The Emerging Threat Posed by Non-State Proliferation

by James K. Campbell
Commander, U.S. Navy
27 October 1996

Commander Campbell's book information is at the bottom of this page.

To date most informed opinions on non-state political violence suggest that terrorist of the future will neither seek to develop, nor threaten to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Arguments supporting this position are typically presented through a framework of anachronistic assumptions that have been in use since the days of the late nineteenth century Russian Nihilist movement.

These assumptions suggest that: (1), terrorist groups are nothing more than a collection of frustrated, political actors bent on correcting a perceived flaw in the socio-political order of the state. The cause to take up terrorism evolves adjunct to their failure or inability to influence objectional political, economic and/or social conditions that define their environment;[1] (2), it is assumed that these frustrated actors adopt terrorism as a means to force their political agenda through the use of directed and modulated violence.

This violence is designed to communicate a complex message that primarily gains the terrorist group public recognition for their cause. Unmitigated destruction and violence is not the goal as noted by Brian Jenkins who suggests that "terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.;[2] (3) terrorists are "mirror imaging rational actors," e.g., their behavior is normative. As such they are subsumed to understand that exceeding a certain violence threshold may result in a globally enjoined effort to eradicate them.[3] Finally it is assumed that the technology and associated costs involved in the development and production of weapons of mass destruction are beyond the reach of the non-state group.[4] For these reasons the image of the classical terrorist of the twentieth century has not included WMD. However, these traditional arguments have arguably weakened due to the changing nature of the terrorist phenomenon. Specifically these changes are emerging in areas related to supply and demand variables, variables that certainly influence a non-state group's decision to develop and use WMD. Supply issues suggest that: (1), the availability of materials and technical requirements to produce elementary WMD are well within the reach of contemporary non-state groups; (2), that many groups have the financial capacity to fund such programs; and (3), that individuals knowledgeable of WMD technologies are involved with groups that might threaten the use of WMD.

Demand issues suggest that ownership and use of WMD by a non-state group provides a powerful negotiating tool, status, and power. Thomas Schelling notes that a terrorist organization which achieves a WMD capability ascends to a higher position of relative power and prestige.[5] Additionally, the absence of territorial boundaries in the case of the non-state group serves to make state retaliation difficult as the terrorist become hard to target, a problem that Marrs suggests serves to "vitiate the retaliatory threats of the state."[6]

It is noteworthy that Schelling's argument may have strong appeal to non-state groups that embrace a religious ideology affiliated with apocalyptic millennialism, redemptive fanaticism or racist/ethnic hate. Where traditional terrorists typically conduct their actions within certain violence thresholds, those operating under the aforementioned belief systems are arguably not subject to the same constraints as they conduct their acts to satisfy a higher authority, God. These groups may be attracted to the power ownership of WMD affords precisely because WMD use can result in mass casualties and mass disruption against an "enemy" defined by their religious beliefs. Non-state groups operating under the "cloak of religion" might very well be the most likely candidates to use the unlimited or disproportionate violence WMD affords.

The "Post-Modern Terrorist" or "The Revolution in Terrorist Affairs"

Much as scientific, technological, and social changes continually influence the art and science of warfare, so to have these things influenced the behavior and enhanced the capabilities of the terrorist. Recent studies suggest that terrorists are becoming increasingly more lethal and violent.[7] These ultra-violent acts suggest that the days of constrained or modulated violence are over. Drawing on the work of Mark Juergensmeyer 'ultra-violent' is defined as an act that involves killing or planning to kill others 'en-masse.' This killing is conducted outside the boundaries of warfare and punishment in such a horrific manner as to elicit total revulsion and anger from those who witness or become aware of the act.[8] The divergence from traditional 'means to ends' in recent terrorist acts is evident in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103; the 1993 World Trade Center complex bombing; the 1995 Oklahoma Federal Building bombing, the Tokyo nerve gas attack; the 1996 Hamas bombings in Israel, IRA bombings in London, the Islamic radical bombings in Saudi Arabia. New twists on old ideological imperatives, coupled with the availability of more lethal weapons and weapon related technologies, are rapidly enabling the terrorists to cause large scale death and destruction.[9] Again, for the terrorist empowered by an underpinning of religion, the ability to please God by killing his enemies 'en-masse' with WMD, becomes an end unto itself.

Of increasing frequency is the ultra-violent terrorist act followed by silence. Many times in recent years terrorist acts have been committed without a group stepping forward to claim credit for the event. Events such as the downing of Pan Am flight 103, the Air India flight that crashed off the Irish coast in 1988, the recent terroristic bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, all suggest a 'shift in terms of the message the terrorist act is supposed to send. Where traditional terrorists use the event to gain access to a 'bully-pulpit' to air their grievances, these 'silent terrorist' desire to send a message that creates a superordinary sense of overwhelming fear, and vulnerability amongst their 'enemies.' Additionally, non-state, religiously oriented groups arguably have no great need for media assistance to articulate their cause as the intended audience is their own closed cell-constituency and God.

