The possibility of a terrorist attack using nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons is an ongoing debate in the national security policy arena. While terrorist motivations have traditionally been political ones that would not benefit from such an attack, concern is now voiced over a possible trend of inflicting greater numbers of casualties. Terrorists most likely to attempt attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are extremist religious millenarian groups and small splinter terrorist cells. Nation-states appear unlikely candidates owing to fear of severe retaliation. Terrorist ability to produce or obtain WMD may be growing due to looser controls of stockpiles and technology in the former Soviet Union and the dissemination of technology and information. However, WMD are significantly harder to produce or obtain than what is commonly depicted in the press and probably remain beyond the reach of most terrorist groups. The Central Intelligence Agency believes that it is likely that terrorists will continue to choose conventional explosives over WMD. Two groups that have warranted special attention, because they combined the motivation to use WMD with substantial resources, are the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo and Usama Bin Ladin's organization, Al-Quiada. This report briefly examines the debate over the nature and magnitude of the threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. It discusses terrorist motivation to execute WMD attacks, the ease/difficulty of obtaining WMD capabilities, the possible magnitude and consequence of terrorist WMD attacks, and terrorist groups of interest.
CRS Report for Congress, RS20412