Small Wars Journal

Beware of CBRN Terrorism - From the Far-Right

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 8:22am

Beware of CBRN Terrorism - From the Far-Right

Daniel Koehler and Peter Popella


On August 12, 2017, during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia extreme right violence cumulated in a vehicle born terror attack, killing one and injuring 19 victims. The violent Far-right subsequently “surged into the national view” as “the most visible manifestation” of right-wing militancy.

Around the same time, an anti-government extremist seeking to engage in terrorism received much less attention. Jerry Drake Varnell, a follower of the anti-government “Three Percenter” ideology was arrested for plotting to detonate a 1,000-pound vehicle bomb in downtown Oklahoma City.  Varnell was reportedly worried that groups like ISIS could steal credit for the attack from him. These are just two examples of the increasing terror threat posed by far-right extremists (understood as an overlapping web of for example neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, white nationalists, Christian Identity, racist skinheads, as well as parts of anti-government militia, sovereign citizen, or armed patriot groups) of which U.S. law enforcement and intelligences agencies have warned months, even years ago. Indeed, right-wing terrorists have killed more Americans since 9/11 than any other form of violent extremism, are overall more active in committing homicides , are perceived to be the no. 1 threat by local law enforcement agencies, and worship one of the deadliest terrorist in American history: Timothy McVeigh.

As the threat from domestic terrorism is clearly increasing, one must ask if violent tactics used by these attackers might develop beyond the use of explosives and guns. The vehicle attack in Charlottesville was an indication of that tactics diversification, even though this was not the first incident of its kind in the United States. As the Oklahoma plot shows, far-right terrorists might see themselves in some kind of competition for public recognition with Jihadist groups like ISIS, which could lead to a further escalation of tactics used for example with the deployment of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons. In fact, right-wing terrorists have for decades been attempting to develop and use chemical and biological weapons. This article aims to give a short overview on the history of such efforts, the potential for right-wing terrorism to use chemical and biological agents in the future, and how authorities can counter this threat.

A Look at the Cases

Even though no significant cases of successful right-wing CBRN terror attacks in Western countries are known, a number of plots have been uncovered that indicate the motives and tactics of these extremists. In 2009 Ian Davidson, who was the leader of the right-wing terrorist Aryan Strike Force (ASF), became the first British citizen convicted of producing a chemical weapon of mass destruction. When Davidson and his son Nicky were arrested in the United Kingdom, the subsequent trial and conviction made history. His plot aimed to poison water supplies of Muslims in Serbia using the toxin ricin, which he already had produced in a significant amount. Estimations by investigators regarding the lethality of the material varied drastically but some thought the amount produced by Davison could have killed up to 1,000 people.

In the mid-1980s one of the few right-wing terrorist organizations in the United States, “The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord”, acquired large amounts of cyanide, intending to poison water supplies in major U.S. cities, but failed to overcome the technical difficulties of dissemination. In May 1996, a laboratory staff member and white supremacist in Ohio, Larry Wayne Harris, successfully acquired plague bacteria – not illegal at that time. Two years later, Harris and a co-conspirator were arrested for threatening to release anthrax in Las Vegas, even though his strain was a vaccine grade and harmless version. Material to extract ricin was also found at the home of white supremacist James Kenneth Gluck in Tampa, Fla., who was arrested by the FBI in November 1999 after he threatened judges with biological warfare. More serious seems to have been the plot led by neo-Nazi William Krar of Texas, arrested in April 2003. Investigators found more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 65 pipe bombs and remote-control briefcase bombs, and almost two pounds of deadly sodium cyanide. Along with white supremacist and anti-government material, components to convert the cyanide into a bomb capable of killing thousands were also secured. In November 2011, a plot to blow up government buildings and kill masses of people using ricin by a  group of four men belonging to an anti-government militia in Georgia was uncovered. Especially concerning was the fact that one of the four was working for the federal Department of Agriculture, giving him access to chemicals, technical equipment and ways to disseminate the poison into food and water supplies. In February 2017, 27 year old William Christopher Gibbs, member of the white supremacist Creativity Movement, was arrested after hospitalizing himself for side effects of his experiments with ricin, triggering a large FBI operation.

