“Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Brian Jenkins RAND Corporation's terrorism emeritus (1985)

The threat of conventional and full scale war has faded. Nuclear saber rattling may be used as mere tools for moral ascendancy and leveraging diplomatic advantage. Globalization and revolution in Information technology has caused a spurt in transnational terrorism or `Revolution in Terrorist Affairs (RTA)'. CBRN materials have proliferated widely and the expertise required to utilize these is actually within the grasp of terrorists.

Terrorists may resort to WMD to generate widespread panic, that could bring down a democratic govt, or to establish a position of strength from which to negotiate their demands. The Tokyo nerve gas attack by the Japanese cult group, Aum Shinrikyo, on 20 March 1995, had set precedence in the use of WMD. The Anthrax cases in the US and radiation scares across the EU are other examples. It is but a matter of time when India will be faced with a CBRN Terrorist incident.

Emerging Threat

With empowerment of citizens, rising aspirations and easy availability of dual-use technology, we are witnessing the emergence of `techno'-terrorist, who may resort to CBRN Terrorism. The chance of a significant CBRN incident occurring in India is heightened by several factors :-

  • Inexpensive availability of Chemical/Biological (C/B) agents and their precursors and easily obtainable production processes.
  • Portability of small amounts of C/B agents, useful for clandestine purposes.
  • Capability of inflicting mass casualties based on limited ability to quickly identify and/or contain the effects of such substances.
  • Increased WMD stockpiles, with the potential for theft or acquisition of the weapons by terrorist groups.
  • Potential for large-scale impact due to increased media coverage of the use of WMD and high level psychological and panic reactions.

It is, therefore, not farfetched to assume that CBRN threats loom large over India. It requires a frank and serious study about threats and their prevention, vulnerability assessment and how we are preparing to manage the consequences of such an incident in India.

Nuclear Weapons. As a result of the programme for de-nuclearisation in the former states of the Soviet Union, there are about 500 metric tons of U 235 and 300 tons of U 239 from dismantled weapons that have to be disposed off. To add to it are the “Suitcase Bombs”. A virtual 'Nuclear black market” has come up in the CAR region. Technological partnerships may exist among rogue nations and groups.

Radiological Weapons. This weapon disperses radiological material by means of conventional explosions, causing radiological contamination. Such weapons are called Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD) or “Dirty Bombs”. The Litvenko poisoning case and arrest of Dhiren Bharot for seeking to make a RDD in UK, are examples. The Mayapuri incident of Delhi, involving Cobalt 60, is a wakeup call for us Indians. Cesium, Polonium and other radioactive isotopes are potential weapon ingredients.

Biological Weapons (BW). Biological agents like toxins (such as Botulinum Toxin or Ricin) or live pathogens (anthrax) are more potent than Chemical agents, since they replicate and multiply in their victims. Apart from high toxicity and non-detectability by traditional sensors, BW agents can be made from lab samples and stolen material. A number of laboratories in India and Abroad are working on samples and cultures of deadly bio agents.

Chemical Weapons (CW). The availability of Chemical agents or their ingredients is widespread. They are easy to produce even in a home lab by trained chemists, especially in a country having a vast industrial base like India, China or even Pakistan. The availability of toxic dual-purpose Chemical like Phosgene and Hydrogen Cyanide, as well as toxic industrial Chemical like Methyl Isocyanate (which killed 7000 people in Bhopal in 1984), makes the task of Chemical terrorist easy.


CBRN Terrorism Statistics

Right from the days of arsenic poisoning or toxin poisoning in the Mahabharata era (7000 BC) to the Anthrax mailing in Pakistan (2012 AD) and Ricin mailing in US (2013 AD), CBRN terror has been in our midst. While there have been innumerable hoaxes and mere threats of use of CBRN material, the number of actual cases are frightening. Given below is the data from the Monterey Institute of Terrorism Studies (1988 to 2004). This data does not include hoaxes, false threats or mere intentions.

