Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons by Terrorists

Author: Squadron Leader Rahul Monga

Period: January 2002 - March 2002

Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons by Terrorists

Squadron Leader Rahul Monga


With proliferation in Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW), the possibility of use of CBW by terrorists on unsuspecting civil and military targets poses a serious problem. These weapons have the capability to cause fatalities and injuries on personnel on a large scale.

There is such a broad selection of CBW exhibiting such diverse characteristics that the very nature of these substances makes them suitable for terrorist use. There are many advantages for terrorists to use CBW, and the disadvantages that do exist seem quite small. In general it seems that CBW may soon become a key component in the terrorist arsenal. If this threat is left unchecked, the world’s population may soon live under a dark cloud of constant fear; the fear that any crazy person, terrorist, or activist group has the potential to commit random acts of brutal mass murder at low cost and low risk to themselves.

The aim of this paper is to examine the issue of chemical and biological weapons, likehood of their use by terrorists and suggest some solutions for reducing threat levels and increasing public awareness and safety. The following aspects will be covered:

(a) Working definitions.

(b) Classification of Chemical Weapons (CW).

(c) Classification of Biological Weapons (CBW).

(d) Some examples of terrorist use of CBW.

(e) Advantages of use of CBW to terrorists.

(f) Disadvantages of use of CBW.

(g) Tactics of acquisition and dissemination.

(h) Suggested solutions.

(j) The Future.


Chemical Agents. All substances employed for their toxic effects on humans, animals, and plants. This definition excludes chemicals employed in warfare such as high explosives, smoke and incendiaries (e.g., napalm, magnesium and white phosphorous), which exert their primary effects through physical force, fire, air deprivation or reduced visibility.

Biological Agents. Those agents that depend for their effects on multiplication within the target organism, and are intended for use in war to cause disease or death in humans, animals or plants. This excludes toxins elaborated by some microbes (e.g., botulinal toxin and staphylococcal enterotoxin) when they are performed outside the target organism.

Lethal Agent. An agent which is intended to cause death when humans are exposed to concentrations well within the capability of delivery for military or terrorist purposes. In lower doses, such agents can cause severe and sustained disability.

Incapacitating Agent. An agent which is intended to cause temporary disease or to induce temporary mental or physical disability, the duration of which greatly exceeds the period of exposure.

Harassing Agent. An agent capable of causing a rapid disablement that lasts a little longer than the period of exposure.

Casualties. Deaths or disabilities.


Chemical agents are inorganic substances used in warfare to attack the organs of the human body in such a way that they prevent those organs from functioning normally. The results are usually disabling to various degrees or fatal. The broad spectrum of chemical agents capable of causing damage to living organisms often makes discussion of such compounds difficult. This paper shall be limited to substances affecting humans only. There are three major categories under which chemical agents may be classified.

Lethal Agents

A variety of tissue irritants and systemic poisons have been developed into lethal chemical agents. Generally speaking, they include Choking agents, Blister agents, Blood agents, Nerve agents and lethal toxins.

(a) Choking Agents. Choking agents were the agents most used during World War I, but have lost much of their usefulness since the advent of the nerve agents. These agents injure unprotected men chiefly in the respiratory tract. These substances are intended to cause death and offer their greatest advantage to terrorists by being easily obtained. Phosgene or CG, a choking agent, is a common industrial chemical with a moderate lethal dose.

(b) Blister Agents. Blister agents are intended to cause incapacitation rather than death. They affect the eyes and lungs and blister the skin. These agents were used extensively during World War I, and their use by a terrorist group depends largely on the group’s objectives and moral standing. Obviously, if the intention of a chemical attack is to injure many people and overload medical facilities while causing as few deaths as possible, then a blister agent such as lewisite or mustard gas may be the best choice.

(c) Blood Agents. Cyanide based compounds are the main components of blood agents. Hydrogen cyanide (AC) is a blood agent that has a lethal dose slightly higher than that of phosgene, but is less effective due to its rapid rate of evaporation. These compounds are not really suited for use on large numbers of people, so their primary role would most likely be in assassinations.

(d) Nerve Agents. The newest trend in chemical weapons has been the nerve agents. German scientists developed the original nerve agents during the 1930s and the Nazi military then developed commercial insecticides into chemical weapons. Since then, these agents – sarin, tabun, soman, and others have been the main stockpiles of chemical weapons. In general they are thousands of times more lethal than blister, choking, and blood agents. These chemicals are the most useful to terrorists because of the small quantity needed to inflict a substantial amount of damage. A moderately competent organic chemist can synthesise VX and sarin, the most toxic of the nerve agents, with limited laboratory facilities.

