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A Credible Radioactive Threat to the Sochi Olympics?

With the Sochi Olympics set to start on February 6th there has been an escalating concern about security threats to the Games. There are hunts for female suicide bombers (“black widows”), video threats from militant groups, etc., all of which have triggered a massive Russian security response, including statements by President Putin insuring the safety of the Games.

Many of the security concerns are raised by the proximity of Sochi  to Chechnya and relate to the threats expressed by Chechen leader Doku Umarov who exhorted Islamic militants to disrupt the Olympics.

In the past weeks the region has seen Islamic militants claims that they carried out two recent suicide bombings in Volgorad which tragically killed 34 people and injured scores of others. Volgograd is about 425 miles from Sochi and although the media stresses the proximity it is a considerable distance.

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Radioactive Theft in Mexico: What a Thief Doesn’t Know Can Kill Him

While the theft of a truck carrying radioactive cobalt made international headlines, this was unfortunately not the first time thieves or scavengers have exposed themselves or others to lethal radiation. Probably the most infamous case was on September 13, 1987 in Goiania, Brazil. Scavengers broke into an abandoned medical clinic and stole a disused teletherapy machine. These machines are used to treat cancer by irradiating tumors with gamma radiation typically emitted by either cobalt-60 or cesium-137. In the Goiania case, the gamma-emitting radioisotope was cesium-137 in the chemical form of cesium chloride, which is a salt-like substance. When the scavengers broke open the protective seal of the radioactive source, they saw a blue glowing powder: cesium chloride. This material did not require a “dirty bomb” to disperse it. Because of the easily dispersible salt-like nature of the substance, it spread throughout blocks of the city and contaminated about 250 people. Four people died form radiation sickness by ingesting just milligrams of the substance.

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Radiological Ray Gun: More Buck Rogers Fantasy than Risk to Real People

The June 18th arrest of two men for allegedly plotting to build a bizarre yet potentially deadly radiological device once again highlights the potential nexus of non-state actors with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, much like this year’s troika of ricin-laced letters addressed to government facilities (including one to the CIA) and public officials (all three incidents targeted President Obama at his White House address), this most recent plot reveals the historical rarity and non-lethality of non-state actors and their behaviors with radiological weapons and agents. While the potential for catastrophe posed by terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons deserves ongoing and serious attention, recent events remind us how public apprehension is sometimes founded more in fear than reality; indeed, reactions based on fear are capable of far more disruption than the physical reality of the event itself.  The role of science-based organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists is to educate the public about the real risks.

The methodologies and data sets used in this article, augmented by several others of each, will be discussed in a two day professional education summer course, “Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools” held at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA on July 25-26, 2013. This non-credit course introduces participants to state-of-the art analytical techniques, research methods, and cutting-edge databases used by the industry for the study of terrorism. Course participants gain a detailed understanding of single and multi-methodological techniques, learning how to develop analytical tools applicable to the needs of those responsible for preventing, preparing, responding to, or predicting terrorism. Highlights include how to use these research techniques to identify previous and emerging trends in terrorist activities and to cogently assess the potential role of WMD in terrorism. Register now for the “early bird” discount – 25 percent less than the listed fee. For more information and to register, please visit the course page.

Of the CBRN threats, the nuclear threat is undoubtedly truly catastrophic because a nuclear weapon can cause massive destruction, but obtaining a nuclear weapon or the fissile material to make such a weapon is very hard to do. In comparison, radiological sources are far more common, but most of them would cause little or no harm to human health if dispersed by a radiological weapon because there is not enough radioactive material contained in the vast majority of each of these sources. And even those radiological sources containing highly radioactive materials would pose great difficulties for terrorists to use because they would hazard exposing themselves to lethal ionizing radiation. These latter issues, and others outlined below, are very relevant to the recent radiological plot.

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Confronting Emerging Security Challenges: A Call for Ontological Coherence

By Michael Edward Walsh

The concept of emerging security challenges is not new. Mankind has always had to adapt to novel scientific and technological innovations that have changed the nature of war and violence within society. The sudden focus on emerging security challenges is then not driven by their mere emergence but rather by the context in which they are emerging. For this reason, it is critical that security experts not delink the external world from the conversation.

