The importance of chemical detection in the context of terrorist threats, part II

Following the ideas established in the previous article about the importance of chemical detection, it is crucial to analyze which actors (state or non-state) are the most dangerous for the European Union states and societies. Chemical agents, both Chemical Warfare Agents and Toxic Industrial Chemicals, are still under strict control not only on state levels but also on European and international ones. The international community (UN as well as NATO) is still seeking new solutions to protect global and local security systems from the spread of illegal chemical agents which can be used by terrorists and members of international organised crime groups. Despite global, regional and local efforts, chemical agents are constantly used by state actors (such as Syria and Iraq) as well as during low-intensity military conflicts. Thus, the key questions here – from the EU perspective – are about the level of the risk of using chemical agents by terrorists in the European area and about the strength of Syrian conflict impact on the safety and security of Europe.

Let’s look carefully at involved actors who use, produce or are interested in gaining chemical agents. According to the data from European sources, primarily Europol, it is assumed that nowadays there are three types of entities capable of using different chemical agents to kill people to achieve political and military goals. These are states which are beyond the standard model of democracy (military or authoritarian regimes), terrorist groups (primarily Islamic State, also known as ISIS, Da’esh) and experts who are keen on sharing knowledge about producing and conducting attacks by using chemical agents. The last one is a diversified group, including individuals who do it because of religious, political or economical reasons.  

Iraq and Syria are two countries known for their attempts to produce chemical weapons in the last decades. Iraq during its modern history (XX and XXI century) initiated three offensive chemical weapons programs. One of them, implemented in the years 1978 – 1991, was successful and resulted in using several types of chemical agents (mustard gas, tabun, nerve agent) during Iran–Iraq War (1983–1988). It caused the deaths of thousands of Iranian and Kurdish people, including civilians. Several years after the Saddam Hussein era, in 2009, Iraq became a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The state, at that time, declared to have stockpiles of chemical weapons. According to a few researchers, some chemical agents used by Islamic State to carry out attacks may come from those storage bunkers. In July 2014, the Iraqi UN ambassador informed that some parts of chemical equipment were stolen from the site at Muthanna, the place where chemical weapons from Saddam Hussein chemical program were stored – including chemical munition storage bunkers, which could have contained rockets filled with sarin. There are voices though, among experts, that sarin found after such a long time could not maintain its efficiency – the degree of purity would be too low. All in all, the Iraqi offensive chemical weapons program from the years 1978 – 1991 can be considered a potential source of equipment and knowledge likely to be used by terrorist groups, especially by Islamic State.

The second mentioned country – Syria – is also the potential source of chemical weapons. The current politics of Bashar al-Assad resulting in, among others, dropping chlorine bombs on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin and Qmenas in March 2015 is an important case here. There is also evidence of using chemical weapons by the Syrian Air Force more than several times – mostly during local conflicts. Furthermore, terrorists from Islamic State operating on Syrian areas are able to acquire knowledge, experts and equipment necessary to develop their own weapons, including ones based on toxic industrial chemicals – particularly in occupied regions, where chemical producing sites (military and industrial) are placed or where chemical agents are stored.

In conclusion, the irresponsible and hostile actions conducted by both countries – Iraq and Syria – have led to the increase of chemical weapons presence globally and have given terrorists tools for spreading fear and terror. 

More information about the topic can be found in the following open source:

  • C. McLeish, Recasting the Threat of Chemical Terrorism in the EU: the Issue of Returnees from the Syrian Conflict, “European Journal of Risk Regulation”, Vol. 8:4/2017

Next week, more information about the role of terrorist groups and experts cooperating with them in the process of using chemical agents as the deathly weapon.