(e) Toxins. Toxins are naturally occurring toxic proteins of high molecular weight. Some of them are extremely poisonous. Important is the botulinal toxin, which is one of the most poisonous toxic substances known. It can be extracted on a fairly large scale in bacteriological laboratories from the bacteria Clostridium Botulinum. Another toxin, ricin, is potentially available on a large-scale as a by-product of castor beans processing.

Incapacitating Agents

These agents could be used by terrorists to create panic, confusion and shock in the target population. Lethality will be minimal, but these can be used to instill fear and can be used for purposes such as blackmail and harassment.

(a) Bacteriological Enterotoxins and Related Substances. Many bacteriological toxins can produce acutely incapacitating effects at sub lethal doses. Typical effects of this type are pyrexia (abnormal temperature and pulse) and diarrohea. Staphylococcal enterotoxin is one example.

(b) Psychochemicals. Several potent psychotropic drugs are potential incapacitating agents. They cause behavioural disturbances and some may also cause physical incapacitation. LSD and agent BZ are some known psychochemicals.

Harassing Agents

Harassing agents are short-term incapacitating agents. They are sensory irritants and cause lachrymation, vomiting and pain. Some of these are often used by the police for riot control e.g., CS more commonly known as tear gas. These could also be used by terrorists in crowded areas for shock effect.


A large variety of microorganisms can be used as biological agents. Many of these agents can be produced and used as weapons with relatively simple techniques. They can be classified on the basis of the causative microbes and resulting infections. The various types of infections are:

(a) Viral Infections. Such as yellow fever, tick-borne encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, Dengue, Rift Valley fever, influenza and smallpox.

(b) Rickettsial Infections. Such as typhus, Q fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

(c) Bacterial Infections. Such as plague, anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, typhoid.

(d) Fungal Infections. Such as coccidiodomycosis


In 1978, a Palestinian group injected cyanide into citrus fruit exported from Israel. In the Philippines, Huk guerrillas poisoned pineapples that were due to be exported. In both these instances, the rapid response of the authorities and the discovery of the poisoned fruits thwarted the terrorists.1

In 1994 and 1995 there were two instances of the use of sarin against the civilian population by terrorists. The first was in Mastumoto, a mountainous town in central Japan. Seven people died. There were two hundred casualties, who suffered symptoms of organo-phosphorous poisoning. In the second instance, on the morning of 20 March 1995, there was a poison gas attack on commuters travelling in five trains on the Tokyo underground railway system. Seven people were killed and 122 injured seriously of which five died later on. Around 5,500 people had to seek medical attention. The attack also created widespread panic and disruption when threats of further attack followed.2

In an incident in April 1997, which raised fears of BW terrorism in the USA, a package with a broken petri dish and a note indicating that the petri dish contained anthrax and plague was left outside the Washington headquarters of a Jewish organisation B’nai’ B’rith. Tests proved negative for a variety of biological agents. During the incident over 100 people were trapped inside the building for over eight hours, an event which highlighted the inadequacies of existing emergency measures against CBW terrorism.3 A few other reported instances are given below.

(a) In the February 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, five people were killed and 1,000 people injured. The judge in the subsequent trial indicated that the bombers might have put sodium cyanide in the bomb but that it vapourised in the blast.

(b) In May 1995 a man in Ohio was arrested for attempting to purchase bubonic plague cultures through mail.

(c) An Arkansas farmer was arrested for possession of 130 g of ricin, which could have killed thousands of people, in December 1995. He was later found hanging in his jail cell.

(d) The German police confiscated a coded diskette with information on how to produce mustard gas from a neo-Nazi group in February 1996.

(e) The US FBI has reportedly found chemical and biologicalagents in possession of several individuals and revolutionary groups. Some examples are :

(i) Cyanide held by the Revolutionary Action Movement in 1967 and the Covenant Sword in the Arm of the Lord in 1985.

(ii) Cultures of typhoid bacteria held by the Order of the Rising Sun, which was planning to contaminate US water supplies in 1972.

(iii) Nerve agent on a potential assassin who was planning to kill the US President in Washington in 1974.

(f) In 1984, the Parisian police found a culture of clostridium botulinum growing in a safe house of the Bader Meinhof gang.

