August 1995


Editors Note:

Readers of previous Commentary issues will recall Mr. Ron Purver's contributions to the topics of smuggled nuclear materials and the transfer of conventional armaments. In this issue, Mr. Purver examines existing research on the subject of chemical and biological (CB) terrorism in light of the recent attacks in Japan, and proposes answers to a number of questions: what characteristics of CB agents might incline terrorists to their use? What degree of expertise is required? Which kind of terrorist group would be most likely to use CB agents? What type of agents would they be? How would they be obtained and delivered? These and a series of related concerns lead the author to some interesting conclusions about the likelihood of future attacks, and in short, about the reality of the threat posed by CB terrorism.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.

Terror in Tokyo: Advent of a New Age?

On 20 March 1995, at the height of the morning rush hour, five teams of two people each boarded cars on three main lines of the Tokyo subway system. The trains were all scheduled to arrive at the Kasumigaseki Station, in the heart of the capital's government district, between 8:09 and 8:13 a.m. While one member of each team kept a lookout, the other placed a package wrapped in newspaper on the overhead rack or floor of the subway car, then, using a needle-tipped umbrella, punctured holes in plastic pouches containing the ingredients of a deadly gas, sarin. As the gas formed and began to spread through the cars and stations at which they stopped, thousands of commuters were overcome. In all, 12 people died and over 5,500 were injured, some permanently scarred. Two of the subway lines were temporarily shut down and no fewer than 26 stations closed.

In the weeks that followed, up to one-third of Japan's total police force—as well as many military units—were mobilized to track down the perpetrators and prevent a recurrence. Perhaps most important, the Japanese national "psyche" received a devastating blow as the citizenry—long accustomed to peace and good order—lost confidence in the ability of its government to provide the most basic personal security.

The chemical attack on the Tokyo subway came as no great surprise to many specialists in world terrorism, however. For over two decades, prominent experts have been warning that terrorist groups could resort to the threat or use of mass-destruction, chemical or biological weapons against civilian populations. While such weapons had been used (or threatened) in isolated, relatively minor instances in the past, the Tokyo attack marked the first occasion of their use in a large-scale, indiscriminate assault on a major urban area¹. As such, it immediately raised fears of "copycat" attacks by other groups elsewhere in the world, inaugurating a whole new dimension of international terrorism.


One of the principal advantages of CB weapons for terrorists is their extreme toxicity, which at least theoretically provides the capability for mass-destruction attacks using comparatively small quantities of agent. Certain biological agents are the most toxic of all, approximating the lethality of a nuclear explosion in terms of the potential number of casualties caused. For example, type-A botulinal toxin, or BTX, with a mean lethal dose estimated to be as low as a few tenths of a microgram, has been described as "the most lethal substance known" (Kupperman, Robert H., and David M. Smith, "Coping With Biological Terrorism," in: Roberts, Brad (ed.), Biological Weapons: Weapons of the Future? pp. 35-46, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies 1993). One source states that "one-half ounce, properly dispersed, could kill every man, woman, and child in North America" (Livingstone, Neil C. The War Against Terrorism. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1982); another that just eight ounces of the substance could "kill every living creature on the planet" (Mullins, Wayman C., "An Overview and Analysis of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism: The Weapons, Strategies and Solutions to a Growing Problem." American Journal of Criminal Justice 16:2, 1992, pp. 95-119.)

Some authors maintain that anthrax is an even more deadly agent. According to one study, in principle, if its spores were distributed appropriately, a single gram would be sufficient to kill more than one-third of the population of the United States. Of course, it is often pointed out that an attack of such magnitude would not be practically feasible. However, more realistic, smaller-scale scenarios still posit large numbers of casualties. For example, the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in March 1977 warned that a single ounce of anthrax introduced into the air-conditioning system of a domed stadium could infect up to 80,000 spectators within an hour. And a 1972 study by the Advanced Concepts Research Corporation of Santa Barbara, California, postulated that an aerosol attack with anthrax spores on the New York City area could cause more than 600,000 deaths. Some indication of the scale of casualties to be expected from a deliberate attack can be gained from the fact that the accidental release of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979 is estimated to have killed between 400 and 1,200 people.