Sub Category NoAgent NoMeansNo
Asia 98 Biological 42 Aerosol - Spray 19
US & Canada 85 Chemical 205   Contact 42
EU 44 Combination 07 Product tampering 18
Latin America 16 Nuclear 08 Explosive 27
Middle East & North Africa 20 Radiological 26 Food / Drink /Water supply 34
Russia & CAR 29 Unknown 26 Injection/Projectile 19
Sub Saharan Africa 12 -- -- Canister / Jar  13
Australia & Oceania 07 -- -- Letter / Package 46
Rest of the World 03 -- -- Others 96
Total 314 -- 314 --   314

Likelyhood Matrix

The table above shows that likelyhood of Chemical agents being used by terrorists is the highest. A comparative likelyhood matrix of CBRN weapons use by terrorists is given above.

Particular Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear
Production Easily available precursors Agent seed stocks accessible Costly. Not easily acquired. Unaccounted Fissile material Very difficult. Cost prohibitive
Weaponisation Simple Met sensitive Unsafe Highly technical
Control Controlled Not Controlled Can be Controlled Not Controlled
Delivery Liquid, Aerosol, Gas Food, Water, Air Multiple means Missiles, Aircraft, Artillery
Time to effect Immediate Incubation period Prolonged Immediate and highly prolonged
Likelyhood Most likely Less likely Less likely Not likely

The Future of WMD

Why is it, that despite all the attractiveness and ease of acquiring and handling of C/B agents and proliferation of terrorist groups, have these weapon systems not been fully exploited ? Several viewpoints are put forward :-

  • CBRN weapons (less Nuclear weapons) lack the “explosive effect” and are not spectacular like RDX.
  • Alienation of the target population is certain.
  • Dispersal is not easy and high safety standards are required in manufacture, storage and movement.
  • Govt (and International) retribution would be violent.

The lack of credible precedence (till the Tokyo subway attack) and the possible reluctance on the part of terrorist to experiment with unfamiliar weapon, further buttress these arguments. To a society over-exposed to media, an unseen threat is more scaring.

Factors which aid in the increased possibility of CBRN terrorism are :-

  • Beak-up of erstwhile Soviet Union - lack of control over large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, warheads, suitcase bombs - Black market.
  • Easy availability of dual use bio and chem and fissile material in India's neighborhood.
  • Availability of scientific / nuclear expertise internet and out of job scientists (Brains for hire).
  • The rise of Jehadi fundamentalism - state sponsorship LeT the Al Qaida factor.

Crisis and Consequence Management

Fig 1  Toxic Threat is real - CopyWhile many nations of the world began working on Consequence Management mechanisms of CBRN events during and after the Cold War, real impetus has been acquired post the 9/11 attacks. The USA has put into place a credible Homeland Security apparatus. International initiatives to combat CBRN terrorism under the UN, NATO, EU, SAARC and other global initiatives for combating CBRN Terror have been formalized and are in place.

The actions can be divided into three discrete categories: Crisis Prevention, Crisis Management and Consequence Management. Crisis Prevention, Crisis Management and Consequence Management are parallel and overlapping continuums. While we are reasonably experienced in managing natural disasters, the recent Mumbai attacks did expose our infancy in the field of crisis management. India does not seem to be adequately ready to address the Crisis and Consequence management of a CBRN Terrorism event.

Key Focus Areas. A Crisis and Consequence management plan should be based on the following four focus areas, integrating training and research :-

  • Preparedness and Prevention.
  • Detection and Surveillance.
  • Response and Mitigation.
  • Communications.

