacks back in their homeland.
Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State continue to show keen desire to acquire and develop such weapons. Based on anecdotal evidence, there is enough credible information to show that the Islamic State has at least a nascent CBRN program. Fortunately, obtaining a CBRN capable of killing hundreds, much less thousands, is still a significant technical and logistical challenge. Al-qaida in the past has tried unsuccessfully to acquire such weapons, while the counter-terrorism forces globally have devoted significant resources to prevent terrorist groups from making any breakthrough. Current evidence suggests that the salafi-jihadists are still far from such capabilities, and at best can only produce crude CBRN agents that are more suited for smaller attacks. However, the Islamic State, with their sizeable financial resources, their success in recruiting skilled individuals, and the availability of CBRN materials in Iraq and Syria, has increased the probability that they could carry out a successful large CBRN attack. As such, it seems that it is a matter not of “if,” but rather of “when,” a mass CBRN attack could occur.
Weimeng Yeo is a Director within the Model Development team at Risk Management Solutions (RMS), and is a key member of the team responsible for the development of RMS' terrorism modeling solutions. Prior to his tenure at RMS, Weimeng worked at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He received his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Colby College in Maine and a Master's degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University in Washington DC at the School of Foreign Service.