Terrorist Profiles: An Analysis Based
on 920 Chemical Incidents
Swedish Defence Research Agency,
FOI NBC Defence
Department of Threat Assessment
S-901 82 Umeċ, Sweden
part in counter-terrorism threat assessment is to know who the presumptive
perpetrator could be.
Is it the single
individual, animal rights activist, religious sect, right-wing extremist
or somebody else that pose a threat when it comes to biological and
chemical agents? How sophisticated are the agents of choice and the
dispersion techniques? What are the motives and who are the targets?
The FOI NBC Defence
database(1) consists of data on almost 1300 incidents involving biological(2)
and chemical substances that occurred between 1960 and 2002 (April).
The incidents include plans, threats, possession and actual use in more
or less successful attacks. Based on an analysis of the 920 chemical
incidents it is possible to draw some conclusions on different actors
and to establish a pattern concerning motives and targets, the actor's
criminal background and education put in relation to the grade of sophistication
of the used chemical agents and dispersion methods.
An analysis of
the 377 chemical incidents that resulted in casualties shows that the
most commonly used chemicals are easy to acquire. In specific geographical
areas, some chemicals are preferably chosen before others and there
is a correlation between the perpetrator's level of education and the
choice of chemical agent.
General Description of the Database
The data in the
database are coded for a number of characterizing factors to facilitate
analyses. For that reason, perpetrators as well as incident types and
chemicals are divided into different categories. However, the incidents
have not been grouped into the categories 'terrorism' or 'criminal act'.
The reason for this is that there is no single, universally accepted,
definition of terrorism. Using the EU definition in Council Common Position,
almost every incident in the database could be considered as terrorism(3).
consists of 920 incidents involving chemical substances. None of the
incidents can be classified as military, state sponsored or performed
by individuals acting in behalf of a government.
Of the incidents,
377 (41 %) were attacks that resulted in casualties and 215 (24 %) incidents
were attacks without casualties. Most of the latter failed because the
dispersion methods were inefficient or low-toxic chemicals were chosen.
There may be several reasons for the large number of 'successful' incidents.
The primary reason is of course that those incidents are the ones that
get media's attention. Other incidents that get publicity are those
that are more spectacular.
The rest of the
incidents are threats to use toxic materials, (13 %), possession (12
%), claimed use (5 %), plans (4 %) and attempted acquisition (1 %).
Claimed use or threats to use chemical material have mostly been directed
towards food manufacturers and the motives are mainly economic extortion
or to bring pressure for some other reason. Among the 110 incidents,
classified as 'possession', it has been possible to determine how a
person or group managed to acquire the chemical agent in only 51 cases.
Theft (19 cases) and manufacture (12 cases) are the two most common
Analysis of Incidents That Have Resulted in Casualties
Most of the 377
'successful' incidents were small in scale with less than 10 casualties/incident,
but a substantial amount, 39 incidents, resulted in 50 or more casualties.
The majority of these took place in Asia (China, India, Vietnam and
Japan) with the use of cyanide, pesticides or weed killers. Of theses
incidents, 56 produced 10 to 49 casualties. Even if these incidents
cannot be defined as mass casualties, they would most likely cause disturbances
at the emergency room in a medium-sized hospital. An estimation of the
total number of casualties is nearly 600 fatalities and more than 8000
Many of the incidents
are impossible to analyse because they were performed by unknown perpetrators
and therefore with unknown motives. Other incidents have been covered
inadequately in the media and the reports do not contain enough information
for an analysis.
It would be logical
to assume that the most 'successful' perpetrators are well-organized
groups, with members highly educated in chemistry or having the appropriate
technical skills to synthesize and disperse toxic material. This is
not the case. Instead, single individuals and unknown perpetrators are
responsible for almost 85% of the incidents that resulted in casualties.
Studying the performance of the incidents, the conclusion is that most
'unknown perpetrators' probably are single individuals. Most of them
are ordinary citizens, with no criminal record, attacking persons to
whom they have some relation, (relative, colleague or rival in business
or love) and with the use of chemicals that are easy to obtain.
In the category
'single individual', there is also a new type of perpetrator, the juveniles.
A total of 37 incidents were performed by persons under 18. Most juvenile
perpetrators are teenagers, but the database includes some that are
younger than that. The youngest perpetrators were three girls in California,
USA, 8 - 9 years old. In July 2001, they tried to poison a classmate
with rat poison because 'they didn't like her'. Of the 37 incidents,
33 occurred between January 2000 and December 31, 2001. The increasing
number of juvenile perpetrators is alarming, especially since they succeeded
in causing casualties on 19 occasions. The majority (81 %) of young
perpetrators were in North America, the rest in Asia and Great Britain.
Groups(4), for example Hamas, GIA and al-Qaeda sympathizers are well
known for their numerous conventional attacks but a serious interest
in biological or chemical agents have not been observed until recently.
