Forget nuclear: Chemical weapons are the real weapons of mass destruction threat
There is a credible risk that ISIS or ISIS inspired terrorists in Western countries could obtain chemical weapons. Chemicals are the most widely available weapons of mass destruction and perhaps the least challenging sort to pursue. An attack involving chemicals can potentially result in civilian casualties, chaos and serious economic consequences.
Islamist terrorism poses a significant threat. The modus operandi of ISIS or ISIS inspired individuals is diverse and shows no moral restraints – as recent attacks in Brussels and Berlin demonstrate. This ‘new breed of terrorism’ is connected via a transnational network enabled by the online sphere. Therefore, closed groups or even lone wolves living in social isolation in Western countries can become part of Islamist terrorism, and find inspiration and technical assistance to carry out attacks.
ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have demonstrated intent to develop and use chemical weapons. Their aspirations reached Western based individuals: manuals for the use of chemical weapons have been found in Brussels in the 1990s, showing interest in its use, while there is also evidence that Islamists trained foreign fighters to manufacture and use chemical weapons.
It is relatively easy to obtain information on producing chemical weapons through open source information. Yet, the synthesis itself is technologically demanding and often produces toxic side products. Moreover, the deadliest chemicals are also the most difficult to manufacture. Nerve agents, including VX and sarin, are manufactured from precursors that are difficult to obtain, while the synthesis and dispersal requires expertise and special equipment. The only partially successful chemical terrorist attacks targeting civilians on a mass-scale were carried out by the wealthy Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the 1990s, aiming to reach civilians on the Tokyo underground.
Dual-use chemicals are available in large quantities in the industry and require only minimal processing and preparation before use. They are also referred to as toxic industrial hazards (TIH), as they are highly poisonous; these include acids, ammonia, chlorine, sulphur and formaldehyde. Chlorine for example, is widely available – in small doses it is likely to irritate the eyes and the skin and inflame lungs, but it can also be lethal if inhaled.
The danger TIH pose is not to be ignored. TIH are not only easy to obtain but an attack on a site containing TIH can lead to mass casualties. For example, some 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate were released from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India in 1984, leaving over 8,000 dead in the first three days after the disaster, with a further 20,000 dying from illness related to the TIH exposure.
Challenges and opportunities
If chemical agents are not readily available, they need to be manufactured at a secure location. Terrorist groups such as Aum, Al-Qaeda, as well as ISIS have controlled territories (safe havens), enabling them to work on chemical weapon programmes without external interference. Due to the presence of foreign fighters in the Middle East, it is feared that individuals may receive the necessary training on ISIS controlled sites, and return to Europe with dangerous know-how.
Synthesis and particularly dispersal poses the highest challenges to carry out a successful attack. Aum failed to synthesize pure sarin and developed only a simple delivery method, poking holes on plastic bags containing sarin on the Tokyo subway, failing to execute a large-scale attack. The most efficient way to disperse the agents would have been through an aerosol device. Aum has, in fact, carried out a targeted attack using aerosolised sarin on judicial officials in Matsumoto in 1994, killing 7 and injuring 600, without killing the targeted individuals. The fact that an established cult with financial means, territory and know-how failed to manufacture a sophisticated chemical weapon to carry out a mass-casualty attack is indicative of the technical difficulties of manufacturing chemical weapons.
Potential consequences of chemical terrorism
It is extremely difficult to achieve a mass-casualty attack without military-grade weapons and effective dispersal methods, which even wealthy terrorists such as Al-Qaeda and Aum have not been in possession of. Yet, even a small-scale attack with a low mortality rate can easily cause panic and disruption. Therefore, chemical attacks have serious psychological, social, economic and financial consequences. For example, after the Tokyo subway attack, more than 4,700 sought medical attention — thus, much more people went to hospitals than the number that could have been exposed to sarin.
Due to the wide availability of TIH, anything containing such dual-use chemicals is at risk – industrial sites, transportation of chemicals or seaports. An explosion or interference with a site containing toxic materials, such as the Ludwigshafen site or in Bhopal, may lead to explosion, contamination of the air, water, soil and materials, and so casualties, and financial losses due to closure and decontamination efforts. Following a potential chemical attack, if the San Francisco International Airport was to shut down, revenue loss per day would reach $85 million, with immediate results of fear, chaos and disruption.
Therefore, a terrorist attack involving chemical weapons is not necessarily a direct targeting method towards civilians by terrorists. Targeting sites can easily have as serious consequences as targeting civilians, as incidents such as the ones in Bhopal demonstrate. Although there has not been a targeted claimed terrorist attack resulting in mass casualties in the West by Islamist groups, it does not mean the danger is negligible. Although there are strong technical obstacles to manufacture chemical weapons, the wide reach of Islamists, their cruelty, and the widely available dual-use chemicals indicate that chemical terrorism is a serious threat.