Is the US CT strategy suitable for emerging, unconventional (such as CBRN and cyber) threats?
The United States counter-terrorism strategy is better suited to deal with threats external to the homeland, as it is more offensive than defensive in nature. No gaps in US CT strategy are more important than those relevant to the responsibility to prevent CBRN and cyber-terrorism. Of the range of possible WMD-attacks, of particular concern is bio-terrorism, for several reasons. First, there is an increasing availability of “bio-chem” agents. Second, the United States Government retains only limited means to control this science, market and industry. Third, there is a desire among some terrorist groups like AQ and Daesh to commit the most lethal attacks possible, and these groups are not limited by norms that might give other groups pause before committing an attack generally considered ‘beyond the pale’ - the attacks of 9/11 proved this nearly two decades ago. Fourth, and finally, there is the danger of contagion and the difficulty associated with detecting and preempting preparations for attack, since these conspiracies can involve lone individuals or small cells of terrorists.
While AQ, Daesh, or a lone-actor motivated by Salafi-Jihadist ideology might attempt to conduct a CBRN attack, there is also the possibility that a terrorist group or cult with apocalyptic views could be motivated to do so. Because so much of the focus in the United States has been dedicated to Sunni terrorists, there is a blind spot when it comes to right-wing extremists and other individuals and groups that could engage in political violence. Still, it is important to recognise that the difficulty of preparing and conducting a CBRN attack and the consequences of an attack, vary dramatically among different types of weapons. In terms of cyber, there is less of a threat from terrorists conducting a cyber-attack against critical infrastructure than there is from terrorist groups harnessing social media and encrypted communications to enhance their ability to recruit, fundraise and spread their propaganda online.
An attack using a chemical weapon like sarin gas or chlorine is perhaps the least difficult to pull off. An attack using a radiological device or 'dirty bomb' could result in substantial casualties, but would be difficult for a small group to assemble. Accordingly, the bigger the group and the more elaborate the preparation, the greater the chance of detection. Acquiring, much less building, a nuclear-fission weapon is for now something only determined nation-states can do, though it cannot be ruled out that a nefarious nation-state would arm and instruct a terrorist group, even if the odds remain miniscule, for a number of reasons. A terrorist attack using biological agents, however, could be planned, implemented and executed by a relatively small group. The fall out could be disastrous, particularly considering the difficulty of containing the second and third-order effects, including psychological impact and public health emergencies.