Expert Commentary

Non-State Actors

January 19, 2016 | Brigadier General JB Burton

The global strategic environment is growing progressively complicated by an expanding and dynamic network of actors with common motivations and increased access to the technology necessary to develop and employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD-like capabilities, ranging from radiological dispersal devices, to toxic chemicals and bio-toxins, to improvised explosive devices, to any combination thereof. Nation states with WMD capabilities and ties to terrorist or criminal networks represent a global proliferation threat that is further complicated by increasing information inter-connectivity and the progressively more complex global demographics created by populations in constant movement.  Terrorist organizations have made clear their intent to develop and employ WMD in pursuit of ideological and political objectives against the United States, her allies and interests.  Considering a history of routinely underestimating the capabilities of violent extremists, these threats should be viewed with legitimate concern for the likelihood of occurrence.

The production and employment of WMD has historically been the domain of nation states, and the threat of terrorists developing and employing similar capabilities has been viewed as highly unlikely given their propensity to operate clandestinely, with limited access to limited resources.  The ability for violent non-state actors to successfully avoid detection while mustering the manpower, technical expertise, and material necessary to develop and employ a WMD makes for great box office drama.  Regardless, a universal hypersensitivity towards WMD proliferation, along with governing local, national, and international laws related to WMD production, distribution, and employment, has kept the ability for terrorists to develop and employ WMD largely in check.  As a result, terrorists and non-state actors have most often dedicated their energies to the effective use of readily available materials, which can be developed locally and quickly employed.

The threat of WMD terrorism is often dismissed as unlikely due to a dangerous reductionist view that equates WMD solely with nuclear capabilities, which have traditionally been beyond the reach of terrorist organizations.  A more informed and holistic approach to understanding the capabilities of both nation states and non-state actors is to focus on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) capabilities and possibilities. Scientific expertise and dual-use technology is increasingly more readily available, exponentially increasing the very likely specter that violent non-state actors now have the ability to develop and employ WMD-like CBRNE capabilities to achieve their objectives.

The rapidly evolving strategic environment threatens traditional comfort zones related to the threat of CBRNE terrorism.  Larger, transnational terrorist organizations such as Hamas, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram represent the manifestation of a changing strategic landscape related to CBRNE weapons and WMD.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its territorial gains in Syria and Iraq resulting in an expansive, self-contained space with access to radiological material, toxic industrial chemicals, and laboratories. ISIS continues to recruit motivated supporters from across the globe to its cause, including many that possess the scientific expertise necessary to support the pursuit of developing WMD-like CBRNE capabilities.  According to NATO reports, ISIS has successfully removed nearly 90 pounds of low-enriched uranium from scientific institutions at the Mosul University in Iraq, and they have employed chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, reports from Kurdish fighters indicate that ISIS has successfully employed chlorine and mustard gas, as well as Sarin, Phosphine and VX nerve gas.  ISIS’s ability to recruit or coerce scientists with the right technological skills suggests that the organization has the capability now to develop WMD-like CBRNE weapons for employment.  Given these realities, ISIS represents a well-resourced terrorist organization with global reach enabled by the fiscal, physical, and technological means to conduct the research necessary to develop and employ CBRNE weapons of terror, signifying a clear and present threat to global security.

Middle Eastern and southwest Asian diaspora, coupled with our nation’s challenged border security and ungoverned physical and virtual spaces, provide the environment necessary for developing and employing a WMD-like CBRNE weapon in the homeland.  In the case of chemical weapons, it is not necessary to bring the weapons to us.  Only the people with the expertise need enter our borders, where they purchase precursors through a variety of legitimate sources.   

Increased global digital interconnectivity supports the rapid proliferation of both the motivation and the technological expertise necessary to create effective and highly destructive CBRNE devices.  Many industrial plants continue to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks designed to disperse toxic chemicals into surrounding areas.  Radiological elements within hospitals, construction zones, and waste dumps could easily be combined with conventional or homemade explosives to create a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or “dirty bomb.”  The employment of an RDD would likely not cause a high number of deaths; however, it would create widespread panic, environmental damage, and significant economic loss. 

Despite global hypersensitivity toward WMD proliferation, smuggling of nuclear arms-grade uranium as recently as 2011 suggests that WMD material may exist on the black market, and be readily available to the highest bidder.  While the threat of terrorists developing and employing an improvised nuclear weapon within the boundaries of the United States remains unlikely, the capabilities for successfully developing and employing effective CBRNE devices, including RDDs, continues on an upward trajectory and represents a continuum of tangible threats to homeland security.

The past decade of protracted war in southwest Asia has conditioned the U.S military, the national intelligence apparatus, and our law enforcement agencies to a specific type of fight against non-state actors within a geographic region but with global reach.  Despite tremendous advances in counter-terror, counter-insurgency, and wide area security tactics, techniques, and procedures, our military has let slip the skills necessary to operate effectively in a WMD or CBRNE complicated operational environment, with perhaps the exception of Emergency Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units in support of the counter-IED mission.  Many of our nation’s CBRNE and WMD response capabilities have been outpaced by other modernization efforts, leaving them woefully behind the trajectory of innovation, modernization and emerging threats.

