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If we wait for the danger to become clear, it could be too late.

Joe Biden, USA



The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the world hard. Global outcry on assigning blame to the origins has led to the emergence of many studies of related issues like bio-terrorism, apocalypse and strategic warfare. Globalization, growing industrialization and revolution in Information Technology have given rise to transnational terrorism or ‘Revolution in Terrorist Affairs (RTA)’. Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) materials have proliferated widely and the expertise required to utilize these is actually within the grasp of terrorists.


Terrorists may resort to the use of CBRN agents to generate widespread panic, which could bring down a democratic government, or to establish a position of strength from which to negotiate their demands. The Tokyo nerve gas attack by the Japanese cult group, Aum Shinrikyo, on 20 March 1995, had set a precedent in the use of WMD. The Anthrax cases in the US, the use of Mustard gas, Chlorine and Sarin in the Syrian conflict, and radiation scare across the EU are other examples. It is but a matter of time when India will be faced with a CBRN terrorist incident.


Emerging CBRN Threats


With the empowerment of citizens, rising aspirations and easy availability of dual-use technology, we are witnessing the emergence of the ‘techno’-terrorist, who may resort to CBRN Terrorism. Several incidents in 2017 and 2018 showed increasing use of sophisticated chemical agents to carry out assassinations or assassination attempts. In February 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport with the nerve agent VX. On 4 March 2018, the Soviet era nerve agent Novichok was used in the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to assume that CBRN threats loom large over India. It requires a frank and serious study about threats and their prevention, vulnerability assessment and how we are preparing to manage the consequences of such an incident in India. 


As a result of the programme for de-nuclearisation in the former states of the Soviet Union, there are about 500 metric tons of U-235 and 300 tons of Pu-239 from dismantled weapons that have to be disposed off. To add to it are the “Suitcase Bombs”, many of which are rumoured to be missing. A virtual ‘nuclear black market’ has come up in the Central Asian Republics (CAR) region. Technological partnerships may exist among rogue nations and groups with proliferation of weapons grade fissile material.


A radiological weapon, on the other hand, disperses radiological material by means of conventional explosions, causing radioactive contamination. Such weapons are called Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD) or “Dirty Bombs”. These could be dispersible or just spreading radioactivity. The arrest of Dhiren Bharot for seeking to make a RDD in the UK, is an example. The deliberate use of radioactive isotopes to cause deaths (like the Litvenko Polonium poisoning case) or accidents (like the Mayapuri incident of Delhi, involving Cobalt-60), are wakeup calls for us, Indians. Cesium, Polonium and other radioactive isotopes are potential weapon ingredients.


Biological agents like toxins (Botulinum, Ricin) or live pathogens (anthrax, cholera, plague) are more potent than chemical agents, since they attack cells and multiply in their victims. Apart from high toxicity and delayed detectability by traditional sensors, these agents can be made from lab samples and stolen material. COVID-19, SARS and Ebola are live examples of the dangers of a viral spread. A number of laboratories in the world are working on such lethal pathogen samples and cultures of deadly biological agents with a view to develop vaccines and drugs.Terror groups are said to have set up lab facilities to work on such pathogens.


The availability of Chemical agents or their ingredients is widespread. They are easy to produce even in a home lab by trained chemists, especially in a country having a vast industrial base like India, China or even Pakistan. The availability of toxic dual-purpose Chemical like Chlorine, Phosgene Hydrogen Cyanide, and many other Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs), makes the task of Chemical terrorist easy. 


Documents found in Afghanistan indicate Al Qaeda’s interest in production of Chemical agents like Sulphur Mustard, Sarin and VX

Terrorist groups have experimented with using agricultural spray by aircraft for dissemination of Biological agents like Anthrax


CBRN Terrorism Statistics


Right from the days of arsenic poisoning or toxin poisoning in the Mahabharata era (7000 BC) to the Sarin attack by Aum Shinrikyo in Japan (1995 AD) or the Novichok poisoning in UK (2018 AD), CBRN terror has been in our midst. While there have been innumerable hoaxes and mere threats of use of CBRN material, the number of actual cases are frightening. 


Research shows that likelihood of Chemical agents being used by terrorists is the highest.  A comparative likelihood matrix of CBRN weapons use by terrorists is given below:


The Motivations


A review of the potential implications of CBRN and past incidents would indicate why such means appeal to terrorists.


