The recent developments concerning the nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom and their alleged country of origin, Russia, have raised fears in the international community. The ease of the attack raises concerns about terrorists utilizing similar methods. This raises questions about the likelihood of a similar attack against the West.
The alleged Russian nerve agent, Novichok, used in the recent attacks in the United Kingdom is so scarce that rarely has anyone outside of Russia handled this type of agent. Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States and helped design the agent Novichok, told NPR that he has no doubt that Russia was directly involved in the attempted murder of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal. Although the chances are miniscule that criminals or a terrorist organization would be able to steal Novichok from inside Russia, it is concerning nevertheless that there have been previous instances where chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) weapons have been sold – or attempted to be sold – on the black market that came directly from Russia.
The black market would be a clear path for the Islamic State to obtain materials that could be used in a CBRNE attack. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Moldovan investigators ran a sting operation against a suspected arms smuggler in Moldovia attempting to sell to what he thought was a representative from the Islamic State high-grade uranium (Cesium 137). The smuggler was intentionally seeking a Middle Eastern buyer, so the weapon could be used on “the Americans.” As indicated in the recent 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment Intelligence report, produced by the Director of National Intelligence, both state and non-state actors have already demonstrated the development and use of CBRNE weaponry. The report emphasizes that, “chemical materials and technologies – almost always dual-use – move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them for legitimate and illegitimate purposes.” The Islamic State is the first non-state actor to combine a projectile delivery system with a banned chemical warfare agent, according to the Combating Terrorism Center.
According to a NATO Review report, there is a “very real – but not yet fully identified risk – of foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) materials as weapons of terror against the West.” Like al-Qaida, the Islamic State has also sought the use of chemical and biological weapons. Although al-Qaida’s efforts were merely aspirational at best, the Islamic State actually achieved the goal of chemical weapon acquisition. During congressional testimony in 2016, the then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the Islamic State’s use of chemical weapons is the first time a terrorist organization has done such since 1995, when the organization Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas on the subway in Tokyo. The United Nations has been investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq and have concluded the Islamic State has acquired and used chemical weapons on many occasions. According to the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Islamic State has been previously linked to sulfur mustard attacks and several chemical weapons attacks within Syria and Iraq. Experts believe the Islamic State’s arsenal of weapons includes mustard gas and chlorine. Michael Morell, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deputy and acting director, stated that “ISIS has for some time said that they want to acquire weapons of mass destruction and to use them and they’ve actually been able to manufacture chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria and use them on the battlefield.”
Following a thwarted attack in Paris, France, in 2015, then French Prime Minister Manuel Valls discussed before Parliament the possibility of the Islamic State using CBRNE weaponry against the West, saying, “I say it with all the precautions needed. But we know and bear in mind that there is also a risk of chemical or bacteriological weapons.” The West has reason to be with the Islamic State’s desire to employ CBRNE attacks. A laptop was recovered in the battlefield in 2014 from an Islamic State stronghold inside Syria. Information within the laptop, aside from jihadist instructional propaganda on bomb making, was a 19-page instructional document discussing the development of biological weapons and instructions on how to weaponize the bubonic plague. The laptop also contained a 26-page fatwa on the use of weapons of mass destruction and a passage from Saudi jihadi cleric Nasir al-Fahd stating, “If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir (unbelievers) in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction, even if it kills all of them and wipes them and their descendants off the face of the Earth.” Officials believe the laptop belongs to a Tunisian national who was studying chemistry and physics and was teaching himself biological weaponry.
According to NATO Review, an unsettling concern is that the Islamic State had previously stolen 90 pounds of enriched uranium from Mosul University in Iraq. Although it would be extremely difficult for a member or someone pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State to smuggle a CBRNE weapon into the country, the fear looming is that someone already in the country who is radicalized is provided instructions on how to build such weapons. The 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment Intelligence report stressed that the United States will likely see an increase in homegrown extremism and many will “continue to be inspired by a variety of sources, including terrorist propaganda as well as in response to perceived grievances related to U.S. Government actions.” The Islamic State, known for the “do-it-yourself” propaganda magazine Rumiya, has previously sparked the increase in knife welding and vehicle attacks across the globe by promoting the use of these “homegrown” style attacks through explicit instructions in its popular online magazine.
Although a recent issue of Rumiya has not been published instructing how to carry out specific CBRNE attacks in the United States, there has been increased “chatter” intercepted by U.S. Intelligence indicating that the Islamic State has been discussing how to replicate in the United States the deadly chlorine and mustard gas attacks previously carried out in Iraq and Syria. “I think we need to be more worried about them making it here. This stuff is difficult to transport, it’s difficult to get it by customs and immigration. I think it’s more likely that they send the recipe here to their followers and they make it here,” according to Michael Morell, former CIA deputy and acting director. Although the development of this type of weaponry requires advanced technology and sophisticatedly trained personnel, those could be more readily available in the United States as opposed to the battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria. According to the Combating Terrorism Center, a chemical attack by the Islamic State cannot be ruled out should the organization seek to deploy a rudimentary poison gas device in the United States.
In 2017, Australian counterterrorism officials disrupted a plot where four men, directed by the Islamic State, planned to use an improvised chemical dispersion device containing hydrogen sulfide. A clear demonstration of the Islamic State’s ambition to use CBRNE attacks in the West, following the model of those carried out by the terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria. The threat of CBRNE use by the Islamic State within the United States is more than plausible. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is actively working to thwart this threat, according to DHS official Col. Lonnie Carlson: “We’re putting capabilities out in the field right now to counter this threat that 6 months ago, we probably never would have thought of happening … the bottom line is … the threat is real.”
There certainly is an undeniable threat by unknown knowns within the United States. Unfortunately, the threats can come from those inspired and radicalized by the Islamic State – homegrown or those returning from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria – regardless, the threat is real and disturbing. The Islamic State has made use of a widely available industrial chemical – chlorine – abroad and likely could employ the same scenario within the borders of the United States. The use of encrypted technology is increasingly concerning with terrorist groups using encryption that allows them not only the opportunity to radicalize followers online communicate anonymously, but additionally serve as an online institution for furthering the education of wannabe jihadists.
Recently, the Islamic State published on its Furat Wilayah channel (encrypted messaging app Telegram), an English-language series promoting lone-wolf jihad encouraging would-be jihadists and supporters to inject food for sale in markets with cyanide poison. Fortunately, thus far in the West, the majority of homegrown terrorists plotting attacks have selected only methods that have not included the employment of CBRNE. However, today’s fearful climate foreshadows looming plots. Although it is perhaps difficult to determine how realistic a chemical attack is from terrorist organizations, the probability rises, mirroring growing fears.
Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 25 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking. He also serves on the Domestic Preparedness Advisory Board.