When looking at these cases, far-right extremists attempting to acquire and use CBRN weapons have very mixed backgrounds, ranging from career criminals to senior biodefense researchers at United States Army institutions. However, the more serious plots came from well-educated individuals with necessary access to equipment and dissemination ways indicating that right-wing terrorists might be quite well embedded in Western societies. In his seminal study about far-right terrorists’ recruitment and radicalization from 2012 for example, Pete Simi found 56% of his sample belonged to middle or upper social class and 53% had some form of college or higher education (with and without degrees). The majority of far-right CBRN plotters were part of groups and networks associated with their ideological and criminal conduct but not all of them. However, every far-right CBRN incident appears to be a culmination of a radicalization escalation process, sometimes even over years, with long histories of openly expressed violent, right-wing extremist, racist or anti-government opinions. Many of the plotters repeatedly threatened to use CBRN weapons in public to bystanders, families or friends. Even the lone actors were known to have gradually distanced themselves from their social environments getting more and more agitated and aggressive.

Now, the key question is: what makes a threat of far-right CBRN terrorism more likely and dangerous than compared with other violent ideologies, such as left-wing or jihadi terrorism? Of course, far-right extremists have equal access to open market technical equipment and supplies for manufacturing such weaponry as all other extremists in the country and their ideology is not more or less dangerous than jihadi or left-wing extremism, for example. Nevertheless, in 2012 international terrorism expert Peter Bergen stated, that “11 right-wing and left-wing extremists have managed to acquire CBRN material that they planned to use against the public, government employees or both” while there was no evidence of jihadists in the United States managing to do that. From these 11 cases only one (Joseph Konopka) was motivated by left-wing extremist (more specifically anarchist) political ideals. This fact is striking, since other violent extremists, especially Jihadists, certainly do not lack the willingness to use weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as it is currently experienced in Syria and Iraq. But how indicative is this retrospectively almost singular right-wing CBRN terror threat for the future?

To assess the possibility of an attack, one has to take three factors into account: 1) the feasibility of the used weapon (acquisition, available know-how, technology, materials or agents), 2) the “effectivity” or costs and benefits of the weapon and 3) the motivation to use the weapon regarding the pursued aims. The assassination of an individual person with a plain firearm is feasible (through the ease of acquiring a firearm), effective (since a single, well-placed bullet will “do the job”) and sends a clear message in terms of motivation, however not to an extent exceeding every-day criminality encountered on the streets of big cities. Using a deadly toxin, like ricin, presents bigger hurdles in terms of feasibility, but is also highly effective (in terms of toxicity and evasion of forensic investigation) and, more important, will provide added value in terms of public attention and media coverage about the attack and the very ideology of the originators. Considering the attack on a crowded public space, planting explosives will lead to severe damage as well potentially high lethality. However, by mixing the explosives with radioactive material – a so called dirty bomb – will not only cause more fatalities through radiation, but also evoke a higher level of fear and terror. Additionally, such an incident would represent a difficult challenge for first responders and might render the government incompetent of an appropriate response and preparation in the eyes of the public. All terrorists potentially share this goal to make their attacks more impactful and deadly, even though right-wing terrorists rarely have aimed to produce mass casualties, so far.

Factor 2, the effectivity of a weapon is, depending on the planned operation, similar for all kinds of terrorist as well. However, the feasibility to use CBRN weapons (factor 1) might be higher for far-right terrorists than for others, e.g. jihadists, since the extreme right can rely on established and much larger support networks, which can provide the required material, know-how and dissemination ways. Of course, it is not impossible for lone actors from all ideological strands to acquire the material as well as the know-how. Regarding factor 3, the motive, the violent far-right might be in an extraordinary position right now, making it more dangerous than ever.

