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Terrorist Use Of Chemical Weapons Essay, Research Paper


It was another calm early morning on the subway train. Many of the passengers were napping on their way to work. The train slowed to a stop to allow more passengers on, then sped along to its destination, the central government dist rict in Tokyo. Many of the passengers found it strange that a man who got on at the last stop was wearing sunglasses, but soon dismissed it remembering how safe the subways and their homeland have always been. Well, they were mistaken.

The man with the glasses got off the train before it reached its destination, but wait, had he forgotten something. By the time anyone became suspicious many people on the train were coughing. Those near enough to see the package and the clear liquid s eeping from it began feeling dizzy and many were bleeding from the nose and mouth.

This was not the only train car to receive such a dangerous package. This and four similar incidents took place at about the same time in the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. The five packages were disguised to look like lunch boxes or soda conta iners and it was reported that the chemical agent used was an impure or dilute solution of sarin, a nerve agent developed by Nazi Germany during the ’30’s. This was the beginning of a frightening future for the modern world. “Organized and indiscriminat e murder” (Tokyo, A1) on a large scale is clearly possible and chemical weapons are likely to be a terrorist’s vehicle for mass destruction.

The threat of terrorist use of chemical weapons is now quickly forcing its way into the thoughts of people all around the world. The attack in Japan, “says Israeli terrorism expert Yonah Alexander, ‘has global implications. It’s a quantum leap to terro rism by mass destruction” (Strasser, 36). There is such broad selection of chemical weapons exhibiting such diverse characteristics that the very nature of these substances make them quite suitable for terrorist use. There are many more advantages for t errorists to use chemical weapons rather than conventional ones, and the disadvantages that do exist seem quite small. In general it seems that the chemical weapons may become a key component in the terrorist arsenal. If this threat is left unchecked th e world’s population may soon live under a dark cloud of constant fear. This would be the fear that any crazy person, terrorist, or activist group has the potential to commit random acts of brutal mass murder at low cost and relatively low risk to themse lves.

Classification of Chemical Weapons

The broad spectrum of chemical agents capable of causing damage to living organisms often make discussion of such compounds difficult. Because of this our discussion shall be limited to substances effecting humans only. There are sev eral different ways to classify such agents but most useful is to classify them by their effects. There are four major categories under which the chemical agents may be classified; these include the blister agents, the choking agents, the blood agents, a nd the nerve agents.

The blister agents are intended to “cause incapacitation rather than death” (Dunn, 4). These agents were used extensively during World War I, and their use by a terrorist group depends largely on the groups objectives and moral sta nding. Obviously if the intention of a chemical attack was to injure many people and overload a regions medical facilities while causing as few deaths as possible, then a blister agent such as lewisite or mustard gas may be the best choice.

Choking agents were the agents most used during WW I, but have lost much of their usefulness since the advent of the nerve agents. These substances are intended to cause death and offer their greatest advantage to terrorists by being easily obtained. Phosgene, or CG as it is designated by the military, is a common industrial chemical with a moderate lethal dose, and is a choking agent.

Cyanide based compounds are the main components of the blood agents. Hydrogen cyanide (AC) is a blood agent which has a lethal dose slightly higher than that of phosgene but is less effective due to its rapid rate of evaporation. Th ese compounds aren’t really suited for use on large numbers of people, so their primary role would most likely be in assassinations.

The newest trend in chemical weapons have been the nerve agents. The original nerve agents were developed by German scientists during the 1930’s as insecticides then were developed into chemical weapons by the Nazi military. Since t hen these agents, sarin, tabun, soman, and others, have been the main weapon stockpiled as chemical weapons. In general they are hundreds to thousands of times more lethal than blister, choking, and blood agents. These chemicals are the most useful to t errorists because of the small quantity needed to inflict a substantial amount of damage. These chemicals, in their most effective form, are more difficult to obtain. VX and sarin, the most toxic of the nerve agents, can be synthesized by “a moderately competent organic chemist, with limited laboratory facilities” (Kupperman, 65).


The use of these chemical agents offer many advantages to the terrorists who use them. Many of these advantages are unique, or in other words exhibit qualities which conventional weapons lack. The other advantage is the severity of chemical weapon’s effects. These advantages include the limited capability of anti-terrorist groups of detecting such weapons, the low cost and low technology required to develop chemical weapons, their extremely frightening image and the overall eff iciency of such weapons.