An attack using chemical weapons, while generally less destructive, could still cause thousands of casualties. The most lethal of the chemical agents are the nerve gases. According to one source, a small quantity of the nerve agent sarin can produce a vapour concentration high enough to kill someone with a single breath. The nerve agent VX is even more toxic, with the amount one can place on the head of a pin being sufficient to kill a human being. In the Tokyo subway case, analysts have attributed the relatively small number of fatalities to a variety of factors: the deliberate dilution of the agent, to provide protection for the attackers and facilitate its subsequent spread; the small quantity of chemicals used; the rapid response of emergency personnel; and the unusually powerful air exchange systems of many Tokyo subway stations.

As the Tokyo case demonstrates, clearly one must be careful of extrapolating directly from individual lethal doses to estimates of mass casualties, given the difficulties encountered in effective dissemination. Nevertheless, chemical and biological agents must still be considered as viable weapons of mass destruction, as well as being useful in "lesser" roles, for terrorists.

Other "advantages" of CB weapons

A number of other factors are said to favour the acquisition of CB weapons by terrorists, particularly in comparison to nuclear weapons. Some of these are related to the toxicity issue just discussed. For example, the smaller quantities of agent needed on account of their lethality help reduce the costs and complexity of their production or acquisition by other means. This in turn eliminates the need for a large infrastructure of personnel and facilities, which in turn eases the problem of security and avoidance of detection. It also allows for most chemical and biological agents to be transported from one country to another in a container as small and seemingly innocuous as a bottle of wine or a thermos.

Other advantages of CB weapons include their undetectability by traditional anti-terrorist sensor systems (and hence by conventional countermeasures); the time-lag (in many cases) between release of an agent and its perceived effects on humans, allowing the perpetrator(s) to escape; in at least some cases, the lack of an agent "signature," enabling an assassin, for example, to disguise the cause of death; their adaptability to small demonstration attacks as an indication of resolve and ability to carry out the threat of a much more devastating attack; their capacity—unobtainable by other means—to inflict heavy casualties on the military forces of a state or to damage its economy seriously; the degree of sheer terror (and hence societal disruption) that may be instilled in a target population, due to the particularly insidious nature (microscopic and, in some cases, colourless and/or odourless) of the agents in question; and the relative ease and cheapness of their production or other acquisition, particularly in comparison with nuclear weapons.

One author estimates the start-up costs to produce a biological weapon at less than $1 million. Another points out that "a sophisticated program designed to produce a fissionable device would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars, whereas type A botulinal toxin, which is more deadly than nerve gas, could be produced for about $400 per kilogram. A group of C/B experts, appearing before a UN panel in 1969, estimated that 'for a large-scale operation against a civilian population, casualties might cost about $2000 per square kilometre with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with nerve-gas weapons, and just $1 with biological weapons'" (Douglass, Joseph D., Jr., and Neil C. Livingstone. America the Vulnerable: The Threat of Chemical and Biological Warfare. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987.) Another source estimates that the production of 1,000 kilograms of sarin (GB) nerve agent in a small laboratory would cost about $200,000. However, it is unclear if such estimates take into account the added costs that might have to be paid to procure equipment and/or materials on the black, as opposed to the open, market.

Requisite capabilities

The ease of manufacture of CB weapons derives from the widespread availability of many of the materials and of the necessary technical knowledge, together with the fact that a single individual or small group with relatively limited expertise is capable of producing and employing such a weapon. One author maintains that "manufacturing a lethal bacterial disease agent requires little more than chicken soup, a flat whiskey bottle and an available source of seed culture" (Roosevelt, Edith Kermit, "Germ War." International Combat Arms (July, 1986), pp. 38-42.); another describes the process as being "about as complicated as manufacturing beer and less dangerous than refining heroin" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 23).

