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Terrorism: Chemical Terrorism


As noted in the previous section, the toxicity of chemical agents generally falls somewhere in-between that of the more deadly biological agents and that of conventional weapons, or at the lower end of the scale for weapons of mass destruction. For example, Kupperman and Trent estimate that, based on "the weight required to produce heavy casualties within a square-mile area under idealized conditions," fuel-air explosives require 320 million grams; fragmentation cluster bombs, 32 million; hydrocyanic acid, 32 million; mustard gas, 3.2 million; GB nerve gas, 800,000; a "crude" nuclear weapon (in terms of fissionable material only), 5,000; Type A botulinal toxin, 80; and anthrax spores, 8 (Kupperman and Trent 1979: 57). Similarly, it has been estimated that it would take 100 grams of the "V" nerve agent, or almost 40 pounds of potassium cyanide, to have an effect on a water supply equivalent to just one gram of typhoid culture (SCJ 1990: 3-4). Put another way, to incapacitate or kill a person drinking less than half a cup of untreated water from a 5 million-liter reservoir would require no less than 10 tons of potassium cyanide, compared to just 1/2 kg of Salmonella typhi (OTA 1991: 52).

As in the case of biological agents, different types of chemical agents vary considerably in their lethality. Of the two principal categories of chemical toxins, fluoroacetates and organophosphorous compounds, the latter are widely considered the more lethal64. At one end of the scale is DFP (diisopropyl fluorophosphate), described as a "relatively mild poison" (Mullen 1978: 69). Another possible chemical agent, the organophosphate TEPP, is the most toxic of the commercially available insecticides (Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 224). The nerve agent sarin, on the other hand, when taken orally, is ten times as toxic as TEPP to humans; according to Berkowitz et al.: "a small quantity of Sarin splashed on the skin is likely to produce a vapor concentration high enough to exceed the inhalation LD50 [mean lethal inhalatory dose] with a single breath" (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VIII-25).65 They go on:

In the open, six pounds of Sarin distributed by a three pound burster charge at a height of 15 feet creates a dosage of 3500 mg min/m3 20 yards from the burst within ten seconds; in 25 seconds, the cloud expands to a 50 yard radius with a minimum dosage of 100 mg min/m3 (Robinson, 1967). A minute after the burst, anyone in an area of over 70,000 square feet around the burst will have received at least a median lethal dose, and probably much more than that. In a confined space (banquet hall, auditorium), the effects will be even greater. (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VIII-25)

Far more toxic again are the V-agents; "VX, when inhaled, is ten times as toxic as sarin, but dermally it is 300 times as toxic" (Kupperman and Trent 1979: 6566). According to Douglass and Livingstone, "The amount of VX (a nerve agent) that one can place on the head of a pin is sufficient to produce death in a human being" (1987: 17)67. Livingstone reports that "In tests conducted by the army, one drop of VX absorbed through the skin was enough to kill a dog" (1982: 110).

Also as in the case of biological agents, it would be equally misleading to extrapolate directly from individual lethal doses to estimates of casualties from mass attacks, given the need for effective delivery. As Mengel notes:

The ability of terrorists to employ chemical technologies is more dependent upon the target characteristics, the availability of the poisons, and the requirement for an effective delivery and dissemination means than upon the chemicals' intrinsic toxicity....the use of chemical agents would result in the fewest casualties [of all categories of weapons of mass destruction] because of the necessity for unique target vulnerability and the difficulty associated with dissemination. (1976: 446)

Similarly, Mullen maintains that "by any measure, it does not seem credible that a chemical threat could be mounted that could result in the magnitude of destruction potentially possible with nuclear or biological have some probability of success in causing thousands of casualties in a military operation, even so-called nerve gas gases must be dispersed in quantities of hundreds to thousands of kilograms" (1978: 78, 83).

Chemical weapons such as nerve agents are generally credited with being capable of causing casualties in the range of hundreds to a few thousand (Kupperman and Trent 1979: 63 and 84; Kupperman and Woolsey 1988: 5; Mengel 1976: 446). A few authors put the total much higher, in the same range as for biological or even nuclear weapons. Thus, for example, Douglass and Livingstone write that "Four tons of VX is enough to cause several hundred thousand deaths if released in aerosol form in a crowded urban area" (1987: 17). Clark goes even further, stating that "A canister [of VX] dropped from any tall building or sprayed over a large city from a private plane would kill millions" (1980: 110)68. However, most authors appear to agree with Berkowitz et al. that "even with the best chemical agents available, if the attack effort is kept within the bounds of reason, its impact probably cannot exceed exposure of a few thousand target individuals at one time" (1972: IX-7).69 Berkowitz et al. conclude: "Therefore, this is one of the lesser superviolent threats, but its small resource requirements and the great availability of necessary skills must be kept in mind" (1972: IX-7).

The final characteristic of chemical agents that should be noted here is that, in contrast to biological agents, their effects can be virtually instantaneous. In Mullen's words: "Death from organophosphate poisoning may be so rapid that the afflicted individual may be entirely unaware of what is happening" (1978: 71). According to another source, a one-milligram dose of a nerve agent "can usually kill within 15 minutes" (Joyner 1990: 137).

Putative Advantages of Chemical Weapons

Despite not being as toxic as the most lethal biological agents, chemical weapons have certain other advantages that may make them more attractive to terrorists. A number of authors maintain that they are cheaper than biological agents (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 12-13; Alexander 1983: 229; Mullins 1992: 116). For example, Livingstone cites one estimate that "the cost of producing 1,000 kg of GB (nerve agent), based on small laboratory purchases of raw materials, would be in the neighborhood of $200,000" (1986: 143).70 On the other hand, Douglass and Livingstone appear to contradict themselves later in citing a 1969 estimate that, "for a large-scale operation against a civilian population," casualties might cost about $600 per square kilometre with nerve-gas weapons, as compared to just $1 with biological weapons (1987: 16). There can be no doubt, of course, that the manufacture of chemical weapons would be much less expensive than the manufacture of nuclear weapons, for terrorists or for anyone else.

It has also been said that chemical agents are "easier to use" than biological agents (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 12). This rather vague claim could refer to a number of different aspects. Among those noted by Douglass and Livingstone are their "stability" and the fact that they are "more containable," easily dispersed, and "controllable" ("inasmuch as they are not contagious") (1987: 12-13). Alexander agrees that "their delivery systems are manageable, and their dispersal techniques are efficient" (1983: 229); Mullins that "dispersal is easy and widespread," as well as being "fairly easy to control" (1992: 116). On this latter point Mullins elaborates: "The use of chemical agents could be controlled to a much greater extent than could nuclear or biological agents. The delivery of chemical agents could be accomplished with exact precision, thus insuring that only the target audience was affected" (1992: 111, 116). On the other hand, Mengel argues that, by comparison to biological agents, "chemical technologies...are practically limited by delivery problems" (1976: 446). The issue of deliverability will be dealt with at greater length below.

In contrast to what was said above about the effects of some chemical agents being virtually instantaneous, Mullins maintains that "One major advantage of chemical agents over nuclear devices or biological agents is that by using the right chemicals, any effects could be delayed for a period of time. That is, the agent could be dispersed and it could be days or weeks before any effects appeared" (1992: 111). Why this should be greater in the case of chemical than of biological weapons is unclear. In any case, it is presumably at least partly on this basis that Mullins goes on to cite another putative advantage in using chemical weapons, that "there is minimal risk of detection" (1992: 116)71. Perhaps also related to this factor (or to that of "controllability," in the sense of being non-contagious), Mullins also states that chemical agents "offer low risk for usage" (1992: 116).

In discussing the presumed advantages of chemical weapons, Mullins appears to contradict himself on another point, however. On the one hand, he argues:

Another advantage chemical agents have over biological agents is that the active life of chemical agents is longer than that of biological agents. Not only do chemical agents last longer on the shelf (unless of course the biological agent is frozen or put into some other form of suspended animation), they last longer in the field. VX nerve gas can remain active anywhere from 3 to 16 weeks, depending upon climatic conditions. Thus, it is not necessary that the target audience come into immediate contact with the chemical agent. (1992: 111)72

However, Mullins goes on to cite as an additional advantage of chemical agents that "most chemical agents rapidly disperse. Thus, the target area would be clear for the terrorists to enter at a later date" (1992: 116). Apart from the apparent internal contradiction here, again it is unclear whether chemical agents would necessarily have an advantage over biological agents in these respects, either of quick dispersal or of relative longevity; presumably it would depend on the particular agent in question. Both chemical and biological agents would certainly appear to have an advantage over nuclear weapons of mass destruction in allowing for comparatively early access to the site of the event, although it is unclear whether this would be more to the benefit of the terrorists or of counter-terrorist forces.73

Douglass and Livingstone have also referred to the relative "ease of manufacture" of chemical, as compared to biological, agents (1987: 13)74. At the same time, however, in another apparent contradiction, they argue that "Whereas chemical weapons require a 'moderately advanced chemical technique,' the raw materials for a biological weapon are readily accessible in most countries and should present little difficulty to terrorists" (1987: 23). Alexander simply describes chemical weapons as "relatively easy to obtain" (1983: 229), thus leaving open the question of manufacture or acquisition by other means. As to the latter point, Ye. Primakov, the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, has noted that "an additional temptation for the employment of chemical weapons for terrorist purposes is the rather wide employment of toxic substances by the police and special purpose forces of a number of countries" (1993: 5). It is unclear here, however, whether Primakov is referring to the opportunities thereby created for the theft of such material, or rather to the precedent of its being used. Regarding the first of these alternatives, Mullins suggests that, due to the putatively lower level of security surrounding chemical weapons storage sites as compared to nuclear or biological facilities, chemical agents would be the easiest to steal (1992: 109).