There is now indications, or rumours, that several of them have tried
to get into possession of chemical agents. Since Fall 2001 there has
been several reports from Israel about bombs containing nails, dipped
in rat poison or other chemicals.
activists like Animal Liberation Front seem to have their strongholds
in North America and Western Europe and there has been a number of claimed
or verified cases of food poisoning, using chemicals like rat poison,
oven cleaners and mercury. None of these poisonings caused any casualties.
Right wing extremists
seem to be interested in cyanide and toxins, especially ricin, but also
other poisonous plants. So far, no reports have been made about any
'other groups' includes 'foreign terrorist organizations'(5) with the
exclusion of groups belonging to the category 'Near Eastern groups'.
Some examples are Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The category also includes other nationalist,
opposition and left-wing groups. A common factor among these groups
is their political goals and motives found in the incidents. Like the
Near Eastern groups, the majority of their attacks are conventional
and the interest in chemicals has so far been limited to plans, possession,
claimed and failed use. Only 10 % of the incidents were 'successful',
resulting in only a smaller number of casualties.
The Choice of Chemicals
is a concern that individuals or groups could get in the possession
of nerve or mustard gas, toxins and other extremely poisonous chemicals,
most perpetrators tend to make an easy choice. Attacks with chemicals
are mostly performed with the use of acid, household chemicals, pesticides,
cyanide, arsenic, tear gas and pepper spray. The use of pesticides and
cyanide in food or beverages has resulted in several mass casualty situations,
especially in Asia.
In an industrialized
society, there is a widespread use of toxic chemicals, transported daily
in large amounts on the roads or by rail. It is not unrealistic to illegally
acquire large quantities of chemicals during the transportation or to
steal it from an industry and there have been a few cases in recent
years(6). After last years reports that al-Qaeda cells maybe planned
to use hazardous materials trucks in terrorist attacks, the fear of
such attacks will hopefully increase the security during road and rail
India faces other problems, where (sulfuric) acid attacks against women
are on the rise despite severe legislation(7). The acid is easily available
from car repair shops, imported for industrial use or obtainable in
other shops in small quantities. So is also the case in the rest of
the world and acid attacks are reported regularly. In Sweden, where
no chemical attacks at all were reported until 1995, there have now
been several ones. Between January 30, 2001 and March 31, 2002, six
acid attacks were reported. Some of the more exotic or unusual chemicals
and toxins have been used by perpetrators who work at laboratories or
within research(8). Others have managed to acquire small quantities
of chemicals at their workplace or by theft from industries etc.
The choices of
dispersion methods are without exceptions poor. The delivery methods
that have been found include throwing the chemical out of a bottle or
a jar, spraying, injections using syringes, rubbing it into doorknobs,
pouring it into wells or mixing it directly into food or beverages.
The Hamas' strategy to mix nails and chemicals in bombs will most certainly
fail, because of the heat of the explosion. Not even Aum Shinrikyo managed
to develop an efficient delivery system, in spite of the fact that many
of their scientists were highly educated in chemistry. The hurdle was
probably the lack of technical skills. A group that can recruit persons
with those qualifications may pose a more serious threat.
Among the incidents
where a motive can be established, the most common ones are political,
economic or revenge/hate. Groups that mostly have political motives
are the Near Eastern groups, single-issue groups (e.g. animal rights
activists and anti-sexist groups) and other groups (e.g. LTTE, FARC
and other national groups). For single individuals and unknown perpetrators,
the motives are mainly economic or revenge/hate.
For the single
individuals it turned out that there is a relationship between the perpetrator
and the victim in 70 % of the attacks, with hate or revenge as the most
common motive. In contrast, only 6 % of the unknown perpetrators seem
to have some relation to the victim. Since almost 300 incidents are
unsolved, it is impossible to establish the motive. For these cases,
a motive can possibly be estimated by studying the target and the performance
of the attack.
incidents have been reported in North America, Europe and Asia. When
looking at the geographical spread of incidents, there is a lack of
information on incidents in South America and parts of Africa. This
can indicate that there are fewer biological or chemical incidents,
that the local media do not cover this type of event or that smaller
incidents have been mentioned in the local media but have not reached
Europe because of a low 'media value'.
In China, the
use of toxic chemicals in food has become a major problem. Since January
2001, 11 food-related incidents have been reported, in which six resulted
in 20 - 100 injured and in some cases a smaller number of deaths.
So far, all chemical
attacks can be classified as national terrorism. The first signs of
international chemical terrorism were observed during the autumn of
2001 with revelations that al-Qaeda cells had plans to perform chemical
attacks outside of their home base.