It is often noted that both the USA and Britain have declassified, and even published, the formula for making VX nerve gas. The techniques for making nerve agents are similar to those used for insecticides, "and in some cases may simply involve taking as intermediate products insecticides or other chemicals that can be purchased commercially and putting them through one additional chemical reaction" (Hurwitz, Elliott, "Terrorists and Chemical/Biological Weapons." Naval War College Review 35:3 (May-June), 1982, pp. 36-40.) Thus, for example, according to one author, "ball-point pen ink is only one chemical step removed from sarin" (Mullins 1992: 108-9).

The open sources do differ somewhat on the precise level of expertise required to produce CB warfare agents—whether it could be done by a high-school student or undergraduate or would require a graduate student or small team of professional scientists, for example. There is also some disagreement over whether a single individual could adequately handle the task, including that of dissemination, or whether this, again, would require some teamwork— especially between those with a scientific bent and those with practical, operational terrorist experience.

The effort by the Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo religious sect, responsible for the Tokyo and other gas attacks, was clearly a massive and long-term one. The sect went out of its way to recruit science graduates of the most prestigious Japanese universities, and invested immense amounts of resources in equipment and materials for what was planned to be a nationwide assault on the Japanese government and people. However, this case should not obscure the fact that much smaller, though perhaps necessarily equally dedicated, programs by other terrorist groups could also achieve mass casualties, not to mention disruption on a lesser scale.

Candidate groups

The terrorist groups previously thought to be most predisposed to the use of CB weapons included those with vague, universalistic goals and undefined constituencies (such as the Japanese Red Army and Red Army Faction); those unconcerned with the effects on public opinion (such as neo-Nazi groups in Europe and North America); those with a history of high-casualty, indiscriminate attacks (such as the JRA, Sikh extremists, pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalist groups such as Hizbollah, and extremists within the Palestinian movement such as the Abu Nidal Organization); those noted for their sophistication in weaponry or tactics (such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command); those with a demonstrated willingness to take risks; and those with state sponsors, especially where the latter are known to possess CB weapons themselves.

Likely types of agents

The number of different types of CB agents that potentially could be used by terrorists is staggering. However, those most likely to be used include, among the biologicals, anthrax, botulinal toxin, and ricin; and among the chemicals, various insecticides, hydrogen cyanide or mustard gases, and nerve agents such as sarin, tabun or VX. Even less toxic substances, such as off-the-shelf insecticides or household cleaning agents, could be used, however. Some authors also point to the danger of genetically engineered organisms, but most consider these to be too sophisticated and hence rather unlikely for terrorist use. CX or phosgene oxime, one of the original chemical warfare agents which once featured prominently in the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal, " more widely known simply as a toxic industrial chemical and, as such, it is manufactured, stored, shipped, and sold throughout the United States like dozens of other toxic chemicals" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 16).

Regarding biological agents, experts believe that terrorists would be more likely to choose a bacteriological rather than a viral or rickettsial agent, since rickettsial infections can be readily treated with antibiotics and viruses are more difficult than bacteria to cultivate and often do not live long outside a host, making them more difficult to disseminate effectively. Some toxins have the advantage of being more stable, with some being both relatively simple to manufacture and extremely toxic. Anthrax spores are "attractive," among other reasons, for their relative hardiness against adverse environmental conditions, as shown by their ability to survive for decades on the Scottish island of Gruinard after biological warfare experiments during World War II.

Experts disagree over whether CB terrorists are more likely to prefer chemical over biological agents, some insisting that the former are cheaper and easier to manufacture and use, others that the latter are more easily acquired and could produce a higher number of casualties. Certainly, chemical weapons appear to be more "controllable," posing less danger to their users and being less likely to cause unintended damage, thus allowing for more precise and discriminate attacks. Chemical agents are also more readily available commercially or by theft from military or civilian stockpiles. If the comparative advantages of chemical and biological agents are not always clearcut, however, those between chemical and biological weapons on the one hand, and nuclear weapons on the other—in regard to such aspects as ease of manufacture or other acquisition, as well as selectivity in targeting—appear obvious.

