A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

CBRN terrorism by non-state actors

Research Roundtable event features START researcher Lauren Pinson
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies cannot ignore the possibility of lone actors and autonomous cells using Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) terrorism, even though these non-state actors "hardly demonstrate the behavior of the super-empowered individual of our nightmares," said START Senior Researcher/Project Manager Lauren Pinson during her Sept. 12 Research Roundtable on CBRN terrorism.

PinsonRR Using START's Profiles of Incidents involving CBRN by Non-state actors (POICN) Database, Pinson and her team compared the threat and usage CBRN weapons between formal terrorist organizations and lone actors and autonomous cells. POICN is a relational, open-source database that includes information on terrorist events relating to CBRN agents alongside relevant weapons and organizational data.

In evaluating 458 different cases of CBRN events from 1990-2011, the researchers discovered:

  • 14 percent of perpetrators in CBRN events fall into the lone actor category. These are individuals or unaffiliated cells which are not linked to any larger groups or that may be influenced by other organizations.
  • 51 percent of CBRN events by lone actors and autonomous cells resulted in actual attacks, while only 42 percent CBRN events conducted by formal terrorist organizations resulted in attacks.
  • Only the lone actor/autonomous cells perpetrated radiological attacks, however lone actors/autonomous cells have not used any nuclear agents.
  • 56 percent of events perpetrated by formal terrorist organizations were committed by organizations with a collective religious ideology, whereas14-18 percent of LA/AC attacks using CBRN terrorism were conducted by those with a religious ideology.

Pinson said that compared to formal terrorist organizations, lone actors are often overlooked because their CBRN attacks are of a lower level of sophistication in terms of weaponry and delivery systems and they are often motivated by narrow causes and individual aims.

"Lone actors and autonomous cells are in some ways more dangerous than their better-resourced cousins in large, formal organizations in that although they may be less ambitious, they intend to be more successful in their radiological weapon pursuits," Pinson said.