CBRN Terrorism: Is Europe (and Beyond) Adequately Prepared?

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By Dr Silvia Venier

This emerging issues briefing discusses the initiatives taken in Europe to protect against terrorist attacks involving the use of chemical, biological and radio-nuclear (CBRN) materials. In recent times, considerable efforts have been devoted to developing technological and operational solutions to prevent and respond to CBRN events, but there are still some important gaps that need be filled to enhance protection, including with reference to human and communicational aspects as well as international cooperation.

CBRN terrorism: how real is the threat?

Events involving the release of Chemical, Biological and Radio-Nuclear (CBRN) substances are among the most feared risks in contemporary times. Although a commonly agreed definition of “CBRN” is missing – as a replacement of ABC (Atomic, Biological, Chemical) utilised during the 1950s, and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) employed during the Cold War – the term mainly refers to intentional attacks involving the use of these substances. CBRN attracted particular attention following the 2001 anthrax letters case occurring in the United States only a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, CBRN terrorism has been labelled as “the most frightening scenario”, continuing to shape and dominate much of current political debates as well as thinking on security related issues. For instance, it was invoked recently in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, when the French Prime Minister Valls warned that the risk of chemical and biological warfare could not be ruled out when he urged the French Parliament to extend the state of emergency, and in Brussels in March 2016, where concerns arose particularly in relation to nuclear terrorism. The targeted poisoning of the former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK on 4 March 2018 – the substance used believed to be Novichok, a deadly nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union during the Cold War – exposed several further citizens to this nerve agent, highlighting too the significant challenges associated with providing adequate treatment to such victims and in investigating a CBRN event, not least its culprits.

The range of CBRN related threats posed by terrorist activities, whether state or non-state in nature, is wide, from exploding a dirty bomb (i.e. an explosive containing radiological material or a Radiological Dispersal Device, RDD) in the centre of a city, to sabotaging the food chain or water supply infrastructures with hazardous substances (i.e. using CBRN material as contaminants), using synthetic biology to develop new viruses and bacteria, or ultimately attacking nuclear facilities or the transport of nuclear material. From the examples mentioned above, it is evident that the risk of a specific CBRN event and its potential impacts depend upon a wide range of factors, including the characteristics of the material released, environmental conditions, the exposure and the existing vulnerabilities of the affected group, and the capacities developed to respond and recover from the event.

Despite the increased threat, however, thankfully the historical record of CBRN events remains very limited. This is usually explained by emphasizing the normal reluctance of terrorist actors and, with the exception of some states, limited capabilities to develop and deploy such materials. Similarly, some would argue that concerns regarding CBRN attacks are overestimated in relation to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, even though evidence has emerged that the group sought to pursue CBRN weapons and actually used chemical weapons in Syria. The associated parallel risks for other regions have increased significantly due to the current phenomenon of returning foreign fighters to their countries of origin in many parts of the world. As such, the exact nature and extent of the current CBRN terrorist threat remains unclear and any assessment very difficult to make with any degree of accuracy. That said, experts seem to agree that a real risk exists, in the near future, of small-scale events potentially occurring that involve the release of CBRN materials by terrorist entities. Even the release of a small amount of, for instance, nuclear materials, would have catastrophic consequences.

The European approach to the CBRN threat

Although national authorities bear the primary responsibility for CBRN security, international cooperation is crucial, considering for instance the extremely sophisticated capabilities required to prevent and respond to an incident that could be adequately pursued only through joint efforts, and the potential transboundary implications should some of these threats materialise. In the following brief expose, existing approaches and challenges are illustrated by the European approach to CBRN threats, though the principles are of wider global applicability.

The European Union (EU) has been paying increased attention to CBRN security, especially through the adoption of new legislation, the elaboration of security strategies including its CBRN Action Plans, and the assignment of significant budgetary resources to research and development projects funded under EU programmes. An important aspect of the EU action in this field is that it seeks to adopt an “all-hazard approach”, where both intentional and accidental events are considered – based on the idea that similar preparedness measures are required independently from the origin of the risk – even if the main focus remains preventing terrorist entities from gaining access to CBRN materials.

The EU’s Lisbon Treaty enshrines important provisions on risk and crisis management. These include the solidarity clause (which explicitly applies to “new threats”, including terrorism and disasters, and establishes a specific role for EU institutions, including in the prevention phase); and the mutual defence clause (which generally applies to “armed aggression”, does not involve any specific role for the EU, and was activated for the first time in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris). Secondary legislation relevant to CBRN protection was adopted in 2013, on the Union Civil Protection Mechanisms (which now includes two CBRN modules) and on Cross-Border Threats to Health (which establishes an early warning and response system for serious public health crisis). EU legislation on terrorism, which has included references to CBRN terrorism since 2002, was revised in 2017 in order to better meet the challenges posed by foreign terrorist fighters and to provide a harmonised framework for the protection of victims. There has also been a revision of the legal frameworks applicable to prevention and response to serious industrial accidents, including in the nuclear sector (with the aim to integrate key lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster in the European context).

The CBRN Action Plan (adopted in 2009, and revised in 2014 and 2017), as well as several research projects funded under EU programmes, have sought to identify and address a set of needs and gaps in the CBRN domain, mainly from technological and operational perspectives, in order to better support Member States to meet these gaps and to share best practices. The latest CBRN Action Plan (2017) suggests that key priorities for the foreseeable future will be to optimise the exchange of information on CBRN risks, to improve early warning mechanisms, to strengthen cross-sectorial training and exercises, and to cooperate in the area of CBRN forensics. The plan also mentions the need to create a EU-wide network of CBRN security experts to maintain a common understanding of CBRN risks and to intensify cooperation at the operational level. Finally, the EU launched the CBRN Centres of Excellence initiative in 2010 to strengthen the institutional capacities of countries outside of the EU to mitigate CBRN risks, currently representing the EU’s largest civilian external security programme, with a budget of €130 million for the years 2014-2020.