To effectively meet the demands of the current and future CBRNE threats facing our nation, efforts must be taken to reduce the ungoverned spaces that provide non-state actors the freedom of movement to develop and employ CBRNE or WMD-like weapons.  Public awareness and engagement campaigns, such as “See Something, Say Something,” go a long way toward reducing ungoverned spaces, as do efforts to reduce isolated populations within our own borders through deliberate engagement and integration. 

We should seek to better understand the effects of the employment of CBRNE weapons by violent non-state actors, such as ISIS against the Kurds.  The Kurds provides us first-hand knowledge of a people, with little-to-no CBRNE detection or protection capabilities, who are being attacked routinely with CBRNE weapons emanating from a non-state actor’s sanctuary.  Their experience demonstrates the potential of violent extremists to develop and employ WMD-like CBRNE weapons, while showcasing the costs of a lack of capabilities for confronting those challenges.

The threat of non-state actors employing WMD or WMD-like CBRNE in the homeland is cause for legitimate concern.  Priorities should be placed on identifying and delivering a full suite of improved networked sensors, modeling, and collaborative communication capabilities. For best results, this should all be integrated with an enduring but technologically dynamic architecture that enables real-time situational understanding, and improved precision and effectiveness in a whole of government response. We should integrate military installation information, notification, and response capabilities with local, state, and federal intelligence, law enforcement, and emergency response activities to achieve a networked system of installations and communities that improves identification and response capabilities locally, regionally, and nationally.   Increased collaboration between policy, law enforcement, defense, industry, science, and academia is required to ensure modernization efforts are appropriate to the known and anticipated threat spectrum.  Emphasis must be placed on conducting multi-echelon live and constructive training exercises that integrate whole of government resources to ensure local, regional, and national response concepts and capabilities can successfully intercept, defeat, and respond to known and anticipated CBRNE threats. 

Non-state actors and terrorist organizations understand the physical and psychological effects of using CBRNE and WMD-like weapons, and they will continue to seek to develop and employ them to their advantage.  The nexus of ideology and increasingly available CBRNE technology represents a clear and present threat now and in the future, resulting in the very real threat of CBRNE and WMD-like weapons being developed by violent non-state actors and employed against targets in the homeland. This very real threat demands smart, aggressive investments into the agile development and acquisition of CBRNE defense, response, and counter-force capabilities at the local, regional, and national levels to stay ahead of a rapidly changing world.   

Brigadier General (Ret.) JB Burton is the Strategic Account Executive/Chief Strategist for Leidos.  His Army career included leadership of infantry and combined arms formations at every echelon, in peace and war, and culminated as Commanding General of DOD’s only fully integrated and operational CBRNE Command.  In this capacity, he led defense and national level efforts to modernize and effectively transform the doctrine, training, organizational and operational approaches for combatting CBRN,... Read More

