Security Information Bulletin
Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Materials and Effects
May 28, 2003
This Bulletin is being disseminated for information purposes
only. Al-Qaeda and sympathetic terrorists groups continue to
demonstrate their interest in mass-casualty attacks using chemical,
biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. Although
we possess no specific information indicating that Al-Qaeda or
other groups are currently planning a CBRN attack in the United
States, such an attack cannot be ruled out. This bulletin does
not contain threat warning information. The following information
summarizes a recent FBI Bulletin on typical agents and CBRN devices
available to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Terrorists have considered a wide range of toxic chemicals for
attacks. Typical plots focus on poisoning foods or spreading
the agent on surfaces to poison via skin contact, but some also
include broader dissemination techniques.
Terrorists have considered using a number of toxic cyanide compounds.
Sodium or potassium cyanides are white-to-pale yellow salts that
can be easily used to poison food or drinks. Cyanide salts can
be disseminated as a contact poison when mixed with chemicals
that enhance skin penetration, but may be easily detected since
victims will notice touching wet or greasy surfaces.
Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and cyanogen chloride (CICN) are colorless-to-pale
yellow liquids that turn into a gas near room temperature. HCN
may or may not have an odor of bitter almonds, and CICN has an
acrid choking odor and causes burning pain in the victim's eyes.
Although these signs may provide warning to enable evacuation
or ventilation of the attack site before the agent reaches a
lethal concentration, no one should rely on their senses alone
to determine the potential risk for exposure. Both HCN and CICN
must be released at a high concentration to be effective; therefore,
leaving or ventilating the area can reduce the agents' lethality.
Exposure to cyanides may produce nausea, vomiting, palpitations,
confusion, hyperventilation, anxiety, and vertigo that may
progress to agitation, stupor, coma, and death. At high doses,
cause immediate collapse. Medical treatments must be administered
immediately for severely exposed victims.
Mustard gas is a blister agent that poses a contact and vapor
hazard. Its color ranges from clear to dark brown depending
on purity, and it emits a characteristic garlic-like odor.
Mustard is a viscous (gelatinous) liquid at room temperature;
it converts to a gas as the temperature increases. Initial
skin contact causes mild skin irritation, which develops
into more severe yellow fluid-filled blisters. Inhalation
of mustard damages the lungs, causes breathing difficulties,
and death by suffocation in severe cases due to water in
the lungs. Symptoms appear within 2 to 24 hours. Medical
treatments are available for victims of mustard-agent poisoning.
Sarin, tabun, and VX are highly toxic agents that disrupt
a victim's nervous system by blocking the transmission of
nerve signals. Exposure to nerve agents causes constriction
of the pupils, salivation, and convulsions that can lead
to death. Medical treatments must be administered immediately
for severely exposed victims.
While not as toxic as cyanide, mustard, or nerve agents, a wide
range of toxic industrial chemicals can be used in much larger
quantities to compensate for their lower toxicity. For example,
chlorine is an industrial chemical that is transported in shipments
by road and rail. Rupturing the container can easily disseminate
the gas. The effects of chlorine are similar to those of mustard.
Organophosphate pesticides such as parathion are in the same chemical
class as nerve agents. Although these pesticides are much less
toxic, their effects and medical treatments are the same as for
military-grade nerve agents.
Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, is an attractive
biological threat agent because it forms spores which are resistant
to harsh environmental conditions. Symptoms usually appear within
one to six days after exposure and include fever, malaise, fatigue,
and shortness of breath. Inhalation anthrax is usually fatal unless
antibiotic treatment is started prior to the onset of symptoms;
however, it is not contagious. Anthrax can be disseminated in an
aerosol or used to contaminate food or water to cause inhalational
or ingestional anthrax, respectively. Cutaneous anthrax can be
caused by skin contact with B. anthracis. This form of the disease,
which is easily treated with antibiotics, is rarely fatal.
Botulinum toxin is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum,
which occurs naturally in the soil. Crude but viable methods to
produce small quantities of this lethal toxin have been found in
terrorist training manuals. Symptoms usually occur 24 to 36 hours
after exposure, but onset of illness may take several days if the
toxin is present in low doses. Symptoms include vomiting, abdominal
pain, muscular weakness, and visual disturbance. Botulinum toxin
would be effective in small-scale poisonings or aerosol attacks
in enclosed spaces. The toxin molecule is likely too large to penetrate
Ricin is a plant toxin that is 30 times more potent than the nerve
agent VX by weight and is readily obtainable by extraction from
common castor beans. There is no treatment for ricin poisoning
after it has entered the bloodstream. Victims start to show symptoms
within hours to days after exposure, depending on the dosage and
route of administration.
Terrorist have looked at delivering ricin in foods and as a contact
poison, although there is no scientific data indicating that ricin
can penetrate intact skin. Ricin will remain stable in foods as
long as they are not heated, and it will have few indicators because
it does not have a strong taste and is off-white in color.
Radiological and Nuclear Devices
A radiological dispersal device (RDD) is designed to disperse radioactive
material to cause contamination from the radioactive material.
An RDD can be almost any size, defined only by the amount of radioactive
material and explosives.
-- A passive RDD is a system in which unshielded radioactive material
is dispersed or placed manually at the target.
-- An explosive RDD--often called a "dirty bomb"--is
any device that uses the explosive force of detonation to disperse
-- An atmospheric RDD is any system in which radioactive material
is dispersed into a form that is easily transported by air currents.
Use of an RDD by terrorists could result in health, environmental,
and economic effects as well as political and social effects. While
unlikely to cause mass casualties or extensive destruction, it
will cause fear, injury, and possibly lead to levels of contamination
requiring costly and time-consuming cleanup efforts.
A variety of radioactive materials are commonly available and could
be used in a RDD, including Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and Cobalt-60.
Hospitals, universities, factories, construction companies, and
laboratories are possible sources for these radioactive materials.
An improvised nuclear device (IND) is intended to cause a yield-producing
nuclear explosion. An IND could consist of diverted nuclear weapon
components, a modified nuclear weapon, or indigenous-designed device.
INDs can be categorized into two types: implosion and gun assembled.
Unlike RDDs that can be made with almost any radioactive material,
INDs require fissile material--highly enriched uranium or plutonium--to
produce nuclear yield.
More detailed information on the medical aspects of chemical, biological,
and nuclear weapons threats can be found at the following Internet
site: CIA, CBR Incident Handbook www.cia.gov/CIA/Publications/cbr-handbook/cbrbook.html.
Information related to suspicious activities potentially related
to terrorist use of CBRN should be forwarded immediately to the
nearest Joint Terrorism Task Force.
DHS encourages individuals to report information regarding suspicious
or criminal activity to law enforcement or a Homeland Security
watch office. Individuals may report incidents online at http://www.nipc.gov/incident/cirr.htm.
Federal agencies/departments may report incidents online at http://www.fedcirc.gov/reportform.html.
Contact numbers for the IAIP watch centers are: for private citizens
and companies, (202) 323-3205, 1-888-585-9078 or firstname.lastname@example.org;
for the telecom industry, (703) 607-4950 or email@example.com; and for
Federal agencies/departments, (888) 282-0870 or firstname.lastname@example.org