Profiling the CB Adversary: Motivation, Psychology and Decision


Project Details


This project aims to comprehensively characterize the psychology (including motivations, judgment and decision-making) of violent non-state actors (VNSA) who have employed chemical and biological (CB) agents as weapons, and to provide strategic guidance to the Chemical and Biological Defense Division of DHS (CBD) on incorporating findings about VNSA psychology into its programs aimed at assessing CB terrorism risk, reducing the likelihood of CB weapons use and mitigating the impacts of potential CB weapons attacks.

Primary Findings:

The results of the various analyses of the Chemical and Biological Non-State Adversaries Database (CABNSAD) conducted during the project combined to develop a preliminary psychological “profile” of VNSAs who seek to acquire and use CB weapons. The “profile” developed in the course of the research effort was a synthesis of known and expected psychological features of VNSAs who decide to pursue and use CB. This “profile” is limited in that it is not possible to develop a single psychological profile for all VNSAs who seek to acquire and use CB just as it has proven impossible to develop a single psychological profile to explain all terrorists. That being said, there are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from an examination of past cases:

  • Identified dispositional factors include relative youth and educational level.
    • Two-thirds (63.2%) of all identified actors were under the age of 40.
    • Where the education level of actors was known, most were found to have an undergraduate and/or postgraduate education (71.6%) suggesting that CB actors are likely to be better educated than the population as a whole.
  • There was relatively little information available on the mental health status of actors but what is known suggests that CB actors fit the trend for other VNSAs in that severe mental illness excludes actors from these groups and degrades their ability to devise or implement plots.
  • The most important situational factor identified was whether or not the individual VNSA perpetrator was a lone actor or a member of an organization. Generally speaking, the CB choices of perpetrators operating as members of an organization are strongly influenced by organizational goals and the preferences of leaders.
  • Ideology appears to have significance for weapon choice with cults and those with secular left-wing ideologies more likely to use both chemical and biological weapons, whereas other ideological groups are more likely to pursue chemical weapons than biological weapons.

This project builds upon previous work conducted by START researchers, by updating and extending prior analyses and focusing for the first time on the psychological aspects of the threat:  

  • A review and synthesis of the available scientific and scholarly literature, including the latest specific studies concerning VNSAs and unconventional weapons, as well as broader relevant literatures in psychology, criminology and political science.
  • Development of an open-source perpetrator-level dataset of all identifiable previous non-state users and attempted users of CB weapons or devices; the Chemical and Biological Non-State Adversary Database (CABNSAD).
  • An analysis of alternative reasons for why VNSAs might decide not to pursue CB agents.
  • Iterated development of a CB adversary psychological framework encapsulating the major dynamics and salient features of the motivation and intent to pursue and/or use CB agents to cause harm.
  • Testing and enhancing of the CB adversary psychological framework using empirical data on prior CB adversaries.
  • Distillation of findings into a set of indicators that can be utilized to assess the strength of motivations of known and potential adversaries for pursuing a CB weapons capability.


Project Period:

Selected Publications