In their assessment of the comparative advantages of chemical and biological agents for terrorist use, Kupperman and Trent note that "there is limited commercial availability of deadly pathogens. Moreover, the growth, care, and dispersion of biological agents require more technological sophistication than does the dispensing of chemicals" (1979: 85). Similarly, Mengel refers to chemical agents as "[r]equiring the least amount of resources to manufacture of the technologies examined" (1976: 446). On the other hand, Hurwitz avers, without further elaboration, that "It may be even easier for terrorists to acquire biological weapons than it would be for them to acquire chemical weapons" (1982: 38). Mullins appears to agree with this assessment by locating "chemical terrorism" "on the continuum midway between the technology required to manufacture a nuclear device, and the ease of using biological agents" (1992: 108).

Clearly, there remains disagreement among the authors consulted as to the relative merits for terrorists of chemical and biological agents. Mullins, perhaps the biggest "booster" of chemical agents, declares that "For NBC Terrorism, chemicals are the ideal weapon....Chemical agents...offer the greatest probability of success....It is believed that the most serious threat from NBC terrorism comes from chemical agents" (1992: 116). Similarly, Thornton maintains that "theft or production of a nuclear device is exceptionally difficult and biologicals are inherently unpredictable; therefore, chemical weapons present the terrorist with the best range of possible options" (1987: 6)75. Mullen, by contrast, argues that, compared to biological weapons, "the mounting of a credible clandestine mass destruction threat...would appear more difficult with potential chemical agents" (1978: 78). Similarly, in their detailed study of the subject, with reference to mass destruction, Berkowitz et al. conclude "that chemical poisons represent a relatively ineffectual threat, but that the nuclear weapon and the biological pathogens constitute threats of comparable seriousness with the latter the more practicable of the two" (1972: VIII-89). Later, they explain: "Attack with toxic chemicals offers the terrorist many options with only small resource requirements, but coupled with this is strong dependence on specific target vulnerabilities, severe problems associated with agent dissemination, and a net impact very much less than can be achieved with a nuclear weapon even in the best situations" (1972: IX-5). If the comparative advantages of chemical and biological agents are not always clearcut, however, those between chemical and biological weapons on the one hand, and nuclear weapons on the other, in regard to such aspects as ease of manufacture or other acquisition, as well as selectivity in targeting, appear obvious.

Finally, some advantages of biological agents outlined in the previous section may well apply equally to chemical agents. These may include, for example, indetectability to traditional anti-terrorist sensor systems (Root-Bernstein 1991: 50), whether for interdiction or for early warning of (and hence protection against) an attack (Kupperman and Trent 1979: 89)76; the lack of a "signature," thus allowing for the possibility of anonymous attacks (OTA 1992: 37); confining the damage to human beings or other living things, leaving other material and structures intact (Wiener 1991b: 65; Joyner 1990: 136); and, notwithstanding Mengel's attempt to distinguish between chemical and biological agents in this respect, their adaptability to demonstration attacks on small, isolated targets, while retaining the capacity of a more devastating attack (Mengel 1976: 446).

Requisite Capabilities

Many of the observations made above in respect to the capacity of terrorists to produce biological agents apply equally as well to chemical agents. Virtually all authors emphasize how easy it would be to obtain the relevant information from the open literature, acquire the necessary chemicals, and prepare the agent (Barnaby 1992: 85). On the first point, for example, it is often noted that both the US and Britain have declassified (and, according to some accounts, "widely published") the formula for making VX nerve gas (Clark 1980: 110; Thornton 1987: 7). According to Kupperman and Trent, "its method of preparation was first published by the British Patent Office" (1979: 65). Mullen adds that "Enough information has appeared also in the U.S. press to deduce both the formula and the preparatory routes to its manufacture" (1978: 71). Alexander quotes a 1978 report that "terrorists wanting to make deadly nerve gases can still find the formulas at the British Library despite attempts by the Government to remove them from public access" (1981: 346, quoting The Observer (London) of 19 November 1978). Douglass and Livingstone, in their characteristically sweeping manner, declare:

Formulas for manufacturing nerve agents, mustard gas, LSD, and herbicides are readily available in various scientific texts. In 1971, the [US] Defense Department itself declassified the formula for VX, its most potent nerve agent. A publication entitled, C-Agents: Properties and Protection, produced by the Swedish Armed Forces Research Institute, even describes in detail how to launch a gas attack, including formulae for calculating wind speed and lethal concentrations of the agent. (1987: 16-17)

Ponte reports that "England and the United States declassified the formula for making VX nerve gas in 1971, and the United States read it into the widely published record of the Geneva disarmament conference." He adds:

The British, meanwhile, have also made public the patent for a related V-agent nerve gas, VM, which could have special appeal to technoterrorists such as the members of RISE. This published patent tells what chemicals to add to a small pond to create VM in the water. Once such chemicals are added, the concentration of lethal VM nerve gas in the pond 'continues to increase with time,' according to the document, which is available in patent libraries throughout the world.

Other publicly available British patents reveal how to manufacture toxins, mind-altering chemicals, and various explosives.... (1980: 53)

Elsewhere, Ponte recounts an incident where "At a 1969 teach-in in England a professor scrawled the formula for making VX on a blackboard in front of hundreds of radical students, and thereafter it was widely circulated" (1977: 79).

Mullen, in referring to the availability in the open literature of information concerning chemical agents, states that "There are literally tens of thousands of professional papers, monographs, and books in this literature. A trained clandestine adversary has virtually at his fingertips, at almost any university library, all the information he would need to synthesize toxic chemical agents from raw materials or intermediates" (1978: 67).

As for the actual manufacture of agents, Hurwitz explains:

It's relatively easy to make violently toxic nerve agents because the techniques by which they are made are similar to those used for insecticides, and in some cases may simply involve taking as intermediate products insecticides or other chemicals that can be purchased commercially and putting them through one additional chemical reaction. The equipment needed and the chemicals are readily available from chemical supply houses. And the chemical procedures used are described in dozens of articles available in the open literature. (1982:38)

Kupperman and Trent also note that "Relatively small changes in chemical structure can produce an order-of-magnitude change in toxicity" (1979:64). Mullins begins his discussion of the subject on a cautionary note: "The development and use of chemicals would require the terrorists to have some technological sophistication. Very few of the chemical agents terrorists would be likely to use are naturally occurring....Most chemical agents would have to be produced in the laboratory." However, he goes on to disparage the level of technical expertise required: "With a basic working knowledge of chemistry, however, this would not be a difficult task for the terrorist. One of the deadliest chemicals known, VX Nerve Gas, can be produced with books from the local library, and requires no special materials or knowledge. Ball-point pen ink is only one chemical step removed from Sarin" (1992: 108-9)77. The OTA suggests that the relatively low level of expertise required should not be surprising in view of the long history of the subject, noting that "classical chemical munitions and delivery technology were used effectively in World War I, some 75 years ago, and were further developed by several nations by the time of World War II" (1991: 32). Lowell Ponte describes how "Crude World War I poison gases can be made from common commercial ingredients or even from items around the home. Want deadly chlorine gas of exactly the type that killed doughboys in the trenches of France? Just put Drano and Clorox liquid bleach in a bottle together, shake and run for your life" (1977: 79)78.

Despite the relative ease of manufacture of chemical agents, a number of authors warn that it can be a hazardous undertaking. Kupperman and Trent, for example, while noting that "a moderately competent organic chemist, with limited laboratory facilities, can synthesize sarin and VX," caution that "The operation would not be without considerable personal risk" (1979: 65). Douglass and Livingstone elaborate on this point at greatest length:

...terrorists and other malefactors run clear risks in attempting to produce C/B agents.... Published chemical formulae and instructions are often inadequate because the so-called 'alchemist's art' is deliberately left out....Some instructions are even published with deliberate 'errors' included—slight errors in quantity, or temperature, or process that have been sophisticatedly designed to cause serious problems for the amateur, or more specifically, for the untrained terrorist. (1987: 17)

Of course, certain types of chemical agents would be more difficult to produce and use than others. Douglass and Livingstone, for example, state: "though the more sophisticated nerve agents are difficult and dangerous to manufacture, there are many varieties that are no more difficult to make than insect sprays and, subsequently, relatively easy to weaponize" (1987: 12). Indeed, Mengel suggests that insecticides themselves could be used as terrorist weapons (1976: 455). Of the two principal categories of chemical agents, it is the generally less toxic fluoroacetates that would be easiest to produce, according to Mullen:

The chemicals and equipment necessary for such preparation are easily purchased; their purchase should not arouse any suspicions concerning their ultimate use; and...fluoroacetate compounds with much greater specific toxicity than, for example, commercial compounds based on sodium fluoroacetate, may be prepared for use in chemical weapons.