Learn more about The Cipher's Network here

Next Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations
Strengthening U.S. Cyber Defenses
Russia Sanctions: The New Normal
Corruption in China: The Party’s Over
Change in the Kingdom: Three Big Shifts
Managing Information & Risk in the Digital Age
Endgame in Afghanistan
The Convergence of Crime and Terror
Strengthening the Public-Private Partnership
The Billion Dollar Spy: An Interview with Author David Hoffman
The New Battlefield
North Africa: Instability Increasing
The Kidnapping Capital of the World
Homegrown Terror in the Age of ISIS
The Refugee Crisis: Europe on the Brink
The Future of Mexican Oil
Cracks in the System
Embassy Security Three Years After Benghazi
Fourteen Years Later
Can Congress Solve the Cybersecurity Problem?
Arctic Game Changer?
Where They Stand on National Security
The First 100 Days
Worthy of Fleming: Anthony Horowitz's "Trigger Mortis"
At the Crossroads
Eye in the Sky
Rough Road Ahead for Rousseff
Leveling the Playing Field: Tech Access in China
The Dead Drop
Top of Mind for Chief Security Officers
Protecting Your Business
The Future of Oil
Chinese Expansion in Latin America
American Involvement in Syria
The Future of Geospatial Intelligence
The Umbrella Movement: One Year Later
Ebola: An End in Sight?
The Pakistan Problem
The Dead Drop
The Encryption Debate
Going Dark
The US-Mexico Relationship
The Rise of Mobile Technology in Africa
The Dead Drop
Construction Boom in the Gulf
Cybersecurity: The Human Factor
Beijing and the South China Sea
Will Peace Talks Succeed in Colombia?
Social Media and Terrorism
The Rise of Israel’s Tech Sector
Securing the Border
Red Sun Rising
The Dead Drop
Adopting the Iran Deal
Stability on the Peninsula
Crime in South Africa
Combatting Terrorist Financing
The Dead Drop
Recovering from a Cyber Attack
Stability in South Asia
Veterans Day
Israel’s Wave of Violence
The Dead Drop
Protecting Critical Infrastructure
ISIS on the March
The Paris Attacks
Rethinking U.S. Security Assistance
The War on Terror 2.0
Putting Mali in Context
Will Russia Ever Change?
Will Canada Pull Back?
Understanding Putin’s Popularity
Chinese Expansion in Africa
Terrorism Finance and Wildlife Poaching
Illicit Trafficking in Latin America
Climate Change and Security
Preventing Another San Bernardino
Supply Chain Security
Negotiating a New Safe Harbor Agreement
The Battle for Yemen
Foreign Tech Access in China
The Dead Drop
Offensive Cyber Operations
Travel Security in the Age of ISIS
Iran: A Rising Cyber Power?
The Future of Cybersecurity
The Arab Spring Five Years Later
Preparing Today’s Military for Tomorrow’s Wars
Cybersecurity for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises
Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea
Improving Aviation Security
The Dead Drop
Terrorism in 2016
Cybersecurity in 2016
The World in 2016: Opportunities and Risks
China in 2016
Russia in 2016
Moscow’s Cyber Buildup
The China-India Relationship
Russian Influence in Latin America
The Future of Homegrown Terrorism
Stability in Sub-Saharan Africa
Protecting Your Digital Identity
Elections in Taiwan: A Turning Point?
The Caliphate of Crime
Biotechnology’s Dark Side
Rethinking U.S. Strategy Toward China
The Evolution of Weapons of Mass Destruction
A New Era in US-Iranian Relations?
Will Information Sharing Improve Cybersecurity?
Evaluating China's New Silk Road
Tech in Latin America: Opportunities and Challenges
The Destruction of Libyan Oil
Ransomware: Protecting Yourself from Cyber Extortion
The US and India: Strengthening Security Cooperation
Security and Stability in Afghanistan
Combatting the Al Shabaab Threat
Sports Security: Protecting Your Venue
Israel’s Arab Alliance: A Counter to ISIS and Iran?
The End of U.S. Space Supremacy
The Caucasus: Instability Increasing
Stabilizing Iraq
The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Deepening U.S. Commitment to Asia
Securing Industrial Control Systems
The Battle for Ukraine
Defeating Boko Haram
Jordan: The Indispensable Ally
China’s Military Modernization
The Cybersecurity Skills Shortage
Solving Mexico’s Violence Problem
The Northern Triangle: The Most Violent Region in the World
The Future of the Middle East
Terrorism in the World’s Largest Muslim Country
The Rise of Quantum Computing
Europe’s Terrorism Problem
Stability in the East China Sea
The Rise of Counter-Drone Technology
The ISIS WMD Threat
Healthcare and the Cyber Threat
Security in the Indo-Pacific: Australia’s New Role
Countering ISIS' Message
Containing the ISIS Cancer
Security, Privacy, and the Fight Over Encryption
Taking Aim at Smart Guns
Losing Patience with North Korea
The Difficult Road Ahead for Colombia
The Taliban Resurgence
ISIS: The New Face of Global Jihad?
Connecting with Latin America
Russia and China: Mutually Assured Detachment
The Scourge of Terrorism
The Security Challenge of Terror
European Unity in the Face of Crises
Developing Enhanced Cybersecurity Systems
Pakistan: Friend and Foe?
Egypt’s Economy on the Brink
Tehran’s Balancing Act
Russia Makes Moves in the Middle East
Kenya’s Battle with al-Shabaab
Missile Defense in the Korean Peninsula
Are America's Ports Secure?
The Human Factor Behind the Panama Papers Leak
Russian Military Modernization
APTs: The Boogeymen of Cybersecurity
Vietnam: Guns and Butter
Syria: Power-sharing, Partitioning, and the Fight Against ISIS
Turbulence in Turkey
The U.S. and the Philippines: Shoulder to Shoulder in the South China Sea
The Darker Side of the Internet of Things
Cybersecurity Challenges in Asia
Taliban on the Offensive
Quagmire in Yemen
Cocaine and Conflict in Colombia
The Cloud: Nebulous, but Nimble
Censorship in China
An Emerging Crime-Terror Nexus in Europe
IRGC: Iran's Power Player
Latin America: The New Frontier for Cyber Attacks
The Hydra and the Snake: The Death of Osama Bin Laden
Nuclear Deterrence and Assurance in East Asia
Vehicle Cybersecurity: Running in Place
What Drives ISIS
Tensions Simmer in the South China Sea
Managing the Mobile Phone Malware Threat
Leaving the Oil Spigot Open
Burundi: A Path Toward Civil War?
The Value of Special Operations Forces
ISIS in the Balkans
The Tech Must Flow
North Korea’s Party Congress: What was all the fuss about?
Argentina: A Smoother Ride
Libya: Obama’s “Worst Mistake”
Tsai Ing-Wen’s Balancing Act
The North Korea Workers’ Party Congress and Kim Jong-un’s Legitimacy
Flying the Unfriendly Skies: Airline Security
Nuclear Standoff in South Asia
How to Read Riyadh
Even in Defeat, Austria’s Far-right Emulates Populist Growth in Europe
More Effective, Less Secure: The Cyber-Threat to Medical Devices