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CBRNE : Current Challenges

What Is CBRNE?

CBRNE is an acronym that stands for C = Chemical, B = Biological, R = Radioactive, N = Nuclear and E = Explosive. CBRNE are the five materials that are closely related to incidents of terrorist attacks. Generally, these are five materials that are used by terrorists to create threat either in the form of physical or psychological destruction.

CBRNE comes in the form of weaponry materials or non-weaponry materials. CBRNE as weaponry materials consist of conventional bombs, a combination of explosives and modified explosives. CBRNE as non-weaponry materials are also known as dangerous goods consisting of contaminated food products, livestock and crops. Both can be a dangerous threat and can cause a large number of deaths as well as widespread destruction.

The term CBRNE is defined based on the effects desired by terrorists. It is classified into two – mass destruction agents and mass disruption agents. When CBRNE acts as a mass destruction agent, it can cause great loss of human life and infrastructure, including loss of the environment. Nevertheless, not all CBRNE incidents will cause mass destruction. The effect of a mass disruption agent is a small number of deaths but with a high degree of fear and immobilization of community function.

The World Health Organization has defined a CBRNE incident as the utilization of microorganisms, toxins, genetic materials, radioactive matter or chemicals to cause death or disease in humans, animals or plants. The components that make up the term CBRNE will be discussed separately in the section below.


A dangerous chemical is categorized as a chemical weapon when it is used for the purpose of terrorism and when it causes toxic effects towards humans. This toxic effect includes death, permanent or temporary disability.

There are various types of chemicals that can be used in a terrorist attack. It is classified based on the effects caused on the human body and the degree of the effects itself.

The classification of the effects on the human body is basically based on the primary organ which is affected by the exposure to the chemical. The chemicals can be a nerve agent, a respiratory agent, a systemic agent or a skin agent. A brief description of each chemical agent mentioned is as follows:

  1. A nerve agent commonly being used is in the form of a gas. One good example is sarin gas. It enters the body system via the skin into the lungs.
  2. A respiratory agent acts by disabling the function of the lungs. Examples are chlorine and phosgene.
  3. A systemic agent can cause deactivation of oxygen transfer in the blood system and cause death. Example: hydrogen cyanide.
  4. A skin agent that specifically irritates and corrodes the human skin. Example: mustard gas.

The second classification is based on the degree of the chemical effects and can be divided into three main effects – discomfort, disability and death. The effects of the chemicals depend on the received dosage as well as the victim’s body resistance.


Biological materials are categorized as a weapon when it causes infection in human beings. It is usually achieved by contaminating food and drink with an infectious item, equipping a weapon with a microorganism, toxin or animal and lacing a fabric with a biological agent.

A biological weapon has a unique trait that allows it to reproduce in the human body and cause death. It has the ability to cause infectious disease, to reproduce rapidly, to survive in different environments and to cause death, even in small concentrations.

There are two major types of biological materials commonly employed as biological weapons – pathogens and toxins. Pathogens are further divided into classes of organism that can cause disease i.e. bacteria, virus, and rickettsiae.

A bacterium is a type of microorganism that consists of a single cell that can multiply rapidly in the human body. It can be produced easily in a laboratory facility. The ability to produce bacteria commercially has increased the likelihood of bacteria being used as the perfect biological weapon. Examples of bacteria that can be potentially used as a biological weapon include Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Brucella (brucellosis), Corynebacterium diphtheriae (diphteria), Burkholderia mallei (glanders) and Burkholderia pseudomallei (melioidosis).

A virus is a microorganism consisting of genetic material surrounded by protein. It is not able to reproduce on its own as it needs a host to multiply. Examples of viruses include the Ebola, hepatitis, variola and influenza viruses.

Rickettsiae are small organisms that need a host to reproduce. This organism is smaller than a bacterium. Examples of rickettsiae include Coxiella burnetii (Q fever), Bartonella quintana (trench fever), Rickettsia prowazekii (typhus) and Rickettsia rickettsii (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever).

A toxin is produced by a living organism (e.g. spider), and include some plants. It is a toxic substance that in small volumes can cause a great number of deaths. Toxin produced by plants is known as mycotoxin. Examples of toxins that have been used in a terrorist attack are botulinium toxin, ricin, saxitoxin, tricothecene mycotoxins dan staphylococcal enterotoxin B.


Radioactive materials exist in different forms. Generally, these materials are not dangerous because they are securely kept and stored. However, technological advances have increased the opportunity of radioactive materials being used in the production of weapons. The use of weapons equipped with radioactive materials is a matter of great concern due to the effect that this weapon can cause. The spread of this material affects not only individuals but also the country concerned.

Radioactive weapons usually used as ‘dirty bombs’ are also known as Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) and Radiation Emitting Device (RED). A RDDis a weapon that disseminates radioactive material which has a long half-life. The radiation will remain active for decades, virtually making an area uninhabitable. A RDD is categorized as a mass disruption agent as it is an effective weapon to disable human function and interfere with the environment, effects aimed for by the terrorist.

A Radiation Emitting Device (RED) is a device that can produce radioactive material and affects humans without being detected. It emits an odorless and colorless radioactive material. The effect will only be felt when the consequences to humans and the environment are significant.


The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings at the end of World War II mark the starting point of nuclear materials being used as a weapon of war. The bombings had caused mass destruction in Japan and the development of nuclear material as an agent of mass destruction has given rise to a great awareness of the after effects that it produces.