The initial steps in fluoroacetate synthesis are quite simple and straightforward, and will yield materials directly utilizable as toxic chemicals. Such processes are outlined in moderate detail in undergraduate organic chemistry text books. (1978: 68)

For more toxic compounds, according to Mullen,

The preparation..., while somewhat more difficult than that of the simpler fluoroacetates, would present no unique challenge to a trained chemist.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of 8-fluorooctanoic acid contains 5,000 potentially lethal doses. A single individual could easily produce several tens of kilograms of this material in a few weeks of part-time effort. Producing a million lethal doses is largely a matter of time. (1978: 68)

Berkowitz et al. generally agree with this assessment, while positing a somewhat lengthier production period:

...the processes involved in making toxic compounds are the standard ones of practicing organic chemists; the ultimate terrorist intent has no bearing on the problem. Aside from the special care needed in handling toxic materials and in cleaning-up after each batch synthesis is completed, the operation would look no different than those which are conducted daily in thousands of industrial, government and university chemical laboratories. If such facilities are available to the terrorist, his problems are minimized. If not, he might set himself up as an apparently legitimate, small business; rent himself a shop provided with water, sewage, and electricity; and set up a laboratory scale operation. Aside from salary, his annual expenses, including laboratory equipment and supplies, would undoubtedly be less than $10,000, and would permit him to easily produce tens of kilograms of toxic material per year working a leisurely 40-hour week. It should be emphasized that this could easily be a one-man operation, and that the estimate takes into account the usual kinds of minor laboratory accidents, breakage, and lost batches. (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VIII-20)

Turning to the organophosphates, Mullen notes that, though "less common or absent from normal commercial channels," they "could be manufactured in a clandestine laboratory":

For example, Sarin can be synthesized in a small laboratory in quantities sufficient to cause thousands of deaths, presuming efficient dispersal of the agent, for a modest investment in chemicals and laboratory supplies. The starting chemicals are available commercially, syntheses processes are in the open literature, and the appropriate laboratory ware available from almost any laboratory supply house. The preparative schemes (and there are several) for synthesizing 100g quantities of Sarin could be considered tedious; they do involve hydrofluoric acid, a difficult acid to handle, but these procedures are well within the capabilities of an organic chemist with some graduate training. As, it may be added, are the procedures for the synthesis of Tabun, an organophosphate more toxic than Sarin.

A variety of V-agents may be prepared with somewhat more difficulty than that required to manufacture Sarin. More steps are involved; the procedure more hazardous due to the nature of some of the intermediate products and the final product, but again the processes are well within the capabilities of a graduate chemist. (1978: 71-2)

Unlike the case with biological agents, there appears to be a widespread consensus on the level of skill required for the production of a chemical agent: namely, that of a graduate student in chemistry (Clark 1980: 110; Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 223; Mullen 1978: 72; Hurwitz 1982: 38).79 In this regard, many authors refer to the need for nothing more than a "moderately competent chemist" (Kupperman and Trent 1979: 64; Barnaby 1992: 85-6), or even "any competent scientist" (Clark 1980: 110). There does, however, appear to be some difference of opinion over whether a single individual is likely to be capable of both producing a chemical weapon and employing it effectively in a terrorist attack. According to Mengel,

Construction and employment of high technology involving chemical agents are not extremely difficult for a trained chemist or toxicologist....A consensus among the chemists queried is that one knowledgeable individual could legally purchase all the supplies and equipment necessary, and establish a laboratory operation that probably could produce more than 10 kilograms of toxic agent per year, depending on the specific type. Thus, for a few thousand dollars in supplies, extensive dedication in terms of time, and a small facility, a knowledgeable individual could have the basic ingredients necessary to kill thousands of people.

However, he goes on:

Probably more difficult and risky for the terrorist is the fabrication of a satisfactory dispersal device and actual dispersal....the opportunity for operational testing is limited....Three to five persons would be necessary to set up the device and insure that it is working prior to departure. Information on the target, specifically building heating and air conditioning systems, is highly significant.... trained individual could make and employ chemical agents. However, for any one person to be knowledgeable in the technical aspects as well as the operational considerations of target analysis, methods of attack, placement of the device, security, and escape is extremely unlikely. Second, it is unlikely that a terrorist with the requisite tactical expertise would also possess the skills necessary to successfully manufacture chemical agents. (1976: 455)

Likely Types of Agents

As in the case of biological agents, a large number of chemical substances have been identified as being of potential interest to terrorists. According to Kupperman and Kamen, "There are literally tens of thousands of highly poisonous chemicals" (1989: 101). Mullen cites an estimate of "well over 50,000" for the number of different organophosphate compounds alone (1978: 69). Those agents specifically mentioned in the literature on CB terrorism include: insecticides such as nicotine sulfate, DFP (diisopropylphosphorofluoridate), parathion, and TEPP; herbicides such as 2,4D and 2,4,5T (against plants), TCDD (dioxin), and benzidine (112-14); "blood agents" such as hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride; "choking agents" such as chlorine, phosgene (carbonyl chloride), and chloropicrin; "blistering agents" such as sulfer mustard, nitrogen mustard, and lewisite; and "nerve agents" such as tabun, sarin, VX, and soman. Other chemicals mentioned include: Prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), aminazin, pheromones, pure nicotine, phosgene oxime (CX), arsenic, Cobalt-60, compound 1080, arsine, nickel carbonyl, sodium fluoroacetate, and strychnine.

As the above list indicates, some authors have even speculated about the possible terrorist use of "psychochemical" agents or mind-altering drugs. According to Douglass and Livingstone,

...terrorists....could even opt for psychochemical agents capable of producing profound behavioral changes in target populations. Certain drugs produce sexual dysfunctions, lethargy, and depression; still others have mind-altering characteristics that disrupt the ability to think logically, and therefore produce 'psychological blindness'....Such drugs, or 'off-the-rocker' agents, could be surreptitiously administered to an unsuspecting population, with grave societal and national security consequences. (1987: 14-15)

Similarly, Joyner points out that "it is not necessary to kill to accomplish the main purpose intended, i.e., to inflict severe psychological distress upon a population. Certain chemical agents are available which only incapacitate victims temporarily, allowing for subsequent full recovery" (1990: 136).

Most authors (including Douglass and Livingstone), however, consider nerve agents to be the likeliest weapon of choice, given their lethality (see the section on "Toxicity" above). In their study of the subject, Berkowitz et al. focus on a "select few of the OPA [organophosphorous anticholinesterases] poisons which might interest a terrorist," namely "TEPP, because it is the most toxic of the commercially available insecticides; Sarin (GB), because its standardization as a US chemical weapon vouches for its effectiveness; and certain organophosphorous choline derivatives, because their published toxicity levels make them the most potent synthetic poisons known" (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VIII-24). Barnaby goes the furthest in narrowing the choice to a single type of agent, insisting that "Of the nerve gases, Tabun is the easiest to make and is, therefore, the most likely candidate for chemical terrorism" (1992: 85). Other factors to consider would be the ready availability of certain agents, such as insecticides sold commercially or chemical weapons stored or transported by the military.

Means of Acquisition

A previous section has described in some detail the general capabilities needed for a terrorist group to be able to manufacture chemical agents on its own. There are other ways by which it might acquire chemical agents, however, including direct use of commercially-available poisons; the theft of chemical munitions held by the military; or the receipt of ready-made chemical weapons from a state sponsor. Regarding the first of these paths, insecticides, rodenticides, or other industrial or pharmaceutical chemicals such as Cobalt-60, compound 1080, TEPP, hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, carbonyl chloride (phosgene), arsine, nickel carbonyl, and parathion are widely available through commercial channels, and could be bought or stolen (Alexander 1990: 10; OTA 1992: 34; Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 224; Ketcham and McGeorge 1986: 31; Kupperman and Trent 1979: 56 and 63-4; David 1985: 146; Mullins 1992: 109; Bremer 1988: 10; McGeorge 1986: 59; Joyner 1990: 139). Douglass and Livingstone, for example, note that "Terrorist organizations can...bypass the manufacturing problem by simply purchasing suitable toxic chemicals such as parathion or phosgene that are readily available at many agricultural or industrial chemical supply stores" (1987: 12). As for CX or phosgene oxime, one of the original chemical warfare agents and featured prominently in the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal: "it is now more widely known simply as a toxic industrial chemical, and, as such, it is manufactured, stored, shipped, and sold throughout the United States like dozens of other toxic chemicals" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 16).