One of the difficulties which has long plagued chemical warfare defense also lends difficulty to counter terrorist capabilities. This is the lack of effective detectors. Very few chemical warfare (CW) agents can be reliably detecte d when in use. And these substances are virtually impossible to detect while being stored in a closed container. This lack of available detection technology makes CW agents ideal to transport and conceal due to their clandestine nature.

Chemical weapons have long been considered “the poor man’s atomic bomb” (Oberdorfer, A1) due to their relative low cost and ease of manufacture. This is supported by a group of experts who said that “for a large-scale operation agains t a civilian population, casualties might cost $2,000 per square kilometer with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with nerve-gas weapons and $1 with biological weapons” (Anderson). The argument that chemical weapons are too difficult for most terrorists to manufacture was discredited when a CIA report “concluded that ‘clandestine production of [chemical and biological weapons] for multiple casualty attacks raises no greater technical obstacles than does the clandestine production of c hemical narcotics or heroin” (Stern, 402). These factors make chemical weapons attainable, not only to well funded terrorist groups, but also to any disgruntled postal employee or other lunatic.

One of the aspects which makes chemical weapons such an appropriate weapon for a terrorist is the name terrifying nature of chemical weapons. Ever since the first use of chemical weapons they have been criticized and ridiculed by c ivilians and soldiers alike. They’ve been considered unconventional, uncivilized, and even gruesome. These adjectives have also been employed often when describing terrorists. In general terrorists thrive off of the shock factor of their activities and chemical warfare exhibits a high degree of shock factor. Therefore, the use of chemical weapons may “enhance” many terrorist groups’ images.

The final advantage offered by chemical weapons is their enormous ability to inflict casualties. These weapons are extremely cost effective and 40 times more weight effective than conventional explosive weapons (Kupperman, 57). The overall efficiency of CW agent combined with all of the previously mentioned advantages make a frighteningly inexpensive, undetectable, and efficient weapon.


As with all methods of terrorism there are disadvantages to the use of chemical weapons. Some of these disadvantages will be encountered by terrorists regardless of their methods, and some are unique to chemical weapons. Two of the m ajor disadvantages of chemical weapons are due to their terrifying and deadly nature, this may have two affects. The first affect may be an increased effort in retaliation from anti-terrorist forces, the second disadvantage is that chemical weapons may h urt the image of some terrorist groups if not used within the terrorist’s beliefs. Following the assessment of whether or not to use chemical weapons, the terrorist must now obtain the necessary chemical agents. After acquiring the agents the terrorists would have to decide how they can effectively dispense the agent at as little risk to themselves as possible.

Regardless of the nature of any terrorist action some type of retaliation can be expected from the victimized group. The severity of that group’s reaction depends on several factors. The first factor to consider is who the group is, for instance any terrorist activity in the United States is responded to with remarkable force and speed, as was seen with the quick response to bombing of the World Trade Center. The same can be assumed of any attack in any major country. Also the meth od of the attack will contribute to a victim’s response. In general, the more horrible an attack is the retaliation is likely to be or seem to be more severe. However, in reality, the overall impact of this retaliation on the terrorist group is probably going to be about the same. Take the World Trade Center bombing for example, a few radicals filled a van with several thousand pounds of explosives and detonated it in a parking garage below a large building. This killed a few people and injured a few hundred or so. Had those terrorists decided to somehow distributed 100 grams of sarin the ventilation system of the building the only real difference in the operation would be a change in the method of the attack. There would probably be about the same number of casualties, and the offending persons would be in the same place they are now, prison.

Not only must a terrorist group consider the political factors associated with the employment of chemical weapons, but there are also a few minor technical problems to overcome. The most obvious of these technical difficulties is the method of obtaining the necessary chemical agents. This, however, is not as difficult as it may seem. One way to get chemical weapons is to manufacture them. As discussed earlier, small groups or individuals frequently manufacture a variety of narcotic substances secretly. These people easily overcome difficulties similar to those encountered in the manufacture of chemical weapons. So, the answer to the question, of whether or not the development of chemical weapons is within a terrorist’s ability, i s yes.

Another way for terrorist groups to get chemical weapons would be to purchase them. They can either be purchased from an illegal source, such as from a former Soviet state or from a sympathetic third world country, or deadly indus trial chemicals can be legally purchased and employed in a chemical attack. Since the break down of the U.S.S.R. the black market for military goods has increased significantly. The Soviet Union had and possibly still has a large stockpile of chemical w eapons. The media and public have overlooked the serious threat of chemical weapons being sold, this is due largely to the overpowering fear of the sale of nuclear material or devices. Even a NATO official said he was “more concerned about chemical weap ons” (Stern, 400) falling into terrorist hands. There is definitely a threat of this type of sale, but if this isn’t the route, there are always terrorist groups which have connections with nations sympathetic to their cause who may have better access to such weapons.