Means of acquisition

Apart from manufacturing it themselves, terrorist groups could acquire CB agents by (in some cases) purchasing them directly from legitimate suppliers; stealing them from research facilities or military installations (which are said to be less well-guarded than their nuclear counterparts); or receiving them from foreign state sponsors. Many hazardous substances suitable for use directly as chemical or biological weapons are commercially available with minimal, if any, restrictions. Most likely biological agents occur naturally in the environment. Specimens can also be obtained by mail from the American Type Culture Collection in Maryland or other, similar collections around the world. For example, anthrax specimens can be purchased for about $35, according to one author. He complains that "marijuana is more closely regulated in the United States than access to and distribution of most deadly biological cultures" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 24).

Some state sponsors of terrorism have active chemical-biological warfare programs, and many analysts speculate that terrorists could obtain such weapons directly in this way. However, other analysts maintain that state sponsors would be unlikely to provide their clients with such weapons for fear of retribution, and that state sponsorship of terrorist groups may thus act as a kind of brake on their use of CB agents. Theft from the existing large stockpiles of chemical weapons worldwide is another matter, however. According to one source, "the U.S. government [has] acknowledged that a small amount of its inventory of VX is presently unaccounted for" (Livingstone 1982: 111).

The Japanese case surprised some observers insofar as the terrorists in question went to the trouble of themselves manufacturing a relatively sophisticated nerve agent, rather than using somewhat less toxic, but still potentially deadly, off-the-shelf chemicals. This undoubtedly had to do with the Aum Shinri Kyo's fascination with science and extreme insistence on self-sufficiency. But, once again, this should not obscure the fact that other groups could resort to simpler, short-cut methods of acquiring chemical or biological agents that could still have a devastating impact on their target populations.

Means of delivery

The effective dissemination of CB agents by terrorists is widely considered to be more difficult than their manufacture. CB agents could be delivered to their targets in a myriad of ways, but the most likely are through contamination of foodstuffs or liquids, or as vapour or via aerosol within a relatively enclosed area. Some authors also consider a wide-area attack using aerosol generators to be credible. However, the popular scenario involving the poisoning of the water supply of a major population centre appears less feasible, given the large quantities of agent that would be required and the various filtering or purification measures already in place. On the first point alone, for example, it has been estimated that it would take no fewer than 14 billion lethal doses, or 600 metric tons, of chemical fluoroacetates to contaminate effectively the drinking water in a typical 4 billion-gallon reservoir. On the other hand, the water supply for a discrete installation could be vulnerable, as would be the air conditioning systems of even quite large public buildings or tunnel networks, such as subways. Similarly, domed sports stadiums have been described as "ideal" targets for a terrorist CB attack intended to kill tens of thousands of people.

In regard to the general issue of dissemination, several observers have pointed out that, had the Tokyo attackers employed a more efficient delivery system, such as an aerosol, or struck under different environmental conditions—such as a hot afternoon favouring quicker evaporation—the number of fatalities in the Japanese case would have been much higher.

Incidents of past use or threat

It is important to distinguish here between threat and actual use, as well as between the use of such agents for purposes of mass destruction, and their use in smaller, more limited attacks. It is true that, until the Tokyo attack, there were no reported cases of the use of CB agents by terrorists in a mass-destruction attack on civilians, except possibly the contamination of restaurant food in Oregon with salmonella typhi, which resulted in the poisoning of 750 people (but no fatalities). However, there had been previous reports of terrorist threats to use CB weapons in mass-destruction attacks, as well as both failed and successful attempts by them to acquire such agents, for whatever purpose; and their actual, "successful" use in some, relatively limited, instances (such as product contamination and individual assassinations).

Among the most serious incidents reported in the past were a 1970s attempt by the Weather Underground to acquire biological agents from the US Army's biological weapons facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland; the 1980s discovery of a Red Army Faction "safe house" in Paris containing quantities of botulinal toxin; the above-mentioned Oregon case, involving the Rajneesh cult; a number of assassinations or attempted assassinations using ricin-tipped umbrellas; the "Alphabet Bomber's" threat to kill the American president with nerve gas; the 1980 discovery of an RAF safe house in Germany containing several hundred kilograms of organophosphorous compounds; the 1975 theft of a large quantity of mustard gas from an American ammunition bunker in West Germany, followed by threats of its use by the Baader-Meinhof Gang against Stuttgart and possibly other cities; the 1970s contamination of Israeli citrus fruit exports to Europe with liquid mercury, resulting in severe economic losses to Israel; and similar threats of contamination of South African products, also resulting in their removal from the market.

