Chemical Weapons: Looking Beyond States

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Written by Justin Leopold-Cohen 

Chemical weapons are in the news once again, accompanied by a flurry of outrage over their use. This has rekindled the fear of terrorists getting hold of such weapons, and their devastating effects, but the facts of the matter are that terrorists actually use chemicals in their attacks all too frequently. The world just fails to notice.

On April 4th 2017, in the midst of the six-year-long Syrian Civil War, that country’s northern Idlib province was subjected to a chemical attack. This attack, believed to consist of the nerve agent, Sarin, was indiscriminate in its targeting of women and children, leaving a death toll of almost 90, and injuring dozens of others. Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied instigating this attack, and claimed such reports were a “fabrication,” the outrage over the use of internationally banned weapons spurred American President Donald Trump to order U.S. warships stationed off the Syrian coastline to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian al Shayrat airfield, a suspected launch point and housing facility for Assad’s chemical arsenal.

Though conventional weapons have been far more deadly in this particular conflict, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the use of chemical weapons is universally considered such a brutal, barbaric action that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer controversially stated that not even Adolf Hitler resorted to using chemical weapons. Spicer has since realized the gravity of the statement and apologized, given that it was Hitler who led Nazi Germany into the orchestration of the genocide of 6 million of Europe’s Jewish population in specially constructed gas chambers.

The taboo nature regarding the use of chemical weapons is held by essentially the whole of the international community.  There are 192 nations that are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the international treaty agreeing to the prohibition of chemical weapons. This list still includes Syria.

The CWC, however, applies only to states (and sometimes not even then, as Syria has so demonstrated.) However, there are violent actors in the world today that are non-states. These Violent Non State Actors (VNSAs) are made up of “any organization or armed groups that adopt illegal violence to attain its goals”– think drug cartels, arms smugglers, organized crime and of course terrorists.

The fear of terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons is not new; in fact, it has motivated much of the United States’ actions in Syria. However, this fear of chemical terrorism is limited to the CWC list,  “schedules 1, 2 and 3 in its Annex on Chemicals.” These categories refer to the more advanced chemicals such as the Sarin agent used in Syria.

This fear is perhaps, unfounded because, as far as schedule 1, 2, and 3 chemicals, most evidence of terrorist acquisition is based not on any use, but rather that certain groups have expressed interest.  The truth is, when it comes to terrorist attacks, conventional weapons are easier to obtain, and easier to use.

In the history of terrorism, the only time a terrorist group has managed to weaponize a chemical and use it in an attack, was in the mid 1990’s, when the violent Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, attacked the Tokyo subway system with Sarin, killing 12 and injuring approximately 6000 others. While the impact was massive, the same visceral reaction that sparked the United States missile strike, put the Japanese law enforcement on the war path, resulting in the arrest of the bulk of Aum Shinrikyo’s members, and causing the group to largely fall apart. Since then, no other terrorist group has had the same success (thankfully), as did Aum Shinrikyo, in regards to schedule 1, 2, and 3 chemical attacks.

However, if one were to search through the renowned Global Terrorism Database (GTD), operated by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which contains information on terrorist incidents between 1970-2015, one would find 321 such incidents—occurring in Afghanistan, India, Israel, the United States, and Columbia, to name just a few locations. In fact, the data suggests a steady uptick over the last few years.

How could this be? If 1995 marked the last reported terrorist usage of chemical weapons, how could there be 25 additional incidents in 2015 alone? Well, that is because the GTD does not follow the schedule 1,2, and 3 policy, as does the CWC, and instead includes any weaponized chemical used in a terrorist attack. That includes the Molotov Cocktail attack on employees of the Transportation Security Agency in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2015, as well as the Neo-Nazi “irritant gas” attack in Pasewalk, Germany in 2004.

Though the lethality of these chemicals does not match that of the high-grade weapons that state actors are capable of using, their more common (and unfortunately, more frequent) usage makes them noteworthy when examining terrorist usage of chemical weapons. The GTD data shows a definitive rise in such usage, too. Plus, even after the database ends in 2015, current events show low-grade chemical weapon usage cropping up again and again, in terrorist attacks. For example:

  • On April 12th, 2017, in Jakarta, Indonesia, it was reported that a government investigator was victim to an acid attack, which is being called a “form of terror.”
  • On February 12th 2017, at the Hamburg Airport in Germany, 68 people were injured, hundreds evacuated, and more than a dozen flights cancelled after a chemical substance determined to be pepper spray got into the ventilation system.
  • On January 4th, 2017, after a stabbing of 3 Israeli students in the Nablus area of Jerusalem, Israel, Molotov Cocktails were thrown at police responders.

Recent events clearly show terrorists are dabbling more and more in low-grade forms of chemical weapons. What makes these materials attractive to a would-be attacker is that they are cheap, lethal, and the materials are generally legally obtainable. Plus, they seldom warrant suspicion (unlike firearms or explosives). Accordingly, these low-grade chemical attacks should be higher on the radar of counter-terrorism agencies. While everyone should remain cautious of a Sarin attack from a terrorist group, there also should be concern about pepper spray, petrol, tear gas, and lye, all of which are easy to purchase, easy to use, are not suspicious—and still can be lethal enough to cause sizable number of casualties.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, any other government or institution.  

About the author: Justin Leopold-Cohen completed his undergraduate degree in American History from Clark University. He later interned with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political and Military Analysis. Justin is currently involved in graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, nearing the completion of a Master’s Degree in Global Security Studies.