Small Groups, Big Weapons: The Nexus of Emerging Technologies and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism
Contributing USMA Research Unit(s)
Chemistry and Life Science
Combating Terrorism Center Report
Historically, only nation-states have had the capacity and resources to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This was due to the significant capital, infrastructure, and intellectual capacity required to develop and maintain a WMD program. This paradigm, however, is shifting. To be clear, non-state actors have been interested in WMD for decades. In fact, over a 26-year period, there were 525 incidents by non-state actors involving nuclear, biological, and chemical agents. But the scale of these incidents was relatively low level when compared to the impact of terrorist attacks using conventional weapons. However, this reality must be reexamined given the commercialization of emerging technologies that is reducing the financial, intellectual, and material barriers required for WMD development and employment. This report serves as a primer that surveys the key challenges facing non-state actors pursuing WMD capabilities, and the potential for certain emerging technologies to help overcome them. While there are numerous examples of such technologies, this report focuses on synthetic biology, additive manufacturing (AM) (commonly known as 3D printing), and unmanned aerial systems (UAS). There is a wide range of expert opinions regarding the dual-use nature of the technologies discussed in this report, the ease of their possible misuse, and the potential threats they pose. The varied opinions of scientists and government officials highlight the challenges these technologies pose to developing a cohesive strategy to prevent their proliferation for nefarious use by non-state actors. Much of the risk and threat associated with these dual-use technologies resides in the intent of the user.
Hummel, Stephen G. and Burpo, Fred J, "Small Groups, Big Weapons: The Nexus of Emerging Technologies and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism" (2020). West Point Research Papers. 629.