While Canada has not experienced any major, mass-casualty incidents of chemical or biological terrorism, there have been threats to contaminate the water supplies of various localities, as well as claims of product contamination resulting in substantial economic losses as products were withdrawn from the market. For example, a group called the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) claimed in January 1992 to have injected oven cleaner into "Cold Buster" candy bars in Edmonton and Calgary, in protest against the developer's purported use of animals in research. Although nothing more than a non-poisonous saline solution was detected, the distributor immediately recalled tens of thousands of the bars from some 250 outlets in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and the manufacturer halted production, forcing the temporary lay-off of 22 employees. In a similar incident, the same group caused thousands of frozen Christmas turkeys to be withdrawn from the shelves or returned by customers in the Vancouver area in December 1994.

Reasons for non-use

While the above-cited cases provide ample evidence of terrorist interest in acquiring CB weapons, as well as their occasional use in the past, the comparative infrequency of such use (and, until recently, the virtually total absence of mass-destruction attacks of this kind) could be considered surprising, given the factors noted earlier. A number of authors have speculated about the possible reasons for this phenomenon. Among the most plausible are fears engendered by the assumed uncontrollability of the agent, including the possibility of harm to the user; related to this, the unpredictability of the consequences of use—whether it will "work" at all, or only too well; political disutility, given the likelihood of alienating supporters or potential supporters on moral grounds; fear of the possibly unprecedented governmental retribution that might follow; the lack of a perceived need for such indiscriminate, high-casualty attacks in furthering the goals of a group; (until recently) the lack of a precedent; and a general reluctance to experiment with unfamiliar weapons.

Current trends/Likelihood of future use

Despite the relatively low incidence in the past, and even before the Tokyo attack, many authors believed that the likelihood of future use of CB agents by terrorists was considerable and growing, given trends such as the following: increased security against traditional types of terrorist attacks; public indifference to the latter, requiring ever-more spectacular acts to attract attention; a recent increase in high-casualty, less discriminate attacks; the growth of state-sponsored terrorism, combined with the proliferation of CB weaponry and materials worldwide; an increase in inter-ethnic and religiously-inspired violence, with fewer humanitarian inhibitions; and the availability of materials and weapons expertise from the former Soviet Union and its allies (including the growth in organized crime in such countries). Despite some disagreement as to the precise likelihood of the future use of CB weapons for mass destruction by terrorists, most authors agreed that such an eventuality was more likely than that for nuclear weapons; that, given the magnitude of the possible consequences, the threat had to be taken seriously and prepared for; and, finally, that the first actual occurrence was likely to spawn imitative attacks, thereby increasing the likelihood of subsequent use.

The March 1995 Tokyo attack did in fact set off a wave of apparently imitative attacks, some causing hundreds of casualties, particularly in the Yokohama area (there were also subsequent, unsuccessful attempts at mass-destruction terrorism attributed by police to the Aum Shinri Kyo). So far, however, such attacks appear not to have spread beyond Japan.

While the Tokyo subway incident certainly provides a shocking example of what a terrorist group can accomplish, its implications for the future use of CB agents by terrorists are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, despite the extraordinary amount of effort over a long period devoted to the task by Aum Shinri Kyo (using a scale of resources likely unavailable to most other groups), its actual results must have been somewhat disappointing, from its point of view. The initial attack on Tokyo, while creating widespread chaos and apprehension, caused relatively few fatalities among the civilian population. Earlier attempts at individual assassinations reportedly met with mixed success. Subsequent attempts at mass-destruction terrorism by releasing hydrocyanic gas in the Tokyo subways were complete failures. Far from diverting attention from its other activities or causing the Japanese government to back off from its then on-going investigation of the cult (two possible motivations for the initial attack that were widely attributed to Aum), the Tokyo incident brought down the kind of massive, unprecedented government suppression of its activities that many analysts had predicted would face any terrorist group resorting to the use of CB agents against civilians.

