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There have been relatively few serious incidents of chemical or biological terrorism in Europe; however, there is growing concern over how non-state groups might exploit chemistry and biology for hostile purposes in the future. This article uses the historical record of past incidents of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) adoption by non-state actors to inform understandings of the current and future risks. To achieve this, the article analyses six interlinked clusters of factors that can be seen as important in assessing the risk of whether or not to adopt such weapons. These are: the perceived relative advantage of CBW and their utilities; the complexity of such weapons; their ideological compatibility; the role of organisational structures; the visibility and ‘fashionability’ of such weapons; and the wider environmental context. Drawing from past cases of CBW adoption and the present European context, an analysis of these factors suggests that sophisticated CBW with gigantic effect are possible, but unlikely; however, the adoption and use of scruffy low-level chemical weapons is a distinct possibility. Accordingly, European public health agencies need to prepare for the possibility of a variety of CBW, not all of which are likely to be weapons of “mass destruction”.
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