A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Anatomizing Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries

Anatomizing Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries

Project Details


The prospect of violent non-state actors (VNSAs), including terrorists and criminals, employing radiological or nuclear (RN) weapons has understandably attracted much attention in both governmental and academic circles, primarily as a result of credible evidence of terrorist interest in these weapons and demonstrated terrorist willingness and capability, albeit thus far via conventional means, to inflict mass casualties. Much valuable research has been conducted in the areas of the vulnerability of weapons-usable materials, the technical capabilities required to construct RN weapons and preparations for dealing with the consequences of a radiological or nuclear attack. What have received far less attention thus far are the characteristics, decision-making and behavior of the potential perpetrators themselves. The Anatomizing Radiological and Nuclear Non-state Adversaries project sought to broaden the understanding of non-state adversaries and their behavior, including the pathways to acquisition that different adversaries intending to attack the United States might favor as well as their targeting and other tactical preferences that stem from larger strategic concerns.

Objectives: Recognizing that only a small subset of violent actors demonstrating antipathy toward the United States will ever embark upon a nuclear or radiological weapons route, this project was aimed at using a multi-methodological approach to: a) identify the set of most likely future RN perpetrators and b) by discerning salient characteristics of RN adversaries, develop a collection of indicators that reflect an increased probability that a particular actor will pursue RN weapons and that can be applied to downstream actors who have not yet evidenced the capability or motivations for using RN weapons.

The project included:

1. Analyses of the Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries Database (RANNSAD), as well as expert elicitation and qualitative analysis to determine the most likely RN perpetrators.

2. In-depth behavioral profiles of Hezbollah, Tarik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaida, and representative groups within the Apocalyptic/Millenarian and Right Wing milieus, presuming some engagement in some RN activity and assessing the most likely modes of acquisition, loci of operations, targeting preferences, and other operational choices. 

Primary Findings: 

The initial phase of the project sought to identify the non-state actors posing the greatest radiological or nuclear (RN) threat within a five-year period. The following provides a summary comparison of the results obtained from the various research streams.

Radiological Weapons: The top radiological threat that emerged from all three analytical streams was al-Qa'ida Central. Indeed, jihadist actors dominated all the threat rankings, with nine of the seventeen groups in the qualitative analysis, seven of the first thirteen positions in the quantitative analysis and eight of the top ten ranked groups in the elicitation being identified as being driven by jihadist ideology. The qualitative analysis and quantitative modeling also identified secular far-right groups and non-jihadist religious groups as prominent threats. These included several amorphous and putatively callow groups and individuals, for example, extreme right-wing racist loners, home-grown American millenarian groups, mentally unbalanced individuals and severely disgruntled nuclear scientists. The quantitative modeling was the only research stream to include as prominent threats those terrorist groups that have a predominately ethno-nationalist gloss -- three of the top ten groups -- and also identified the only perceived threat from an ostensibly Marxist-Leninist inspired organization in all the rankings: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC).

Nuclear Weapons: The nuclear threat rankings were also dominated by various jihadist groups, with al-Qa'ida central being listed as the number one threat in two of the research streams and the number two threat in the third. However, one top ranking is striking: the elicitation listed U.S.-based unidentified disgruntled scientists (who possess access to nuclear agents and/or weapons) as the highest threat. Owing to the fact that the quantitatively derived results could not disaggregate radiological and nuclear threats, these rankings are less relevant in the nuclear context. The results of the analysis served as the baseline for follow-on research investigating the likely behavioral patterns of RN adversaries with respect to RN weapon acquisition, deployment and use. Detailed behavioral profiles, including discussion of such aspects as target and weapon selection, were created for three known terrorist groupings: al-Qa'ida, the Pakistani Neo-Taliban and Hizb'allah.

Charles Blair also served as a co-PI on this project.


The initial phase of the project employed a multi-methodological approach aimed towards identifying the non-state RN actors posing the greatest threat within a five-year period, as well as discerning salient characteristics of RN adversaries in order to develop a collection of indicators that reflect an increased probability that a particular actor will pursue RN weapons downstream. Based on a consolidated set of framework parameters and underpinned by a threat equation that emphasized non-state actor motivation, capability and opportunity, the study differentiated clearly between radiological and nuclear weapons, except regarding some motivational aspects and by necessity in certain statistical calculations. Data for the analyses were drawn from multiple unclassified (primary and secondary) sources, including perpetrator statements, trial transcripts, news reports, journal articles and scholarly book, as well as existing terrorism databases.

1. The development of profiles of all former non-state users and attempted users of RN weapons, recorded and coded in the form of the Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries Database (RANNSAD) [presented as a stand-alone deliverable].

2. A review and qualitative analysis of the pertinent literature pertaining to nuclear and radiological terrorist and criminal events, including identifying dominant theoretical paradigms.

3. Quantitative analysis of prior nuclear and radiological perpetrators and would-be perpetrators using statistical modeling techniques to identify salient characteristics of these past RN adversaries.

4. Rigorously controlled expert elicitation of outside subject matter experts (SMEs), using both semi-structured and formal probabilistic elicitation.

5. Internal and external quality control procedures.

6. The development of lists of over 130 positive and negative indicators drawn from the analysis, to be used by practitioners. The second phase of the project, involving the creation of behavioral profiles of three organizational actors, utilized a modified form of the DECIDe (Determinants Effecting Critical Incident Decisions) Framework adapted for this project. Drawing on extensive open-source research, a series of general influences on actor behavior (such as ideological, organizational, historical, and environmental) were considered and then applied to the possible use of RN weapons by the actor.

The second phase of the project utilized in-depth qualitative research of primary and secondary sources to develop RN behavioral profiles of several actors.


Project Period: 
June 2012 to January 2014