(g) In 1991, German authorities foiled a plot by neo-Nazis to pump hydrogen cyanide into a synagogue.4

(h) In 1984, the Rajneesh cult was accused of poisoning some 750 people by contaminating salad bars with salmonella in restaurants near Antelope, Oregon, to influence the outcome of local elections.

(j) In 1987, a federal grand jury indicted 14 white supremacists for plotting to poison water reservoirs in Chicago, Illinois and Washington DC with cyanide.

(k) In 1987, the Confederate Hammer Skins reportedly planned to place cyanide crystals in the air conditioning unit of a Jewish synagogue in Dallas.5

(l) In 1978, ricin was used for the purpose of assassination in the killing of the Bulgarian exile, Georgi Markov.6


Chemical Weapons

The use of chemical agents offers many advantages to the terrorists who use them. Many of these advantages are unique, or in other words exhibit qualities which conventional weaponslack. The other advantage is the severity of the effects of chemical weapons. These advantages include the limited capability of anti-terrorist groups for detecting such weapons, the low cost and low technology required to develop chemical weapons, their extremely frightening image and the overall efficiency of such weapons.

One of the difficulties that have long plagued chemical warfare defence also lends difficulty to counter-terrorist capabilities. This is the lack of effective detectors. Very few chemical warfare agents can be reliably detected when in use. And these substances are virtually impossible to detect when stored in a closed container. This lack of available detection technology makes chemical warfare agents ideal to transport and conceal.

CW have long been considered "the poor man’s atomic bomb" due to their relative low cost and ease of manufacture. For a large-scale operation against a civilian population, casualties might cost $2,000 per square kilometre with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with nerve-gas weapons and $1 with biological weapons. The argument that chemical weapons are too difficult for most terrorists to manufacture has been discredited by many studies and reports. Covert laboratory scale production by trained chemists can be readily accomplished, as the processes are available in open literature. These factors make chemical weapons attainable not only to well-funded terrorist groups but also to any disgruntled person or lunatic.

One of the aspects which makes chemical weapons such an appropriate weapon for a terrorist is their highly terrifying nature. Ever since the first use of chemical weapons, civilians and soldiers alike have criticised them. They have been considered unconventional, uncivilised, and even gruesome. These adjectives have also been employed often when describing terrorists. In general, terrorists thrive off the shock factor of their activities and chemical warfare exhibits a high degree of shock factor. Therefore, the use of chemical weapons may "enhance" the image of a terrorist group. In the recent past, the public has become sensitised to the conventional methods of terrorists. Terrorists, therefore, may take recourse to these weapons to take control of a situation which, they may feel, is slipping out of their hands.

The final advantage offered by CW is their enormous ability to inflict casualties. These weapons are extremely cost effective and many times weight effective than conventional explosive weapons and are ideal area weapons. The overall efficiency of chemical warfare agents, combined with all of the previously mentioned advantages, makes a frighteningly inexpensive, undetectable, and efficient weapon.

Biological Weapons

Biological weapons are more potent on a weight to weight basis than chemical weapons. Terrorists may be attracted by the prospect of using smaller and less costly amounts of biological agents to inflict a larger number of casualties over a larger area. The downwind hazard area of biological weapons is much more than that of chemical weapons*. The fact that these agents are even more difficult to detect than chemical agents (as of now, they can be successfully detected only in laboratories) make them ideal for sabotage and widespread indiscriminate contamination. Furthermore, as biological agents multiply, they can cause epidemics. Another factor favouring biological agents is the time lag between release of the agent and the onset of effects, which will enable the terrorists to make a getaway.


As with all methods of terrorism, there are disadvantages to the use of CBW. In the past, terrorists have normally preferred low-tech weapons and other equipment. This is because of affordability, ease of acquisition, proven reliability and little requirement of specialist training. CBW do not fall in this category of low-tech weapons. They are not that cheap, are more difficult to acquire and have unpredictable and uncertain consequences. Furthermore, they might not fit in with the tactical plans of a terrorist group, which may call for a swift, bloody and dramatic explosion or some such happening.

CBW are also liable to prove counterproductive for a subversive group, by stiffening the resolve of the adversary government and by alienating friends or neutrals. Regardless of the nature of terrorist action, some type of retaliation can be expected from the victimised group. The severity of that group’s reaction depends on several factors. The first factor to consider is who the group is. Also, the method of the attack will contribute to a victim’s response. In general, the more horrible an attack, the more severe the retaliation is likely to be or seem to be.

