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Which Types of Terrorists are Likely to Use a Weapon of Mass Destruction?

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Brandon Martz
Student Contributor for In Homeland Security

Terrorism exists as an asymmetric threat; terrorists overcome the significant disparity in power resulting from their status as the inferior opponent through unconventional, ever-evolving means.  Terrorists relentlessly probe to discover new and existing vulnerabilities, and counterterrorism professionals must analyze and evaluate a tremendous amount of threats.  One such threat is the possibility of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) attack.  Terrorists actively pursue WMDs and this poses as a considerable threat because such an attack could effectively destroy an entire governing body with little to no warning.  Which terrorist groups are likely to use a WMD: state or non-state actors, or political or religious actors?

The first category of terrorists that will be examined is the state actor.  With regards to terrorism, a state actor is a nation that endorses and engages in terrorist activity.  Historically, Pakistan exists as an example of a state actor.  In 2009, Pakistani President Asif Zardari admitted to training Islamic terrorists to attack India as part of its claim on Kashmir.  State actors resort to terrorism to achieve goals that may be difficult to realize diplomatically.  Would a state actor use a WMD against the United States?  It is unlikely.  The recent Nuclear Posture Review Report maintains that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against an attacking nation that is not also a nuclear power.  This exception is indicative of the rule.  If a state actor attacks the United States with a nuclear weapon, the U.S. will retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own, exacting obliterating damage.  With regards to other WMDs, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asserted in 2010 that, “If we can prove that a biological attack originated in a country that attacked us, then all bets are off.”  A state actor is unlikely to attack the United States with a WMD due to ominous warnings that retaliatory destruction is imminent.

Non-state actors engage in and affect international relations not on behalf of an established state.  Non-state actors may engage in violent acts such as terrorism in order to achieve goals not officially endorsed by their state of origin.  Non-state actors are free to cross borders and operate as they see fit.  While state actors would be required to adhere to strict standard operating procedures and rely on a chain of command, non-state actors would be able to act impulsively and exercise judgment to adapt quickly.  In addition, non-state actors are able to operate under less surveillance than state actors.  A nation’s weapons facilities can be monitored by the intelligence community to detect differences in operations and manufacturing, whereas non-state actors could be anyone, operating anywhere.  Non-state actors are also not bound to traditional operating procedures that are easily monitored by other nations.  Non-state actors can function asymmetrically and are more difficult to locate and trace back to a state or origin.  Between state and non-state actors, non-state actors are much more likely to launch a WMD attack against the United States.  Non-state actors can operate in an increased asymmetric manner, can function under far less surveillance, and are harder to trace back to a specific state for a retaliatory attack.

Political terrorists may be either state or non-state actors, which use terrorism to achieve political gains.  An example of a political terrorist organization is the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA).  The ETA operates in Spain and is best known for assassinations of senior Spanish government officials.  The ETA’s motivations are political; they desire to establish a homeland based upon Marxist principles.  However, the ETA has been met with opposition from even those it appeals to by non-violence protests.  This anti-violence sentiment is what renders political terrorists unlikely to use a WMD.  Political terrorists risk alienating their support base if their operations result in too much destruction.  Sympathizers may deem that the potential political gains are not worth mass casualties.  In addition, the use of a WMD by political terrorists may create physical destruction that is damaging to their agenda.  In the case of the ETA, who desires to reappropriate Spain into their own country, using a WMD would be counterintuitive and damage the territory and people they seek to govern.  Political terrorists risk forfeiting both their support network and their desired gains by using a WMD.

Religious terrorists may be either state or non-state actors that use terrorism in an effort to achieve religious goals.  An example of a religious terrorist organization is the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  The leader of Aum Shinrikyo, Shoko Asahara, led the organization under his visions of entering an end-of-the world battle.  Aum Shinrikyo did in fact launch a WMD attack against Japan in 1995, and many religious cults such as Aum Shinrikyo seek destruction in the name of otherworldly powers.  These cults are often isolated from societal norms and rely on leaders to provide interpretation and direction in their belief system.  Religious cults become susceptible to accepting the usage of a WMD when they have Armageddon, or apocalyptic themes, inscribed into their sacred literature.  These cults are likely to accept WMDs, as mass destruction is seen as a righteous battle.  In the case of retaliation, these terrorists are indemnified by being sung as religious martyrs.

State actors and political actors are unlikely to exact a WMD attack against the United States.  The international community can monitor the weapons facilities of state actors, and the United States has made it clear that an attack would result in severe, retaliatory destruction.  State actors will be unwilling to accept destruction of their homeland.  Political terrorists are also unlikely to utilize a WMD because mass casualties would isolate their support network.  In addition, mass destruction could indiscriminately harm the land and population they want changed.

Non-state actors and religious cult actors are more likely to pose a WMD threat.  Non-state actors can operate more covertly than state actors and are not easily traced back to a country of origin.    Religious cult terrorists are also likely to accept use of a WMD in an attack when apocalyptic themes are present in their belief system.  These religious cults see destruction as a righteous battle and blowback would render them as martyrs to their cause.

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