By not claiming responsibility for the event, non-state groups may actually be able to do more damage to the selected target and, at the same time, escape retaliation. The fact that no one group has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing has, at a minimum, caused difficulties between the U.S. and her economic allies and heightened tensions between the Islamic countries of Libya, Iran, Sudan and Syria vis-a-vis the U.S.[10] This might represent part of a non-state strategy to polarize the Islamic community against the West, while causing divisiveness among Western allies.

The change in the characterization of terrorism may be indicative of a new era, one in which the traditional, 'constrained' terrorist of the twentieth century is supplanted by the ultra-violent 'post-modern terrorist' of the twenty-first century. Post-modern because of the manner in which they employ advanced technology, and anonymity, to conduct destructive acts traditionally viewed as disproportionate to their goals.

Genesis of the "Post Modern Terrorist"

Expanding on a general theme discussed recently by Walter Laqueur,[11] the emergence of the "post-modern terrorist" appears to have two causes. One may be religious revivalism. Religion has played a part in legitimizing extremes of violence throughout history, tendencies that are generally constrained in traditional, secularly oriented, non-state groups. Ultra-violent terrorist acts rooted in religious imperatives can be seen in Sri Lanka, where Tamil Hindus are waging a bloody terrorist campaign against the Sinhalese Buddhists; in India and Pakistan where Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslim extremist groups engage in violent struggles; in Israel, where both radical Palestinian and Israeli movements have caused great injury and death in the name of God.[12] The success of Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution and his call to propagate Islam through the use of "holy-terror" have also been viewed as enhancing extremes of radical Islamic violence in many location.[13]

The second cause is arguably related to the removal of constraints imposed by the Cold War, and the subsequent disintegration of a bipolar world order. As a result of this disintegration, a new world disorder seems to have emerged in which the legitimacy of many states is being challenged from within by increasing non-state calls for self-determination. Huntington affirms this trend in a recent essay in which he suggests that the causes of future conflict will be rooted in a clash of cultures.[14] He argues that ethnic and religious underpinnings will supplant traditional political ideologies with cultural ones. Where these movements cross each other, bloody conflict will erupt.

Prime examples of this phenomenon can already be seen in Algeria, Somalia, Egypt, Sudan, Rwanda, Chechnya, the Balkans, Indonesia - and even here in the United States. These movements often prey on the insecurities of the population, offering to fill the psychological, sociological, political or religious security needs of those who would join them. Examples of such groups have emerged in the form of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo; the Identity movement in the U.S.; and the radical Islamic revivalist movements that exist in a variety of countries.[15]

These religiously oriented groups appear to share a common ideological thread that rejects existing societal structures and demand a structural revision of the world in a manner that will ensure their own dominance. To this end, the threat or actual use of WMD may be the method by which they believe they can attack the state without having to expose themselves.[16] Capitalizing on the highly cultivated fear WMD use engenders may convince these groups that they possess a power great enough to compel the state to concede to their demands. If the state is not prepared to effectively respond to multiple WMD crises, and manage the consequence of such attacks, non-state groups may arguably be able to achieve their desired goals. Armed with WMD, the non-state group may achieve its objective, circumventing the need to engage in a protracted terrorist campaign.[17]


WMD use can cause mass casualties and substantial infrastructure disruption, far more than that caused by any previous terrorist incident. Since the threat to use WMD affords the non-state group a powerful tool (to compel, deter, or destroy) that heretofore has not been available to them, non-state proliferation presents a serious security dilemma to the global community.

Recognizing the WMD threat in general terms, President Clinton signed Executive Order No. 12938 on November 14, 1994. This order declared a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction pose to the national security, foreign interest, and economy of the United States. On November 9, 1995, a continuation of this order was declared by Executive notice. This declared state of a national emergency has continued. Despite the existence of a robust, widely supported international regime to control the spread of WMD,[18] the consensus of various scholars and policy makers, identifies WMD proliferation as a top security threat to our Nation. Senator Sam Nunn's address concerning proliferation echoes these sentiments: The number one security challenge in the United States now and probably for years ahead is to prevent these weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biological or nuclear, and the scientific knowledge of how to make them, from going all over the world to rogue groups, to terrorist groups, to rogue nations.[19]

Raising the specter of this concern, in March of 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released nerve gas in a Tokyo subway, resulting in the death of 12 people and the injury of 5000.[20] Following this horrendous act, Congressional hearings on the potential for continued non-state group employment of WMD concluded with the assertion that non-state proliferation poses a difficult challenge to our National security primarily because these groups are exceptionally hard to target, and much harder to deter, more so than an identifiable rogue state.