Illegal purchase isn’t the only way terrorists could acquire a chemical agent with dangerous properties. Many industrial chemicals are closely related to chemical weapons; in fact several industrial chemicals were even employed as c hemical weapons during World War I. Chlorine and phosgene were both used extensively by both the German, British, and French during the war. Although these substances are far less lethal than the nerve agents, they are quite common and have “many legiti mate industrial applications” (Dunn, 5). Even more frightening is that an entire class of industrial chemicals are of a highly toxic nature. These are the organophosphates, in fact this is also the class of chemical to which sarin (GB) and VX belong. T hese chemicals are commonly used as insecticides and include parathion, an insecticide notorious for the threat it poses to those who use it. The lethal doses for the industrial chemicals of this class are in general ten to fifty times higher than those of the military agents, however they are still very dangerous with lethal doses ranging from 1.05 to 7.0 mg/kg (Mullen, 253-254), which translates to .000698 kg for a 220 pound person. As one may realize that many of these industrial agents are well suit ed for use as a weapon, and that their legitimate uses make it particularly difficult to regulate sales. So, in general chemical compounds suitable for use as a weapon are abundant and easily available, regardless of the method used to acquire them.

Once a terrorist group has decided to use chemical weapons and has obtained them the final obstacle is to effectively use them without causing harm to themselves. This is merely an engineering feat, which would pose little trouble to most of the terrorist groups at their current technology level. A government study even reported that “the level of technological sophistication required [for effective use of chemical agents] . . . may be lower than was the case for some of the soph isticated bombs that have been used against civilian aircraft” (Stern, 399). In this age of increasing education and booming technology, it is much easier to find the necessary technical and mechanical assistance for any project, legal or otherwise.

The Future

Now that the world has progressed so far that mass destruction is within reach of a far greater percentage of the population, the likeliness of an incident involving weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical weapons, is much greater. The future holds many developments in store for the civilized world, when it comes to terrorists and chemical weapons the threat is real and deadly. Many things are taking place which will contribute to the spread of this plague. The first tw o concern chemical weapons alone, these are the development of binary weapons and the further proliferation of chemical weapons to nations sympathetic to terrorists. The next group concerns the nature of terrorism. This includes the simple increase of t errorist activity, the crackdown by anti-terrorist forces on traditional methods, and the decrease in the reluctance of a terrorist group to use chemical weapons due to the successful incident in Tokyo last month.

Recent events have made chemical weapons even more desirable as a terrorist weapon. The first is the development of the binary weapon. This is a chemical weapon in which the agent is stored as two precursor chemicals which only nee d to be combined to form the final lethal product. This reduces the risk that a terrorist must face in the storage and transport of their weapons, it also reduces the threat of accidental exposure upon dispersal of the agent. If the chemical device is e ngineered correctly, with some sort of time delay, the terrorist could be long gone even before the lethal agent is made.

Another factor which will contribute to the terrorist use of chemical weapons is the spread of chemical weapons capability to third world countries which may have connections with terrorists. “Iran, Iraq, Libya, N. Korea and Syria all listed by the State Department as supporters of terrorism are believed to posses some capability for chemical and biological warfare” (Stern, 399). And can be considered possible sources of chemical weapons for terrorists. Although the Chemical We apons Conference has reduced the proliferation of chemical weapons and, in fact, made it illegal to develop and stockpile chemical weapons, the amount of chemical agent necessary for a terrorist operation would be extremely difficult to detect and can eve n be justified by claiming it as research material.

After considering the chemical weapons themselves, one needs to realize that terrorists haven’t been inactive in recent years. Quite the contrary is true, the world has seen an increase in terrorist incidents by 400% from the 1970 s to the 1980s (Stern, 394). With this increase in terrorism the diversity of terrorist attacks are likely to increase. Within this increase in diversity chemical weapons are more likely to find their way into more incidents, and in general find a wider acceptance as a viable technique available to terrorist groups.

Along with the increase in terrorism there has been an significant increase in anti-terrorism activity and capabilities. As police and government authorities world wide become better prepared to handle terrorist activities, and m ore anti-terrorist technology is developed, the traditional methods terrorists are accustomed to using become less likely to succeed. With most of the anti-terrorist developments focusing on preventing hi-jackings and bombings, the difficulty encountered by terrorists attempting to use these techniques has increased. With the increase in complications the chances of success are reduced enough to force some terrorists to consider alternate methods. Among the alternates are chemical weapons with all of t he advantages they offer.

Lastly, and most important of all, there has been a breech in the invisible barrier which has kept terrorists from using chemical weapons in the past. The CIA has warned that if this barrier were breached by “one successful incident in volving such [lethal] agents [it] would significantly lower the threshold of restraint on their application by other terrorists” (Anderson). This barrier was composed of fear and uncertainty. The terrorists were afraid of the consequences of such a weap on and the danger to themselves, and they were uncertain of the success of such an attack. Now, after the sarin attack in Japan in March, it is obvious how effective a small amount of chemical agent is at tying down a subway system, injuring thousands of people, and enraging people all over the world. This essentially opened the door to a whole new form of terrorism. The only thing now keeping terrorists from using chemical weapons is their lack of knowledge, and once they realize that the production o f these weapons is well within the scope of their operations, there will be very little left to stop them.


Now, with the threats becoming more and more real every day, one needs to consider what could be done to counter this great danger. To start with, counter terrorist organizations must continue with their information gathering and observations of terrorist organizations. The first specific step is that precursor chemicals or potential chemical weapons must be better regulated. Then response capabilities must be increased and improved to deal with chemical attacks, this should inc lude an improvement in chemical detection capabilities. And finally, the public must be better informed on the subject of chemical attacks, in specific “What to do in an emergency.”

Restricting chemicals used to make CW (chemical warfare) agents or used as CW agents, may be the least effective method of preventing terrorists from using chemical weapons. This merely increases the costs for a group to obtain their weapons. It does, however, reduce the chances of a “casual” terrorist using chemical weapons. The casual terrorist may not be willing to go through the difficulties of obtaining chemical weapons due to time considerations or a loss in motivation. Another way restrictions would help reduce CW is through the methods outlined in the Chemical Weapons Conference. This prevents the development or sale of chemical weapons by any of the signatory nations, and thus reduces the number of sources from whic h terrorists can acquire their weapons.

An improvement in preparedness for chemical attacks and the organization of a special team of experts for response to chemical attacks would be more successful than simply a restriction on chemicals. Many emergency agencies (like poli ce, fire departments, and hospitals) aren’t adequately supplied and trained to deal with chemical attacks, especially on a large scale. Just a slight increase in instruction on how to identify the signs of a chemical attack and deal with those affected m ay make quite a difference. Even more important would be the development of a government response team specifically trained to deal with large chemical attacks could improve the United States response capability drastically. This team would be composed of experts in the field of chemical weapons, the effects of those weapons and decontamination people and equipment. The number of capable people in this field is quite large but consists of mainly military personnel. What needs to be established is quic k method of deployment of these people and their equipment. Along with this skilled response team there needs to be increased detection capabilities. Most desirable would be a device which could be integrated into current airport x-ray and detection equ ipment. The increase in a counter terrorist group’s capability of detecting chemical weapons has the obvious advantage of preventing an attack before it happens. This should clearly be a priority of government officials.

Increased public knowledge is probably the best defense or response to the new chemical weapon threat. The ideal case would be a public knowledge campaign to teach people what the threats are and how to identify the signs of a chemica l weapon attack. It is, of course, impractical to expect such a “Just say no to chemical weapons” campaign to be implicated or even be listened to at this stage. But as soon as the people of the United States realize the threat it might become necessary . For the time being, education can be on the managerial level. Large corporations, schools, and buildings alike may designate a group of people to become educated in what to do in the event of such an emergency. This group could in turn instruct the m asses of people in an emergency. Likely targets of chemical attacks could also instruct their personnel and post signs regarding the response to such an emergency. For instance, if subway workers in the March incident, had been able to identify that che mical attack more quickly, their lives as well as the lives of others may have been saved. This increase in awareness would most likely contribute greatly to a reduction of chemical weapon casualties.

A Brief Conclusion

These possible solutions could seriously reduce the effectiveness of a terrorist chemical weapon attack. This type of attack has been in the public eye for a month now and has been lingering in the back of terrorist minds for ma ny years. Now with this increase in publicity everybody knows the terrifying effects of chemical weapons and it’s really only a matter of time before the United States has to deal with a similarly terrifying event.


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