Targeting Terrorist ties to WMD
Why stopping proliferation of weapons of mass destruction matters
Dr. Alfred Oehlers
When traveling through Asia, I am frequently surprised by the low awareness of the risks posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A conversation recently shared with a well-traveled and seemingly smart young scholar in a major air hub typified many experiences. While waiting for our flights, we talked about the most pressing security challenges facing Asian nations today. “Huh? Proliferation?” He furrowed his brows. “But that’s not our problem, right? That’s yours!” I must have mumbled a puzzled response. “Yeah, yeah,” he helpfully continued, “you people in the advanced world, the first world — you make these things and sell them all around the place. They fall into the wrong hands and get trafficked to bad people. All of your own making — nothing to do with us!”
Casting the problem in this manner as one unique to the advanced nations and hence of little concern to developing Asian nations is one of many reasons why proliferation ranks low in the public imagination and often remains a low priority in decision-making circles. There are others, however, who believe that since their nations are neither sources nor destinations for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they will never be a target for proliferators or bad actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities. So, why bother? Even if there is an inclination to address the issue, others point out that this problem is so technical, advanced and complex, it overwhelms their slender capacities. Lacking the necessary detection equipment, skills and training, and often hamstrung by outdated and deficient legal codes, even sympathetic security operators often dejectedly shrug at the problem. Without a sense of high-level urgency and priority surrounding the issue and already grappling with a series of other significant threats with highly constrained capacities, what can be done?
Some of the constraints and challenges often alluded to are real and compromise the ability of well-intentioned actors committed to addressing proliferation. However, misinformation and disinformation undermine thoughtful discussion and fruitful paths forward. Much of this stems from a basic unfamiliarity with the topic. Patient engagement and dialogue may help build interest and understanding that over time may translate into stronger support. Such outreach, however, should include a conversation about how proliferation may insidiously undermine the safety, security and sovereignty of affected nations. Far too often, given its nature as a transnational threat, discussions of the negative impacts of proliferation are couched at the supranational level — how it undermines regional or international security, peace and stability, the safety of the world community, and so on. The issue needs to be brought closer to home for the nations concerned. At the end of the day, what is the bottom line? How will proliferation affect their economies, their people, their future development, if left unaddressed? What’s in it for them? Perhaps then, with this harder-hitting narrative about how proliferation may derail their significant development achievements, a more compelling case can be made for cooperative action.
Defining the phenomenon
Proliferation is a term used to describe the spread of WMD capabilities. This spread might be at a level between states, but may also occur between states and nonstate actors or even among groups of nonstate actors, all of which are broadly defined. Capabilities not only refer to the possession of a finished WMD device but also encompass technologies used to produce such a device, the required parts and materials, and the intellectual expertise guiding the conception and development of such weapons.
There are many types of WMD. As the name suggests, these are weapons capable of killing many and causing widespread and long-term destruction. Four categories are usually suggested: nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological (though the inclusion of this last is sometimes debatable, as explained below).
Nuclear WMD may be the most familiar, relying either on fission or fusion to release massive amounts of energy and destructive force. While we normally consider them strategic weapons, they can be miniaturized for tactical battlefield deployment (in artillery, for example) or as human-portable devices. The illicit spread of strategic weapons and components has always been a concern, but now an added worry is that the ever smaller tactical devices are easily concealed and transported, probably with wider appeal, especially to nonstate groups.
Chemical weapons cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm through the toxic effects of some chemical agents. These include, for example, lung irritants (chlorine and phosgene), blood agents (hydrogen cyanide), blistering agents (mustard agent) and nerve agents (sarin, tabun, VX). With some exceptions, these chemical agents are easily available and accessed in nearly any country that has a sizable industrial sector. From a proliferation perspective, this category presents formidable challenges because the basic precursors for any kind of toxic cocktail are easily within reach of many bad actors.
Biological weapons kill and injure humans and animals and destroy plants and crops by exposing them to living, biological agents. Examples include pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and fungi such as anthrax, cholera, the plague and smallpox) and various toxins (poisonous chemicals produced by living systems — for example, ricin and botulinum toxin).
