war on the rocks

The New U.S. Strategy to Tackle WMD Terrorism is New Wine in Old Wineskins

December 14, 2018

Americans have long been obsessed with the notion that someday a terrorist will detonate a nuclear weapon within the United States. In no small part, our own top defense experts have encouraged this view to motivate the government to take actions to prevent such an eventuality. Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year on countering terrorism, senior defense leaders and politicians still grapple with the paralyzing scenario of a terrorist using a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon against the American public. Two decades ago, the Clinton administration issued a presidential decision directive to organize the U.S. government efforts against unconventional threats to the homeland. A lot has been done since then. Do we really need a new strategy today?

The White House released a new national strategy to articulate its approach to address the possibility that terrorists may attack the United States and its interests with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The White House fact sheet identifies “new aggressive steps to counter the growing threat posed by WMD terrorism” as necessary due to the failure of past approaches to sufficiently mitigate the threat. This document builds upon the 2017 National Security Strategy that noted the increasing danger from “hostile states and non-state actors who are trying to acquire nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological weapons” and called for efforts to detect and disrupt efforts to use such weapons against the United States. The 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism also emphasized this threat. Although one can agree with the need for a deliberate policy approach to guide interagency efforts in this area, one cannot say that this strategy is new, in either its assumptions or its particular lines of effort.

There’s an inherent challenge in using the term “WMD terrorism” in that it identifies very different chemical, biological, and radiological hazards equally as potential mass casualty threats. To the credit of the authors of this strategy, they caveat this point by noting that chemical and radiological weapons may not cause large-scale casualties, but the qualitatively distinct effects of their use are rationale for requiring a specific national strategy. The strategy calls biological agents “the only other class of WMD that has the potential to match nuclear weapons in the scale of casualties they produce.” This is a talking point that dates back to the first term of the George W. Bush presidency, when his administration was developing its Biodefense Strategy for the 21st Century. It’s still only applicable if one is comparing multiple tens of kilograms of weaponized anthrax to a single low-yield nuclear weapon. Finally, the strategy groups nuclear and radiological materials together, which can be explained by the focus on securing nuclear material — an Obama administration policy favorite — but certainly we treat securing fissile material such as uranium-235 and plutonium-239 much more seriously than other radioactive isotopes, considering the impact of an improvised nuclear device as compared to a radiological dispersal device.

The strategy’s introduction attempts to justify why this effort is necessary, and in making that case, there are some questionable statements. It uses the past 40 years as the backstage to describe “multiple groups and individuals” using WMD agents to injure “hundreds of people in multiple countries” and to kill dozens. That’s an awfully broad window to identify contemporary security trends. If the timeframe was only the past 15 years, a much more relevant scope, it would be a much less interesting story. Calling out al-Qaeda as having pursued an interest in nuclear weapons is debatable, and really was more of a pre-9/11 effort. One also has to question the assertion that “multiple countries operate clandestine chemical or biological weapons programs” and that those countries’ technical personnel would assist terrorists in their WMD efforts. There is no evidence that any nation-state has ever considered transferring nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons to non-state actors.

The strategy uses the same generic statement used by the past three presidential administrations, that “technical advances and other global developments” will allow terrorists to have easier access to WMD-program related material and technology. And yet, since 1995, the only significant terrorist “WMD” incidents have been Iraqi insurgents and the Islamic State’s limited and ineffective use of industrial chemicals in the Middle East (of note, the Amerithrax attacks in 2001 were not caused by a terrorist group). Are these events really the precursor to future cases of terrorists bringing WMD into the United States? Following the 9/11 attack, it was popular to say that terrorists would not hesitate to use WMD, should they acquire them. So we’re back to using that tired phrase, despite the absolute lack of any factual cases to support that assumption.

We can argue about the assumptions used in WMD terrorism strategies and the probability of such events actually occurring and resulting in mass casualty events, but of more significance is the federal government’s plan to deter, disrupt, and respond to such threats. The Trump administration’s strategy identifies three core elements that will drive eight lines of effort to achieve five strategic objectives (see Figure 1).