According to Kupperman and Trent: "For small, not widely destructive terrorist acts, household cleaning agents could prove lethal. Certainly, the more toxic insecticides, such as parathion or TEPP, although requiring an exterminator's license, are essentially unregulated items" (1979: 84). The latter two agents, by another account, are "almost as toxic as their military counterparts" (Kupperman and Woolsey 1988: 4). Berkowitz et al. highlight the danger of theft of such materials, noting that "Truckload quantities of Parathion are on the highways daily" and that "a hijacked truckload certainly poses a potential threat" (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VIII-32).80

Some authors note the risk of detection as a possible disincentive for terrorists to rely on commercially-acquired chemical agents. Mullen, for example, writes: "...if it is important that there are no outward indicators of an effort to employ a clandestine chemical weapon until it is time to do so, and if the terrorist wishes to inflict a higher proportion of fatalities per unit of material disseminated than is possible with some commercially available fluoroacetates, then the preparation of a fluoroacetate may be indicated" (1978: 68). Similarly, Barnaby, in noting that "It is not difficult to buy on the open market moderate quantities of the chemicals used in the preparation" of tabun, goes on: "If terrorists were nervous about buying the precursor chemicals, they could make them....These chemicals [used to make the precursors] are easier to get hold of..., and their purchase would give rise to less suspicion" (1992: 85). McGeorge confirms that "Sarin or other agents can be manufactured from relatively innocuous substances such as isopropyl alcohol and phosphorous trichloride, thereby helping to preserve secrecy" (1986: 59).

A number of authors have also expressed concern about the possible theft of chemical weapons from military installations or disposal sites in the US (a threat which is presumably even greater in the states of the former Soviet Union). According to Livingstone, "the U.S. government [has] acknowledged that a small amount of its inventory of VX is presently unaccounted for" (1982: 111). Clark charges that "There have been known instances of its being rather casually offered for sale in New York City," and goes on:

The Army announced in April, 1977, that it planned to dispose of several batches of obsolete chemical warfare agents, some of them lethal....Two of the facilities, which the Army conveniently listed and the media made public, were the Brooklyn Army Base and the Freeport Naval Reserve Center on Long Island. And those facilities have less security than a local supermarket. (1980: 110)

Mullins agrees with this assessment:

With the huge quantities of chemicals governments have produced for combat usage, terrorists could steal chemical agents. Most of these chemical agents are in storage facilities. Comparing nuclear facilities, biological research laboratories, and chemical agent storage sites, the chemical agent storage sites would be easiest to penetrate. At some sites, the chemicals have been stored for so long that the security personnel do not even know what is being guarded. Also, in the past two decades, governments have disposed of millions of tons of chemical agents....All that would be necessary to recover the chemical agents would be for the terrorists to locate [a] disposal site and go retrieve the chemical agent. (1992: 109)81

Also on this theme, Marshall goes so far as to claim that "Chemical weapons in particular are relatively easy to purchase on the black market, particularly since they were so widely deployed during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s" (1990: 372). Joyner also emphasizes the danger that

Terrorists might get access to munitions left over from World War II. Reportedly, an unknown, but presumed substantial quantity, of chemical weapons materials was left stored in ammunition dumps around the world, but particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Though how much is indeterminate, that weapons-grade chemicals might still be potent and available just for the finding in the desert remains quite alarming. (1990: 139)

Finally, the literature is replete with references to the possibility of rogue states supplying chemical weapons to terrorist groups. Those potential culprits mentioned most often are Libya, Iraq, Iran, Russia (or the former Soviet Union), Syria, North Korea, and Cuba (Alexander 1990: 10; OTA 1991: 52 and 1992: 34; Ketcham and McGeorge 1986: 31; Jackson 1992: 520; Kupperman and Kamen 1989: 99-100; Revell 1988: 16; Mullins 1992: 109; APN 1988: 16; Joyner 1990: 138-9). According to Jackson: "There is now considerable evidence of Soviet-derived chemical arms having been deployed in several regional conflicts throughout the Third World, ranging from hybrid chemical/explosive toxic 'firebombs' with a phosphine base to weapons with traces of organic cyanide and strontium" (1992: 520)82. McGeorge reports that "Iraq allegedly turned over control of Soviet supplied agents to known PLO members" (1986: 60), although Douglass and Livingstone maintain that the exchange occurred in the opposite direction, with Moscow making use of the PLO as an intermediary to transfer chemical and biological agents to Iraq (1984: 18).

The US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment notes the ability of Libya, Iraq, and Iran to produce chemical weapons together with the fact that "all of these countries have sponsored active terrorist groups that have attacked civilian populations with the aim of producing many deaths" (1991: 52). Joyner, clearly concerned about the danger of a rogue state providing a terrorist group with chemical weapons, observes that "As yet, no state is known to have done so, though this does not mean such reluctance necessarily will be perpetual" (1990: 138). Kupperman and Kamen express perhaps the strongest view of this potential linkage, declaring that "Chemical attacks by terrorists will almost certainly be driven by the proliferation of chemical arsenals among their state sponsors" (1989: 99).

Means of Delivery

As in the case of biological agents, most authors consider the effective delivery of chemical agents to their target as being more difficult than their manufacture (Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 226; Kupperman and Trent 1979: 64; Kellett 1988: 56; Loehmer 1993: 62; Mengel 1976: 445-6; Mullen 1978: 76-7; Berkowitz et al. 1972: I-12).83 Mengel explains:

...although chemical agents can be extremely deadly in small quantities, dissemination in large areas significantly reduces effectiveness and thus casualties. Dissemination problems increase geometrically with the size of the area and the ability to control the environment into which the agent has been introduced.

An attack on a selected outside population target is extremely sensitive to environmental conditions, the nature of the agent, and the form of attack employed. For example, a chemical bomb exploded in a busy terminal would undoubtedly kill hundreds; an attack on a stadium full of football fans using a low-flying crop-duster-type aircraft might kill thousands; aerosol dissemination by means of a smoke generator located in a van cruising the streets might kill tens of thousands. However, to accomplish an attack on an outside target as outlined above with only a moderate degree of success would require tens of gallons of agent and appropriate, although not necessarily ideal, environmental conditions. (1976: 446)

Mullen agrees:

It...can be assume that a given quantity of agent is translatable to a capability to produce some number of deaths with that quantity. For example, if the objective of an individual were to produce, say 5,000-10,000 casualties, depending on the method of dispersal chosen, up to one million times this amount in LD50 doses may have to be produced. No matter what route of agent dissemination is chosen, losses during dissemination will occur. These losses are usually quite large: at a minimum, it may be assumed that 90 per cent of the dispersed agent will not reach the intended target in doses sufficient to cause casualties....if the adversary were judicious in choice of target and method of dispersal, losses could perhaps be reduced. (1978: 76-7)

Also as in the case of biological agents, the popular scenario of contamination of a large water supply is unlikely to be a feasible method of terrorist attack with chemical agents. Jenkins and Rubin point out that "Organophosphorous hydrolyze in water,...making them unsuitable for most scenarios involving the contamination of water supplies" (1978: 224).84 Even Clark admits that, in connection with a 1972 threat to poison New York City's water supply, an "Army expert" had "advis[ed] that it would take tons of nerve gas to poison the 31-billion-gallon reservoir," although Clark goes on to insist that "Still, there are many chemicals that can, quite easily, make an area's water system lethal" (1980: 113). Mengel, by contrast, calculates that "based on personal consumption as opposed to other uses and a four billion gallon reservoir, if each member of a community of 20,000 were to drink 16 ounces of water, it would require in excess of 14 billion lethal doses to deliver one dose per person. If the best suited chemical, fluoroacetates, were used, it would require 600 metric tons" (1976: 455)85. Similarly, Hurwitz argues that "Introducing an agent into a municipal water supply would not be a credible threat because of the huge volume of water that would need to be contaminated and the numerous steps in the filtration and purification process" (1982: 39). After discussing the dilution problem, Mullen adds:

...there are a number of additional factors relating to the physical and chemical characteristics of reservoirs over which the terrorist would have little or no control and that could diminish the effectiveness of the act. They include variable inflow and downflow rates; thermal stratification of reservoir waters and seasonal turnover; biological activity that might remove the contaminant altogether or reduce its concentration greatly; reactions of the contaminant with the chemicals naturally present in the water; and treatment of the water. (1987: 243)

Berkowitz et al. posit four likely methods of dissemination of chemical agents by terrorists: "(1) covert contamination with bulk agent of foodstuffs or beverages selected to avoid conditions which would destroy the poison; (2) covert generation in enclosed spaces of lethal vapor concentrations from volatile agents; (3) covert dissemination in enclosed spaces of aerosols of non-volatile agents; and (4) overt attack with bursting munitions or thermogenerators" (1972: IX-5). As an example of the first of these, they note that

A 10-pound sack of ground coffee for institutional use prepares approximately 800 cups of coffee. Injection of 35 ml of 8-fluorooctanol into the sack before delivery to the user results in one LD50 per cup. The ground coffee would probably not appear abnormal; the brewing process will not destroy the poison; and its presence in the finished brew will not be apparent by taste, odor, or appearance. (1972: IX-5)

In a somewhat eerie foreshadowing of the 1995 Tokyo gas attack, Berkowitz et al. go on to note that "For vapor dissemination, of the agents investigated only Sarin is sufficiently volatile," while "the involatility of the V-agents and BTX require that they be disseminated as aerosols." Finally, they point out: "All the agents except BTX could be effectively incorporated into either bursting munitions or thermogenerators. It is doubtful that an unwarned and untrained target group would comprehend the nature of the threat to which it is exposed; its first reaction would likely be to interpret the explosion as a conventional bomb and attempt to render aid to the nearby victims" (1972: IX-6).

