Tuesday, October 2, 2012

7 December 2011 – Imagination and the toxic terrorist


Consider, for a moment, these two pictures, and the attached deduction:

Congratulations - you've finished the Internet.

I'm going somewhere with this, trust me.

One of the perennial topics at the OPCW these days - and for that matter, in defence and public safety departments everywhere - is the question of chemical terrorism.  For the record, the last significant terrorist attack involving a chemical weapon occurred in 1995.  It was perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo, and featured poor-quality sarin dispersed using a remarkably ineffective methodology.  Still, 12 people were killed and 5000 sickened by the attack.

More recent incidents have been considerably less effective. On 20 February 2007, for example, a tanker truck carrying chlorine gas exploded outside of a restaurant in the Iraqi town of Taji, a predominantly Sunni settlement some twenty kilometres north of Baghdad.  While some initial reports suggested that the truck may have struck a roadside improvised explosive device (IED), the Iraqi Government subsequently confirmed that the truck had been converted into a vehicle-borne chemical IED by the addition of a small bomb located next to the pressurized chlorine tank.  Six people were killed and approximately 150 injured, both by the initial blast and by subsequent exposure to chlorine gas.  No Coalition personnel were harmed in the attack.

This latter incident had two interesting characteristics.  First, it provided evidence of the evolution of insurgent tactics in Iraq, as previous attempts to employ improvised chemical weapons had focussed either upon producing “home-made” chemical agent (which failed miserably), or making use of the detritus of Saddam’s chemical weapons programs (e.g., attempting to disperse old nerve or mustard agent shells by detonating them with external explosives - which also failed miserably).  Second, it demonstrated a far better understanding of the threat posed by common, high-production-volume toxic industrial chemicals than had hitherto been the case amongst international jihadists, who had to date focussed a great deal of time and effort attempting to produce small quantities of traditional chemical warfare agents or biological toxins, or to weaponize rare and exotic chemical compounds for use in improvised chemical weapons or explosives.   The Surge helped damp down the violence, and while IED attacks and suicide bombings have continued in Iraq and elsewhere, there have been no repetitions of the chlorine attacks.

The deadliest terrorist attack using industrial chemicals occurred on 11 September 2001, of course, and the chemical involved - aviation fuel - was fairly prosaic.  Over the course of the subsequent half-decade, a number of potential attacks were thwarted by police and domestic intelligence services throughout the Western world; few were even slightly successful.  Until the 20 February 2007 chlorine attack, the successful ones all shared one element in common: they employed manufactured chemical explosives, or used easily-obtainable chemicals to produce improvised chemical explosives.  Similarly, many of the unsuccessful attacks appeared to share certain characteristics differentiating them from more lethal and destructive events.

Makeshift CBW.  First, some of the unsuccessful attacks appeared to be disproportionately focused on employing makeshift chemical or biological weapons (CBW).  Producing, weaponizing and effectively disseminating a CBW agent requires precise application of an array of exact sciences, posing daunting challenges to amateurs.  Aum Shinrikyo, for example, carried out at least two attacks using home-made sarin nerve gas, and at least one using home-grown anthrax.  Despite access to trained scientific personnel, virtually unlimited funding, a highly permissive security environment, and lax policing by officials worried about violating the patina of religion employed by Aum to conceal their activities, the perpetrators failed to produce the intended high casualty count.  Even with the widespread proliferation, particularly via the Internet, of detailed information on the production and deployment of CBW agents, groups lacking specialized scientific expertise in the field of chemical or biological weapons appear thus far to have been unable to overcome the hurdles.

Late in 2003, for example, London police uncovered a plan by an Islamic terrorist cell to employ the biological toxin ricin in terror attacks.  Ricin, despite its ease of production and high toxicity, is difficult to disperse and is simply not an effective weapon.  Canadian, British and American scientists conducted extensive experiments with ricin in a variety of munitions and dissemination devices during and after the Second World War, eventually abandoning it in favour of the more reliable nerve agents.

