We Need to Worry About Terrorists Using Chemical and Biological Weapons

by Stephen Bryen

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned France’s parliament that he could not rule out terrorists using chemical and biological weapons. Accordingly, the French government has taken its first step in distributing an antidote, Atropine, to Sarin nerve gas. How worried should we be about the threat? What are the steps needed to cope with it?

At least one country has put in place a complete system to deal with chemical and biological threats, although more recently Israel’s civil defense has focused on protection against missile attacks rather than chem-bio threats.

The Israeli system was elaborate and comprehensive in scope. In fact, when I visited Israel just after the Gulf war, I went with a friend to a distribution center to refresh the personal protection kit provided by the government.

Picking up kits

Picking up Personal Protection Kits, Israel

The personal protection kit was only a part of the strategy to protect the population. Protection also included creating “sealed” rooms so that chemical and biological agents could not enter, and a warning system that alerted the public to take action. The sealed room not only was to be equipped with food and water (3 gallons per person), but Israelis were instructed on how to use their protection kits if needed.

The French action at least so far is only focused on the Sarin threat. Sarin is an organophosphorus compound that was developed in 1938 in Nazi Germany by IG Farben, the same company that produced Zyklon B to gas people in Nazi concentration camps. The Germans produced Sarin and another organophosphate nerve gas called Tabun and built weapons delivery systems for these chemicals. However, the Nazis never used either Sarin or Tabun according to most accounts.

Neither Sarin or Tabun are effective battlefield weapons. In the fight between Iran and Iraq on the al-Faw peninsula in 1988, often referred to as the “Second Battle” of al-Faw. Here Iraqi troops used Sarin and other chemical weapons including Tabun, mustard gas, and perhaps some biological agents. Iraq’s forces were equipped with gas masks, chemical protective suits and atropine injectors and tablets. Even so, there is no evidence that the battlefield use of chem-bio shells, bombs and missiles did much good; and it badly compromised the war fighting ability of Iraq’s army.

In the Nazi case, both Roosevelt and Churchill, who had intelligence on Nazi chemical weapons development and weaponization of these materials, made concrete threats the Germans apparently heeded. The US imported tons of mustard gas shells to Italy (some of which was destroyed in a Nazi air raid that sank the ship “John Harvey” in Bari harbor, leading to hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian and military casualties. Churchill was even more specific: he made it clear to Hitler that any use of chemical weapons by the Nazis would result in German cities subject to Allied bombings using anthrax.

bari harbor raid

German raid at Bari, 2 December 1943

Middle Eastern terrorists, of course, could care less about the consequences of their actions. Deterrence that can be used to persuade a nation-state to refrain from using chemical or biological weapons does not work with terror organizations such as al-Qaeda or ISIS. In fact, al-Qaeda has been long at work on developing chemical and biological weapons and ISIS has “liberated” stockpiles of Iraqi and Syrian chemical and biological agents. Independent reports have already established at ISIS has used mustard gas in Syria and ISIS probably has nerve gas shells from Iraq and Syria. Even more worrisome is the fact that the quality of nerve gas in the hands of the Syrian government is far higher than the nerve gas manufactured by Saddam Hussein, meaning that the Syrians had significant outside help in producing nerve gas, or it was imported from abroad.

Tokyo-subway-attack-Photo-screenshot

Tokyo Metro Sarin Attack

Nerve gas was used in Tokyo Japan by Aum Shinrikyo, a sort of doomsday cult that attacked the Tokyo subway in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo had its own laboratory and chemists and the Sarin it produced was apparently loaded into aerosol cans and sprayed on commuters as they existed trains underground. The attack was by five different Aum Shinrikyo teams and killed 13 persons and seriously injured another 54. Somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000 persons were sickened. The quality of the Sarin used in the attacks was quite low: a better product could have killed thousands.

Most underground systems, whether in London, Paris or Washington DC are poorly guarded and passengers entering the metro systems are not checked. Unfortunately, so far as is known, self-defense tools are not present in Metro stations and communications between metro cars and law enforcement barely function, if they exist at all. Metros in places as diverse as Moscow, London, Madrid, Bologna, and Tokyo have suffered heavy terror attacks.

Should we be worried? The answer is a resounding “yes”! What should be done? For sure serious attention must be urgently given to metro systems and train stations. Armed guards alone are far from a satisfactory answer. Supplies of antidotes must be placed on train cars and at stations. First Responders need to be nearby and well trained to cope with a potential disaster. Identification of the threat as quickly as possible is vital. Atropine, for example, only is effective if used within a few minutes. Supplies of oxygen bottles, masks, and other gear (including antibiotics if Anthrax or other biological agents are used) needs to be on hand and accessible.

It would be a worthwhile idea for an international conference to create a common defense plan against chemical and biological attack. A layered defense, like the one Israel created, is a good starting model. The conference should be made up of scientists, doctors, and terror specialists. The plan, which should be quickly agreed on, should be funded and implemented as quickly as possible.

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Readers may be interested in my new book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers, December 2015). It discussed chemical and biological warfare developments as well as nuclear threats.

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