Transnational proliferation includes those NBC threats that cross national or regional boundaries or are not otherwise easily categorized. Threats from terrorism and the lack of security of nuclear material in the states of the former Soviet Union are two issues that greatly concern the United States and its allies.


Many of the technologies associated with the development of NBC weapons, especially chemical and biological agents, have legitimate civil applications and are classified as dual-use. The increased availability of these technologies, coupled with the relative ease of producing chemical or biological agents, has increased concern that use of chemical or biological weapons may become more attractive to terrorist groups intent on causing panic or inflicting large numbers of casualties. In addition, the proliferation of such weapons raises the possibility that some states or entities within these states could provide chemical, biological, or radiological weapons to terrorists.

The likelihood of a state sponsor providing such a weapon to a terrorist group is believed to be low. It is possible, however, that groups, especially extremist groups with no ties to a particular state, could acquire and attempt to use such weapons in the future. The March 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway by the religious group Aum Shinrikyo using the nerve agent sarin was the most glaring example of terrorist use of these kinds of weapons. This attack crossed a psychological boundary and showed that the use of NBC weapons was no longer restricted to the traditional battlefield. As a result of the Tokyo subway attack, government authorities became concerned about the potential use of NBC agents by non-state groups and have placed such groups under increased scrutiny. However, this increased scrutiny is no guarantee of thwarting a potential terrorist attack.


Security for nuclear materials is a major proliferation problem, particularly in Russia. The Russians have made substantial efforts to consolidate and secure nuclear weapons. A similar effort in cooperation with the United States to secure Russia’s vast quantities of nuclear materials has made substantial progress, although it is far from complete. The combination of lax security at some nuclear facilities, poor economic conditions in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union, and the continuing presence of organized criminal groups has increased the potential for theft or smuggling of this material.

Reported incidents of nuclear-related smuggling from the former Soviet Union increased dramatically during the early 1990s but have declined since 1994. News reports about smuggling, however, generally overstate the potential impact of the particular theft. For example, most incidents have not involved weapons-usable materials, but rather radioactive isotopes, natural or low enriched uranium; other incidents have been outright scams. On the other hand, small amounts of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium have been diverted, probably from Russian nuclear facilities. The largest seizures involved 2.7 kilograms of highly enriched uranium seized in the Czech Republic and 360 grams of plutonium seized in Germany. It is important to emphasize, however, that all known highly enriched uranium and plutonium stolen to date is still insufficient to make a single nuclear weapon and that reports of thefts of weapons-grade material have declined in the last three years.

Nevertheless, the trend is dangerous and likely will continue because of the deteriorating economic conditions in the former Soviet Union and the associated poor security at various nuclear facilities. In the longer term, however, U.S. and Russian efforts to improve security procedures, such as instituting material protection, control, and accountability procedures, will help reduce the diversion of nuclear materials.

Nuclear research reactors and nuclear materials production facilities are some of the most vulnerable in Russia. Former Soviet Union accounting and control procedures were insufficient for the tons of weapons-grade nuclear materials produced and distributed over the last 40 years.

The additional material being recovered from ongoing nuclear weapons elimination adds to the security and accounting problem. To properly store some of this material, the governments of Russia and the United States, in a joint effort, are building a new long-term secure storage facility, with help from the DoD Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

Aum Shinrikyo -- A Closer Look

Japan's Aum Shinrikyo was formed in 1987 by Shoko Asahara as an apocalyptic religious organization that prophesied an Armageddon-type conflict between Japan and the United States in the last years of the century.  The group had intended to hasten the conflict by interceding with the use of chemical and biological weapons.   Recruitment of members focused on socially disaffected individuals with technical and scientific backgrounds, many of whom also possessed or had access to substantive economic resources.  Some worked for the Japanese government, including the military.   All apparently were seeking spiritual fulfillment.

Aum Shinrikyo personnel involved in developing weapons were assigned to internal subelements that acquired materials, constructed production facilities, produced agents, and engaged in weaponization, storage, and operational training.   The group established front companies for legal chemical acquisition, then closed them down when sufficient quantities of precursor chemicals had been purchased.  The group researched, developed, tested, and practiced employment of lethal chemical and biological weapons.  Funding came from legitimate businesses that Aum Shinrikyo had established, as well as from funds generated from donations received when members turned over their bank accounts and properties to the group.  At its height, the group's financial base may have had as much as $2 billion in assets.

Japanese authorities were constitutionally restricted from investigating the group because Aum Shinrikyo was a religiously chartered organization.   It was only when lawsuits were brought against the group by local communities and individuals that official concerns were raised.  Subsequent law enforcement plans to conduct searches of facilities apparently led to the group's decision to conduct the subway attack, revealing Aum Shinrikyo's capabilities and intentions.  Until that time little was known regarding the internal operations of Aum Shinrikyo.

Press coverage of Aum Shinrikyo's activities revealed that Shoko Asahara directed the organization to produce lethal chemicals in 1993 and that a plant became operational in 1994.  Other group activities included:

  • Chemical tests on sheep on a ranch owned by the group in Western Australia.

  • Preparations to use lethal chemical agents against a large Japanese city and acquisition of the means to disseminate lethal agents.  Aum Shinrikyo had purchased a large Russian helicopter and two remotely piloted vehicles.  All could have disseminated chemical or biological agents.

  • Establishment of chapters in a number of European cities and in the United States.  The Group claimed membership in Russia of some 30,000, triple the Japan membership.

  • Employment of sarin at two locations. In addition to the March 1995 subway attack, the group has used the same chemical agent nine months earlier in Matsumoto, Japan.  The alleged purpose was to halt or slow judicial proceedings in civil litigation brought against the group.  Two of the three judges in that case were critically injured by the chemicals and the legal case remains unresolved.

  • Japanese police suspect that members of the group placed five cyanide-based devices in Tokyo subway facilities (subsequent to the March 1995 attack), in an attempt to force the release of cult leader Asahara, who remains under arrest.

Even nonfissile radiological material could be used to by a terrorist group to contaminate an area or to serve as a psychological weapon. For example, in November 1995, Chechen rebels placed cesium- 137, a radiological material used for many industrial and medical purposes, in a heavily used Moscow park. The Chechen leader, Shamir Basayev, directed members of the Russian press to the site of the radiological material and indicated that his group was in possession of seven similar containers. While the material was contained in a protective canister and posed no hazard, the Russian government suffered embarrassment over this incident. The incident further demonstrated the potential use of such material for contamination purposes. No additional containers have been recovered.


Concerns about inadequate security are not confined to nuclear materials. This could also be the case for facilities in the former Soviet Union that house chemical or biological warfare-related materials. In addition, numerous scientists or technicians previously involved in key programs face severe salary reduction or loss of employment. States seeking to establish their own weapon capabilities may try to exploit the situation by attempting to recruit such individuals.

There are other potential sources for nuclear materials or expertise other than the states of the former Soviet Union. For example, personnel that once had been involved in programs that are no longer active in states like South Africa, Brazil, or Argentina also could be sources of technical expertise. Therefore, given the goal of acquiring NBC weapons capabilities by several states described earlier, the security of these materials and personnel is a key proliferation concern for the United States and its allies.


Most terrorist organizations have shown little proclivity to develop and use NBC weapons. The case of Aum Shinrikyo, however, illustrates the potential threat posed by terrorist groups when they have access to the requisite material to assemble NBC weapons, have personnel knowledgeable in NBC technologies in their ranks, and possess sufficient financial resources to procure NBC materials.


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