Conclusions and Possible Future Trends
So far, the most
'successful' perpetrator has been the single individual, often with
the possibility to get hold of highly toxic chemicals. Even if the dispersion
methods are poor, in many cases the results have been 'cost-efficient'
(many injured to a low cost and effort). The widespread media coverage
last fall about the possibility of using crop dusters or transporting
industrial chemicals in an attack can also generate new ideas among
presumptive perpetrators. The new idea to use letters as the carrier
of chemicals was introduced after the worldwide publishing of the anthrax
letter attacks in September and October 2001. In November 2001, a cyanide-laced
letter addressed to a New Jersey police department was intercepted by
a post office. The letter contained trace amounts of copper cyanide
blended into laundry detergent(9). Another incident occurred in UK in
March 2002, when the Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA) sent out
16 packages to people with political connections. Tony Blair's wife,
among others, has received aromatherapy oil bottles containing sodium
In the last few
years, there have been an increasing number of reports about groups
like Hamas and GIA, who seek to acquire and release toxic material,
so far without much success. In January 2002 there was a report that
Israeli chiefs of intelligence believe that the military wing of Hamas
is trying to acquire lethal toxins for use in future attacks and that
'Hamas is now trying to get hold of sarin and other nerve gases'.(11)
On the other hand, when or if they succeed, there is a risk of spectacular
attacks because of Hamas's willingness to sacrifice a lot of lives,
including their own.
trend is the increasing number of juvenile perpetrators and the possibility
for private persons to obtain toxic material. This should be prevented
by harder regulations of the sale and accessibility of toxic chemicals.
- This database is continuously updated with new incidents. All information
is based on open sources like newspaper articles, books etc.
- In this paper, there is no analysis of the biological incidents.
Because of a lack of time after September 11, 2001, no updating of
the biological incidents has been made. The database will be continuously
updated later this year with the possibility to make further analyses.
- The FBI definition in the Code of Federal Regulations is "
use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate
or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof,
in furtherance of political or social objectives". Within the EU,
a definition of terrorism can be found in Council Common Position
of 27 December 2001 on the application of specific measures to combat
terrorism, where the council of the European Union has accepted a
common position. One of the paragraphs (Article 1, 3. (iii) (f)),
deals with WMD terrorism as follows: "manufacture, possession, acquisition,
transport, supply or use of weapons, explosives or of nuclear, biological
or chemical weapons, as well as research into, and development of,
biological and chemical weapons". The full text can be found at http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/pri/en/oj/dat/2001/l_344/l_34420011228en00930096.pdf.
- As defined in K. Katzman, CRS Report for Congress, Terrorism: Near
Eastern Groups and State Sponsors, 2001, September 10, 2001
- As defined in Fact sheet: Secretary of State designates foreign
terrorist organizations (FTO's), Office of the Spokesman, Washington
DC, October 5, 2001.
- On several occasions between 1998 and 2001, potassium and sodium
cyanide were stolen from warehouses and factories in Japan. See for
example 1 kg of potassium cyanide missing from Tokyo warehouse, Japan
Economic Newswire, February 18, 2001. USA too seems to have problems
with thefts, especially in rural areas. In 2000, a trailer with 20
barrels of potassium cyanide was stolen in New Jersey. The barrels
were found ten days later in New York. Stolen barrels of cyanide found
in NYC, APBnews.com, May 14, 2000. According to an article in Omaha
World-Herald, twenty-four theft-related spills of anhydrous ammonia
were reported in 2000. Joe Kolman, Ammonia thefts pose public peril,
Omaha World-Herald, January 5, 2001.
- According to Inter Press Service, UNICEF reported a rise from 47
incidents in 1996 to 230 in 1999 in Bangladesh. In May 2000 alone,
there were 27 attacks on women in Bangladesh. However, the reported
incidents account for only a small fraction of the attacks actually
taking place. Under the 1995 Woman and Children Repression Prevention
Act, an acid attack can lead to a long jail term and even result in
capital punishment. Inter Press Service, Women-Bangladesh: disfigured
by acid attacks despite tough law, June 19, 2000.
- One example is John Buettner-Janusch who sent chocolate poisoned
with atropine, sparteine and pilocarpine hydrochloride to a judge
in 1987. The motive was revenge for the five-year prison term the
judge imposed in 1980 after B-J's manufacturing of illegal drugs in
his university laboratory. Another example: Poison candy sender's
prison term cut in half, Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1988.
- Ralph Siegel, Cyanide letter likely from domestic source; anthrax
sampling done at 48 sites, Associated Press, November 4, 2001.
- Myra Philip, Terrorists taken seriously as country waits for 13
remaining parcels; political activists on alert for deadly SNLA packages,
The Express, March 4, 2002.
- Israel - lethal toxins in hands of Hamas cause concern, United Communications
Group, Periscope Daily Defense News Capsules, January 2, 2002.
Editor's Note: Many thanks to the author for her excellent presentation
of this paper at CBMTS IV. We look forward to her participation in the
CBMTS-Industry III "Second World Congress on Chem/Bio/Radiological Terrorism"
in Dubrovnik in 2003.