Stake Holders. Contrary to common belief, there are a number of stake holders in such incidents other than the Govt agencies :-

  • Government
    • Intelligence Agencies
    • Internal Security
    • Disaster Management
    • Armed Forces
  • Industry - especially those using/producing toxic chemicals and toxic waste
  • Medical and Health Care Public and Private
  • Civic Bodies and NGOs
  • Citizen
    • Working Class
    • Students
  • Media

Areas Requiring Emphasis. While the Indian Govt and other agencies including International agencies have begun a lot of work towards increasing resilience against CBRN incidents, certain areas which need more emphasis are as follows :-

  • Proliferation prevention Internal & External. A lot needs to be done to secure our borders and material that is coming in and going out of the country. CBRN Scanners, sound intelligence and comprehensive pacts with other countries is required.
  • Streamline incident prevention measures surveillance, networking, crime prevention. Strong apex structure and synergy amongst the various agencies involved is the need of the hour.
  • Enhance first response capability -
    • More NDRF Battalions - extend the concept to SDRFs to increase footprint and reduce reaction times..
    • Equipment this is a major shortcoming. We need capacity building in State of the Art equipment for detection, protection, decontamination and medical management of CBRN casualties.
  • Improving health infrastructure wider footprint, greater density, surge capacity handling.
  • Networking of Govt and private agencies resources, expertise and network of private NGOs, emergency management organizations and medical services need to be synergised with Govt programmes.
  • Communications, especially in interior areas.
  • Develop and engage Media as responsible stake holders. Irresponsible media coverage and urge to hit public with “Breaking News” needs to be controlled. CBRN incidents have a huge psychological impact even on the 'worried well'. Media should aim to prevent and reduce panic and paranoia and help boost the resilience of the community.
  • Logistics is a major concern and needs special attention.
  • Awareness enhancement Education, drills, creation of Citizen Emergency Response Teams (CERT) in localities, companies, colleges and institutions. Community involvement is a crucial aspect as more often than not, the local citizenry will be the first responders.

The Way Forward

To effectively prevent, counter and combat CBRN Incidents, there is a need to synergise efforts of all concerned agencies. The aspect is dealt in three heads of Comprehensive Management, System Essentials and International Support.

Comprehensive Management. The State needs to evolve a Comprehensive programme to cover all aspects of Crisis Prevention, Management and Consequence Management. Focus should be on the following :-

  • Regulations based on international standards.
  • Life cycle safety- Source to Disposal and Destruction.
  • Threat or Vulnerability Identification
  • Establishing controls to prevent threats.
  • Surveillance, Intelligence and Early Warning.
  • Preparedness for Response.
    • First Responder Situational response.
    • Medical Response.
  • Containment.
  • Decontamination.
  • Resumption of safe operations or activity (Business Continuity).

System Essentials. While planning CBRN Security to installations, Govt infrastructure and public places some key issues that need to be taken note of are listed below :-

  • Detection systems at Airports, Ports, Border posts, Govt buildings, Public places and Cargo handling areas - Controlled access system integrated with CBRN sensors.
  • Perimeter security scanning for CBRN threats including stand off detectors and meteorological sensors at Critical Infrastructure.
  • CBRN Detection systems integrated with Situational Awareness and Hazard Mapping system integrated into security control station.
  • Immediate protection means Personal Protection Kits (PPKs) for Responder Teams.
  • Segregated HVAC system with CBR Filters and clean chambers for temporary housing at important Govt and Public buildings.
  • Casualty management and evacuation measures Casualty bags, resuscitators, CBRN ambulances and enabling hospitals for surge capacity handling.
  • Decontamination equipment for on site and detailed decontamination including casualties.

International Support.

While the Indian Govt has its task cut out, International support is essential to ensure the containment of the threat. Areas that seek International cooperation are as given below :-

  • Proliferation prevention.
  • Sharing of CBRN intelligence.
  • Expert assistance Best practices - seminars, workshops.
  • Industry participation - CBRN mock drill culture awareness enhancement.
  • Technology sharing and availability of 'state of the art' equipment.
  • Medical and health care.


The distinction between internal and external security is fading. India has secure borders but insecure citizen. Terrorist can slip into our societies, and exploit our openness to inflict massive attacks. Analysis clearly indicates the possibility of CBRN terrorism in the Indian subcontinent. We need to be extra vigilant and fully prepared to prevent and deter, and if faced with, react to CBRN terrorism incidents.

Col (Dr) Ram Athavale (Retd)

Col (Dr) Ram Athavale (Retd)

The Author is a Veteran Army officer and has been a Key Advisor to the Govt of India on CBRN Security.

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