Chlorine Gas Attacks: Paradigm in Unconventional Terror

By David Eshel

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Last Friday's triple chlorine-gas suicide attacks that hit Fallujah, Ramadi and Amiria, almost simultaneously, sent shockwaves all over Iraq, raising the specter of further widespread use of chemical weapons by terrorist groups in Iraq and the entire region. The brutal attack by suspected al Qaeda suicide bombers also sent a chilling message to Sunni tribal leaders who have rebuffed the Islamic terrorists. By blowing up three consecutive following trucks loaded with chlorine-laden explosives in three of al Qaeda‘s notorious hotbeds in the western Iraqi Anbar province: Falluja, Amiria and Ramadi, the terrorists signaled their determination to bring their Jihad onto new terrifying horizons. In all three attacks, eight people died and over 500 suffered severe toxic casualties. The attacks were coordinated, so that all three happened within half an hour, causing chaos among rescue services, coping with chemical injuries.

Decontamination team  work on a US Army truck during an exercise
In fact, last week's attacks were not the first in Iraq, in which terrorist used chemical weapons material: The first attack happened on January 28 in Ramadi, when several trucks, each containing small quantities of explosives mixed with chlorine gas exploded among a crowd, killing 16 people and wounding several dozens. Less than one month later, a similar attack was staged in Baghdad, in which five people died and over a hundred were wounded. That same day US forces found two chlorine factories in Karma and Fallujah in Al Anbar province. The troops discovered a pickup truck and three other vehicles that were being prepared as car bombs. But this capture did not prevent last Friday's brutal attack.

While the use of chlorine gas in suicide terror attacks seemed entirely novel, many groups, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, have attempted to combine suicide attacks with crude chemical and biological components.

Chlorine gas was among the first chemical weapons to be used as a weapon in modern warfare. On April 15, 1915, German forces released about 160 tons of chlorine gas into the wind near the Belgian village of Ypres. The clouds of the gas drifted into Allied forces, killing some 5,000 soldiers. Two days later, another chlorine attack at the same village killed thousands more soldiers.

Later the Germans developed a new class of chemical weapon called nerve agents, which interfere with the body's transmission of nerve impulses. During the 1930s and 1940s, agents such as Tabun, Sarin, and Soman were created, members of what is known as the G series of nerve agents. Among these, Sarin is particularly lethal; a small amount absorbed through the skin can kill a man within two minutes. Developed in Germany as a chemical weapon by Gerhard Schrader and others for the Nazis in 1938, Sarin has no color and no odor and is difficult to detect by regular means. It is 500 times more deadly than the traditional killer agent, cyanide. When Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq on March 1988 he used sarin. Many thousand innocent people died a horrifying death.

Chemical warfare research continued during the Cold War tensions in the 1950s. During this time, military chemists in the United Kingdom and then in the United States adapted insecticides to produce the most lethal chemical agent then known. The agent was code named VX. The potency of VX was accidentally demonstrated in 1968, when a testing accident at the VX manufacturing plant in Dugway, Utah killed over 6,000 sheep. Later, an examination of caves in Afghanistan that were used as strongholds by the terrorist group al Qaeda has revealed evidence of stores of Sarin and VX.

A first officially recorded terrorist attack with chemical weapons material happened in Japan in the early nineties. In April of 1990, the group used a fleet of three trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to release liquid botulinum toxin on the Imperial Palace, the Diet and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and two U.S. naval bases and the airport in Narita. Four years later, in 1994, a secret group known under the name of Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") used a van equipped with a Sarin dispenser to attempt to kill three judges hearing a case against the group. The judges, who all lived in the same dormitory, survived the attack when the wind blew the Sarin away from the building, but seven people in the neighborhood were killed.

In the United States, chemical terrorism was first discovered when Ramzi Yousef added cyanide to the explosives which he used to detonate beneath the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. Six people were killed and 1,000 were injured. The cyanide was destroyed in the explosion. If it had survived the blast, the casualty count would have been higher.