  • 1. Sophisticated CBRN agents are potentially highly lethal while being silent killers, and therefore, harder to detect and contain.
  • 2. Capability of inflicting mass casualties based on limited ability to quickly identify and/or contain the effects of such substances.
  • 3. Any attack using CBRN material would attract attention and receive prime-time coverage in the mass media.
  • 4. CBRN attacks would most certainly provoke terror and panic among civilians.
  • 5. CBRN materials have the potential to inflict serious consequences and collateral economic damage (e.g. by contaminating the environment and affecting animal and human health).
  • 6. CBRN materials offer the means to blackmail governments or at least pressure them.
  • 7. Potential for large-scale impact due to increased media coverage of the use of WMD and high level psychological and panic reactions.
  • 8. Possession and use of CBRN means would place the perpetrator in a position of perceived power vis-à-vis national authorities (at least temporarily).
  • 9. Increasing WMD stockpiles and research facilities (declared and undeclared) afford greater potential for pilferage and theft.


Terrorist Capabilities


Terrorist technological capabilities are rapidly increasing. The risk factors of these dangerous weapons falling into indiscriminate hands include access to CBRN materials outside of government control in conflict zones, abuse of poor inventory systems in troubled territories and the threat of insiders’ access in sensitive facilities, perhaps facilitated by corruption. The fragmentation of terrorist groups, the loss of authority, the creation of disparate cells or the facilitation of dangerous individuals could inspire alternate means for violence. Societal changes can increase vulnerabilities and facilitate enhancement of terrorist capabilities in the following areas:


  • 1. Organizational Capabilities
  • 2. Logistical Resources
  • 3. Financial Resources
  • 4. Knowledge/Skill Acquisition
  • 5. Materials and Technology Acquisition
  • 6. Initial Production and Weaponization of Agent


Communications technologies and the growing use of e-commerce also facilitate access to relevant scientific information and newer technologies, which allows for higher damage at lower costs with fewer knowledge prerequisites. In the future, CBRN agents may be more attractive to radicalised individuals.




The assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport


The Tokyo  Sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo, 20 March 1995


May-August 2016: Intern Doctors of Al Shabaab cadre converting animal Anthrax into transportable spore cultures at County hospitals – Kenya, Uganda & Ethiopia



Threat Manifestation

CBRN Terrorist threats may manifest in any of the following forms. It just takes an innovative mind to think up many more possibilities.


  • 1. Attacks on / or sabotage of critical infrastructure, nuclear plant, chemical factory or biological research establishment with a view to cause large-scale damage, release of toxic material and increasing fatalities.
  • 2. Dirty Bombs using radiological / chemical material.
  • 3. Covert exposure / release of Radiological sources or toxic Chemicals (vapours and spills) in sensitive urban areas / heavily populated areas.
  • 4. Create widespread fear by use by poisoning induced through food, water, letters and other routinely handled equipment.
  • 5. Deliberate inappropriate disposal of toxic waste to cause casualties.




Large populated urban centres and important critical infrastructures pose lucrative targets for such weapon systems. The key vulnerabilities and likely targets for a CBRN terrorist strike are:


  • 1. Prestigious buildings, seat of Government, embassies.
  • 2. Airports, Railway stations/ busy market places / trains / shopping malls / hospitals / clubs / cinema halls.
  • 3. Major events with large crowds – sports, festivals, international conferences.
  • 4. Temples / forts / palaces,especially during festivities and key tourist places.
  • 5. Fertilizer / dye / petro chemical / paint / pharmaceutical industries.
  • 6. Nuclear installations and power plants.
  • 7. Passenger aircraft, trains and cruise ships.


In addition, societal and administrative issues like large population zones, porous borders, unchecked industrial growth, ineffective legislations, public apathy,a lack of awareness, inadequate medical facilities and low response footprints add to the above vulnerabilities.




The threat posed by CBRN terrorism is very relevant, driven by political, ideological, social, economic and technological factors. Preventing and countering CBRN attacks are particularly cumbersome and require considerable resources. To successfully discourage and punish such acts, the international cooperation framework must be strengthened and domestic capabilities, honed. Sound intelligence, focused proliferation prevention, punitive laws and regulations, and an effective response mechanism are the watchwords.


Awareness and Preparedness is the Key to Survival.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.