"Ricinis Communis" - the Castor Bean plant

Other plots have been even more exotic.  On 6 April 2004, British police foiled what appeared to be a plot to use osmium tetroxide as a chemical weapon.  From a technical perspective, osmium tetroxide makes a poor weapon; a crystalline solid with a melting point of 42° C, it is unlikely to produce, even through sublimation, a significant vapour mass, which is the most important operational criterion for an agent designed to injure or kill through inhalation.  The other option for dissemination – formation of a respirable aerosol by explosive dissemination – is a much more challenging technical problem, and given osmium’s propensity to act as an explosive catalyst, explosive dissemination would likely cause the agent to combust and disperse quickly.  Experts in chemical toxicity consulted by the media in the wake of the arrests fell into two distinct groups: those who noted the absolute toxicity of osmium tetroxide and were very concerned by the alleged incident; and those who noted its toxicity in comparison to modern chemical warfare agents, such as Sarin or VX, or to other less toxic, but more widely available, industrial compounds, and were rather less concerned.

Osmium tetroxide - not exactly a "high production volume" chemical

Toxic industrial chemicals.  This latter group of chemical experts tended to consider the incident in the broader context of comparative hazards and risks.  There is a vast array of industrial chemicals more toxic than osmium tetroxide (or more acidic, caustic, explosive or carcinogenic), most of which are readily obtainable in far larger quantities.  Virtually all of them are also considerably cheaper.  According to one UK report, osmium tetroxide may be obtained over the internet at a price of ₤17 per gram, making it twice as expensive as pure gold (and even kilogram quantities would likely be insufficient to generate a significant toxic hazard over a large area; using it to poison people would be like a footpad bludgeoning his victims with a Faberge egg).  By contrast, less exotic industrial chemicals like hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, sulfuric acid, dimethylamine, hydrogen sulfide, phosgene and sulfur dioxide are all produced worldwide in enormous quantities, and are shipped virtually everywhere by train-car and tank-truck – including across Canadian rail and highways.

Comparative risk is the key component in analyzing the hazard posed by toxic industrial chemicals.  Osmium tetroxide – based inter alia on its toxicity (high), how often it is shipped (infrequently), how much is shipped (very small quantities) and whether it has ever featured in an industrial accident or terrorist attack (it has not) – was recently assigned an overall risk value of 6 on a scale of 1 to 15 by a joint CANUKUS scientific board.  This makes it about 1560th on a list of nearly three thousand industrial chemicals evaluated by the board.  The same group rated sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic and very common industrial chemical, as 231st and assigned it a risk value of 10, noting that it ranked as one of the ten most common chemicals involved in industrial accidents.  By way of comparison, aviation fuel is number ten on the same list; and gaseous chlorine, number two.

These and hundreds of thousands of tons of equally hazardous industrial chemicals are shipped across North America via railroad, highway and inland waterway on a daily basis.  9/11 killed thousands using aviation fuel.  The 2004 Madrid train bombings killed hundreds with conventional explosives.  A similar attack against a train traversing a major city while carrying a thousand tons – a mere five tanker cars – of chlorine, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen sulfide, dimethylamine, or an organophosphorous pesticide like parathion (or any of dozens of other highly toxic compounds) could, with a favourable wind, kill thousands.

The threat posed by toxic industrial chemicals is severe.  It would be far easier for terrorists to obtain a large quantity of a highly toxic (or for that matter, highly flammable) industrial chemical than to acquire even a few kilograms of an exotic substance like osmium tetroxide.


In view of the ready availability of large quantities of more common hazardous substances, one wonders why some terrorist groups appear to be concentrating on complex operations featuring exotic and unpredictable compounds unlikely to have the same impact as even a primitive improvised explosive device.  Either the individuals and groups planning these attacks are deluded as to the probability of success, or their motivation, goals and modi operandii differ significantly from those of their ideological brethren.  Presuming incompetence leaves no role for further analysis, though, and is in any case dangerous; a more prudent assessment may be that different organizations are following different operational philosophies.