Most authors agree that the most feasible "mass" chemical attack would be one limited to the enclosed spaces of a single, discrete facility such as a hotel, office building, or convention center (Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 224)86, with a resulting casualty toll ranging between a few hundred and several thousand. At the lower end of the scale, Mullen argues:

It is...doubtful that an adversary could under any conditions, with a high probability effectively target a group of people larger than a few hundred with any kind of chemical attack. If an adversary were to attempt an attack on a larger scale, such an attempt would likely be made out of ignorance concerning the logistical, dispersal, and material resources required to launch such an attack effectively. These requirements place the chemical mass destruction attack in the realm of a very large scale undertaking which, for a number of reasons, is not considered credible.

On the other hand, an attack with chemical agents on a select population of individuals, such as the inhabitants of an office building or large auditorium, is an attack which is manageable by a single individual....Although the clandestine chemical attack does not appear a viable method for producing very large numbers of fatalities, an event which resulted in a few hundred fatalities could certainly be categorized as an event of mass destruction. (1978: 77)

Hurwitz, by contrast, puts the likely number of casualties as the result of a chemical attack on a "large auditorium" at "several thousand" (1982: 36).

Livingstone posits a number of likely scenarios against government facilities. For example: "...a truck loaded with drums or canisters containing a nerve agent like VX or Sarin could be crashed into an embassy and exploded, turning the deadly substance into a fine mist which would envelop the entire facility" (1986: 143). Or, if targeted against a military base: "mortar bombs, if filled with a V-series nerve agent, would force the evacuation of the entire area and probably inflict a large number of casualties. If the target were an airbase, it would, in all likelihood, be shut down for a matter of days" (1986: 144). The vulnerability of even the highest-value, discrete targets has been demonstrated by various US Army "mock attacks" on government buildings in Washington, DC, as recounted by Lowell Ponte:

One experimental team at Ft. Detrick, Maryland,....[u]sing mock-killer chemicals,...has carried out simulated terrorist attacks on the air-conditioning systems of the White House and the Capitol and on the drinking water used in one major Federal office building. All these experiments were 'successful,' i.e. all demonstrated that a terrorist could easily kill the President and Congress by attacking the unguarded air and water systems of government buildings....Had the Army CBW teams been real terrorists, the President and entire Congress would have died. (1977: 79)

Elsewhere, Ponte cites an earlier example of the same type:

In a 1962 test an Army team simulated a CBW assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Posing as tourists of the sort who visit the White House virtually every day, Army agents planted vials of mock killer chemicals where the airconditioning system carried their vapors past guards and into the Oval Office. (1980: 52)87

Other possible means of delivering chemical agents to their targets, though on a smaller scale, would be through the contamination of foodstuffs or by direct contact (as in the case of the ricin-tipped umbrellas discussed in the previous section). Livingstone, for example, suggests that "it possible to inject...a chemical poison into a victim by means of a hypodermic needle concealed in the tip of an umbrella" (1982: 111). Mullins adds that "Chemical agents could be used effectively as contaminants for projectiles such as bullets, flechettes, and shrapnel" (1992: 111).

Incidents of Past Use or Threat

A considerable number of threats or incidents involving the terrorist use of chemical agents have been reported in the open literature88. As in the previous section concerning biological agents, these may be ranked in terms of seriousness or severity (in ascending order) as follows: (1) threats to use CW, without any evidence of actual capabilities; (2) unsuccessful attempts to acquire CW; (3) actual possession of CW agents; (4) attempted, unsuccessful use of such agents; and (5) their actual, "successful" use. In the first category, the following cases have been reported:

  • a 1992 "plot" by neo-Nazi "skinheads" to pump hydrogen cyanide gas into a synagogue (Kupperman and Smith 1993: 37). According to the US House Armed Services Committee, this "plot," which it dates to 1991, was "thwarted" by "German authorities" (1993: 26);
  • testimony by an undercover agent at the conspiracy trial of the "Chicago Seven" that one of the defendants had

...talked about setting up an underground chemist network. He says there has to be a need for a biochemist in the movement, and then he started talking about how tear gas was made. He said they could get together and they could have the formula for making tear gas, Molotov cocktails, mace, and other devices. He thought it was a very good idea. (Clavir and Spitzer 1970: 146, quoted in Berkowitz et al. 1972: VI-8)

    • a November 1984 claim by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in the UK to have contaminated Mars candy bars with rat poison, to protest their manufacturer's funding of research using monkeys. This was later determined to be a hoax, but in the meantime "Millions of the bars were withdrawn and checked after notes were found inside candy wrappers in six English towns" (Smith 1992: 2);
    • November 1991 threats by ALF (UK) to contaminate the popular drink, "Lucozade." In response, the manufacturer ordered more than five million bottles of the drink (none of which were found to be contaminated) withdrawn from stores, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars (Smith 1992: 2; Business Insurance 1991: 2);
    • a 3 January 1992 claim by the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) that it had injected one cc of liquid oven cleaner into each of 87 "Cold Buster" bars on store shelves in Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta, because their developer was believed to have used animals in his research. The incident was later deemed a hoax, with the only contaminated bars (injected with a non-poisonous saline solution) being two sent to the media. Smith describes the incident as follows:

One bar tested by police contained an alkaline substance 'which could cause burning if eaten.' The distributor of the Cold Buster immediately recalled tens of thousands of the bars from some 250 outlets in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the manufacturer halted production, forcing the temporary lay-off of 22 employees.

Ten days later, a second letter from ARM arrived at the offices of the Edmonton Journal, confirming the contamination claim as a hoax. 'The purpose behind [the] hoax was to cause economic damage to [the inventor], his co-financiers and those with a stake in the success of the Cold Buster Bar.' The letter warned of further action by ARM, however, if animal exploitation continued, and threatened that 'the next time action is taken, it will not be a hoax.' (1992: 1);