Finally, there are the radiological devices (or “dirty bombs”). These consist of radioactive materials attached to conventional explosives which, when detonated, spread radioactive contamination. They are improvised weapons, typically fashioned by terrorist groups, with limited real impact in terms of death and destruction. That’s why it is debatable if they should be included as a WMD. However, if the economic and psychological shock effects of such a weapon are considered, the havoc they may cause should not be underestimated.
Due to the appalling harm WMD may cause, an international effort is growing to stop the spread of such weapons and eliminate them altogether. International protocols governing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons have been established to stop the spread of such weapons and are rigorously enforced. To prevent subversion of these protocols and the illicit trade, counterproliferation agreements have also come into force, such as national export controls, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and at an international level, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540.
Despite these international efforts, the risks of proliferation are increasing. Paradoxically, the forces of globalization responsible for bringing progress to vast swaths of the globe have had a darker side, making it easier for proliferators to pursue their trade. Increasing global interconnectedness, whether via enhanced transportation networks, communications or even an exchange of ideas, has made access to WMD materials and components easier. Several well-recognized black or gray markets for materials or expertise in WMD now exist, both in a physical sense (especially in poorly governed spaces) and in virtual domains. Rapid scientific and technological advances are generating newer and newer innovations, some with the potential for destructive effect. International organized crime has thrived in this globalized world, inserting itself into influential positions in the lucrative WMD supply chain. Even more worrisome, nonstate groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have been capturing territory that once had facilities for manufacturing and stockpiling WMD materials. The use or transference of such materials by these groups adds further concern to an already troublesome issue.
For the most part, law enforcement capabilities in detection, interdiction and prosecution have not kept pace with these broad developments. Many nations — including those in Asia — remain highly vulnerable to exploitation by proliferators. The nature of such exploitation varies, depending on the nation concerned and the needs of proliferators. Past experience suggests a broad menu is open. A country may be used as a base to obtain items for proliferation or as a location for the assembly of a partial or finished weapon. Or it may function as part of a wider chain of deceit designed to conceal the movement of illicit cargoes — a false destination to create fraudulent commercial paperwork, complicit or duped local brokers and businesses to create fronts, a transshipment or transit point, a convenient point to access banking or other financial intermediation services.
Left unchecked, proliferation over time will come to exercise several pernicious effects on afflicted nations. Proliferators, for example, often catalyze corruption in countries, accelerating a deterioration in the quality of governance and the rule of law. Commensurate with a falling confidence in the institutions of government and public office, legitimate commerce is undermined and licit trade in parts, materials, technology and ideas will most surely be threatened. Companies, ports and authorities in affected nations will suffer the consequences to their reputations. Trust and confidence — so necessary for trade to advance — will be weakened, probably inhibiting the prosperity of the nation. Nations that are part of a chain in the construction of a WMD are also exposed to the risks of a WMD-related incident. While it may be argued such risks are remote, the costs of an “accident” involving WMD material, both short-term (involving loss of life and physical damage) and long-term (involving decontamination, reputational and other costs), should not be discounted. A significant setback may result in an otherwise positive trajectory of national progress.
Addressing proliferation will always be a challenge. Proliferators are constantly adapting their game, seeking ways to elude detection and staying a step ahead of law enforcement. There is a constant search for new, alternative suppliers, ever more elaborate front companies and networks, increasingly sophisticated document fraud, and more and more circuitous routes and transshipment points. With technological savvy, the proliferators will also be looking for new items to procure that are not on prohibited lists yet. Nations chasing these moving targets will need stronger whole-of-government cooperation and coordination. Stovepipes in authorities and ways of thinking about proliferation need to be overcome to bring together relevant players from across the entire proliferation supply chain to address the issue. Stronger networking at the regional and international levels can also play an important role, especially in information sharing or participation in joint projects such as the Container Security Initiative. Vigilance is key, and raising public awareness of proliferation and developing an active civic consciousness around the risks posed by proliferation will be crucial.