Chapter 32. How Real Is the Threat of Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction?


Michail Chalaris
Department of Chemistry, International Hellenic University, Kavala, Greece

Part of the book: The Challenges of Disaster Planning, Management, and Resilience


The longstanding efforts of the international community writ large to exclude weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from international competition and conflict. The definition of weapons of mass destruction will remain uncertain and controversial in the near future, and its value as an analytic category will be increasingly open to question. This chapter aims at presenting the existing chemical, biological or radioactive weapon capable of causing widespread death and destruction which name WMDs and at exploring the possibility of the occurrence of incidents involving the use of weapons of mass destruction. In the first part of the chapter, we will refer to an overview of the use, during the history, of WMDs and to the definitions of all the types of WMD. In the second part, we will analyze if WMDs are a real threat for the future. We examine real incidents and the relations between state and nonstate Actors, Terrorism, and WMD and the development of the new technologies at that field with scope the foreseeing the future of the use of WMD. Finally, we will extract the conclusions. The proliferation of these weapons is likely to be harder to prevent and thus potentially more prevalent. WMD could potentially cause devastation on a scale that no other weapon at this time can achieve. A well planned chemical or biological attack could theoretically kill thousands or even millions of people, whilst a radiological weapon would cause the necessary evacuation of an area and again could possibly cause large-scale casualties. The issue with these weapons is that they only have the potential to cause such damage, and historical precedents would suggest that it is a very complicated and difficult task to achieve such devastation, even if a group is able to procure such a weapon. A nuclear weapon would have a much larger and more destructive effect, as it is the only weapon of mass destruction that also destroys buildings, but the likelihood of a terrorist group acquiring or building one is low now. Conventional explosives have proven to be more effective than attacks involving WMDs at this point, and though it is theoretically possible that international terrorist groups might acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them upon acquisition, we believe that the use of conventional explosives will continue to dominate terrorist attacks. New forms of WMD—beyond chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons— are unlikely to emerge by the near future, but cyber weapons will probably be capable of inflicting such widespread disruption that the countries may become as reliant on the threat to impose unacceptable costs to deter large-scale cyber attack as it currently is to deter the use of WMD. These conclusions about the future of WMD derive from judgments about relevant technological and geopolitical developments out to the near future. Technological developments will shape what WMD capabilities will be achievable in that timeframe while geopolitical developments will shape motivations to acquire and use WMD.

Keywords: Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), CBRN threats, CBRN weapon, terrorism


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