    • claims by the Animal Rights Militia in notes sent to two supermarket chains and to the media in the Vancouver, B.C. area in December 1994 that it had injected Christmas turkeys with rat poison, "in the name of turkey rights avenging the senseless slaughter of millions of turkeys." Thousands of birds were immediately withdrawn from shelves and freezers or later returned by customers, although no evidence of contamination was found (Reuters 1994c and 1994d);
    • a claim by an un-named animal rights group in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to have poisoned five packages of hamburger meat, causing three Sobey's grocery stores in that city to recall their supply (CTV 1995);
    • a "threat to overfly Cyprus by microlight in order to saturate the area with aerosol poisons" (Jackson 1992: 520). It is unclear if this is the same threat mentioned by Bremer, who refers to a "threat to poison the air" in a Mediterranean nation other than Israel which, though "later proven specious—initially caused grave concern" (1988: 8). According to another source, this incident, dated at 1987, involved a threat by a group identifying itself as "Force Majeure" to release dioxin gas over Cyprus unless the government of the island paid $15 million. It resulted in the arrest by "anti-terrorist police" of four Cypriot nationals in West London (Ottawa Citizen 1987: A6);
    • various unspecified threats to dump LSD or nerve gas into US urban reservoirs (Livingstone 1982: 112; Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 29; Mengel 1976: 448). Clark highlights the 1968 "much-publicized Weathermen-Yippy threat (attempt?) to 'space-out' the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and everyone else in Chicago as well, by dumping LSD into Lake Michigan, the city's water source" (1980:110). Of course, given what was said earlier about the dilution of chemicals in large reservoirs, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could have taken this threat seriously! An apparently more serious threat, to contaminate New York City's Kensico Reservoir with nerve gas in 1972, was reported by the New York Daily News in February 1977. According to Clark, it was "taken seriously by the FBI" and "brought city officials to the verge of declaring a 'health emergency'" before being discounted on the advice of the Army that it would require tons of nerve gas to carry out (Clark 1980: 113);
    • a July 1994 threat by Moldavian General Nikolay Matveyev to contaminate the water supply of the Russian 14th Army in Tiraspol, Moldova, with mercury. The general was said to have stored about 32 kilograms of mercury at his battalion command. However, after he was dismissed from his office as Deputy Minister of the Interior, the mercury could no longer be found;
    • the August 1974 claim by the "Alphabet Bomber" that he possessed nerve gas and was coming to Washington to kill the President. According to Douglass and Livingstone, the authorities "were convinced that there was a 'high probability' that the threat was real," launched "one of the most intensive manhunts in the nation's history," and arrested a man in Los Angeles. Kupperman and Kamen report: "Whether or not he had finished assembling the nerve agent remains an open question. Some reports suggest he had. Others suggest that he had assembled all but one of the critical ingredients and had made arrangements to pick up the remaining substance on the day he was arrested" (1989: 101);
    • a 1972 terrorist "plot" to use chemical agents in an attack on a US nuclear weapons storage site in Europe (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 183);
    • 1980 threats received by several embassies in Europe of terrorist use of a mustard agent against them (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 185);
    • a May 1983 Israeli government report that it had uncovered a plot by Israeli Arabs to poison the water in Galilee with "an unidentified powder" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 186);
    • a 1977 report that an anti-Amin group in Uganda had threatened to poison that country's coffee and tea crops, in order to deny it foreign exchange. According to Kellett, "observers doubted the credibility of the threat" (1988: 57);
    • similar threats by Tamil separatists in 1986 to poison the tea crop in Sri Lanka. According to Jenkins: "They did not, insofar as we know, carry out the threat" (1989: 2). An identical case was reported in September 1994, when the Sri Lanka Tea Board announced that threats to poison the island's tea exports had been proven a hoax. A Tamil group called the "Ellalan Force" had claimed in faxes to news agencies, foreign embassies, and trade associations that it had mixed arsenic in tea bags destined for export. Subsequently, the United States, Germany, and Italy were reported to be checking their tea imports from Sri Lanka. However, while calling for precautionary measures and tightened security, the Tea Board had been unable to find any traces of arsenic in 200 random samples tested over a period of two weeks (Reuters 1994a);
    • a September 1986 claim by the terrorist group "Direct Action" that two bottles of South African wine, in Vancouver or Victoria, had been poisoned. Reportedly, all South African wines were removed from the shelves and tested, but no evidence of contamination was found (Canadian Press 1986);
    • 1988 claims by the ALF (UK), which remained unconfirmed, that eggs had been injected with mercury;
    • various threats by anti-apartheid groups in Europe and North America to poison South African products (Jenkins 1989: 2). On 2 July 1986, a group in Canada identifying itself as the Azanian Peoples Liberation Front (APLF) threatened to inject imported South African fruit with an unidentified toxic chemical, in an attempt to prevent such imports. Reportedly, "subsequent testing failed to locate any fruit that had been contaminated," but in the meantime South African oranges and peaches had been withdrawn from some stores in Toronto and Montreal (Kellett 1988: 57; Ward 1989); and
    • a report that proposals were made at an early February 1993 meeting of fundamentalist groups in Tehran, under the auspices of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, to poison the water supplies of major cities in the West "as a possible response to Western offensives against Islamic organizations and states" (Haeri 1993: 8).

The following reported cases fall into the second category, of unsuccessful attempts by terrorists to acquire chemical agents:

  • an attempt by anti-Castro Cubans in the US to obtain sarin from the Chilean intelligence organization, DINA (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 184); and
  • a report that in 1975 "German entrepreneurs were apprehended in Vienna, attempting to sell Tabun to Palestinian terrorists" (Kupperman and Kamen 1989: 101). There is a similar report that in 1976, "one kilogram of a precursor of sarin was produced by a chemical engineer in Vienna and offered to bank robbers for 14,000 DM" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 184). Finally, according to Jackson, sometime in the 1970s and '80s "underground nerve agent manufacturing facilities were discovered in Austria" (1992: 520). That these varying reports may in fact refer to the same incident is suggested by the following account of Jenkins and Rubin: "In February 1976, police in Vienna and Berlin arrested members of a gang involved in the manufacture of nerve gas. A quantity of the toxin was seized. According to various reports, the gang was attempting to sell the gas to bank robbers or terrorists." "The gang's motives," they add, "were apparently purely economic" (1978: 228). This also appears to have been the case cited by Mullen (1978: 69 and 88), and erroneously attributed to "Australian," rather than "Austrian," police (!), in which large quantities of diisopropyl fluorophosphate (DFP), stored in capsules, spray cans and bottles, were seized in Vienna. According to the newspaper account, the gas "probably was produced by gang members in Berlin," who intended "probably to sell [it] to the underworld" (Ottawa Citizen 1976). According to Mullen, the "criminal organization" had "packaged the DFP in aerosol cans for use as assassination weapons" (1978: 88). Thornton simply attributes the possession to "an Austrian chemist" arrested after attempting to supply the substance on the black market, but apparently takes this as an "indication that European...terrorists...have access to chemical weapons" (1987: 7).

Into the third category, reports of the actual possession of chemical agents by terrorists, fall the following:

  • the reported discovery in West Germany in 1980 of an RAF faction safe house in which "authorities found several hundred kilograms of organophosphorus compounds that they speculated were being accumulated as part of the terrorist group's drive to create a chemical-biological warfare capability" (Livingstone and Arnold 1986: 4). Douglass and Livingstone put the date of this incident at 1978-1979, and specify that "400 kg of intermediated compounds that could be used for organophosphorus nerve agents" had been discovered (1987: 184);
  • the theft of 53 "steel bottles" or "canisters" of mustard gas from a US ammunition bunker in West Germany in 1975 (Alexander 1990:10; Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 228; Kupperman and Kamen 1989: 102; Mullins 1992: 107). Subsequently, according to Jenkins and Rubin: "West German authorities received threats that unless the government granted immunity to all political prisoners, the gas would be used against the population of Stuttgart, where the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang were about to go on trial" (1978:228). In referring to this incident Kupperman and Kamen maintain that "terrorists successfully stole canisters of this agent from U.S. stocks in West Germany" (1989: 102). Mullins also implies that the terrorists were responsible for the theft and had thereby actually acquired the agent in question when he writes that "Fortunately, German police arrested the terrorists before the chemical could be released" (1992: 107). However, Jenkins and Rubin state that "It is not known whether this threat was authored by the same people who took the gas," adding: "Some but not all of the canisters were later found" (1978: 228)89. That the threats may have been made on more than one occasion and against a number of different targets is suggested by Kupperman and Trent, who report simply that "In 1975 and 1976 the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany threatened to use chemical agents against German cities" (1979: 46 and 51);
  • a June 1987 arrest of a man with a canister of CS gas during the trooping of the colour in the UK;
  • claims by the Minuteman leader and veterinarian Robert De Pugh to have experimented with home-made nerve gas on a dog, to establish the minimum lethal dose (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VI-5, citing Jones 1968: 37). Berkowitz also reports that "Although the details are somewhat ambiguous, a group within the Minutemen organization were allegedly involved in a plot to introduce hydrogen cyanide gas into the air conditioning system of the United Nations building in New York" (Berkowitz et al. 1972: VI-5);
  • reports in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera of 27 September 1992 that 19 kg of cyanide—" poison almost the entire population of the CIS"—had disappeared, apparently on 25 September 1992, from a chemical factory in Kirghizistan. The newspaper also reported that a month previously, over 5 kg of cyanide "intended to be used for terrorist purposes" had been "seized by the Kirghiz police from a courier whose identity has not yet been revealed, while a further 200 kg, unrecorded and without documentation concerning its destination, was discovered in the depot of the Kirghiz factory";
  • a report that "Force 17, a terrorist body with special operational responsibility in Yasir Arafat's Fatah...had been trained in chemical weapons" (Alexander 1990: 10);
  • a report that in late 1976, the counterterrorist unit of the San Francisco Police Department "apprehended a terrorist with homemade nerve gas" (Clark 1980: 117). According to Ponte, however (presumably referring to the same incident), the individual in question had not quite succeeded in manufacturing the agent. Ponte quotes "the specialist in charge" of anti-terrorist activities for the SFPD as saying that the terrorist "was close to successfully manufacturing nerve gas when he was apprehended" (1977: 79);
  • a report in the 27 June 1993 edition of the Croatian newspaper Vjesnik that 23 aircraft bombs filled with nerve gases and other chemical agents "of a slightly older manufacture, but nonetheless lethal and dangerous" had been stolen by the PFLP in Lebanon and supplied to the Bosnian Muslims via Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. It is noteworthy that, if true, this would constitute yet another case of a terrorist group passing on CB weapons to another party (in this case, a group engaged in open and organized military conflict);
  • a 1989 report that "In recent years Israeli security agents and police found canisters of a potent poison, presumed to have been brought in by terrorists, at a safe house in Tel Aviv" (Kupperman and Kamen 1989: 101);
  • the more vague allegation that "as far back as 1975, Palestinian terrorists were known to have access to nerve agents" (Kupperman and Woolsey 1988: 5). Thornton states that "Reportedly, Palestinian groups have been stockpiling nerve agents for several years" (1987: 7);
  • various press reports that a small quantity of sodium cyanide (500 grams) was found in the locker used by the World Trade Center terrorists to store bomb-making materials (the chemical was not used in the attack, however);
  • a 1986 raid by the FBI on the "heavily armed" compound of a group calling itself the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord (CSA), in which "agents found large quantities of potassium cyanide (an extremely lethal poison)." According to Mullins: "The leader of the CSA, Jim Ellison, had made plans to use this chemical in poisoning the water supplies of several major U.S. cities" (1992: 95); and
  • the 1976 smuggling into the US of the nerve agent sarin in a Chanel No.5 atomizer by Michael Townley for use in an assassination plot against former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 183; McGeorge 1986: 60).

