Terrorist Groups and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Project Details


It is widely believed that WMD proliferation among non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, ethnic secessionist groups, and religious sects, will be a critical challenge of the next twenty years.  Using a multi-methodological approach, researchers analyzed non-state groups and the context in which they may seek WMD. In particular, the group: (1) refined profiles of likely WMD-seekers through comparisons of groups that have sought WMD and others that have not; (2) identified potential early warning indicators that could alert policy-makers to possible proliferation threats; and (3) examined how permissive environments, such as failed states and anarchic regions emerge, and how they contribute to WMD proliferation.

Primary Findings:

On average, the probability of any terrorist group pursuing or using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapons is quite small: 1 to 2 percent. Nevertheless, despite inherent limitations in the data and the difficulties of predicting the future from the past, preliminary analyses suggest that the presence of certain features makes some terrorist organizations more likely than the vast majority of groups to pursue CBRN weapons. Terrorist organizations are more likely to pursue development or acquisition of CBRN weapons if: a) they are embedded in well-developed alliance structures, b) have a large membership, or c) have relatively strong economic connections to a globalized world. Contrary to suggestions in the literature, researchers failed to find a significant relationship between CBRN pursuit and either a group's religious ideology or state sponsorship of a group.


One reason for the paucity of research in this area has been the lack of comprehensive data on terrorist organizations. Meaningful results are only possible if one compares organizations that have pursued or used CBRN weapons to the vast majority who have not. Researchers leveraged data from the Monterey Weapons of Mass Destruction database, the Global Terrorism Database and the Terrorist Organization Profiles (TOPs) database, as well as their own data collection, to study the significance of several easily observable organizational and contextual factors that might influence terrorists' decisions to embark on CBRN terrorism. The research team applied standard logit analysis (with cluster correction) to data on 395 terrorist groups active between 1998 and 2005, including 22 that had used or pursued CBRN weapons. Independent variables tested included: experience, cultural embeddedness of host country in the global system, civil war in host country, economic embeddedness of host country in global economy, alliance measures, organizational membership, state sponsorship, level of technology development in host country, religious ideology, and organizational age.


Project Period: