More Bang for the Buck?: Examining the Effect of Technological Change on Terrorist Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction


Project Details


This study utilizes a framework that examines the effects of technological change on patterns of terrorist behavior with the aim of indicating the behavioral and technological mechanisms behind changes in the instruments of terror. The study focuses upon various models of technological change which are beginning to be used in social science. 

Primary Findings:

The findings of the study suggest that:

1) Terrorists are likely to quickly recognize the utility of new technologies.

2) Awareness of WMD-relevant technologies could arise from: a) trial and error; b) self-initiated search; c) demonstration by others; d) change agents.

3) The decision-making structure for adoption reflects the social and organizational structures of the adopting entity.

4) Cultural resistance and internal inertia can be very strong (terrorists must have "cultural compatibility" with innovation in general as well as the new weapon for successful adoption to occur).

5) It will be necessary for terrorists to acquire both the "hardware" and the "software" of new technologies before they can be used as true WMD.

6) The default application of new weapons, at least initially, has been to fit them into existing patterns of analogous weapons usage.

The panel of experts participating in the structured elicitation collectively estimated that:

  1. The probability of non-state actors successfully perpetrating a WMD (catastrophic-level) attack within the next 25 years is substantial, and that this probability will increase as time passes.
  2. The ranking of the most likely types of weapon jihadists might use is chemical weapons in first place, followed in second place by radiological in the near term and biological in the longer term, and nuclear weapons being the most difficult to successfully deploy.
  3. In terms of the most likely candidates to successfully perpetrate a WMD attack within the next 10 years, the most highly-ranked actors were (in descending order of likelihood), a) Sunni jihadists, b) an apocalyptic cult, c) Shi'a jihadists and d) a disgruntled individual.
  4. In terms of the timing of successful adoption of the new weapons technologies in the form of a true WMD, the experts believed that terrorists would more likely than not be able to adopt: a) the requisite raw materials and equipment for radiological and chemical weapons already, for biological weapons by the end of 2010 and for nuclear weapons by 2021; b) the scientific and technical expertise and personnel for radiological and chemical weapons already and for biological and nuclear weapons by 2014, and c) the funding and support infrastructure to develop radiological weapons already, chemical and biological weapons by 2011 and nuclear weapons by 2014.
  5. Jihadists are more likely to manufacture their own weapons than to attempt to purchase or steal them.

To form a theoretical model of terrorist adoption of weapons using emerging technologies, researchers conducted a literature survey of existing models of technological change and diffusion from a variety of fields, including development, economics, and business management. This was then further refined by a historical analysis of changes in military technology and past violent actor adoption of new weapons. A Delphi study was conducted involving a heterogeneous panel of experts to forecast potential modes, timing and likelihoods of terrorists successfully adopting weapons of mass destruction.


Project Period: