Weapons of Mass Destruction

In July 2006, the FBI created the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, or WMDD, to build a cohesive and coordinated approach to incidents involving nuclear, radiological, biological, or chemical weapons—with an overriding focus on prevention. 

To do its job, the WMDD proactively seeks out and relies upon intelligence to drive preparedness, countermeasures, and investigations designed to keep threats from becoming reality. It also taps into the tactical and technical expertise of other FBI operational and support divisions, embedding personnel in these components as needed and coordinating investigations and initiatives. Throughout these efforts, the WMDD supports the broader work of the U.S. government as a leading partner and active contributor to policy decisions.

Key Programs 

The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) is responsible for building an enduring, integrated, and agile United States government capability that effectively mitigates WMD threats. It provides leadership, guidance, and expertise to the U.S. government on WMD issues and influencing the development of interagency policy, plans, and strategy. At the same time, WMDD is responsible for coordinating WMD operational efforts through the FBI’s field-based WMD coordinators and counterproliferation coordinators. To best address the many requirements of the mission, the FBI approaches the WMD issue in terms of four major functional categories: preparedness, countermeasures, investigations/operations, and intelligence.


The WMD Preparedness subprogram incorporates elements of planning, training, and exercises to ensure that the FBI and its U.S. government partners are ready to respond to WMD threats when they emerge. This involves the development of comprehensive plans and policy at the strategic and operational levels that inform everyone involved in a situation what their specific responsibilities and courses of action are. The Bureau encourages its employees to pursue a variety of training opportunities to improve their understanding of WMD threats and operational processes. It  conducts many of these courses itself, providing an advanced level of training to its special agents and intelligence analysts on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats. To ensure that both the training and plans are adequate, the FBI regularly evaluates its progress through simulations and scenario-based exercises. These exercises provide the added benefits of improving coordination with other participating federal, state, local, and tribal agencies; enhancing participants’ understanding of their each others’ capabilities; and illustrating the areas where added resources are necessary.


The WMD Countermeasures subprogram consists of outreach activities and more specialized coordination called tripwires. Countermeasures are actions taken to counter, eliminate, or offset the WMD threat. Tripwires are proactive warning processes established to provide indicators of an emerging threat. Tripwires can be leveraged to provide real-time actionable intelligence to address immediate needs. In practical terms, tripwires are outreach activities with a specific purpose to establish an early warning network where those closest to an emerging situation (e.g. state and local public health, academic researchers, members of industry) are aware of potential risks and are prepared to inform the FBI when a risk may be developing into a WMD threat.

Investigations & Operations

The FBI has multiple entities and programs in place around the world for the investigative, intelligence, counterintelligence, and overall law enforcement response to a terrorist threat or incident in the U.S. The WMDD investigates the threatened, attempted, and actual use of a WMD, as well as the attempted or actual transfer of the materials, knowledge, and technology needed to create a WMD. The FBI maintains a robust response capability that can collect evidence in contaminated areas, disarm hazardous devices, and provide direct command and control support in on-scene situations, and WMDD coordinates many of these capabilities across the FBI. The Bureau also supports major public events (e.g., sporting events, presidential speeches) through the deployment of personnel prepared to respond if a threat emerges.


The basis for the FBI’s proactive approach to the countermeasures, investigations, and operations is timely, relevant, and actionable intelligence analysis. WMDD intelligence analysts provide intelligence for internal and external stakeholders. As a law enforcement agency, the FBI consumes its own intelligence, and analysts inform operators and decision makers within the Bureau on current and emerging WMD threats. As part of the U.S. Intelligence Community, WMDD analysts also provide intelligence analysis and products to improve U.S. and foreign partner understanding of these threats as well.

FBI Counterproliferation Center 

The spread of WMD and other technologies is a significant threat to U.S. national security. That’s why the FBI established its Counterproliferation Center (CPC) in 2011. A component of the National Security Branch, the CPC combines the counterproliferation expertise of the Bureau’s Counterintelligence Division, WMD Directorate, and Directorate of Intelligence.

