Lone Wolves’ CBRNe Capabilities – Lessons Learned from Breivik Attack


The terrorist attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011 have brought lone wolf terrorism back to the forefront of public concern. The bombing of government buildings in Oslo and subsequent mass shootings on the nearby island of Utøya which resulted in the deaths of seventy seven people, were carried out by lone wolf Anders Breivik. Breivik’s attacks started at 3:20 p.m. when a bomb made primarily from fertilizer exploded outside government offices in central Oslo. The bombing was soon followed by a mass shooting on Utøya Island at 5:27 p.m., which lasted about an hour and caused the death of sixty nine people.

This article will discuss lone wolves’ CBRNe capabilities as demonstrated by the actions of Breivik and others. While Breivik eventually resorted to the more traditional use of conventional weapons, i.e. small arms and explosives, his manifesto indicates that he spent a great deal of time and effort entertaining the use of CBRN weapons.

The Lone Wolf

In his article, ‘Lone Wolf Terrorism,’ Peter Phillips, explains, “True lone wolf terrorists are individuals who … operate alone, without accomplices and outside of a formal terrorist organisational or command structure.” (Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 1)

The threat lone wolves pose can be challenging to classify due to the wide array of capabilities and motives that vary from one lone wolf to the next. Attacks by lone wolves range from basic to highly sophisticated attacks; some involving years of careful planning while others seem to occur at the spur of the moment.

When looking at the history of terrorist attacks by lone wolves it becomes apparent that their motivations can be categorized into two groups. The first category includes lone wolves who have their own personal vendettas. The target of these vendettas can range from the government to former employers; the latter being particularly dangerous due to their extensive knowledge of buildings security features. The second category of lone wolves are those who share the same ideology as other actor types such as extreme right, or international religious fundamentalist, but choose to operate independently of such groups. This is especially true for lone wolves sympathizing with the extreme right, or other single issue groups such as anti-abortion groups, which have seen an increase in the amount of lone wolf supporters. Lone wolves tend to be highly motivated due to their deep seated frustration for any number of issues, leading them to take extreme actions in an attempt to right some form of wrongdoing they believe they have suffered.

Path to Radicalization

Although the Breivik episode occurred in a ‘well-to-do’ Norway, it is important to note that the current economic and financial crisis, with instability on financial and stock markets, dangerously growing sovereign debts, threatening national defaults, and the subsequent implementation of unprecedented austerity measures, may lead to the dangerous polarisation of societies and further increase the risk of radicalisation under various “colors”, be it extreme right, extreme left or religious. This may in turn, contribute to a further growth of radical extremism, including the “lone wolf” phenomenon, but also manifesting itself in street disturbances and acts of anarchism. Furthermore, while a linear logic suggests that gruesome episodes like the Breivik rampage are one of a kind and should not be expected to repeat often, the general culture of violence that Breivik so dramatically represented may in fact be contagious. It is deeply disturbing, for example, that within weeks of the events in Norway the debate in some European countries has shown a good deal of sympathy and understanding among the public and some opinion leaders towards Breivik’s crimes.

Breivik, a thirty two year old Norwegian right wing extremist, carried out these attacks in an effort to combat what he believed to be the Islamic colonization of Western Europe. Breivik claims to be a member of an organization which he calls Pauperes Commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici (PCCTS) also known as the Knights Templar, however, there is no evidence suggesting there are in fact other members of such a group. During his attacks Breivik targeted members and supporters of Norway’s Labor Party, who he believed were behaving like “cultural Marxists” for allowing what he saw as a Muslim takeover of Norway.

Breivik’s path to radicalization started at an early age, in his manifesto “A European Declaration of Independence”  he states:

“When I was around 16-17 years old I joined the Progress Party Youth organization (FpU) as they were anti-immigrant and pro-free-market.” He recounted that his path to radicalization further progressed when, “around year 2000 I realized that the democratic struggle against the Islamization of Europe, European multiculturalism was lost … resistance is saying you will put a stop to this. I decided I wanted to join the resistance movement.”

Breivik’s path to radicalization culminated with the attacks on 22 July 2011, which he claims to have spent the last three years of his life working on.

Similarities to Other Lone Wolves

Prior to Anders Breivik’s recent attack, the most immediate example of a lone wolf to come to mind when discussing the lone wolf actor type was Timothy McVeigh. Although one could argue that McVeigh does not fit the “classic” definition of a lone wolf, because he was helped by Terry Nichols, experts generally categorize him as a lone wolf because he executed the attack alone and did not follow the orders of a larger organization. McVeigh’s attack on Oklahoma City’s federal building using a truck filled with 2,300 kg of ammonium nitrate and nitro methane, on 19 April 1995 was the most deadly terrorist attack in the United States prior to 9/11. It killed 168 people and injured more than 400. McVeigh planned and executed the attack as revenge for the federal government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, two years earlier, which led to the death of 76 people.

It is noteworthy that there are similarities between Breivik and McVeigh, including both used fertilizer based explosives, both held right wing extremist views, and both targeted government buildings. Another lone wolf that Breivik shares similarities with is Ted Kaczynski, more commonly known as the Unabomber. In fact, Breivik seems to have been inspired by Kaczynski having copied many parts directly from Kaczynski’s manifesto (Kaczynski, T.J. (1996). The Unabomber manifesto: Industrial society and its future. Berkeley, CA: Jolly Roger Press) in his own manifesto ‘2083 A European Declaration of Independence’ which he published shortly before his attacks under the alias Andrew Berwick. For example in his manifesto Kaczynski states:

“One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is leftism, so a discussion of the psychology of leftism can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of modern society in general.” 


Similarly Breivik in his “own” manifesto states: 

 “One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is multiculturalism, so a discussion of the psychology of multiculturalists can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of Western Europe in general.”

The only changes Breivik makes is replacing the word leftism with multiculturalism and replacing modern society with Western Europe. This is just one of the many instances where Breivik has copied Kaczynski’s manifesto almost verbatim. It is interesting that Breivik chose to use so much of Kaczynski’s manifesto when writing his own, considering they did not share similar ideologies. In fact, they were quite different, as Kaczynski was concerned about the industrialization and modernization of society and its impact on the environment, whereas Breivik’s focus lay in what he believed to be the Islamic colonization of Western Europe.

Lone Wolves CBRNe Capabilities

Contrary to popular belief, CBRNe based attacks are not only of interest to large well-funded terrorist groups. Lone wolves are just as interested in CBRNe based attacks due to their destructive capabilities.

As Michael Day points out in his article, ‘From Inspiring to Instructing,’ there has been an increase in terrorist attacks by lone wolves. This increase in attacks by lone wolves will surely lead to an increase in the likelihood of a lone wolf choosing to use CBRNe based weapons in their attacks. Support for this assumption may be found in the arrest of several lone wolves since Breivik’s attacks in Norway, notably including the arrest of a Mexican chemistry student, Jose Perez Bautista on 17 August 2011, who is accused of planning to use chemical gases to poison protesters of the Pope’s visit to Spain. Furthermore, U.S. President Barack Obama has recently stated that attacks by lone wolves are, “the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now.” This position is substantiated by Breivik’s claim that, “there are cells that are already in the process of attempting to acquire chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.”

But how much of a threat do lone wolves really pose when discussing CBRNe attacks? Because of the independent nature of lone wolf activities one might assume that their network, financial means and CBRN knowledge are all extremely limited, and that, as a result, they do not amount to much of a threat in regard to CBRNe. However, this is not always the case as Bruce Ivins demonstrated with his alleged anthrax mailing campaign in 2001. Indeed, even lone wolves may be capable of using sophisticated CBRNe materials in their attacks.  The vast majority of lone wolves attacks using CBRNe materials involve the use of explosives. This is mainly due to the fact that out of the CBRNe agents explosives are the most easy to acquire.