There are two main types of nuclear weapons: atomic bombs and the thermonuclear weapon. Atomic bombs are produced when high levels of energy are released during the separation of nuclear materials (plutonium and uranium). This separation process produces a very strong explosion and emits a dangerous radiation (neutron and gamma radiation) that causes dreadful effects to humans and the environment.

A thermonuclear weapon is commonly known as a hydrogen bomb. This weapon is a product of the reaction between hydrogen isotopes in high temperature which yields gases at high pressure.


Explosives can be defined as chemicals or nuclear material with an explosive nature. These materials have high energy storage and create a huge and rapid explosion when activated. Explosives are classified into four major classes: explosive agents, primary explosives, low-grade explosives and high-grade explosives.

Explosive agents are the most common explosive materials used by terrorists. It is readily available in construction sites and mines. Example: ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil).

Primary explosives are explosives used to ignite explosive agents, low-grade explosives and high-grade explosives. Primary explosives are sensitive to heat and electrical charge.

Low-grade explosives are flammable materials. It is used in firearms. Example: gun powder.

High-grade explosives are the main type of explosive used by the military. This explosive is detonated by a primary explosive and it is highly flammable compared to low-grade explosives.

There are two basic ways of utilizing the four classes of explosives which are large explosives and small explosives. Large explosives are used to create direct impact and destruction on a large scale.

Small explosives on the other hand act as an initiator to more severe secondary effects. It does not create direct impact but it spreads other dangerous materials like chemical, biological and radioactive agents. Apart from that, small explosives are also usually used as a decoy to a second explosive material which can cause a high death toll and more serious damage.

Current Challenges

To what extent is the veracity and potential of CBRNE use as a terrorist weapon? Has the widespread publicity about CBRNE caused an unfounded panic situation among world leaders? Should CBRNE be feared and preventive measures taken? The threat of CBRNE exists and continues to create fear worldwide.

The fear of CBRNE being used as a weapon has increased the awareness of every country in the world to continue taking precautions in dealing with a CBRNE incident. CBRNE units have been established in almost every country and new safety laws dealing with CBRNE infringements have been enacted to ensure the welfare of the country.
The use of CBRNE will continue to evolve and emerge as a real threat, keeping pace with the advancement of technology and knowledge.

CBRNE will continue to be a challenge to the world due to increasing violence and turmoil. Religious and racial strife, among others plaguing the world today raises the extremists’ willingness to do anything to preserve what they strongly believe in. The existence of extremist groups in all their forms worldwide will contribute to the probability of a CBRNE weapon being used in a terrorist activity.

The specific ability of the materials in CBRNE can cause serious damage if it is used by terrorists in the future. CBRNE is a handy choice to be used as a weapon as it is easily available in the market. Easy flow of information on the material is also available on the internet. As an example, explosives are readily available in the market as it is used commercially in the field of mining.

Chemical and biological materials are basically already in the market either in the general or black market. The production of chemical and biological weapons is simplified due to the fact that the equipment and material needed are already available and being in use especially in the field of research, including medical research. Furthermore, chemical and biological weapons can be produced even without having a proper facility. The production of the weapon does not require any difficult method and that makes it undetectable and can be hidden.

The threat of chemical and biological materials will rise in line with the development of biotechnology and the field of genetic engineering. The growth of knowledge in both fields will open the gateway for chemical and biological weapon development. More sophisticated weapons, including untraceable and untreatable pathogens and toxins can and will be produced in the future.

The progress of information technology has enabled individuals including the terrorist to read and gain knowledge via the internet. This refined system has given the opportunity to the terrorist to learn about the usage of CBRNE. The internet is a useful virtual library, packed with information but when used wrongly can be a significant factor that can contribute to the threat of terrorism.

The potential threat of CBRNE as a weapon is due to the material’s capability to function individually as well as in combination with other materials producing even worse effects. This combination will contribute toward mass destruction and disruption of human life, the infrastructure, the economy and the social fabric of a country. An example is the dirty bomb which is the combination of radioactive material and explosives to produce a much greater impact.

In conclusion, preparedness to face a terrorist attack that employs CBRNE weapons should be enhanced. In the current era there are many fields developing rapidly that have the potential to add to the threat of CBRNE usage. Measures of prevention should be considered as of utmost importance as CBRNE used in a terrorist attack will involve a great risk of loss of life and material and vast destruction.


  1. http://www.ibconsultancy.eu/cbrne/nuclear/
  2. http://www.ibconsultancy.eu/cbrne/explosives/
  3. http://www.ibconsultancy.eu/cbrne/radioactive/
  4. http://www.ibconsultancy.eu/cbrne/biology/
  5. Laman web rasmi Polis DiRaja Malaysia http://www.rmp.gov.my/
  6. http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/history/hydrogen-bomb.html#ixzz2WoP7YMDK
  7. Introduction to CBRNE Terrorism: An Awareness Primer and Preparedness Guide for Emergency Responders By Robert J. Heyer, D.Sc., Hazardous Materials Specialist
  8. Forensic Science Applied to CBRNE Evidence and Event , Randall Murch, PhD Professor, Virginia Tech National Capital Region, Arlington VA
Last Reviewed : 6 March 2014
Writer : Grace Jinang
Accreditor : Dr. Mohamad Azaini bin Ibrahim