Al-Qa'ida and associated extremist groups have a wide variety of potential agents and delivery means to choose from for chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attacks. Al-Qa'ida's end goal is the use of CBRN to cause mass casualties; however, most attacks by the groupand especially by associated extremistsprobably will be small scale, incorporating relatively crude delivery means and easily produced or obtained chemicals, toxins, or radiological substances. The success of any al-Qa'ida attack and the number of ensuing casualties would depend on many factors, including the technical expertise of those involved, but most scenarios could cause panic and disruption.
This pamphlet contains a summary of typical agents and CBRN devices available to al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups. It is not intended to be a summary of the overall threat from al-Qa'ida's CBRN program.
Terrorists have considered a wide range of toxic chemicals for attacks. Typical plots focus on poisoning foods or spreading the agent on surfaces to poison via skin contact, but some also include broader dissemination techniques.
Terrorists have considered using a number of toxic cyanide compounds.
Sodium or potassium cyanides are white-to-pale yellow salts that can be easily used to poison food or drinks. Cyanide salts can be disseminated as a contact poison when mixed with chemicals that enhance skin penetration, but may be detected since most people will notice if they touch wet or greasy surfaces contaminated with the mixture.
Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and cyanogen chloride (ClCN) are colorless-to-pale yellow liquids that will turn into a gas near room temperature. HCN has a characteristic odor of bitter almonds, and ClCN has an acrid choking odor and causes burning pain in the victim's eyes. These signs may provide enough warning to enable evacuation or ventilation of the attack site before the agent reaches a lethal concentration.
Exposure to cyanide may produce nausea, vomiting, palpitations, confusion, hyperventilation, anxiety, and vertigo that may progress to agitation, stupor, coma, and death. At high doses, cyanides cause immediate collapse. Medical treatments are available, but they need to be used immediately for severely exposed victims.
Mustard is a blister agent that poses a contact and vapor hazard. Its color ranges from clear to dark brown depending on purity, and it has a characteristic garliclike odor. Mustard is a viscous liquid at room temperature.
Initial skin contact with mustard causes mild skin irritation, which develops into more severe yellow fluid-filled blisters. Inhalation of mustard damages the lungs, causes difficulty breathing, and death by suffocation in severe cases due to water in the lungs. For both skin contact and inhalation, symptoms appear within six to 24 hours. There are only limited medical treatments available for victims of mustard-agent poisoning.
Sarin, tabun, and VX are highly toxic military agents that disrupt a victim's nervous system by blocking the transmission of nerve signals.
Exposure to nerve agents causes pinpoint pupils, salivation, and convulsions that can lead to death. Medical treatments are available, but they need to be used immediately for severely exposed victims.
Toxic Industrial Chemicals
There are a wide range of toxic industrial chemicals thatwhile not as toxic as cyanide, mustard, or nerve agentscan be used in much larger quantities to compensate for their lower toxicity.
Chlorine and phosgene are industrial chemicals that are transported in multiton shipments by road and rail. Rupturing the container can easily disseminate these gases. The effects of chlorine and phosgene are similar to those of mustard agent.
Organophosphate pesticides such as parathion are in the same chemical class as nerve agents. Although these pesticides are much less toxic, their effects and medical treatments are the same as for military-grade nerve agents.
Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, is capable of causing mass casualties. Symptoms usually appear within one to six days after exposure and include fever, malaise, fatigue, and shortness of breath. The disease is usually fatal unless antibiotic treatment is started within hours of inhaling anthrax spores; however, it is not contagious. Few people are vaccinated against anthrax.
Botulinum toxin is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which occurs naturally in the soil. Crude but viable methods to produce small quantities of this lethal toxin have been found in terrorist training manuals.
Ricin is a plant toxin that is 30 times more potent than the nerve agent VX by weight and is readily obtainable by extraction from common castor beans. There is no treatment for ricin poisoning after it has entered the bloodstream. Victims start to show symptoms within hours to days after exposure, depending on the dosage and route of administration.
Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD)
An RDD is a conventional bomb not a yield-producing nuclear device. RDDs are designed to disperse radioactive material to cause destruction, contamination, and injury from the radiation produced by the material. An RDD can be almost any size, defined only by the amount of radioactive material and explosives.
Use of an RDD by terrorists could result in health, environmental, and economic effects as well as political and social effects. It will cause fear, injury, and possibly lead to levels of contamination requiring costly and time-consuming cleanup efforts.
A variety of radioactive materials are commonly available and could be used in an RDD, including Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and Cobalt-60. Hospitals, universities, factories, construction companies, and laboratories are possible sources for these radioactive materials.
Improvised Nuclear Device (IND)
An IND is intended to cause a yield-producing nuclear explosion. An IND could consist of diverted nuclear weapon components, a modified nuclear weapon, or indigenous-designed device.