Some groups appear to favour high-casualty operations featuring simple, proven technologies (improvised explosive devices, car bombs, hijacked aircraft) conducted by individuals prepared for and seeking martyrdom.  This approach appears to be shared by the more nihilistic of the Islamic terrorist organizations, including some Palestinian terrorist groups, the 9/11 hijackers, the various truck- and car-bombers operating in Iraq, the perpetrators of the railway blasts in Madrid and the would-be assassins of Pakistani President Musharraf.  Al Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers and numerous Palestinian terrorist organizations have enjoyed considerable success with this approach.

By contrast, other groups appear to favour a competing and thus far ineffective operational methodology – one characterized by complex operations featuring exotic substances based on unproven, experimental technologies which, even if successful, are unlikely to result in vast numbers of casualties.  The individuals caught in the course of staging these operations appear to be more likely to plan for their own escape, and may therefore be less inclined to seek “martyrdom”.  Given that these attacks appear to be perpetrated by a more educated class of individual, this may represent an inverse relationship between intelligence and willingness to become at martyr (as opposed to merely advocating martyrdom).  Additionally, in view of the fact that, notwithstanding the number of times this has been tried, a noteworthy chemical or biological attack has yet to be carried out, these groups also appear to be more likely to be caught.  In view of the fact that informants are reportedly playing a part in successful investigations, this category of attack seems to be conducted by a less dedicated class of individual – or at the very least, one reliant upon a wider network of actors, and perhaps less concerned with maintaining operational security. 

Many terrorists, of course, fall outside of this admittedly simplistic categorization.  The Bali bombers, for example, used a traditional improvised explosive approach, but apart from one member, appear to have made allowance for their own survival.  Similarly, the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States employed both an exotic agent and a delivery method highly unlikely to cause mass casualties – but this attack was carried out by a disgruntled US government employee.  And pulling it off took an employee who had high security clearance, access to virulents bioagent strains, and more than a decade's experience as a biowarfare scientist.

Our principal enemy, international jihadism, seems to be plagued by a competency gap.  Despite the jihadists' obvious interest in employing weapons of mass destruction, they appear to lack even the rudimentary skills and knowledge necessary to obtain, weaponize and effectively deliver a CBW attack.  This may be due to any (or all) of a number of factors, including:

·        the capture or killing of a significant proportion of the educated, intelligent and scientifically literate leadership during the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, and subsequent worldwide policing and security sweeps (this may be particularly true with respect to al Qaeda);

·        the loss of Afghanistan (and for Ansar al-Islam, of Iraq) as a pied-à-terre and training ground has likely forced many of the survivors into constant movement in order to avoid death or capture, preventing them from accumulating the laboratory infrastructure and stockpiles of chemicals required to stage an attack; (note A) and

·        the fall of Saddam, allied restriction of the Afghan drug trade, Libya’s renunciation of both WMD and terrorism, increasing international scrutiny of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, and the progressive tightening of controls on funding to terrorist organizations may be severely constraining their financial and logistic resources.(note B)

These and other constraints imposed by the “War on Terror” may have induced the opposition into hasty attempts to conduct ill-conceived operations.

Other explanations should also be considered.  Since 9/11, the Western media (abetted, to be sure, by government overuse of highly imaginative threat matrices) has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of apprehension, especially with respect to the potential use by terrorists of weapons of mass destruction.  The 2001 anthrax attacks in the US and the resulting panic likely taught our adversaries an important lesson regarding the susceptibility of Western publics to WMD-induced hysteria.  Indeed, this is almost certainly why Ayman al-Zawahiri once claimed that al Qaeda had acquired a “smart [nuclear] briefcase bomb” from disaffected Russian scientists.(Note C)  Given variable public sensitivity to WMD issues (and, by contrast, public indifference to industrial accidents, at least those short of the Bhopal scale), a terrorist attack that featured dispersion of an unfamiliar substance such as osmium tetroxide would be likely to generate panic to a degree that a much larger and therefore much more dangerous dispersion of a less exotic compound like caustic soda or ammonia would not.  It may therefore be useful to draw a distinction between two varieties of WMD-seeking terrorist: the calculating type hoping to terrorize in order to modify the behaviour of the target state; and the more recent, and more dangerous, Islamic nihilists, whose interest in WMD lies not in their potential to terrorize, but rather to kill large numbers of people.