Some gaps in CBRN protection in Europe

Despite such efforts, important gaps and weaknesses remain in terms of CBRN protection across Europe, which are likely to be intensified in other parts of the world where less investment (e.g. in infrastructures, frameworks, capacity building, etc) has been made or support given. It would thus be highly advisable to undertake a review of existing regulatory and operational frameworks in order to identify areas for further improvement and to continue working on capacity building in different areas relevant to CBRN protection. This should include analysis and some institutional restructuring where appropriate through an all-hazards lens to facilitate the adoption of a more integrated, coherent approach to CBRN disaster risk management.

In Europe, details on the current status of CBRN protection can be found in reports prepared by the European Commission for the CBRN Action Plan, in the feedback provided by other EU institutions that were afforded the opportunity to comment on the initiatives taken, and in the research carried out by the academic community and think tanks working in this field. In a Resolution adopted in 2010, for instance, the European Parliament pointed out that the continuous risk of CBRN disasters on EU territory severely compromises the full enjoyment of all fundamental rights and freedoms; and that it is in contradiction with the promise to create a European area of freedom, security and justice. It therefore called for avoiding duplication, fragmentation and inconsistency in the activities of both the EU itself as well as Member States, together with the strengthening of the EU approach, in particular by making “the provision of means of assistance compulsory in the event of a CBRN disaster caused by an accident or terrorist attack” (at para 5).

Notably, the European Court of Auditors found some weaknesses in relation to the implementation of some provisions of the 2013 Decision on Cross-Border Threats to Health, warning in particular concerning the slow progress in joint procurement of medical countermeasures and the absence of an EU mechanism to address urgent medical needs. It therefore  called for the integration of the Early Warning Response System (EWRS) established under the Decision with other available alert systems. It should be noted that the development of Multi-Hazard EWS is currently one of the key priority actions under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, whose broader geographical scope aims to cover the entire globe.

The need for medical countermeasures for CBRN events to be stockpiled at the EU level, to be immediately available, and for procedures for early warning and crisis communication to be harmonised, represent important gaps within existing European CBRN protection mechanisms. Furthermore, the European Commission report on the status of the European Emergency Response Capacity (EERC) released in 2017 generally noted that there is insufficient capacity registered within the EERC to sustain a search and rescue operation in a CBRN contaminated environment, or to respond to incidents requiring the decontamination of patients exposed to CBRN agents. While these capacities may have been developed at the domestic level and under programmes supported by NATO, it would be advisable for further efforts to be undertaken in order to assess and better understand the overall CBRN response capacity in Europe, including in terms of available resources and institutional mechanisms which may be activated immediately following an incident. Not only is this essential for reducing the impact and harm caused by any CBRN incident, but also in ensuring that states better meet their own national and international legal obligations, such as to adequately protect their populations and to prevent the occurrence of transboundary environmental harm. Strengthened EU-NATO cooperation on these matters would be also important and beneficial.

With reference to prevention, recent terrorist attacks in Europe have indicated that current levels of information sharing among national authorities are not sufficient, including in the specific context of CBRN terrorism. The lack of legislation specifically focussing on biosecurity is an issue of particular concern too, in view of the significant advances in life sciences, the dual use potential of biological material and the lack of an international verification mechanism on biological weapons. Adequate levels of protection of first responders are crucial too in any CBRN event (illustrated by the Salisbury novichok incident where the first policeman on the scene became serious ill too before the nature of the incident was known) and have been identified as a further gap within Europe, including with reference to post-incident psychological support. Emergency response may require sophisticated capabilities not only with reference to medical and psychological treatment, but also in relation to the collection of forensic evidence at the site, which would require effective cooperation mechanisms to exist between first responders and law enforcement officials. Similarly, the lack of risk awareness campaigns and training exercises tailored to the whole population and media training on CBRN events specifically are areas that probably require additional efforts, and that can build upon recent efforts carried out by other international organisations. It should be noted that, in addition to international obligations relevant to CBRN protection enshrined under arms control and disarmament treaties and disaster prevention and response conventions, specific responsibilities with regards to, for instance, adopting adequate (regulatory, operational, technological) measures to protect first responders and the population under their jurisdiction (notably the right to life) may also emerge under human rights law.

CBRN protection is a very complex and rapidly developing area that needs continuous assessment and updating, demands cross-sectorial collaboration and effective, joined-up international cooperation. However slight, a real risk remains of the occurrence of catastrophic CBRN incidents whether attributable to accidental or terrorist causes. In this respect, as highlighted above, there are some gaps that could be filled by strengthening and harmonising CBRN protection frameworks. After almost 20 years of regulatory, policy and research efforts at the EU level, a more comprehensive and detailed assessment of the current status of the capabilities developed to prevent, prepare, respond and recover from all possible CBRN events, both within and beyond European borders, would represent an invaluable opportunity to ensure that any remaining gaps – not only related to technological and operational tools, but also with regard to human and communicational aspects, as well as international cooperation – are correctly identified and adequately addressed.

Dr Silvia Venier is a GSDM associate and  postdoctoral fellow at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa (Italy). One of her specialist areas is analysis of international legal frameworks governing protection from CBRN events, including from a disaster risk management perspective. A number of other GSDM associates have legal and interdisciplinary expertise on CBRN matters.

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