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CBRNE Terrorism Prevention Programme

CBRNE terrorism poses a clear threat to public health and safety, national security and economic and political stability on a global level. Accordingly, the prevention of such incidents is of the highest priority.

The threat of CBRNE terrorism is evolving and, with it, the risk of incidents intended to maximize the number of victims on a global scale. We know that terrorist groups are working hard to acquire CBRNE materials and the expertise to use them in their operations. 

At INTERPOL, our CBRNE Terrorism Prevention Programme specializes in the prevention of the different aspects of CBRNE.

Chemical and explosives terrorism

Terrorism that makes effective use of CBRNE materials is commonly considered to be the worst case scenario of all potential terrorist attacks.

Given that the threat posed by chemical and explosives terrorism is a serious concern for all INTERPOL’s member countries, INTERPOL has developed a specialised unit to address these issues: the Chemical and Explosives Terrorism Prevention (ChemEx) Unit.

As the world’s only global law enforcement organization, INTERPOL has a leading role to play in helping its member countries meet these security challenges by providing support aimed at preventing chemical and explosives terrorism. 

The threat

Even though CBRNE attacks are considered to be low-incidence crimes, it is worth noting that chemical materials can be found and acquired almost anywhere in modern societies.

In today’s world, it is relatively easy for terrorist groups to gain access to chemical materials in order to manufacture weapons such as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or Improvised Chemical Devices (ICDs).

Incidents such as the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, the Madrid bombings in 2004, the London bombings in 2005, the Oslo bombing in 2011, as well as the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995, are all examples of horrific events where chemical or explosive materials were used to cause death and destruction at levels exceeding those of traditional criminal acts.

Not only does this type of terrorism pose a clear large-scale threat to public health and safety in the immediate vicinity of a successful attack, but such an attack could also have severe ramifications for economic and political stability on a global level.

Chemical terrorism

Terrorist groups resorting to chemical weapons are prepared to inflict casualties on a mass scale. They are also ready to experiment with somewhat risky, innovative tactics.

Groups such as apocalyptic cults, radical militias or jihadist organizations without a significant support base or constituency are therefore more likely to be attracted to the idea of launching chemical attacks.

Even a small-scale attack using Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) can inspire extreme fear among a civilian population and have a disproportionate psychological impact.

Not all terrorist groups seek to cause a high number of deaths, but rather to inflict fear by terrorizing a community. To this end, it is sufficient for a terrorist group to use a chemical agent that has an incapacitating effect on victims, instead of choosing a highly lethal nerve agent.

Furthermore, there are tens of thousands of chemicals readily available as chemical weapon precursors. Whilst not all these chemicals are deadly, they can still be used to disrupt or terrorize a community.

Sabotage of chemical plants or chemical transports

Terrorist groups that lack extensive scientific expertise within their own organizations are perhaps more likely to mount a conventional attack against the transportation of hazardous chemicals or against a chemical plant.

The latter would most likely include either an external attack by penetrating the plant site or an attack from the inside by a disgruntled employee. With the insider-scenario, it could be difficult to distinguish a terrorist attack from a bona-fide chemical industrial accident if no group were to claim responsibility.

In today’s modern societies, chemical plants and chemical transportation are part of our industrial infrastructure. Even though law enforcement agencies in many of INTERPOL’s member countries have updated contingency plans and conduct regular emergency exercises, chemical spillage from a chemical accident or attack can have far-reaching and unanticipated consequences depending on the nature of the attack, geographical position and weather conditions.

Economic globalization has changed the threat of chemical weapons. Today many developing countries have the capability to manufacture fertilisers and pesticides. Companies are building multipurpose chemical plants in countries that lack sufficient provisions for chemical safety and security.

The globalization of the chemical industry has also created a large pool of people with expertise in chemistry and chemical engineering who could potentially be recruited by non-state actors that are seeking to acquire chemical weapons.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

The prevalence of IEDs is increasing – both among terrorist groups and individuals with political grievances who are acting alone.

When it is difficult to obtain traditional, military or commercial grade explosives, terrorist groups turn to commonly used chemicals as precursors in order to manufacture explosives. These common chemicals are easily acquired in modern societies and only the imagination of the bomb-maker limits their usage as IEDs.