Not only must a terrorist group consider the political factor associated with the employment of CBW, but there are also a few technical problems to overcome. The most obvious of these technical difficulties is the method of obtaining the necessary agents. Once a terrorist group has decided to use CBW and has obtained them, the final obstacle is to effectively use them without causing harm to themselves.



The first method to acquire CBW would be to manufacture them. Small groups or individuals frequently manufacture a variety of narcotic substances secretly. These people easily overcome difficulties similar to those encountered in the manufacture of chemical weapons. So the answer to the question of whether or not the development of chemical weapons is within a terrorist’s ability is yes. Raw material for the production of biological agents can also be obtained readily. Cultures of biological agents can be found in research laboratories and can be stolen or acquired for notional research purposes. Once the cultures have been obtained, production will not be difficult for trained personnel with experience in microbiology. Thus crude biological weapons are within the reach of many dissident groups worldwide.

Another way for terrorist groups to get CBW would be to purchase them. They can either be purchased from an illegal source, sympathetic country, or deadly industrial chemicals can be legally purchased and employed in a chemical attack. The media and public have overlooked the serious threat of chemical weapons being sold, largely due to the overpowering fear of the sale of nuclear material or devices. There is definitely a threat of this type of sale, but if this is not the route, there are always terrorist groups that have connections with nations sympathetic to their cause who may have better access to such weapons.

Illegal purchase is not the only way terrorists could acquire a chemical agent with dangerous properties. Many industrial chemicals are closely related to chemical weapons; in fact several industrial chemicals were even employed as chemical weapons during World War I. Chlorine and phosgene were both used extensively by the Germans, British, and French during that war. Although these substances are far less lethal than nerve agents, they are quite common and have many legitimate industrial applications. Even more frightening is an entire class of industrial chemicals of a highly toxic nature. These are the organophosphates; in fact this is also the class of chemical to which sarin (GB) and VX belong. These chemicals are commonly used as insecticides and include parathion, an insecticide notorious for the threat it poses to those who use it. The lethal doses for the industrial chemicals of this class are in general ten to fifty times higher than those of the military agents; however they are still very dangerous. As one may realise, many of these industrial agents are well suited for use as a weapon, and their legitimate uses make it particularly difficult to regulate sales. So, in general, chemical compounds suitable for use as a weapon are abundant and easily available, regardless of the method used to acquire them.


After having decided to use CBW and acquired the necessary agents, the final obstacle is to effectively use them without causing harm to themselves. Effective dissemination is crucial, as it will prove difficult to disperse a bulk supply of a chemical agent over the target. It is estimated that around one ton of agent is required to effectively contaminate one square mile of the target.7 Terrorists could still mount attacks within enclosed spaces like conference halls, hotels or offices.

In the Japanese incident, plastic bags containing the agent were punctured and the resulting evaporation was the method of dissemination. This is a primitive method and more effective methods like aerosol generators and timed devices are easily available and can be bought off the shelf or even produced in-house. Production will pose little trouble to most of the terrorist groups at their current technology level. In this age of increasing education and booming technology, it is easier to find the necessary technical and mechanical assistance for any project, legal or otherwise.


With the threats becoming real, one needs to consider what could be done to counter this danger. To start with, counter-terrorist organisations must continue with their information gathering and observations of terrorist organisations. The first specific step is that precursor chemicals or potential CBW must be better regulated. Then response capabilities must be increased and improved to deal with chemical attacks, which should include an improvement in chemical detection capabilities. And finally, the public must be better informed on the subject of chemical attacks, and in specific "what to do in an emergency."

Restricting chemicals used to make chemical warfare agents may be the least effective method of preventing terrorists from using CBW. This merely increases the costs for a group to obtain their weapons. It does, however, reduce the chances of a "casual" terrorist using them. The casual terrorist may not be willing to go through the difficulties of obtaining CBW due to time considerations or a loss in motivation. Another way restrictions would help reduce this threat is through the methods outlined in the Chemical Weapons Convention. This prevents the development or sale of CW by any of the signatory nations, and thus reduces the number of sources from which terrorists can acquire their weapons.