The current Trump administration is openly courting the extreme right and – in the eyes of observers – fuelling a rising far-right terror threat, for example through the inadequate reaction to the Charlottesville attack. In addition, the general public is much less likely to perceive violent actions from far-right extremists as “terrorism” compared, for example, with those acts by Islamic extremists. This gives violent extremists from the far-right considerably more space to radicalize, escalate violent tactics and plot attacks without interference from the outside than from any other violent extremist group in Western countries. The most significant danger, however, will come to light after the demise of the Trump administration. A future US government trying to put the far-right jinni that Trump has released back into the bottle will face a much stronger, self-confident and aggressive opponent, already dreaming of a race war. The current government is favoured by anti-government militias and sovereign citizens and they are looking for a new enemy: those “counter-revolutionaries” attempting to return the United States to a pre-Trump state. Even open civil war was threatened in a case of impeachment. far-right extremists of all different strands might have heavily stockpiled firearms and explosives, but they know they cannot outgun and outman law enforcement, National Guard or the Military. A fight to retain their perceived newly gained freedom and powers therefore must include a tactical edge forcing the government to refrain from a too aggressive crackdown. CBRN agents or even the potential to quickly acquire them are the most effective and logical way to ensure the government’s passivity, especially giving the history of CBRN plots within the far-right.

What is Likely, What is Not? A Choice of Weapons

Some CBRN agents are more likely to be used in a terrorist attack than others, depending on factors such as ease of acquiring raw materials, difficulty of production, the required know-how, danger of storing the material for the terrorist, degradation of the material over time, deliverance, dispersion, and potential countermeasures. Nuclear and radiological weapons require radioactive elements that are generally stored under high-security and thus hard to obtain without a state sponsor. Low-level radioactive elements unsuitable for nuclear weapons, but sufficient for the construction of a ‘dirty bomb’ might be easier to obtain, since industry, agriculture and medical institutions are dependent on them. Americium, which is used in household smoke detectors, has indeed been found in the homes of far-right extremists, e.g. Tampa resident Brandon Russell. However, its actual effectiveness as a dirty-bomb ingredient is debated. Further, neo-Nazi James Cummings acquired four 1-gallon containers with a radioactive uranium and thorium mix in 2008, along with highly toxic beryllium powder and instructions to build a dirty bomb.

Chemicals and biological material, while for some part underlying governmental restrictions concerning proliferation and acquisition, are much easier to access. As noted by Edward You of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit, “The materials are readily available (…), and the majority of equipment can be purchased outright and do not fall under any regulatory regime.” Precursors for chemical warfare agents, as sodium cyanide in the case of William Krar, can be simply bought online. Manuals explaining the synthesis of the active agents in small laboratory or kitchen setups have been found in many cases, illustrating that the required knowledge has already spread and advanced significantly. Explosives that have been found and used in terror associated cases include the so called ‘mother of Satan’, triacetone peroxide (TATP), and hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HTMD). TATP can be synthesized from easily accessible household chemicals (acetone, hydrogen peroxide and sulfuric acid). Synthesis of chemical warfare agents like sarin, a nerve agent used by the Aum Shinrikyo attacks on the Tokyo subway, is highly demanding in terms of technology and know-how. Considering the difficulties of achieving sufficient quality of the material and the high risk for the producers during manufacturing and storage make and attack with nerve agents appear unlikely. However, structurally more simple chemicals, like cyanide compounds which can be commercially obtained, have been used in far-right terror plots.

Another potential dual-use chemical is chlorine. The highly reactive gas is nowadays widely used as disinfectant, bleaching agent and within different industry branches. Millions of tons are transported on roads and railways within the US every year, and may as such be targets for terrorist attacks. Upon contact with the human mucosa, the water soluble chlorine will at first cause local irritations and, during prolonged exposition of higher doses, evoke the deadly “dry-land drowning”. While no large scale attacks on hazardous material (HAZMAT) transports have been reported so far, guides to derail trains carrying such materials have been published by Jihadists and could easily be used by far-right terrorists as well. Additionally, application of commercially acquired chlorine as choking agent in local, small scale attacks pose a risk.

