Non-State Actors

Brigadier General (Ret.) JB Burton
Former Commander, 20th CBRNE Command

The global strategic environment is growing progressively complicated by an expanding and dynamic network of actors with common motivations and increased access to the technology necessary to develop and employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD-like capabilities, ranging from radiological dispersal devices, to toxic chemicals and bio-toxins, to improvised explosive devices, to any combination thereof. Nation states with WMD capabilities and ties to terrorist or criminal networks represent a global proliferation threat that is further complicated by increasing information inter-connectivity and the progressively more complex global demographics created by populations in constant movement.  Terrorist organizations have made clear their intent to develop and employ WMD in pursuit of ideological and political objectives against the United States, her allies and interests.  Considering a history of routinely underestimating the capabilities of violent extremists, these threats should be viewed with legitimate concern for the likelihood of occurrence.

The production and employment of WMD has historically been the domain of nation states, and the threat of terrorists developing and employing similar capabilities has been viewed as highly unlikely given their propensity to operate clandestinely, with limited access to limited resources.  The ability for violent non-state actors to successfully avoid detection while mustering the manpower, technical expertise, and material necessary to develop and employ a WMD makes for great box office drama.  Regardless, a universal hypersensitivity towards WMD proliferation, along with governing local, national, and international laws related to WMD production, distribution, and employment, has kept the ability for terrorists to develop and employ WMD largely in check.  As a result, terrorists and non-state actors have most often dedicated their energies to the effective use of readily available materials, which can be developed locally and quickly employed.

The threat of WMD terrorism is often dismissed as unlikely due to a dangerous reductionist view that equates WMD solely with nuclear capabilities, which have traditionally been beyond the reach of terrorist organizations.  A more informed and holistic approach to understanding the capabilities of both nation states and non-state actors is to focus on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) capabilities and possibilities. Scientific expertise and dual-use technology is increasingly more readily available, exponentially increasing the very likely specter that violent non-state actors now have the ability to develop and employ WMD-like CBRNE capabilities to achieve their objectives.

The rapidly evolving strategic environment threatens traditional comfort zones related to the threat of CBRNE terrorism.  Larger, transnational terrorist organizations such as Hamas, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram represent the manifestation of a changing strategic landscape related to CBRNE weapons and WMD.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its territorial gains in Syria and Iraq resulting in an expansive, self-contained space with access to radiological material, toxic industrial chemicals, and laboratories. ISIS continues to recruit motivated supporters from across the globe to its cause, including many that possess the scientific expertise necessary to support the pursuit of developing WMD-like CBRNE capabilities.  According to NATO reports, ISIS has successfully removed nearly 90 pounds of low-enriched uranium from scientific institutions at the Mosul University in Iraq, and they have employed chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, reports from Kurdish fighters indicate that ISIS has successfully employed chlorine and mustard gas, as well as Sarin, Phosphine and VX nerve gas.  ISIS’s ability to recruit or coerce scientists with the right technological skills suggests that the organization has the capability now to develop WMD-like CBRNE weapons for employment.  Given these realities, ISIS represents a well-resourced terrorist organization with global reach enabled by the fiscal, physical, and technological means to conduct the research necessary to develop and employ CBRNE weapons of terror, signifying a clear and present threat to global security.

Middle Eastern and southwest Asian diaspora, coupled with our nation’s challenged border security and ungoverned physical and virtual spaces, provide the environment necessary for developing and employing a WMD-like CBRNE weapon in the homeland.  In the case of chemical weapons, it is not necessary to bring the weapons to us.  Only the people with the expertise need enter our borders, where they purchase precursors through a variety of legitimate sources.   

Increased global digital interconnectivity supports the rapid proliferation of both the motivation and the technological expertise necessary to create effective and highly destructive CBRNE devices.  Many industrial plants continue to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks designed to disperse toxic chemicals into surrounding areas.  Radiological elements within hospitals, construction zones, and waste dumps could easily be combined with conventional or homemade explosives to create a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or “dirty bomb.”  The employment of an RDD would likely not cause a high number of deaths; however, it would create widespread panic, environmental damage, and significant economic loss. 

