Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction

An Analysis of Trends and Motivations

by Bruce Hoffman


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Although the conventional wisdom previously held that terrorists were more interested in publicity than in killing, recent terrorist attacks — such as the 1995 nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway and the bombing of a federal government office building in Oklahoma City — have either crossed into the domain of use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or involved the deliberate infliction of large numbers of casualties. This paper examines three reasons that may account for terrorism’s increasing lethality: (1) the proliferation of religious terrorism, in which violence assumes a transcendental dimension; (2) the rise of “amateur” terrorists — loosely organized groups of individuals with particular grievances who are able to gain WMD expertise from publicly available sources; and (3) the growing sophistication and competence of professional terrorist organizations. A confluence of new motives, opportunities, and capabilities could impel any of these groups to employ a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon or radioactive device. Given even the possibility of future terrorist use of such weapons, no nation can afford to consider terrorism to be among its least serious or complex of security issues.

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