Convergence in this article refers to profit-minded suppliers (3) of an improvised explosive device (IED) facilitation network using their transnational linkages to proliferate the critical components--whether material, knowledge, or a technically skilled individual--required for weapon of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. (b) There is a multitude of transnational networks, such as narcotics trafficking or human smuggling networks, that could support convergence for WMD proliferation; IED employment has been growing and expanding, with incidents occurring in 48 countries and territories in 2016 alone. (1) This prevalence and possibility for convergence is directly related to the wider "dissemination of [the] knowledge, technology, and material required to manufacture and employ an IED worldwide." (2)
In terms of IED facilitation, the U.K.-based non-governmental organization Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) examined the transnational dissemination of material, knowledge, and funding supporting actions by groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab. The following examples from AOAV's findings highlight the depth and breadth of these networks. For material, in one example, the Islamic State was able to "rapidly obtain chemicals, detonators, and other precursor materials in an often entirely legal manner." (3) For one specific IED precursor, the report found that the Islamic State used "three different companies in Brazil, Romania, and China, and [the material] was later imported by three different Turkish companies." (4) Additionally, while some knowledge was self-taught, according to AOAV, there was an exchange of information between terrorist groups regarding manufacturing and employment of IEDs. (5) Financial support was vast, derived from such sources as simple donations, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and taxation on goods, such as cocaine smuggled through West Africa. One estimate in the report states that AQIM's taxation on drugs traveling through West Africa from Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia to Europe generated $800 million annually. (6) While these are just a few examples of components of an IED facilitation network, they demonstrate the scope and scale of the networks that could potentially converge for WMD proliferation.
The threshold for development and employment of both chemical and biological weapons agents has been lowered over time, as illustrated by chemical weapon agent use by both Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 and more recently by the Islamic State and when it comes to biological weapons, the higher number of ricin incidents world-wide. (7) The proliferation of the knowledge, material precursors, and technology to develop and employ a WMD is, consequently, a concern. This article, which builds upon an article on profit-minded suppliers published recently in this journal, examines the critical nodes required for non-state actors to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons. It also highlights the risk associated with IED facilitation networks providing the necessary support to lower the threshold for WMD proliferation.
The scope and depth of assistance required to develop and employ an NBC weapon are significant. Convergence with an IED facilitation network is one mechanism to overcome the complexities of WMD proliferation, and the scope of convergence is dependent on three key factors. The first factor is the type of WMD: nuclear, biological, or chemical. Even within these overarching categories, there are varying levels of complexity, as seen in Figure 1. The second critical factor is the starting point for the weapon that a non-state actor may be able to access. This starting point, ranging from raw materials to a nearly assembled device, is heavily dependent on the financial resources available to the non-state actor and access to the materials. And the third factor is the delivery system. Non-state actors, for example, do not have access to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for long-range delivery of a nuclear weapon, consequently a device must be smuggled to the target location. (c)
The critical obstacle for a nuclear weapon is not the warhead design but acquisition of special nuclear material (SNM), which is either Uranium-235 (U-235) or Plutonium-239 (Pu-239). To produce a weapon, a terrorist needs a significant quantity of SNM, which the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) has described as 25 kg of U-235 and 8 kg of Pu-239. (8) There are two general pathways to gain possession of a significant quantity of SNM: production or acquisition.
Production of either U-235 or Pu239 is extremely difficult. Uranium naturally exists in two forms, or isotopes, with the predominant isotope being U-238 at 99.3% as compared to U-235 at 0.7%. Consequently, the uranium must undergo a separation process, known as enrichment, to produce a sufficiently significant quantity of U-235. Under ideal enrichment conditions, it takes a little over 3,500 kg of natural uranium to make a single weapon. (d) No enrichment process is perfectly ideal, however, and so more uranium is required in reality. There are several methods for achieving enrichment, but all require tremendous amounts of time, infrastructure, raw material, and knowledge in the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics.
Plutonium does not occur naturally and is only produced during a nuclear reaction. When U-238 absorbs a neutron and undergoes fission, one of the potential decay products is Pu-239. The most common place for this reaction to occur is in a nuclear fuel rod. When extracted from a reactor core, these rods are radioactive and require time in a spent fuel pool for the hot, short-lived isotopes to decay. Only after a cooling period, typically over 90 days, is it possible to extract the Pu-239 through reprocessing.
The infrastructure footprint and technical requirements for reprocessing are less difficult than enrichment but hardly insignificant. If not conducted in a radiation-shielded room (commonly referred to as a hot-cell), reprocessing exposes personnel handling the rods to lethal doses of radiation. A hot-cell requires feet of concrete, leaded glass, and remote-control manipulators to move the rods to protect the handlers. This infrastructure would also emit a radiation signature that could be identified with remote sensors. Reprocessing also requires large quantities of commercially available chemicals such as nitric acid and tributyl phosphate. These chemicals would impose specific handling requirements due to their corrosive and reactive nature. Production of a significant quantity of Pu-239 via reprocessing would also require detailed knowledge in chemistry, chemical engineering, and metallurgy.
Regardless of the skill and depth of the proliferation network, it is not likely that a non-state actor would be able produce special nuclear material undetected by the international community. The infrastructure, technical, and economic requirements are too significant for non-state actors. Many states, such as...