Despite global hypersensitivity toward WMD proliferation, smuggling of nuclear arms-grade uranium as recently as 2011 suggests that WMD material may exist on the black market, and be readily available to the highest bidder.  While the threat of terrorists developing and employing an improvised nuclear weapon within the boundaries of the United States remains unlikely, the capabilities for successfully developing and employing effective CBRNE devices, including RDDs, continues on an upward trajectory and represents a continuum of tangible threats to homeland security.

The past decade of protracted war in southwest Asia has conditioned the U.S military, the national intelligence apparatus, and our law enforcement agencies to a specific type of fight against non-state actors within a geographic region but with global reach.  Despite tremendous advances in counter-terror, counter-insurgency, and wide area security tactics, techniques, and procedures, our military has let slip the skills necessary to operate effectively in a WMD or CBRNE complicated operational environment, with perhaps the exception of Emergency Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units in support of the counter-IED mission.  Many of our nation’s CBRNE and WMD response capabilities have been outpaced by other modernization efforts, leaving them woefully behind the trajectory of innovation, modernization and emerging threats.

To effectively meet the demands of the current and future CBRNE threats facing our nation, efforts must be taken to reduce the ungoverned spaces that provide non-state actors the freedom of movement to develop and employ CBRNE or WMD-like weapons.  Public awareness and engagement campaigns, such as “See Something, Say Something,” go a long way toward reducing ungoverned spaces, as do efforts to reduce isolated populations within our own borders through deliberate engagement and integration. 

We should seek to better understand the effects of the employment of CBRNE weapons by violent non-state actors, such as ISIS against the Kurds.  The Kurds provides us first-hand knowledge of a people, with little-to-no CBRNE detection or protection capabilities, who are being attacked routinely with CBRNE weapons emanating from a non-state actor’s sanctuary.  Their experience demonstrates the potential of violent extremists to develop and employ WMD-like CBRNE weapons, while showcasing the costs of a lack of capabilities for confronting those challenges.

The threat of non-state actors employing WMD or WMD-like CBRNE in the homeland is cause for legitimate concern.  Priorities should be placed on identifying and delivering a full suite of improved networked sensors, modeling, and collaborative communication capabilities. For best results, this should all be integrated with an enduring but technologically dynamic architecture that enables real-time situational understanding, and improved precision and effectiveness in a whole of government response. We should integrate military installation information, notification, and response capabilities with local, state, and federal intelligence, law enforcement, and emergency response activities to achieve a networked system of installations and communities that improves identification and response capabilities locally, regionally, and nationally.   Increased collaboration between policy, law enforcement, defense, industry, science, and academia is required to ensure modernization efforts are appropriate to the known and anticipated threat spectrum.  Emphasis must be placed on conducting multi-echelon live and constructive training exercises that integrate whole of government resources to ensure local, regional, and national response concepts and capabilities can successfully intercept, defeat, and respond to known and anticipated CBRNE threats. 

Non-state actors and terrorist organizations understand the physical and psychological effects of using CBRNE and WMD-like weapons, and they will continue to seek to develop and employ them to their advantage.  The nexus of ideology and increasingly available CBRNE technology represents a clear and present threat now and in the future, resulting in the very real threat of CBRNE and WMD-like weapons being developed by violent non-state actors and employed against targets in the homeland. This very real threat demands smart, aggressive investments into the agile development and acquisition of CBRNE defense, response, and counter-force capabilities at the local, regional, and national levels to stay ahead of a rapidly changing world.   

Brigadier General (Ret.) JB Burton is the Strategic Account Executive/Chief Strategist for Leidos.  His Army career included leadership of infantry and combined arms formations at every echelon, in peace and war, and culminated as Commanding General of DOD's only fully integrated and operational CBRNE Command.  In this capacity, he led defense and national level efforts to modernize and effectively transform the doctrine, training, organizational and operational approaches for... Read More

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