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Norway’s Anders Brevik: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Politics of Cultural Despair

ABOUT THIS REPORT (click to show)

At some point, most security analysts face the dilemma of balancing expediency with analytical thoroughness. Such is the case with Norway’s Anders Breivik. As his victims await burial, Breivik’s treatise—the 1500 page, 2083:
A European Declaration of Independence
(click here for PDF link)—became available only a few days ago. While some researchers, mindful of the value of analytical completeness, patiently plod through this massive manifesto, analysts at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) conclude that the nature of Breivik’s attacks, compounded with the extraordinary content of his treatise, raise questions of such immediate concern that the formulation and release of initial analyses are prudent. We present such an effort here as both a highly formatted blog post and as a preliminary report. The former allows for a quick delivery of
our preliminary investigation amid a platform for open discussion of a threat that remains, we believe, largely inchoate. The latter conforms to our professional dedication to robust research and application of various relevant analytical methodologies.

While Breivik’s unprecedented attacks alone warrant profound study, his treatise seeks to portend far greater acts of terror and destruction than those visited upon Norway on July 22nd. However, to date, no substantive effort addresses the document’s detailed exposition of the fabrication, delivery and general merits of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons (CBRN). The paucity of concern and immediacy revolving around Breivik’s assertions of forthcoming CBRN attacks likely result from two interrelated issues. First, Breivik is incarcerated and will likely remain so for the rest of his life; Breivik himself is no longer a threat. Second, some question his technical acumen with regard to CBRN; even if he were free, according to one putative CBRN expert, “Breivik’s WMD idea is not realistic.”[1] We
largely agree with such conclusions
. However, any proper risk assessment must conduct a so-called “assumptions check.” Such an exercise has two primary elements: 1) explicitly identifying conclusions that rely, in part or in whole, on assumptions and 2) identifying and evaluating the consequences should such assumptions prove false.[2] Application of an assumptions check to the Breivik case, we believe, precipitates the need for serious and immediate analyses of the treatise’s content for two primary reasons.

First, Breivik has made claims, through his writing as well as to Oslo District Court Judge Kim Heger, that he is in league with extremist cells and that some of these co-conspirators “are already in the process of attempting to acquire chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials.”[3] While it is likely that Breivik acted alone, we are not comfortable assuming that this is the case. Moreover, given the operational sophistication of his attacks, and, among other salient components in the case writ large, the overall operational security that he maintained for years, it is axiomatic that Breivik’s threats should be considered in great detail. Indeed, as renowned terrorism expert Gary Ackerman has warned, “History is replete with cautionary tales warning against basing threat assessments on static analyses of an opponent’s motivations and capabilities.”[4] In short, it is possible that subsequent attacks—some perhaps even utilizing CBRN—may be forthcoming, and it is therefore prudent for the intelligence communities to carefully consider Breivik’s writings.

Second, our initial analyses of Brevik’s comprehension of the relevant issues surrounding the fabrication and employment of CBRN concludes that he was motivated and capable of credibly pursuing low-end CBRN attacks—specifically those likely to result in mass effect as opposed to mass destruction . As our report details, this is specifically the case with some biological and radiological agents. Should Breivik be part of a cell of violent extremists, it is possible that his confederates share an equal, if not greater, understanding of the technologies underlying certain CBRN. Moreover, they may have access to the necessary agents and technologies necessary to actualize Breivik’s more ambitious stratagems for the employment of CBRN.

We are presently inclined to conclude that Breivik acted alone. Consequently, his warnings of forthcoming CBRN events are likely invalid. However, given the nature of his attacks and the content of his treatise we urge the security community to seriously consider the possibility that cells of violent extremists are linked to Breivik; the pursuit of a CBRN capability—as well as the possibility of radiological and/or biological use—are a possibility.

Blog posts and reports from the FAS Terrorism Analysis Project are produced to increase the understanding of policymakers, the public, and the press about threats to national and international security from terrorist
groups and other violent non-state actors. The reports are written by individual authors—who may be FAS staff or acknowledged experts from outside
the institution. These reports do not represent an FAS institutional position on policy issues. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion contained in this and other FAS-published reports are the sole responsibility of the author or authors.

See “Alleged Norway Shooter Considered WMD Attack, Jihadi Alliance,” ABC News,
July 24, 2011. Available at:

Whether we are conscious of it or not, most of us frequently conduct an
assumptions check. For example, imagine that as you are about to lie down in
bed for a night of sleep you suddenly realize that you cannot be sure if you
locked your car doors. You might temporarily assume you did; however,
you mind quickly assesses the consequences of a faulty assumption.
Whether or not you get up, get dressed, and trudge out to your car is largely
the result of the risk assessment you make should the car be unlocked.

Andrew Berwick [pseudonym for Anders Behring Breivik], 2083 A European
Declaration of Independence
, July 2011, 1022.

