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Terrorist Motivations for Chemical and Biological Weapons Use: Placing the Threat in Context

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Congressional rept.

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There is widespread belief that the likelihood of terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons CBW is increasing, in part as a result of publicized new evidence of terrorist interest and capabilities, as well as the political fall-out from the war in Iraq. This is a serious concern that deserves examination in the broader framework provided by the patterns, motivations, and historical context for the current terrorist threat. Although it can have a powerful psychological impact, past CBW use by terrorists has been rare and has not caused a large number of casualties, especially compared to other weapons. Terrorist attacks are deliberately designed to surprise, so no trend analysis will ever perfectly predict them. This report presents the arguments for and against future nonstate terrorist acquisition andor use of CBW weapons against the United States, as well as a brief discussion of issues for congress concerning how best to counter the threat. The reasons for increased potential use can be grouped into four major categories the growth of militant religious groups with political agendas as a percentage of all terrorist groups, the increasing global availability of CBW information and stockpiles, the internationalization of the threat of terrorism, and the clear evidence of terrorist interest and capabilities. There are at least four reasons why terrorist groups like Al Qaeda might avoid using chem-bio agents in attacks against the United States and its interests. First and most important, the technical difficulties in carrying out such attacks continue to be significant. Second, there are far easier and potentially more effective alternatives to chemical and biological weapons. Third, the incentives and disincentives for individual terrorists to use chemical and biological weapons are complex and may not be exactly the same as those that guide the use of more conventional weapons. Finally, groups tend to mimic previous successes.

Subject Categories:

  • Chemical, Biological and Radiological Warfare
  • Unconventional Warfare

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