It is intimately clear that when a non-state group such as Aum is able to develop a WMD capability, an endemic failure within the international community exists that must certainly be remedied. That failure relates to two significant deficiencies. First, our collective, intelligence capabilities to identify such groups early on needs to be improved. As discussed in Congressional hearings held in November of 1995, the threat posed by Aum was never even on our intelligence "radar screens." If we are going to beat these "bad guys," we must fine tune our intelligence apparatus so we can identify these groups, their capabilities, and intentions. By doing this we assure ourselves the ability to operate inside the terrorist group's "decision making loop." Operating inside this "loop" will allow us to preempt the terrorist action before it occurs. Second, export controls and domestic efforts to restrict the sale of chemical/biological precursors, dual use technology and equipment must be strengthened.

Aum has proven that a determined non-state group can amass material, know-how, and equipment to develop and threaten the use of WMD. The concern now lies in discerning what the next group will do having learned from Aum's mistakes. A robust effort to improve our knowledge of terrorist groups through human and open source intelligence gathering, coupled with strengthened efforts to control access to chemical and biological agents, their precursors and duel use equipment, will certainly help to minimize the WMD threat posed by these "post-modern-terrorists."

End Notes

1. Martha Crenshaw, "The Logic of Terrorism," in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 17-24.

2. Brian Jenkins, The Potential for Nuclear Terrorism, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1977), 8.

3. Ted Robert Gurr, "Terrorism in Democracies: Its Social and Political Bases," in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism, ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 94.

4. Karl-Heinz Kamp, "Nuclear Terrorism-Hysterical Concern or Real Risk?," German Foreign Affairs Review, v. 46, n. 3, (1995).

5. Thomas Schelling, "Thinking about Nuclear Terrorism," International Security, v.6, n.4, (Spring 1982), 68-85.

6. Robert W. Marrs, "Nuclear Terrorism: Rethinking The Unthinkable," thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, (December, 1994), 3.

7. Jeffry D. Simon, "Terrorists and the Potential Use of Biological Weapons: A Discussion of Possibilities," R-3771-AFMIC, (Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation, 1989), 5.

8. Mark Juergensmeyer, "The Logic of Religious Violence," 177.

9. Simon., 5. Also Bruce Hoffman,"Recent Trends and Future Prospects of Terrorism in the United States,"R-3618, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1988), 10.

10. "French Minister/No Lesson To Learn From U.S. On Terrorism," Xinhua, August 7, 1996 and "U.S. House Report Sees Terror Drive Launched," Reuters, August 1, 1996.

11. Walter Laqueur, "Post Modern Terrorism," Foreign Affairs, v 75, n. 5, (1996), 24-36.

12. Jeffrey A. Builta, Extremist Groups: An International Compilation of Terrorist Organizations, Violent Political Groups, and Issue Oriented Militant Movements, John Murray and Richard H. Ward, eds., (Chicago, Ill: The Office of International Criminal Justice, 1996), 663-675, 725-823, 1039-1115. Since 1983 over 50,000 people have been killed adjunct to violence in Sri Lanka.

13. Amir Tahari, Holy Terror, (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1987), 1-20.

14. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, v. 72, n. 3, (Summer, 1993).

15. The case of Aum is by now assumed to be the first time that WMD has been employed in a contemporary terrorist attack. However, there is information to suggest that the Islamic terrorists that bombed the World Trade Center may have incorporated cyanide as part of the package, see "Doomsday Cults: Only the Beginning," Newsweek, April 3, 1995, 40. Additionally, in a 1986 Justice Department raid of the Identity oriented group known as the Covenant, The Sword, Arm of the Lord, federal agents seized approximately thirty gallons of cyanide and plans to poison the water supplies of several unidentified U.S. cities. See Ron Purver, "Chemical and Biological Terrorism: The Threat According to the Open Literature," report, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, (June, 1995), 86; also J.Coats, Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), 140.

16. The devastation wrought by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the Nazi use of poison gas to annihilate six million Jews during World War II and the use of chemical weapons by both Iran and Iraq during their war in the 1980's, are all these incidents that have served to create a superordinary sense of fear of such weapons in many people.

17. This concept is similar to one referred to by Tarrow as the "the window of opportunity." See Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 81-99.

18. This regime includes codified efforts consisting of, but not limited to those involving the International Atomic Energy Agency, Non Proliferation Treaty, Chemical Weapons Convention, Biological Weapons Convention, export controls through the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Note that though the United States has yet to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (problems related to private industrial concerns that inspections will result in industrial espionage) the DoD is actively engaged in destroying existing stockpiles of chemical agents and their delivery systems.

19.Senator Sam Nunn's comments made during November, 1995 Congressional hearings on issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction.

20."Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Case Study of Aum Shinrikyo," Congressional Testimony Hearing, October 31, 1995, 1.

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