WMD FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are defined in US law (18 USC §2332a) as:

“(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title (i.e. explosive device);
(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title)
(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.”

WMD is often referred to by the collection of modalities that make up the set of weapons: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE). These are weapons that have a relatively large-scale impact on people, property, and/or infrastructure.

Why does the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) exist?

In 2006, the FBI determined that the threat presented by WMD was sufficient to require specialized attention. WMDD was established to create a unique combination of law enforcement authorities, intelligence analysis capabilities, and technical subject matter expertise that exists nowhere else in the U.S. government. The creation of WMDD enabled the FBI to focus its WMD preparedness, prevention, and response capabilities in a single, focused organization rather than through decentralized responsibilities across divisions.

What is the nature of the threat?

WMD terrorism and proliferation are evolving threats to U.S. national security. In his 2010 testimony before the Senate and the House of Representatives, the director of national intelligence stated that dozens of identified domestic and international terrorists and terrorist groups have expressed their intent to obtain and use WMD in future acts of terrorism. The frequency of high-profile acts of terrorism has increased over the past decade. Indicators of this increasing threat include the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 Amerithrax letters, the possession of WMD-related materials by Aafia Siddiqui when she was captured in 2008, and multiple attempts by terrorists at home and abroad to use explosives improvised from basic chemical precursors. The challenge presented by these threats is compounded by the large volume of hoax threats that distract and divert law enforcement agencies from addressing real threats.

In its 2008 report World at Risk, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism stated there is a high likelihood of some type of WMD terrorist attack by the year 2013. The U.S. Intelligence Community determined that the most probable WMD scenarios involve the use of toxic industrial chemicals, biological toxins/poisons, or radioisotopes fabricated into an improvised dispersal device. The use of chemical warfare agents, biological warfare agents, and improvised nuclear devices are other possiblethough less likelyscenarios due to the difficulties in obtaining the necessary materials, technologies, and expertise.

In addition to efforts by terrorists to use WMD, multiple countries seek to expand their WMD capabilities. For some of these countries, U.S. technologies represent the key to moving their WMD programs forward. The U.S. faces constant attempts by foreign nations to obtain technology, knowledge, and materials for the development and production of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. As new technologies emerge and mature and as scientific expertise and technological equipment become more readily available, the challenge of safeguarding these from those that would use them for nefarious purposes is increasing exponentially. Accordingly, the U.S. government must regularly reassess its counterproliferation methods to meet the ever-changing challenge.

What kinds of cases does WMDD manage?

Unlike some other FBI divisions, WMDD approaches cases based on modalities and methods rather than actors. In this way, WMDD addresses purely WMD cases and supports its partners in the Counterterrorism Division and the Counterintelligence Division on cases where the WMD nexus is secondary.

WMDD’s case management responsibilities fall into two primary categories: WMD terrorism and WMD proliferation. The WMD terrorism cases managed by WMDD involve non-attributed instances involving the threat, attempt, or use of a WMD. These may include anything from the mailing of a letter containing white powder to the attempted fabrication of a chemical weapon. On the proliferation side, WMDD handles all WMD proliferation cases that do not directly involve an intelligence officer from a foreign nation. 

What is WMD counterproliferation?

Counterproliferation describes the collective activities conducted by U.S. government agencies to prevent foreign governments and other organizations from obtaining WMD or from acquiring the materials, technology, and knowledge necessary to fabricate a WMD. Typically, WMD counterproliferation activities are aimed at preventing the spread of high-impact WMD such as nuclear weapons, contagious biological agents, and military-grade chemical weapons.