An improvement in preparedness for attacks and the organisation of a special team of experts for response would be more successful than simply a restriction on CBW. Many
emergency agencies (like police, fire departments, and hospitals) are not adequately supplied and trained to deal with CBW attacks, especially on a large scale. An increase in instructions on how to identify the signs of a CBW attack and deal with those affected may make quite a difference. Even more important would be the development of a government response team specifically trained to deal with large CBW attacks to improve the response capability drastically. This team would be composed of experts in the field of CBW, the effects of those weapons and decontamination of people and equipment. Along with this skilled response team, there need to be increased detection capabilities. The increase in a counter-terrorist group’s capability of detecting CBW has the obvious advantage of preventing an attack before it happens. This should clearly be a priority.

Increased public knowledge is probably the best defence or response to the new CBW threat. The ideal case would be a public knowledge campaign to teach people what the threats are and how to identify the signs of a CBW attack. Education can be on the managerial level. Large corporations, schools, and buildings alike may designate a group of people to become educated in what to do in the event of such an emergency. This group could in turn instruct the masses of people in an emergency. Likely targets of CBW attacks could also instruct their personnel and post signs regarding the response to such an emergency. For instance, if subway workers in the March 1995 incident had been able to identify that CBW attack more quickly, their lives as well as the lives of others may have been saved. This increase in awareness would most likely contribute greatly to a reduction of CBW casualties.


Now that the world has progressed so far that mass destruction is within reach of a far greater percentage of the population, the likelihood of an incident involving weapons of mass destruction, particularly CBW, is much greater. The future holds many developments in store for the civilised world; when it comes to terrorists and CBW threat is real and deadly. Many things are taking place. The first concerns CBW alone – the development of binary weapons**. The next group concerns the nature of terrorism. This includes the increase of terrorist activity, the crackdown by anti-terrorist forces on traditional methods, and decrease in reluctance of a terrorist group to use CBW.

Another factor that will contribute to the terrorist use of CBW is the spread of CBW capability to countries which may have connections with terrorists and can be considered possible sources of CBW for terrorists. Although the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has reduced the scope for proliferation of chemical agents and has made it illegal to develop and stockpile CW, the amount of chemical agent necessary for a terrorist operation would be extremely difficult to detect. It can even be justified by claiming it as research material.

The world has seen an increase in terrorist incidents. With increase in terrorism, the diversity of terrorist attacks are likely to increase. CBW are more likely to be acquired by terrorist groups.

Along with the increase in terrorism, there has been a significant increase in anti-terrorism activity and capabilities. As police and government authorities world-wide become better prepared to handle terrorist activities, and more anti-terrorist technology is developed, the traditional methods terrorists are accustomed to become less likely to succeed. With most of anti-terrorist developments focusing on preventing hijackings and bombings, the difficulty encountered by terrorists attempting to use these techniques has increased. Among the alternates are CBW with all the advantages they offer.

Lastly, and most important of all, there has been a breach in the invisible barrier which has kept terrorists from using CBW in the past. This barrier was composed of fear and uncertainty. Terrorists were afraid of the consequences of such a weapon and the danger to themselves, and they were uncertain of the success of such an attack. Now, after the sarin attack in Japan in March 1995, it is obvious how effective a small amount of chemical agent is at tying down a subway system, injuring many people, and enraging people all over the world. This essentially opened the door to a whole new form of terrorism. The only thing now keeping terrorists from using CBW is their lack of knowledge. Once they realise that the production of these weapons is well within the scope of their operations, there will be very little left to stop them.


1. The Washington Post, 27 August 1984.

2. Edward M Spries, "Chemical and Biological Terrorism", Brassey’s Defence Yearbook, 1997.

3. SIPRI Yearbook 1998.

4. The Washington Post, 27 August 1984.

5. R Purver, CB Terrorism: The Threat According To Open Literature (Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 1995).

6. R H Kupperman and D M Smith, Biological Weapons: Weapons of thes Future (CSIS, 1993).

7. B Starr, "Nightmare in the making", Jane’s Defence Weekly, 3 June 1995.

Squadron Leader Rahul Monga is serving with a Signals Unit of the Air Force.

*   The downwind hazard distance for a typical chemical agent is of the order of a few kilometres, whereas it is of the order of hundreds of kilometres for a biological agent in favourable and comparable meteorological conditions.

** A Chemical weapon in which the agent is stored as two precursor chemicals which only need to be combined to form the final lethal product. This reduces the risk that a terrorist must face in the storage and transport of weapons; it also reduces the threat of accidental exposure upon dispersal of the agent. If the chemical device is engineered correctly, with some sort of time delay, the terrorist could be long gone even before the lethal agent is made.


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