In September 2021, a 26-year-old French national, influenced by far-right ideology, was arrested for having successfully manufactured four improvised explosive devices (IEDs) containing uranium in his home (TRIPwire, September 9). Four months earlier, a 16-year-old boy of Syrian origin, who had been radicalized by the jihadist ideology of the Islamic State (IS), was convicted and charged with attempting to carry out an attack in Norway using nicotine poison that he had manufactured in his garage (World Today News, May 27; Norwell, June 30). These two examples highlight the continued threat of so-called ‘garage extremists’, who are lone actors with little to no connection to a wider terrorist network, but are increasingly taking advantage of technological advancements to manufacture homemade chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.
Technology, Terrorism, and the Online Factor
The most concerning aspect of the French case was the fact that the suspect had purchased uranium dust and other components for the production of the IEDs on the online purchasing platform eBay (Prothero, September 14). He had also learned how to make the bombs through the internet (TRIPwire, September 9). The ease with which he was able to achieve this dangerous feat, while merely sitting in the comfort of his home, was notable.
The case was similar to an earlier one. In 2018, a Tunisia-born IS sympathizer, Sief Allah, who was living in Cologne, Germany, had plotted to carry out a biological attack using ricin poison. He had purchased more than 2,000 castor beans, the precursor for ricin poison production, from the internet and had successfully produced 84.3 miligrams of the poison. German security services had stated that Sief Allah was likely to have been following instructions on how to produce and weaponize ricin and manufacture bombs from the internet (dw.com, June 7, 2019). As for the case in Norway, the 16-year old boy of Syrian origin had spent a substantial amount of time online and Norwegian police had found bomb- making manuals on his mobile phone (Nettavisen, March 8; avisa OSLO, February 2).
Technology and the proliferation of information online has lowered the difficulty thresholds in manufacturing crude CBRN weapons and obtaining components for them. The fact that the 26-year-old Frenchman succeeded in manufacturing four homemade dirty bombs purely from components bought online and internet tutorials is testament to this threat. Likewise, the 16-year old boy is believed to have managed to produce nicotine poison mainly from information and resources found online (World Today News, May 27). Despite the fact that he had produced only a small amount of poison, which was of limited lethality, he still had intent. The cases show the degree to which lone actors can capitalize on the availability of information and technological advancements to manufacture unconventional weapons and carry out attacks.
Comparing Far-right and Jihadist CBRN Cases
With regards to the far-right, CBRN terrorism has predominantly been a lone actor phenomenon as compared to one that is coordinated or directed by any particular group. Although he was believed to have been a member of a far-right group called the National Socialist Knights, the 26-year old Frenchman was likely to have manufactured the explosives alone (Daily Sabah, September 9). He had reportedly possessed Nazi paraphernalia and a Ku Klux Klan jacket in his home, and had plotted to use the homemade explosives against public buildings (Prothero, September 14; Bonaventure, September 8). There has been no evidence thus far of any group directing his actions.
In contrast, in the jihadist milieu, CBRN terrorism was initially a group-driven phenomenon with both al-Qaeda and IS having shown intent in the use and development of CBRN weapons. Over time, however, it became a lone actor phenomenon, in which isolated individuals were being guided in manufacturing and carrying out attacks via online chatting platforms by ‘virtual planners’ located in conflict zones in the Middle East. Now, it has become even more isolated, with supporters and sympathizers of jihadist groups such as IS with minimal connection to the group chatting and motivating each other to commit such attacks.
In the Norway case, the 16-year-old boy had been in contact with a fellow IS sympathizer on the encrypted chat platform Telegram. Norwegian police had discovered that the individual he contacted seemed to have a marked influence on his decision-making and actions in preparing and plotting for a poison attack (World Today News, May 27). The Norway case can be compared to earlier jihadist-inspired CBRN cases, such as the 2017 Sydney chemical attack plot, involving two IS operatives in Syria who virtually directed two brothers of Lebanese origin in Sydney via Telegram to create an improvised chemical dispersion device using highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas (abc.net.au, August 4, 2017). This shows the shift of jihadist-inspired CBRN plots toward becoming more isolated, as occurred in Norway. Nevertheless, external influence still remains a key factor.
An Accelerating and Diffuse Threat
The two cases from France and Norway highlight a threat posed by ‘garage extremists’ in Europe, who are mostly young individuals capitalizing on technological advancements to engage in the manufacture and plotting of attacks involving CBRN weapons from their own garages. In some ways this is not new, but the level of potential lethality and the advanced nature of their plotting is a concerning development. The combination of the proliferation of manuals and information on the development of IEDs and toxins online, the ease of availability of precursor materials on online purchasing platforms, and the widespread propaganda output from militant groups belonging to either end of the ideological milieu presents an ever accelerating and diffuse threat landscape.
Despite these trends, successfully manufacturing and carrying out a mass casualty CBRN attack is no simple feat due to the various challenges associated with the procurement of certain CBRN precursor agents and the construction of a weapon that is able to deliver the agent in lethal amounts. However, manufacturing crude weapons and carrying out a limited casualty attack with readily available agents, such as plant-based toxins (ricin, abrin), toxic chemicals (nicotine, hydrogen sulfide), and simple dirty bombs is attainable. Perseverance, precision, caution and a little luck would likely do the trick. Thus, the threat of attacks involving homemade biological or chemical agents or improvised radiological devices perpetrated by lone actors, or ’garage extremists,’ requires monitoring by security agencies.