A number of cases are reported of apparently unsuccessful attempts by terrorists to actually use chemical agents:

  • an effort by Huk terrorists in the Philippines to poison Dole pineapples destined for export (Livingstone 1982: 113; Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 30). According to Douglass and Livingstone: "The plot, however, was discovered and the contaminated pineapples were destroyed before they could harm anyone. The whole incident was then hushed up before it affected sales" (1987: 30);
  • the discovery on 28 March 1992 of lethal concentrations of potassium cyanide (50 mg per litre) in the water tanks of a Turkish Air Force compound in Istanbul. Fortunately, it was discovered before anyone was poisoned. The Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) claimed credit (Chelyshev 1992);
  • a report in the Bulgarian newspaper The Duma of 29 July 1993 referring to an attempted assassination of the Director of the Bulgarian National Intelligence Service and the presidential spokesman using benzol. The report indicates that the two victims were indeed poisoned, but that the dose used was not fatal;
  • a 1981 attempt by an East German Stasi agent, Peter Haack, to kill a dissident and his family by poisoning their hamburgers with the chemical thallium. The attempt failed, although the dissident in question was described as having been "extremely sick for weeks." On 28 November 1994, Mr. Haack was sentenced by a Berlin court to 6 1/2 years in jail for the attempt (Reuters 1994b);
  • the "Alphabet Bomber" of Los Angeles, apart from plotting to assassinate the US President with homemade nerve gas, is said to have "also sent toxic material through the mail to at least one Supreme Court Justice" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 31) (apparently with no effect);
  • the July 1994 sending by the UK Animal Liberation Front (ALF) to the Secretary of the National Front (an extreme right-wing party) of a package containing Capsaicin, a derivative of pepper;
  • the 1976 seizure by US postal authorities of a "suspicious small package....found to contain a small charge designed to explode a vial of nerve gas when the package was opened," and for which "an Arab terrorist group was suspected" (Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 228; see also: Alexander 1981: 346); and
  • undated and unspecified reports that "terrorists have tried to poison urban water systems" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 29).

The successful use of chemical agents by terrorists (but without inflicting "mass destruction") has been reported in the following cases:

  • the contamination by Palestinian terrorists or their sympathizers of Israel citrus fruit exports to Europe with liquid mercury, variously reported to have occurred in 1977, 1978, or 1979 (Alexander 1990: 10; Livingstone 1982: 113; Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 30; Jenkins 1989: 2; McGeorge 1986: 61). Poisoned oranges were reportedly discovered in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Douglass and Livingstone provide the most detailed account of this incident, which they date at February 1978:

Europeans in at least three countries became ill from eating Israeli citrus products—oranges, lemons, and grapefruit—that had been contaminated with mercury, which presumably had been injected under the skins of the citrus products with a syringe. A group identifying itself as the Arab Revolutionary Army Palestinian Commandos, in a letter to the Dutch government, announced that its goal was 'to sabotage the Israeli economy.' No one died from the incident and only slightly more than a dozen people were poisoned, but Israel's citrus exports were profoundly affected, with the loss of badly needed foreign exchange. (1987: 30)

Alexander adds that, as a result of the incident, "Israel had to cut back its orange exports by 40%" (1990: 10);

  • a similar incident on a smaller scale in April 1989 (Alexander 1990: 10; Jenkins 1989: 2). According to Jenkins: "In Rome, a group calling itself the 'Organization of Metropolitan Proletariat and Oppressed Peoples,' claiming support for the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank, warned Italian authorities that it had injected poison into grapefruit imported from Israel. Contaminated grapefruits were found in Rome and Naples" (1989: 2). The Italian Health Ministry subsequently ordered the seizure of all grapefruit and banned sales throughout Italy, although there were no reports of deaths or sickness (Chicago Tribune 1988: 17);
  • in December 1984 four people in England were charged with injecting a weed killer containing mercury into a turkey at a Grimsby store. Earlier, an anonymous caller purporting to represent the ALF had claimed responsibility. Similar threats were received at stores in London, Northampton, Coventry, and Bristol (in the latter case claiming the use of rat poison) (United Press International 1984 and Reuters 1984). This is presumably the incident cited in Jenkins 1989: 2;
  • the January 1987 case of anti-hunting protesters in England being blamed for poisoning five foxhounds in Worcestershire;
  • Douglass and Livingstone refer vaguely to swimming pools having been poisoned in California and supermarket products having been laced with cyanide (1987: 29), without, however, indicating whether terrorists or simple criminal extortionists were responsible for these unspecified incidents, and what effects resulted;
  • a reference by Douglass and Livingstone to a "still-secret 1984 chemical warfare incident in which the nerve agent carbamate was added to the coffee at an Israeli military mess" (1987: 29) (in their appendix, they date this incident to 1985) (1987: 187);
  • the reported use by the Symbionese Liberation Army of "cyanide-dipped bullets" (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 30; Jenkins and Rubin 1978: 228; McGeorge 1986: 61);
  • a January 1994 report by a Turkish TV station (but denied by that country's foreign minister) that the PKK had mounted a gas attack on a village in Eastern Turkey, killing 21 people;
  • various, unsubstantiated press reports claiming that Sikh and Kashmiri militants in India were using chemical weapons;
  • a 1987 incident in the Philippines in which 19 police recruits died and about 140 were hospitalized after accepting water and sweets from an unknown person;
  • the New Year's, 1994, deaths of at least nine soldiers and six civilians in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, after drinking cyanide-laced champagne on sale next to military compounds housing members of a Russian-led peacekeeping force. Another 53 people were reported hospitalized, including eleven civilians in intensive care. Two sellers of the drink were arrested for what the Itar-Tass news agency described as "a premeditated terrorist action against Russian servicemen" (Reuters 1995a and AFP 1995);
  • various reports over the years of the poisoning of Iraqi dissidents through the contamination of drink or food with the chemical thallium. For example, an Iraqi who ran a printing house in London is said to have died in 1988 of thallium poisoning, described as "a familiar modus operandi for Iraqi assassins" and "a favourite weapon the Iraqi government used against opponents." Two defectors from the Iraqi Army were reportedly treated for thallium poisoning in London in 1992. And in January 1995, it was reported that an Iraqi emigre activist had died of thallium poisoning in Syria, while three other victims were undergoing treatment in either London or Syria (Reuters 1995b and Security Intelligence Report 1995);
  • March 1989 claims, through telephone threats to the US Embassy in Santiago, that Chilean grapes imported into the US had been laced with cyanide. After minute traces of cyanide (insufficient to poison an adult) were indeed discovered in two Chilean grapes in Philadelphia, the US, Canada, Japan, Denmark, Germany, and Hong Kong all suspended fruit imports from Chile, and existing stocks were ordered pulled from grocery shelves. Fears were expressed that Chile would suffer up to $1 billion (US) in lost fruit exports as a result (Ottawa Citizen 1989);
  • the March 1989 poisoning of a British soldier's wife by milk contaminated with mercury;
  • the May 1981 discovery of herbicide contamination of food items in British grocery stores (Douglass and Livingstone 1987: 185); and
  • the June 1977 contamination of a North Carolina reservoir. According to Clark: "Safety caps and valves were removed, and poison chemicals were sent into the reservoir....Water had to be brought in" (1980: 113-14).

There have, of course, been many other reported instances of product contamination, perhaps the most notorious being the 1982 Chicago case of cyanide being placed in capsules of the pain remedy Tylenol, which resulted in seven deaths (Kellett 1988: 57). However, the vast bulk of these acts have apparently been committed with no political motivation in mind, and hence should not be classified as "terrorist" in nature. Furthermore, even where a political motive has been present, as Jenkins reminds us: "In none of these latter cases was it the intent of groups to cause death. Their weapon was the alarm that would be caused and the consequent loss of revenue. This is true in most cases..." (1989: 2).

In sum, there is sufficient evidence in the public domain to indicate that terrorist groups have indeed displayed an interest in acquiring chemical agents; have made threats to use such agents; have in some instances actually succeeded in acquiring such agents; have at times attempted to make use of them; and in some cases actually "succeeded" in such attempts, though without inflicting mass casualties in the process.

Reasons for Non-Use

Only a few authors speculate about the reasons why terrorists have so far not made greater use of chemical agents in particular. Kellett notes that "The desire for political legitimacy acts as a considerable constraint on" the use of both biological and chemical weapons, but "particularly on the employment of chemical weapons, whose application has been widely condemned by public opinion and proscribed by treaty." Why this factor should carry greater weight in the case of chemical than biological weapons (which are also proscribed by treaty and, if anything, considered even more abhorrent by the general public) is unclear. In any case, Kellett goes on: "Terrorists have retaliated against corporations for chemical spills and industrial accidents, adding to the restraints they may feel on using such weapons" (Kellett 1988: 56). The latter consideration, it may be surmised, would apply at best only to so-called "ecological" terrorists, and even then would probably not affect their propensity to use chemical agents in "low-level" incidents directed at individuals or small numbers of people that would not result in widespread environmental impacts.