Alternatives to chemicals are agents of biological origin: toxins, bacteria (or spores – robust and dormant forms) and viruses. Toxins are harmful products of biological organisms, which interfere with vital body functions. Production and purification of these substances require in-depth knowledge and large amounts are thus hard to obtain. Ricin, which can be isolated from the castor oil plant, has been detected in multiple cases of far-right terror plots. While ricin is extremely deadly when taken up into the body, a wide spread application of ricin to target large groups of people is rather unlikely, just by the large amounts needed for such operation and the very proteinaceous nature. The isolation and cultivation of bacteria, although requiring some microbiological knowledge, can be done in improvised laboratory setups. Highly pathogenic strains are usually kept in isolated, high-security laboratories. However, Bacillus anthracis is an omnipresent, easy to isolate soil bacterium. Anthrax, as in the case of Larry Wayne Harris, is according to the CDC generally considered to be the most likely agent which might be used in large-scale bioterror. Viruses are dependent on cells as hosts for multiplication and thus require an even more complicated production process, which is highly unlikely to be established outside of academic or industrial laboratories. While the deadliest infectious diseases, like ebola or lassa, are caused by viral infections, application of viruses as terror agent by far-right extremist is unlikely. However, the growing industry and professionalization of DIY bio-laboratories across the United States was also noted by the FBI, which might also increase accessibility of the necessary technical equipment for potential biological and chemical terrorism.

Likely Goals of Right-Wing Terrorists

Existing research on right-wing CBRN terrorism is scarce and outdated. Few experts have even considered the potential threat, mostly in the late 1990s looking at Christian Millenarianism as a form of religious terrorism aiming for the apocalypse in a “sacrificial ritual of mass murder and suicide ”. Even though Christian millenarian groups have not attempted to develop CBRN weapons, they were scrutinized for such a potential threat after the Aum attack in Tokyo. Jessica Stern wrote in 1999 that “the costs of escalation to biological weapons seem to outweigh the benefits” for domestic extremists. Paul Blister and Nina Kollars confirmed this notion regarding the Christian Patriot Movement in 2011. Right-wing terrorism, however, goes beyond Christian fundamentalism and fanaticism circling around Armageddon. Especially given the dramatic increase in anti-government sentiment and militia groups in some western countries (e.g. the US and Germany) and their partial overlap with white supremacist and nationalist groups, there is potential for a future escalation of violent tactics if anyone might attempt to contain them again. Right-wing terrorists have usually not sought large public audiences for their attacks in order to communicate specific political programs but rather to annihilate their enemies by every means possible. In addition, to create chaos and panic, as well as erode a public’s trust in the government’s ability to provide safety by demonstrating its helplessness – a concept known as ‘strategy of tension’ among right-wing extremists – is thought to break the government’s monopoly of force and core political legitimacy.

Other research about right-wing extremism and terrorism has also shown, that an overlap between violent activists from the far-right and organized crime exists, which means that the acquisition of WMDs by these groups and actors could also be used as significant tool to shift the power base in extortion operations towards what could become right-wing extremist crime syndicates. In Austria for example a neo-Nazi group called ‘Object 21’ controlled large parts of the red light milieu along the Austrian-German border through the use of explosives, arson and attacks with butyric acid. In the United States, neo-Nazi oriented networks such as the Aryan Brotherhood for example, are deeply involved in drug trafficking. Highly militant and criminal hybrid networks could have severe impact within the organized crime world if they get their hands on CBRN weaponry, which is of course true not only of far-right but also for other terrorists.

Summing up, the potential goals of right-wing CBRN terrorism are most likely to use it for targeted assassinations, creating chaos and fear (not necessary connected with the own group and ideology, rather to erode trust in the government’s ability to protect, for which no large scale lethality is necessary as the agent itself might be scary enough), or to disrupt important commercial and logistical hubs to destabilize democratic governments, instead of producing mass casualties. In addition, it is a likely option that anti-government militias will use CBRN weapon capabilities to protect themselves from government prosecution and as leverage in extortion attempts involving their own “sovereignty” and criminal activities. This makes low to medium lethal CBRN terrorism with nevertheless severe psychological impact, creating sustained damage to democratic forms of government, a truly concerning threat. Based on previous cases, this threat seems to be greatest in the United States and Great Britain.