For example, in 2005 the London bombers manufactured their own explosives from easily sourced and perfectly legal precursor materials, with which they attacked the transportation system. Terrorist groups have a long history of favouring explosives as a popular weapon of choice to create an immediate large-scale effect with multiple casualties and thus terrorise an entire society.

Countering IEDs with awareness training

Law enforcement agencies worldwide are moving towards a proactive approach in combating the use of IEDs.

The primary preventative step is often to deny terrorist groups access to common chemicals by removing, restricting or tracking these chemicals. However, since these chemicals are ubiquitous in our societies, it is impossible to completely restrict their usage.

Therefore it is vital that police officers have a basic understanding of homemade explosives so they can identify precursor materials, offer advice on the security of such materials, and recognise activity or evidence during house searches that may mean a “bomb” factory is operating.

If officers cannot identify the precursor chemicals and manufacturing items, they could well be in mortal danger. Even if the threat of IEDs cannot be removed completely, it can be mitigated by efficient prevention.

Added value and interagency approach

There are a number of international agencies working in the field of chemical terrorism prevention. INTERPOL's ChemEx Unit provides an added value to these efforts by supporting a holistic law enforcement and partner agency-view with regard to prevention, response and investigation. This added value concerns both the threat of chemicals for malicious use and individuals with the requisite knowledge to effectively use those materials maliciously.

INTERPOL’s ChemEx Unit has a well-functioning cooperation with international organizations – such as  Europol, the  World Customs Organization (WCO)  and the  Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

More specifically, ChemEx also supports the European Explosive Ordnance Disposal Network (EEODN), the International Bomb Data Centre Working Group (IBDCWG) and The WCO's Programme Global Shield.

Programme Global Shield

The Global Shield Programme is a project that seeks to combat the illicit trafficking in chemical explosives precursors and is led by the WCO, with INTERPOL’s ChemEx unit as a key partner.

Programme Global Shield monitors the licit movement of 14 explosive precursor chemicals in order to identify illicit cross-border diversion and trafficking of chemicals for the manufacture of IEDs.

The ChemEx unit is the main focal point at INTERPOL for dealing with the messages that relate to Global shield and to provide specialized training within the Global Shield cooperation framework; thereby connecting customs authorities with law enforcement.

Support to INTERPOL member countries

INTERPOL is uniquely positioned to provide significant support to the police services of its member countries by employing an intelligence-driven, prevention-oriented, investigative approach.

To help those services meet the goals of an effective CBRNE terrorism prevention programme, INTERPOL’s ChemEx Unit provides the following support services: . 

  • Intelligence analysis for police services
    Solid criminal intelligence analysis will ensure the prevention of an attack by allowing law enforcement authorities to get on the trail of the perpetrators before they can carry out their attacks. This can be achieved by tip-offs, surveillance of suspects or by covert samplings of suspicious material by forensic experts.
  • Training programmes preventing the illegal dispersal of chemical materials
    INTERPOL also provides training for law enforcement officials and other first responders so as to ensure a comprehensive and structured approach in preventing CBRNE attacks. The approach taken by INTERPOL's ChemEx Unit promotes training and awareness enhancement, coupled with capability development.
  • Responding to and investigating chemical threats and malicious incidents
    The criminal case begins as soon as the suspects or CBRNE materials start to move. Since materials, money, information and individuals are highly likely to cross national borders, INTERPOL will be in a unique position to interconnect national law enforcement agencies and to facilitate cross-border cooperation.

The importance of information-sharing

Information exchange between national agencies is of the utmost importance to prevent an attack from taking place.

National agencies need to work together and assure that they can cooperate effectively. However, sharing sensitive information – and acting upon it – takes time and practice, as it also requires trust between partners and their ability to maintain confidentiality and properly utilise sensitive information.

Nevertheless, in order to successfully combat chemical and explosives terrorism, it is vital that law enforcement agencies around the world work together.

Useful links

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Project Geiger Report Form for National Central Bureaus

Authorized users can report a nuclear or radiological incident or event, such as a theft, loss, detection or seizure in two ways:

  • Via the  online form. This will be sent directly to the INTERPOL General Secretariat.
  • Via the  offline form. This can be downloaded and emailed to other agencies and organizations as necessary, as well as the INTERPOL General Secretariat. 

All reports must be either copied to or sent by the National Central Bureau.