We haven't seen the end of toxic terrorism.  While Osama bin Laden is no longer among the vertical, in 1998 he declared the acquisition and use of CBW a religious duty for muslims,(note D) and later requested and received a fatwa, issued by Saudi Sheikh Nasi bin-Hamid al-Fahd, condoning the use of CBRN weapons against non-Muslims.(note E)  There will be more of this, and if the jihadists see the light and focus on TICs instead of the unusual stuff, our problems are going to multiply.  The volume of chemical transfers is increasing, and new technologies like microsynthesis are making rapid production of small quantities of exotic, even supertoxic, chemicals easier than ever before.  Thus far the jihadists appear to have focused their efforts on large-scale attacks using more traditional, reliable means; but they are still trying to get their hands on supertoxic chemicals that industrialized states consider "chemical weapons."  Lack of success in this area suggests that it is probably only a matter of time until they turn their attention to the possibilities offered by the enormous volumes of toxic industrial chemicals produced and traded annually.  When they do, their operational patterns of behaviour suggest that they will eschew small-scale, exotic plans based on unpredictable, difficult-to-obtain compounds, and focus instead on large-scale, simple operations featuring hazardous chemicals that are available widely and in large quantity. 

To put it another way, crashing a VBIED into a building requires that you steal a V and build an IED.  Crashing a tanker full of toxic, caustic, acidic, flammable or explosive chemicals into a building requires only that you steal the right truck.  Combining both methods – a small bomb with a truckload of toxic chemicals – could greatly magnify the impact of such an attack, especially if operationally-savvy terrorists researched the properties of the chemicals they planned to steal, and made the most of geographic and meteorological conditions to conduct a release at the most damaging time and place.  This isn't rocket science; militaries have been doing it since 1915.

Accidental chlorine tanker derailment, Graniteville S.C., January 2005
5000 evacuated, 1450 hospitalized, 550 injured, 9 killed

Western nations should be exploring why the competent jihadists have yet to pursue this course of action.  The answer might tell us how much time we have before they figure it out.  Instead, what are we doing?  Worrying about exotic threats like ricin, osmium tetroxide, and whether a bunch of guys who haven't been able to figure out how to release chlorine as effectively as the Germans did at St. Julien are going to be able to cook up a batch of VX in somebody's bathtub without poisoning themselves first.  Those kinds of exotic threats are sexy, and they attract all sorts of press and (therefore) CT funding; but they're unrealistic, and they're nowhere near as potentially damaging as one guy who nabs a truck carrying chlorine, caustic soda or propane, and slams it into the Centre Block.  If the 20 February 2007 chlorine attack is any indication, maybe they're already starting to get it.

Which brings me back to the photo montage at the beginning of this message, and its disturbing deduction about the topology of the theoretical Hitler-Worf facial hair overlap.  My point is simple, and is applicable to separating realistic threats of chemical terrorism from wild-eyed fantasies about homemade VX and osmium tetroxide bombs: just because something is technically possible, that doesn't mean it's likely




A) Quillen notes, “Clearly, the al-Qaeda CBRN programs that existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban were at least temporarily disrupted by the 2001 US-led invasion”.  Chris Quillen, “Three Explanations for al-Qaeda’s Lack of a CBRN Attack”, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 5, No. 3 (15 February 2007).

B) That said, unless one is trying to legitimately purchase large quantities of highly expensive compounds such as osmium tetroxide, the resources required to stage a successful chemical attack are not great.

C) No such proliferation occurred, and indeed, it is questionable whether such a weapon ever existed.

D) Bin Laden’s declaration was delivered in the course of an interview with Jamal Isma’il in December 1998.  It was rebroadcast by al-Jazeera in September 2001.

E) Shiekh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd, “A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels”, May 2003 [http://www.carnegieendowment.org/static/npp/ fatwa.pdf].