Paris is the most recent reminder of the barbaric acts of brutality and terrorism committed by the Islamic State. Although this extremist terror organization has committed despicable acts – such as crucifixions, beheadings, live burnings, and bombings – the threat of its brutality is expanding beyond Europe, with even deadlier consequences.
The fear of terrorist attacks grew after three teams of terrorists staged synchronized attacks at separate locations throughout Paris, France, on 13 November 2015 – including a concert hall, the Stade de France, and multiple restaurants. At least 129 people were killed in the attacks, and 352 people were wounded – 99 of them seriously. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for these attacks, as it did for the killing of 224 people when a Russian airliner crashed in Sinai on 31 October 2015. To complicate matters, intelligence suggests that the Islamic State has the means to acquire a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapon.
Implications of the Paris Attack
There must be a unilateral strategy to combat the terrorist threat, both domestically and abroad. As long as the Islamic State continues to maintain a haven in which to operate, train, and spread radicaleology, the world will continue to face acts of terror. On Monday, 16 November 2015, less than 48 hours after gunmen and suicide bombers synchronized attacks across the city of Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his strategy for combating the Islamic State. During a news conference at the G20 Summit in Turkey, Obama stated that sending large numbers of ground troops to Syria and Iraq would be a “mistake.” Conversely, the only way to combat this threat is through a sustainable effort that is relentless to diminish the popularity that has ultimately led to the success of the Islamic State.
Most recently, a video purportedly released by the Islamic State shows a fighter standing with his followers, praising the Paris attacks, and threatening the United States, “As we struck France in its stronghold, Paris, we will strike America in its own stronghold in Washington.” This new video warns of lethal consequences should the United States, or any country, partner with France against the Islamic State. The video further warned European nations not to block the terrorists’ efforts across Syria and Iraq. This new information suggests a major shift in the terrorist group’s global strategy. Once content with regional dominance, the Islamic State is now pushing to expand its control throughout the European communities and elsewhere.
The complexity of the Paris attacks suggests extensive planning and preparation with direction from the Islamic State’s central leadership. Adding to concern for national security in the United States is the Syrian refugee crisis. European officials say that professional terrorists are joining refugee travels in attempts to enter Europe and elsewhere. One of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France was in possession of a fake Syrian passport and arrived among the refugees on the Greek island of Leros on 3 October 2015. This is a concern because, in September 2015, the United States agreed to take 15,000 Syrian refugees, with approximately 85,000 total refugees expected by the end of 2016. The rise of the Islamic State, and its leaders’ appeals for supporters to carry out attacks around the world, has prompted a sharper sense of caution both domestically and abroad.
The Islamic State has an external agenda and is determined to carry out similar attacks outside of the region it has so quickly dominated. This is not an isolated event, and the Islamic State likely has additional attacks in the queue. This was a carefully planned attack in Paris over the course of several months, with trained operatives in place equipped with weapons such as explosives and suicide belts. The Islamic State has found more utility in trying to recruit and motivate sympathizers in the United States online from abroad. The FBI stated that “hundreds, maybe thousands” of U.S. residents currently follow the Islamic State online. In the past year, at least 49 people in the United States have been charged with terrorist-related crimes.
Many Buyers & Sellers
There is sufficient evidence and intelligence to conclude that an array of terrorist organizations representing various backgrounds and posturing differenteologies have attempted to acquire and have definitely considered the use of CBRN weapons. Although al-Qaida leaders have been outspoken about attempting to acquire or produce weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) for well over a decade, they have had no success in achieving these goals.
In 1998, then al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden acknowledged that the acquisition and use of WMDs was his Islamic duty. During his leadership, bin Laden urged his top commanders to make efforts to acquire and develop nuclear and biochemical WMDs. However, more concerning is the looming fear that there are active sellers currently seeking Islamic extremist buyers. For example, in Moldova, a former Soviet state in Eastern Europe, 68 percent of the population is low-income or living in poverty, which raises concern about a possible correlation between poverty and ongoing organized criminal activity. Moldovan officials, working in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have thwarted at least four attempts in the past five years by suspected Russian organized crime groups to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.
The latest attempt to illegally sell CBRN weapons occurred in February 2015, when a Russian smuggler offered a large cache of cesium 135 to what he thought was a buyer from the Islamic State. According to the investigation, the smuggler offered a supply of cesium 135 in trade for 2.5 million Euros. Fortunately, the buyer was an informant rather than a member of the terrorist organization. According to the Moldovan investigators, most of the criminal organizations in Moldova have connections to the Russian KGB’s (former Russian secret police and intelligence agency) successor agency, the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service), and are flooding the country’s black market with nuclear materials.
Dirty Bombs – Blueprints & Isotopes
In 2011, a Russian organized crime group attempted to arrange the sale of bomb-grade uranium (U-235) along with a set of blueprints for a “dirty bomb” to an unknown man from Sudan. The isotope U-235 is significant because, under various conditions, it can easily be split to yield a lot of energy. Therefore, it is said to be “fissile” – capable of splitting and releasing enormous amounts of energy – according to the World Nuclear Association. The properties of uranium are important for nuclear weapons and nuclear power because of their ability to fission and create the successful chain reaction that causes a nuclear explosion.
According to the Associated Press, in October 2015, authorities in Moldova blame the increase in black market sales of radioactive material on the breakdown in collaboration between Russia and the United States. Authorities claim that smugglers are finding new means to move Russia’s vast unaccounted radioactive materials that have leaked into the black market, and these materials are controlled by organized crime. About 140 cases of missing or unauthorized use of nuclear and radioactive material were reported to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission in 2013.
An official source from the U.S. Department of Energy told ABC News in 2005 that there is simply no way to calculate the amount of material that is missing in Russia. Neither the Russian nor Soviet government had ever used an accurate inventory system to track the quantity of nuclear material produced and the locations where it would be used. The stark reality is that, with a great deal of unaccounted materials after the collapse of the former USSR, coupled with eager buyers manifested by profiteers in the black market, an actual attack is simply a game of statistics.
Closing Statistically Significant International Gaps
Fortunately, the manufacturing of CBRN weapons requires access to bodies of scientific knowledge that, for the most part, have been the invention of western science and research. Although much of this knowledge is now published and available on the Internet, it still requires a certain level of access to training and research institutions to be made most effective. In order for the Islamic State to pursue a rigorous CBRN weapons program, the terrorist group would have to devote substantial resources to the acquisition, production, and, in some cases, tests of the weapon.
The sale of cesium is a concern for anyone in the international community because of the possibility of it being used to create a “Dirty Bomb” and expose large populations to the effects of radiation exposure – burns, acute radiation sickness, cancer, or even death. If the Islamic State were able to procure and weaponize the cesium, it could prove problematic for the ongoing conflict. Without a solid strategy for combating the Islamic State, the threat of Islamic extremists attempting to acquire CBRN weapons continues to be a challenge. Coupled with the fact that opportunists are actively seeking extremist buyers, the statistics game becomes increasingly more difficult with each passing day.
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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.