This is not a new policy approach to countering “the growing threat posed by WMD terrorism.” It is certainly not “the first-ever comprehensive, public description of the United States Government’s approach to combating WMD terrorism.” As shown in Figure 1, nearly the exact same words, if not the same intent, were used as key elements to combat WMD terrorism in the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.


The State Department’s 2006 Country Reports on Terrorism echoed this counter-WMD terrorism policy and included a chapter on the global challenge of WMD terrorism in its each of its subsequent annual Country Reports. The Obama administration dropped the objective-based strategy in favor of articulating nonproliferation activities and international forums that supported U.S. government efforts to counter chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism, but it largely continued the many governmental programs initiated by the Bush administration. It’s not a surprise to see this administration use a strategy developed by the Bush administration, but one cannot call this a new approach.

I’ve stated in past articles that state WMD programs require a greater national security focus than a generic terrorist group that can’t do much more than use a few gallons of industrial chemicals or grams of a biological toxin. Terrorist groups don’t have the infrastructure to develop or capability to deliver nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare agents on the scale to cause mass casualties. I don’t endorse the “one percent doctrine,” but I will acknowledge that the interagency has a responsibility to develop programs in response to the policy direction of the White House. All presidential administrations beginning with the Clinton administration have developed executive orders toward mitigating the risk of WMD terrorism, and the counterterrorism community responds accordingly.

The Trump administration’s national strategy may be echoing old phrases and bad assumptions, but the lines of effort offer a consistent and executable agenda for the purpose toward which it is designed. The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. The introduction of this national strategy notes that “implementation guidance will be developed to establish clear roles and responsibilities, avoid duplication of effort, and ensure that activities are properly prioritized.” Does this mean that the National Security Council’s senior director for WMD and biodefense will be organizing and tasking the interagency on how they progress against these lines of effort? Traditionally, the “WMD Czar” has been limited to working arms control and nonproliferation activities and not corralling the executive agencies.

There are several executive agencies that already have roles and responsibilities, and more importantly, funded programs that align with this strategy’s objectives. Presidential Policy Directive 8 (National Preparedness) still directs federal efforts to prepare for and respond to acts of terrorism. The State Department and Energy Department have nonproliferation programs designed to restrict or secure certain materials from being illicitly taken and used contrary to their intended purposes. The intelligence community, notably the National Counterproliferation Center and National Counterterrorism Center, track the possible intersection of terrorist groups and WMD materials. The Defense Department directs the U.S. Special Operations Command to focus on terrorists seeking WMD and U.S. Northern Command to support a federal response to WMD terrorist attacks. The Justice Department has its FBI WMD Directorate to investigate WMD threats and terrorist attacks. The Department of Homeland Security has a strategic goal to prevent terrorists from transporting WMD across U.S. borders, as well as guiding the development of state, local, tribal, and territorial WMD response efforts. There are many actors and many other national security priorities. If this strategy is to be more aggressive, does that translate into additional funding for existing and/or new programs? Or will the direction be to do more with less in counterterrorism efforts? We shall see.

Of all the objectives in this strategy, I am most skeptical as to the ability of individual Americans to be “resilient and steadfast in the face of a WMD attack.” We have trouble keeping military service members proficiently trained to survive and sustain combat operations in a WMD environment, and they have specialized defensive equipment and training. I do have faith in the public’s ability to weather conventional terrorist incidents, considering their post-attack reaction to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 incident, but not a true mass casualty event that features nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. I’m just not sure what it would take to get the public prepared for such an event, or even if it’s really necessary.

Terrorists have, for whatever reason, eschewed developing WMD and instead relied on conventional firearms and explosives for their attacks. With a very few exceptions, terrorist CBRN incidents have been single, small-scale events that have been manageable. It’s unclear as to why the Trump administration decided that the U.S. government needed this national strategy today, given other significant national security threats and other funding priorities. It may not be a new strategy, but it’s always a good idea to raise the profile of these discussions if not just to assess where we are and where we need to be.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and author of the book, “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy.” The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

Image: US Navy