Counter Measures and Recommendations

The increase of right-wing extremist terror plots and willingness to use extreme forms of violence for years now combined with the growing availability of necessary chemical and biological components and technical equipment indicates that CBRN based terror attacks by the far-right have become a serious threat scenario. One of the key counter-measures is early detection of plots during the phase of preparation. A “culture of security awareness” relying on “well-informed citizenry” to flag potentially threatening individuals within the chemical and biological industries is seen as essential by the FBI. However, to spot signs of radicalization (of many different extremist strands), a solid and well-trained network of countering violent extremism (CVE) providers who can deliver education and assessment is indispensable. Training programs for law enforcement, such as the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) Program, must be expanded and not cancelled. Especially CVE activities targeting the far-right must be re-included in the government’s focus and funding schemes and far-right terror must not be ignored by the Trump administration. The current policy of openly turning a blind eye on far-right terrorism and violence, as well as radicalization, is significantly increasing the future terror threat and raising the difficulties for future administrations to contain the potential for organized violence from the extreme right again. While one reason for this might be the special relationship that developed between Trump and white nationalists during the election campaign, the key priorities of the current White House proof that the heavy focus on Islamic extremism in counter-terrorism is much more than an attempt to win over a certain group of voters. The dominant risk of terrorist attacks derives from the far-right, as statistics as well as law enforcement and intelligence officials clearly show. This this strategy cannot be carried by a lack of understanding, but by an ideologically motivated struggle, driven forward by strategists and advisors, like the now fired Steve Bannon or Sebastian Gorka.

Furthermore, first responder capabilities, for example through ‘The Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response’ or the ‘Center for Disease Control’ should be increased and not cut back by up to 18 percent as currently planned. Researching antidotes and effective antibiotics is equally important. For example, we do currently not have any effective ones against ricin or anthrax (those agents most commonly used in far-right C&B terror plots in the past), even though some promising avenues in that regard exist.

Far-right CBRN terror plots oftentimes evolved out of large support networks, long time violent radicalization processes and with a history of violent escalations. These terrorists are rarely completely clandestine. They are embedded in their own movements and countries. They belong to white supremacist, neo-Nazi or anti-government militias long before developing their plots. With the increase in anti-government violent far-right activism across Western countries, the threat of right-wing CBRN attacks increases as well, especially since the ideology of these actors is based on the total annihilation of its enemies, acquisition of power through fear and creation of chaos to destroy the population’s trust in the government. Law enforcement counter measures must be swift and uncompromising against groups and actors at this stage, while it is still possible. With more consolidation and organization pushed by the current uplift and passive support through the Trump administration, a future attempt to contain the threat might meet fierce resistance and CBRN agents are likely to be involved. In addition, there should be no perception, both on the side of the far-right and in the population, that right-wing terrorism is any less dangerous or significant than, for example, jihadi terrorists. On the contrary, western countries’ deadliest threat from terrorists comes from the far-right and over the last decades some right-wing extremists have tried to escalate their tactics into CBRN terrorism. The current developments indicate that this threat is not going to decrease any time soon. So it is most important to prepare and start countering this threat.

About the Author(s)

Peter Popella is a scholar of microbiology and specialist for infectious bacteria and antibiotic resistances. He holds a B.Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. degree from the Eberhard Karls University Tuebingen, Germany, where he is currently working at the ‘Interfaculty Institute of Microbiology and Infection Medicine Tuebingen’.

Daniel Koehler (Twitter: @GIRD_S) is a Fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, Editorial Board Member of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague and Founding Director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS). He is also the Co-Editor in Chief of the peer reviewed JD Journal on Deradicalization. He is an expert in right-wing terrorism and de-radicalization and recently published standard works in both fields. He studied religion, political science, economics, as well as peace and security studies at Princeton University, Free University Berlin and the University of Hamburg.