But then the actions of the notorious Aum Shinrikyo group drew widespread attention to chemical terror hazards after it perpetrated the infamous Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. In five coordinated attacks, the conspirators released sarin gas on several lines of the Tokyo Metro system. The attack was directed against trains passing through Kasumigaseki and Nagaracho neighborhoods, home to the Japanese government offices. The message sent was crystal clear: Years before the events of 9/11, Aum Shinrikyo had already unleashed fears of extreme "mega terror". Led by a religious mystic, Shoko Asahara a messianic figure the Aum Shinrikyo cult claimed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva, and promised to lead his followers to salvation when impending Armageddon arrived. And Australia was not to be spared either. In 1997, a serial bomber detonated several chemical bombs containing chlorine across Sidney’s eastern suburbs that injured some three dozen people.

But while the use of chlorine gas in suicide terror attacks seemed entirely novel, many groups, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, have attempted to combine suicide attacks with crude chemical and biological components for some time.

According to Israeli intelligence officials Hamas had first added pesticides and other poisonous chemicals to homemade bombs in 1997. The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported on December 9, 2001, that a bomb exploding in Jerusalem during the previous week contained nails and bolts that had been dipped into rat poison, most of which, however, burned in the explosion. Furthermore, indictments against Palestinian terrorist operatives revealed that both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) attempted to use cyanide for terrorist attacks against Israelis on several occasions. According to an indictment against Abbas Sayyid, who headed Hamas’ military arm in Tulkarm, Sayyid planned to use cyanide in the attacks on the Sharon shopping mall and the Park Hotel in Netanya in May 2001 and March 2002, respectively. An indictment filed in May 2004 against Anas Hatnawi, a member of PIJ in Jenin, revealed similar plans to use cyanide in suicide attacks against Israelis.

Then in late 2001, a virtual bombshell roused US intelligence agents, when documents captured in the ruins of the bombed-out Derunta camps in Afghanistan, run by the infamous Midhat Mursi (aka Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar) which revealed massive evidence of such doomsday material. Sixty-four videotapes including precise instructions as to the use of Sarin gas displayed horrendous photos showing experiments with dogs dying of gas.

Back in Europe, terrorists first planned to use chemical warfare against political targets in the early 2000. In February, 2001, the group had planned to launch a nerve gas attack upon the European Parliament building in Strasbourg; the gas chosen by Al-Qaeda for use on the European Parliament was Sarin.

On December 16, 2003 hundreds of French police raided the Cité des 4000 housing estate in the suburbs of Paris. Twenty-nine-year old French-Algerian Marwan Ben-Ahmed (aka Merouane Benhamed) was arrested with a stash of chemicals to manufacture explosives and two empty canisters. The man had intended to fill the propane canisters with toxic chemicals for an attack on political institutions. One of his associates was Rabah Kadri, who had been arrested on November 5, 2002, suspected of plotting a chemical attack upon the London Underground. On March 30, 2004, six people who belonged to the Islamist group Al Muhajiroun were arrested in Britain with plans to employ the highly toxic chemical Osmium Tetroxide for a chemical attack against either Gatwick airport or the London underground. One month later, In April 2004, 20 tons of chemical weaponry were discovered in Jordan, including Sarin gas. The presence of these chemicals in Jordan was part of a plot by Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists to attack the headquarters of Jordanian Intelligence Services, located on a hill in Western Amman. The mastermind of this plot was claimed to be the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born arch-terrorist, terrorizing Iraq for years until killed by an air strike last summer.

The first recorded terrorist attack using chemical weapons IEDs in Iraq happened in May 2004 when a roadside bomb in Iraq was detonated, containing two precursors of Sarin. After they handled shrapnel, two soldiers were mildly affected by the small amount of Sarin that the bomb produced. The bomb had been made using a 152mm artillery shell. Later, at least 12 similar artillery shells containing Sarin and mustard gas, had been found by troops in hidden weapons caches in Iraq. All this proved clearly that the path from street chemistry IEDs to improvised chemical devices was indeed very short.

Meanwhile in Israel, this week, the IDF Home front Command's most extensive exercises nationwide civil defense drill featured a response to a simulated chemical mega-terror strike at a school in Ramat Gan. The scenario envisioned a group of terrorists breaking into the school and attacking with a chemical that caused severe physical symptoms. Special Forces using sophisticated decontamination equipment were rushed to the scene and carried out mass casualty emergency evacuation to hospitals. The drill, performed under realistic combat conditions presented a chilling scenario, of what could be in store; if terrorists decided to revert to mass casualty mega-terror attacks with non-conventional, such as chemical weapons.

Read David Eshel's past commentary here

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