All FBI counterproliferation investigations are managed by the CPC, which leverages law enforcement and intelligence techniques to prevent the acquisition of WMD and critical controlled technologies. Collaborative efforts with the Bureau’s federal partners and the private sector play an important role in these efforts.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What are Weapons of Mass Destruction?

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

  • Any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas, including the following: a bomb; grenade; rocket having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than four ounces; missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce; mine; or device similar to any of the previously described devices;
  • Any weapons that is designed or intend to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
  • Any weapon involving a disease organism;
  • 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. 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 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 the nature of the threat?

 WMD terrorism and proliferation are evolving threats to U.S. national security. The director of national intelligence has stated that dozens of identified domestic and international terrorists and terrorist groups have expressed their intent to obtain and use WMD, including nuclear materials, in future acts of terrorism. The frequency of high-profile acts of terrorism has increased over the past decade or so. Indicators of this increasing threat include the 9/11 attacks, the Amerithrax letters, 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.

The Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism has reported that the possibility of some type of WMD terrorist attack has increased. 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 possible—though less likely—scenarios 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 and related delivery systems. 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 is WMD counterproliferation?

WMD counterproliferation involves the collective efforts by U.S. government agencies to combat the spread or development of weapons of mass destructions and to identify, deny, disrupt, and exploit attempts by foreign governments and other organizations to obtain or divert the materials, technology, and knowledge necessary to fabricate a WMD or advance a WMD program. A number of U.S. government agencies–including law enforcement, licensing and intelligence entities–are involved in the effort to restrict the sale, or the theft of restricted U.S. technologies to foreign nations, terrorist organizations and others who would do our country harm.


FBI Personnel in HAZMAT Suits in November 2001 (AP Photo)

In 1995, the FBI established a Weapons of Mass Destruction sub-program within the Counterterrorism Division. During the succeeding years, the Bureau created units in FBI Headquarters, the Laboratory Division, and ultimately in the Critical Incident Response Group to meet the growing demands of the program.

On September 23, 1996, Congress passed the Defense against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, which included the FBI as one of the key federal agencies to work in partnership with other key agencies to better protect the nation from a WMD attack. This involved preparing the nation’s first responders to take action if one were to occur.Following the attacks of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks a month later, the FBI continued to evolve to meet the threat posed by WMD. The FBI determined the need for a program that not only met the current threat but also prepared a workforce and organization to counter future threats and respond to incidents involving those threats.

During 2005, then-Director Robert Mueller requested the newly-formed National Security Branch to design an organizational element to meet the WMD threat; by July 2006, the FBI established the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD). The Directorate incorporated pre-existing units from the Domestic Terrorism Section of Counterterrorism Division in addition to new ones.

Today, the WMDD includes three sections—Investigations and Operations Section (IOS), Countermeasures Section (CS), and Intelligence and Analysis Section (IAS). IOS oversees the FBI’s WMD response and investigation programs. IAS provides timely, relevant, actionable intelligence analysis to collaborate with key domestic and international stakeholders to identify, understand and mitigate current and emerging WMD threats response for meeting the future WMD threat.

WMDD has achieved FBI National Program status, demonstrating its impact on the Bureau’s WMD program since its inception. Achieving program status gave the Directorate full oversight over initiatives and program activities (prevention, preparedness, countermeasures, investigations, and operational response), as well as the ability to lead field personnel.

Security Awareness Videos 

The Chemical Countermeasures Unit (CCU) of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate presents the following videos on security awareness.

Suspicious Sales: Retail Security Awareness

This video offers a realistic scenario that emphasizes the importance of maintaining awareness in retail stores and reporting suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities. It is designed to be viewed by salespersons, cashiers, customer service representatives, and any employee who interacts with customers. Store managers, security personnel, and loss prevention officers will also benefit from viewing the video.

Chemical Indicators: Laboratory Security Awareness

This video offers a realistic scenario that emphasizes the importance of maintaining awareness in the academic laboratory environment and reporting suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities. It is designed to be viewed by faculty, students, and staff who work in and around laboratories, chemicals, and equipment. Industrial laboratory employees will also benefit from viewing the video.

FBI Resources