A more convincing explanation for the relative non-use of chemical weapons by terrorists is that provided by Jenkins, which applies at least equally well to BW: "With an explosion, you get a bang and some blood and you can calculate it pretty much. In the case of chemical weapons, there's a lot of uncertainties. Terrorists tend to abhor uncertainty" (quoted in Marshall 1990: 372-3). Other reasons offered for the comparative non-use of chemical weapons match those discussed earlier in respect to BW: the lack of any desire to kill large numbers of people; the fear of alienating the general public, or provoking ruthless suppression by governments; the preference for "sharp, dramatic impacts—to exploit an event's immediate shock value" (versus the prolonged suffering anticipated as the result of a chemical attack, as well as the lack of a "stark explosion" or "bloody evidence"); and the desire for "premeditated control...over an event," made difficult by the unpredictability of chemical weapons (Joyner 1990: 137). Finally, the US House Armed Services Committee notes that (in contrast to BW) "Chemical agents must usually be employed in relatively large quantities to be effective" (1993: 26).

Current Trends/Likelihood of Future Use

Those authors who have speculated about the future terrorist use of chemical agents in particular have generally rated its likelihood as quite high. Barnaby, for example, declares that "If terrorists manufacture weapons of mass destruction in the near future, they are likely to opt for chemical rather than biological or nuclear weapons" (1992: 85). Similarly, Jackson refers to the "real and growing threat" that terrorist organizations will employ chemical weapons (1992: 520). And according to Joyner: "chemical terrorism remains just over the horizon as a distinct possibility" (1990: 135). Thornton similarly argues that "The use of chemical agents by terrorists is a definite possibility," going so far as to add that "from the terrorist standpoint, it is a virtual necessity" (1987: 2). It is Mullins, however, who expresses himself most definitively on the issue of future use, declaring simply: "There is a high probability that terrorists will rely on chemical agents in the near future to achieve their goals" (1992: 116).

Bremer contrasts the possible use of chemical weapons with the relatively minimal threat of nuclear terrorism, stating that "Chemical substances on the other hand have been used for malevolent purposes by a variety of groups and individuals and must be considered as presenting a somewhat more likely terrorist choice." While denying that any such, politically-motivated cases have yet occurred in the US, he judges that "the possibility of terrorists ultimately using this tactic [of product contamination] against us or other nations is sobering" (1988:8). Finally, he notes that "The world community has shown little outrage at the recent use of chemical weapons by both Iran and Iraq in their war," and speculates: "Perhaps a psychological barrier has already been broken for terrorists to use them" (1988: 12). Jenkins agrees, suggesting that

To an extent, the taboo against the use of chemical weapons that really made them anathema for many decades since World War I seems to have worn off. We have the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East. We have chemical weapon programs going on in a number of countries. And in that sense, to the extent that these become 'legitimate' instruments of coercion, that to an extent not only legitimizes, but increases their attractiveness to terrorist groups" (quoted in Marshall 1990: 373)90

Other trends suggesting a greater likelihood of the use of CW by terrorists mirror those discussed in the earlier section on BW. They include: a growing number of less-discriminate, high-casualty attacks beginning in the mid 1980s; the "severe brutalization" of some terrorists in the course of their "long struggle against society or the state"; the growing desensitization of the public to more traditional methods of attack, requiring "raising the level of regain the public's attention"; greater technical proficiency on the part of terrorists, as demonstrated, for example, in the use of sophisticated timing mechanisms to bring down airliners; and the growing state sponsorship of terrorists (Joyner 1990: 138; Thornton 1987: 8).

Candidate Groups

Of the authors focusing on chemical terrorism in particular, Joyner devotes the greatest amount of attention to "candidate groups." In his words, those that "stand out for the stark viciousness of their general would appear the most likely candidates for resorting to chemoterrorism." In this regard, he suggests that "The most dangerous region, and the one offering the greatest opportunity for chemoterrorism, is the Middle East." In particular, he singles out the Abu Nidal Organization ("the most wide-ranging and dangerous among the Palestinian terrorist groups"), noting that "it is not inconceivable that Abu Nidal could acquire chemical weapons from Muammar Qadhafi once Libya attains production capability" (1990: 139). The second Middle Eastern group identified by Joyner as possibly "find[ing] chemoterrorism tempting" is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC). Referring to suspicions of its being behind the December 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing, he writes:

If true, the PFLP-GC must be regarded as a serious candidate that might engage in chemoterrorism activities: Not only is the group clearly willing to kill scores of persons to accomplish their aims; it also possesses the technical skill to assemble a compact, sophisticated high explosive device, smuggle it on board an aircraft, and detonate it with an intricate barometric timing mechanism. Such technical precision clearly points up the abilities necessary to produce, assemble and detonate chemical weapons. (1990: 140)

According to Joyner, "In Western Europe, no single terrorist group presently appears inclined to move to the chemoterrorism threshold." However, he goes on to identify as groups that "ultimately might resort to using chemical weapons because of their extreme viciousness and radical ideology," both Direct Action in France and the Red Army Faction in Germany. On the latter, he notes:

Again, no direct evidence is available to suggest that the Red Army intends to use chemical weapons. However, its political objectives—to destroy Western capitalism through terrorism, to secure worldwide Marxist revolution and to break up FRG-U.S. solidity by attacking U.S. military targets in West Germany—strongly suggest that the ends justify the means. If taken to the extreme, chemical weapons could come to be viewed as means necessary for victory in the war against U.S. military facilities and capitalist institutions. (1990: 140)

Finally, Joyner considers that no current terrorist groups in Asia or Latin America "seem viable candidates for chemoterrorism" (1990: 140).

Another author who speculates about which terrorist groups would be most likely to employ chemical weapons is Alexander, who writes: "the Hezbollah (Islamic Jihad or the Party of God), operating with the support of Iran, might employ chemical terrorism against Western interests in the Middle East or against other adversaries such as Iraq or Saudi Arabia" (1990: 10). Similarly, Thornton notes that "Iran has been providing major support to Lebanese Shiite Muslims; chemical weapons are a distinct possibility as a part of its anti-US and anti-West crusade" (1987: 7).

Defence Against Chemical Terrorism

As in the case of biological agents, most authors are quite pessimistic about the feasibility of defences against terrorist use of chemical weapons. In the words of Kupperman and Trent:

The sad fact is that there appears to be no practical way of controlling toxic chemical agents except for militarily significant stocks of sarin or VX.

Interdiction is also a difficult matter. First, there are vast numbers of highly poisonous chemicals, most of which are commercially available in nearly all countries. Next, the means of detection are highly selective....we must generally know what to look for in order to detect the agents. Protection against a chemical attack is primarily dependent upon warning. Were the threat of chemical attack made, and demands imposed on government, it might be possible to thwart the assault. As a practical matter, however, the target would have to be isolated. Certainly, a convention hall, office building, or sports arena is quite vulnerable. Complicating matters further, were a chemical attack intended to discredit government and cause socioeconomic disruption, randomness of target and frequency of attack would be basic terrorist tactics. (1979: 84-5)

Those few authors who do speculate on possible defences against chemical terrorism in particular focus on preventing terrorist access to the most likely chemical agents, and developing better early-warning detection methods. For example, Jenkins and Rubin speculate that "It may be identify specific chemical compounds that ought to be subject to licensing procedures with penalties for unauthorized possession" (1978: 228). The OTA notes that "In the chemical area, rapid 'early warning' multiagent detectors are being developed" (1992: 5). Even Kupperman and Trent acknowledge that "Generally speaking, chemical detectors could be used to interdict selected chemicals were close-in inspections feasible. Obviously, if chemical detectors were distributed widely, they could give warning during the first minutes of such an attack" (1979: 85). However, they go on:

Since almost any public gathering is a potential target, terrorists cannot always be denied access to their target. Technology may be able to reduce this threat through detectors for trace amounts of hazardous substances....A considerable amount of development is still needed because there are many potential chemical agents. (1979: 89)


Without getting into specifics, Thornton emphasizes the need for contingency planning against chemical terrorism, including "studies on damage limitation," arguing that "The heated period following such an attack is neither conducive to diplomatic and military constraint, nor to the sound management of the situation itself" (1987: 9).

Finally, in the realm of political measures to help contain the threat of chemical terrorism, Joyner is a strong proponent of international arms control agreements, in particular the (then-emerging) Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC):

Any international response to prevent chemoterrorism hinges on the ability to restrict production of chemical weapons. Put simply, the most effective deterrent to the threat of chemoterrorism is to deny terrorists access to these weapons and the chemicals needed for their production—that is, to stem the dangerous tide of the chemical weapons proliferation and to secure agreement for a comprehensive, effectively verifiable ban on their production, dissemination, stockpiling and use. (1990: 141)

Sources: Canadian Security Intelligence Service