By Mr. Markus Binder, Senior Researcher, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), USA.
There has been an explosion of public and official interest in the so-called novichok family of fourth generation nerve agents following their high-profile use by state actors. The Islamic State’s use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, and chemical plots by other groups oblige us to consider whether terrorists, or other violent non-state actors, will attempt to obtain and use novichoks, and if so, could they do so successfully?
Drawing on the Profiles of Incidents involving CBRN and Non-State Actors (POICN) database’s unique record of terrorist CBRN events and START research we conclude that terrorists will likely develop an interest in novichoks. Unless they are gifted novichoks by a government this interest is unlikely to result in significant threats due to terrorists groups lacking the skills or resources to produce these agents themselves.
History of use of chemical agents by nonstate actors
Drawing on the START/UWT POICN database’s unique record of terrorist CBRN events over the last thirty years we can form an adequately clear, at least for an audience without access to classified sources, understanding of the frequency and other characteristics of chemical pursuit and use. Firstly, chemical terrorism is extremely rare. From 1990 to 2020 there were 426 events in which terrorists considered, sought, or employed chemical agents compared to several hundred thousand conventional terrorist events. Of these 426 events only 225 involved the use of an agent and less than half of these resulted in even minor injuries. Only a handful of incidents involved the use of sophisticated agents (sarin & VX) with all but one of these being the work of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the sole outlier involving the 2004 use of an abandoned CW shell as an IED in Iraq. In the period 2014 to 2016 the Islamic State was able to undertake limited deployments of mustard agent, which is not considered a particularly complex agent, that it had produced itself, apparently after considerable effort. All other agents employed were either prepackaged toxic industrial chemicals or other found chemicals. The clear message from this history is that chemical use is rare and typically unsophisticated, but does occur, and remains of interest to a range of extremists.
How might terrorists obtain novichoks?
There are a limited number of ways that a terrorist or other nonstate actor could obtain novichoks. These are theft, gift, or production. Given that novichoks, appear not to have ever been produced in militarily significant quantities by the Soviet Union it is extremely unlikely that there are any unsecured stockpiles of agent vulnerable to theft by a nonstate actor. Therefore, theft would need to occur from the most likely source of the agent; laboratories associated with the Russian military or intelligence apparatus. Excluding an incident of dubious provenance from the mid-1990s this seems highly unlikely. Equally, a state gift of novichoks to a terrorist, which would automatically be assumed to originate with the Russian government, would be unprecedented and is highly unlikely. This leaves the option of production which depends on nonstate actor’s internal resources.
Capabilities of terrorists and other types of nonstate actor
START/UWT also maintains a database recording the background of identified individuals associated with the use of chemical and biological agents. This database, which includes criminal perpetrators further confirms that the vast majority of individuals associated with chemical terrorism lack any sophisticated skills. Individuals with basic chemical training are rare, and those with advanced skills even rarer. Curiously, those with the most advanced chemical skills are typically associated with biological rather than chemical plots. Generally, terrorist and insurgent groups are more likely to employ chemists to support the production of explosives than exotic chemical warfare agents. This generalized lack of skills is reflected in the reliance on packaged chemicals rather than compounds prepared by the group or individual actor. A lack of skills greatly complicates the prospects for any terrorist group to produce complex chemical compounds such as nerve agents, particularly in the absence of access to a complete detailed procedure for their production.
The clear exception to the rule of limited access to materials or skilled personnel is the Aum Shinrikyo cult which was able to successfully establish and operate a large facility for the development and production of nerve agents in the 1990s. However, this group existed in an exceptionally permissive operational environment, and it is extremely unlikely that an equivalent contemporary group would be able to as easily access the raw materials need to pursue nerve agent development or operate unmolested by authorities long enough to complete their efforts.
Implications for the likelihood of nonstate actor use of novichok agents
What conclusions can we draw about the likelihood of terrorists or other violent non-state actors seeking, or employing novichoks?
We can reasonably anticipate that over the next five to ten years multiple VNSAs will indicate an interest in obtaining or actively attempt to obtain novichok agents. The driving factor behind this is increased awareness of the agents as they are more frequently discussed as a source of concern by governments. It is unlikely that most VNSAs knew that novichoks existed prior to the 2018 Skripal incident. However, that incident, and the subsequent Navalny incident, would have highlighted the potential for harm and disruption that these agents offer. The importance of generalized public awareness of chemical agent types in VNSA agent selection is supported by the frequency with which terrorist plots feature sarin or VX as opposed to other potentially more obtainable chemical agents.
An increased interest in the pursuit and use of novichoks may reduce the general dangers associated with VNSA pursuit of chemical agents by encouraging threat actors to devote resources to an effectively unobtainable goal beyond their capabilities. This can result in plot failure, or plot abandonment as the distance between the threat actor’s capabilities and the task’s requirements confronts them. As has been seen in several incidents, chemical plot abandonment may result in the threat actor diverting their resources to other more conventional efforts. If they do not abandon their novichok efforts the drawn out process involved in pursuing an advanced chemical warfare agent increases the likelihood that they will be detected, either as a result of their research into processes and techniques, or through attempts to obtain the necessary precursors and equipment.
As discussed above, there are no indications that the general population of VNSAs possess the appropriate skills required for the production or employment of novichoks. Indeed, as has been seen on more than one occasion terrorists frequently lack the skills required to safely manufacture conventional explosives.
Based on an assessment of demonstrated terrorist capabilities and resources, combined with the difficulty of obtaining access to the required process information or necessary precursors, and the complexity of the effort required in terms of time, resources, and specialized personnel the likelihood that terrorists will employ novichok agents anywhere within the next ten years is negligible. As noted, the singular exception to this lack of the necessary skills or resources was an extreme outlier that is unlikely to be repeatable. The likelihood that other VNSAs such as insurgents or criminals will obtain this capability are assessed as equally slight, with a singular exception. This exception is the archetypical “disgruntled scientist” possessing the necessary skills, with access to appropriate materials, and adequately motivated to do harm to others. Fortunately, such perpetrators are extremely rare, and typically employ materials that they have readily to hand.
About the Author:
Mr. Markus Binder is a Senior Researcher with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s (START) Unconventional Weapons and Technologies (UWT) division. His primary area of research is Violent Non-State Actor (VNSA) pursuit and use of CB agents. In this capacity he conducts research into the acquisition and use of CBRN agents or materials by VNSAs including their motivations. Mr. Binder also manages two START databases recording ideologically motivated VNSA CBRN events and perpetrators. He is taking an increasing interest in the use of CBRN agents or materials by criminal actors.
Mr. Binder has been engaged in the study of VNSA CBRN use, and national-level WMD proliferation since 1999. He has been a START researcher since 2013. From 2004-2007 he was Deputy Director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Monterey, California.