On the other hand, it is true that an important pre-cedent has been set. As one leading terrorism expert, Brian Jenkins, put it: "It breaks a taboo and has psychological import. Others will ask whether such tactics should be adopted by them. It is now more likely that at least some will say yes." To the extent that the attack was successful in creating enormous disruption with relatively modest effort (in terms of the 20 March attack itself), it may indeed encourage others to follow in Aum Shinri Kyo's path. And to the extent that it and subsequent attempted attacks have failed, other terrorist groups may have learned valuable lessons from Aum's "mistakes" that could serve them well in similar actions of their own in future. While calling the attention of other terrorist groups to the CB "option," however, the chemical attacks in Japan have at the same time served to heighten official awareness of the problem, increasing pressure on governments to explore defensive measures and, in particular, to co-operate with one another in preventing or mitigating such atrocities in future.

Defence against CB terrorism

Defence against CB terrorist attack is quite problematic for a host of reasons, many of which have already been alluded to. These include the lack of early-warning systems against biological agents; the large number of potential CB agents (including some that may be unknown to the defender); the large number and diversity of potential targets; the dual-use nature of many of the agents and of the equipment used to produce them, making stricter regulation more difficult; the wide availability of such materials; the ease of their concealment; the limitations of protective equipment such as gas masks, and so on. Nevertheless, a number of measures have been proposed to help deter, or at least mitigate the consequences of such attacks. These include the development of better early-warning sensors for biological agents; enhanced and more co-ordinated efforts at intelligence collection; tightening the regulations for acquisition and use of CB agents and/or the equipment needed for their manufacture; increased training of local police and law-enforcement officials; public education; research, development, and stockpiling of vaccines, antidotes, and antibiotics, etc.; filter mechanisms in large public buildings; denial of access to sensitive installations; development and wider availability of more "user-friendly" protective equipment; and better contingency planning, including the creation of task forces analogous to the American Nuclear Emergency Search Team.

As examples of the current inadequacy of defences against CB terrorist attack, one author warns that there is only one manufacturer of anthrax vaccine in the entire United States. As for the identification of unknown agents, it has been pointed out that in 1976 it took the full resources of the American government no fewer than seven months to isolate the Legionnaires' disease bacterium after it was discovered. The difficulties of providing large populations with passive protection against CB attack were well-illustrated in the case of Israel during the Gulf War.

In Canada, a Special Threat Assessment Group (STAG) was formed in 1976 as an interdepartmental committee to assess, prevent, contain or otherwise assist in the response to terrorist threats and incidents involving the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical agents. Chaired by an official of Health Canada, it is comprised of medical professionals and scientists charged with assessing a threat's credibility, feasibility, magnitude and potential or likely consequences, as well as helping to identify the medical and physical resources required to respond. In addition, there is a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Response Team belonging to the Canadian Forces, attached to the NBC School at CFB Borden, Ontario. It is capable of providing on-site advice and technical assistance in isolating, containing, and assessing the hazard; providing any necessary first aid and removal of casualties; collecting and packaging samples for later analysis; and supervising decontamination or clean-up operations. It has conducted a number of exercises and co-operative training with the RCMP and other authorities, and would be activated upon a request from the federal Solicitor General.

Historically, much less attention has been paid to the CB terrorist threat than to its nuclear counterpart, despite the cogency of the argument that the latter is less serious than the former. Recently, a number of initiatives have been launched to improve government preparedness against the CB terrorist threat, including the creation of an interdepartmental Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) Working Group in the US, and internationally-coordinated research efforts and joint exercises. Not much is publicly known about these activities, for obvious security reasons. However, enough is known to suggest that much remains to be done, both nationally and internationally, in order to meet this apparently increasingly dangerous threat.

¹ A sarin attack on the Japanese town of Matsumoto the previous summer, eventually attributed to the same religious sect as that responsible for the Tokyo atrocity, was much smaller in scale (though still causing several deaths and hundreds of other casualties), and apparently directed at particular individuals.


The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

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