United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security
and Governmental Affairs Hearing on “Nuclear Terrorism: Assessing the Threat to
the Homeland.” Testimony of Gary A. Ackerman, April 2, 2008, 3.
Available at:

Norway’s Anders Brevik: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Politics of Cultural Despair


 July 27, 2011

Ten years after the events of 9/11, it is often forgotten that high fatality terrorist incidents remain a rarity. Indeed, prior to 9/11 the single deadliest terrorist attack was the 1978 Iranian theatre firebombing perpetrated by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK: People’s Majahedin of Iran) with 470 fatalities. Since 1970, only 118 incidents of terrorism have killed more than 100 people—0.12 percent of the 98,000 terrorist events encompassing that four decade span. As the death toll of the July 22 attacks in Norway approaches 100, it is useful to appreciate this fact. In addition to recognizing their uncommonly deadly outcomes, two other features related to the attack are salient. First, significant elements of Anders Breivik’s treatise—the 1500 page 2083: A European Declaration of Independence 2 (click here for PDF link)—address the acquisition, weaponization, and use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents or devices against Breivik’s perceived enemies. Second, his ideological platform, said by Breivik to represent his role as “Justiciar Knight Commander for Knights Templar Europe and one of several leaders of the National and pan-European Patriotic Resistance Movement,” is largely informed by European racist ideology that first emerged in the nineteenth century and continues to this day. This report principally evaluates the CBRN elements of Breivik’s treatise. A subsequent report (schedule for release in late 2011) will orient Breivik’s ideological underpinnings within the broader historical milieu of European racist thinking. First, however, it is useful to place Breivik’s attack in perspective.


  1. The authors thank Rebecca A. Remy for her valuable research assistance.
  2. Andrew Berwick, pseudonym for Anders Behring Breivik, 2083 A European Declaration of Independence, July 2011, hereafter referred to as The Declaration.

The Demise of Osama Bin Laden

In the immediate aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden much attention has been focused on the fact that al-Qa‘ida, in stark contrast to its operational configuration a decade ago, is no longer a cohesive whole. It is a “franchise” many rightfully point out, even inspiring sophisticated and deadly attacks by “lone wolves”—those sharing only in al-Qa‘ida ideological and strategic vision. Consequently, it is not surprising that several informed commentators have emphasized that Bin Laden’s death does little to “tip the scales in our favor.”[1] Indeed, there should be little doubt that long ago al-Qa‘ida transcended a single man. Highly capable and inspirational figures—Attiyatallah, Abuy Yahya al-Libi and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri—are poised to assume bin Laden’s role and continue his role as spearhead of the global jihadist movement. Moreover, in the short term it seems entirely likely that there will be an upsurge in jihadist activity, specifically a greater quantity of attacks and, quite possibly, attacks that qualitatively precipitate relatively higher death tolls and levels of terror than has been the case recently. In short, it can be strongly argued that bin Laden’s death does little to alter today’s threat assessment of al-Qa‘ida.

The long-term impact of bin Laden’s death, however, is likely to be significant for at least three reasons. First, it should be recalled that members of al-Qa‘ida swore a personal oath to bin Laden, not his organization.[2] With his absence a certain loss of moral is to be expected. Perhaps of greater significance is the effect this will have on an embarrassing leitmotif of America’s “War on Terrorism”: bin Laden’s ability to escape capture since 1998. It is difficult to overemphasize the impact his perceived invulnerability had on his followers; in many ways it gave bin Laden an aura of sacrosanct protection by Allah. With its removal it seems likely that the jihadist movement will lose some of its momentum, even if the metrics of measuring “morale” are hard to gauge. Second, bin Laden’s death coincides perfectly with the largely secular awakening now taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. While we cannot yet predict what the mid- and long-term outcome of this mass movement will be, it is entirely possible that it will serve to weaken the jihadist movement at a time when it is suffering a major setback with the death of bin Laden. Finally, the circumstances of bin Laden’s death fully removes the thin veil obstructing a long obvious fact: Pakistan’s ISI is not only aiding the Taliban to ensure that the endgame in Afghanistan conforms to their perceived needs, elements of it are clearly intertwined with al-Qa‘ida.

It is now clear that no amount of denial or obfuscation can impede a widespread understanding that Pakistan’s ISI is actively working against U.S. interests. This has, of course, long been known. Moreover, it can be argued that this reality continues because it somehow reflects the best possible options in a very complex situation. Regardless of how one feels about the ISI’s role, the U.S. public will now weigh in on the debate. Thus, it is entirely conceivable that relations with Pakistan will continue to sour; that development could result in several outcomes, few of them good and many of them unanticipated.

[1] Jarret Brachman, “The Next Bin Laden,” Cronus Global, May 2, 2011.

[2] We are indebted to Jeffrey M. Bale of the Monterey Institute of International Studies for reminding us of this fact.