Breivik’s interest in chemical agents

It is known that Breivik was extremely interested in using chemical agents in his attack. In his manifesto he describes how to fill hollow tip bullets with deadly toxins such as ricin and pure nicotine in an attempt to make them even more deadly. Ricin is one of the most deadly toxins known to man and can be fairly easily extracted from castor beans. Although ricin is often classified as a biological agent as it is extracted from naturally occurring flora, because its effects are purely chemical it will be referred to as a chemical agent in this report. In fact, ricin is so potent that it is listed together with other deadly chemical agents such as sarin and VX in the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Furthermore, in its pure form nicotine is also extremely poisonous. In his manifesto Breivik details how to obtain these agents, listing numerous recipes and instructions as to the most effective methods for acquiring them. Although no evidence of the actual use of these materials in his bullets have been released to the public, so far we must conclude that it was most likely within his capabilities to use them.

Breivik’s interest in biological agents

One of the agents Breivik had considered using was anthrax which he stated as being, “one of the most effective” weapons. He believed that, “anthrax has an excellent shock effect, and is likely to result in massive media coverage”. He was confident that such an attack could result in the deaths of as many as 200,000 people, however, such a large scale attack did not fit with his goal of “surgically precise attacks” on specific people and buildings.

Past incidents involving anthrax such as the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak of 1979, which killed at least sixty four people, shows the danger anthrax poses to humans (Guillemin, J., Anthrax: the Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, 1999). Because anthrax spores are highly resistant to weather conditions they can remain active years after their initial release, Breivik believed that anthrax could be easily obtained by collecting soil from a former anthrax site. He also presumed that anthrax could be obtained on the black market. In his manifesto Breivik approved of Ivins’ use of anthrax contaminated letters, and even included statements that he thought his “Knights Templar” should use when mailing out similar letters.

Breivik’s interest in Radiological/Nuclear weapons

Breivik also discusses the use of radiological and nuclear weapons in his manifesto. He outlines the difficulties one would face in an attempt to acquire such weapons and materials. It is extremely unlikely that a lone wolf would be able to obtain a nuclear weapon, however it might be within the capabilities of a lone wolf to acquire radiological materials that could be used to make a radiological dispersion device, or ‘dirty bomb.’ Breivik believes that, “fissile material can be stolen from any major hospital (at least enough to create a nasty little dirty bomb).” An attack using such a device would lead to large scale economic and psychological damage to the affected region. Although such a device would not initially generate more structural damage

or casualties to its target than a traditional explosive device, the cost and difficulty of clean-up could mean that the affected area remains unusable years after the initial explosion. Furthermore Breivik also entertained the idea of attacking nuclear power plants in hopes of causing large scale radioactive contamination, listing detailed descriptions of nuclear reactor safety and security features in his manifesto.

Breivik’s interest in explosives

Although Breivik ultimately chose to use homemade explosives in his attack, the detailed descriptions of his experiments with toxins such as ricin suggest that he did have the capabilities required to use other agents. Breivik explains his decision for ultimately choosing the use of explosives in his attack when he states, “pound for pound, euro for euro and hour for hour of effort, high explosives are far more effective at inflicting massive … casualties.” In his manifesto Breivik gives an in depth description of how he acquired the necessary equipment and materials needed to create the bomb that he detonated on 22 July 2011. He describes how he created elaborate cover stories to justify the purchase of large quantities of explosive making materials. While the manufacturing of explosives has become increasingly difficult in recent years due to new countermeasures and screening procedures, Breivik’s actions show that with some careful planning lone wolves are still capable of creating powerful explosives.


In short, the recent events in Norway perpetrated by Breivik highlight several lessons political decision makers and law enforcement agencies need to be aware of including;

  • The need to pay more attention to the process of radicalization and invest more resources into de-radicalization strategies and address the culture of violence phenomenon.
  • The need to develop better procedures and methodologies for the timely identification of emerging lone wolves.
  • The development of additional countermeasures against the unauthorized access to CBRNe materials and precursors, including more stringent national implementation of existing international treaties, dealing with CBRNe (such as the Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and others).
  • The need for increasing cooperation amongst states and other relevant stakeholders (law enforcement, industry, and the research and cyber security community) in all three of the above mentioned areas.
  • The sheer amount of detailed information contained in his manifesto on executing future attacks, coupled with the extensive media coverage that Breivik’s attack received, means that there could be a serious risk of copycat behavior by future lone wolves.


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