SPEAKING FREELY Sarin a credible terrorism risk
By Weimeng Yeo
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Reports accusing the Assad regime of using sarin gas against rebel forces in Syria have once again raised the concern that chemical weapons can potentially fall into the hands of a terrorist group. This commentary will assess whether such a risk is credible.
Syria's chemical arsenal
Since the civil war in Syria, the Assad regime's chemical weapons program has been the subject of much speculation. While it is still unclear how significant is Syrian's chemical arsenal, many security analysts alleged it is the world's most potent and largest. According to a declassified French intelligence report released in
September 2013, the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile is believe to include more than 1,000 tons of agents and precursor chemicals. The report describes Syria's chemical arsenal as "particularly massive and diverse". Included in Syrian's chemical arsenal were large quantities of sulfur mustard, VX toxin as well as several hundreds of tons of sarin, representing the bulk of the Assad's chemical weapons.
Sarin is a colorless and odorless nerve agent that disrupts the nervous system by over-stimulating muscles and vital organs. It is a highly toxic chemical agent that can be inhaled as a gas or absorbed through the skin. In large doses, sarin gas suffocates its victims by paralyzing the muscles around their lungs.
The effectiveness of chemical weapons lies in their ability to cause major terror and disruption. A likely chemical attack would involve the use of a chemical agent such as sarin gas against a major metropolitan area such as a central business district or places with high population density such as a subway system, sports area, or airport. It is most lethal in a closed environment where exposure is the highest. As opposed to biological agents, a chemical attack is more identifiable and immediate steps can be taken to limit the exposure to the deadly agent and mitigate its consequence.
Terrorist groups and CBRN weapons
Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates have long shown an interest in using such weapons. Many of these groups have attempted to acquire such chemical weapons as part of their chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) arsenal. Apart from the statements these groups have made about their intention to use such weapons, there is also enough credible information in the last decade to show that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have tried to build their own CBRN development program.
Evidence of al-Qaeda research into chemical agents includes videotapes of tests of nerve gases on dogs and formulae for sarin gas recovered in Afghanistan. Fortunately, most of their research and development effort were lost when the US military forces destroyed al-Qaeda's Afghanistan headquarters and training camps in late 2001.
Chemical weapons appeal more to religious terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda than to other types of terrorist groups. The logic behind this is that while more "secular" terrorist groups might hesitate to execute a mass casualty attack for fear of alienating their support network, religious terrorist organizations regard such violence as not only morally justified but as expedient to their goals.
The most successful chemical attack to date by a non-state actor was the Tokyo subway sarin attack perpetuated by the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995. The members of Aum Shinrikyo carried six packages of sarin gas on to Tokyo subway trains and punctured the packages with umbrella tips. The attack killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500, many of whom were first responders that had arrive on the scene to assist the injured.
Terrorism risk scenario
Though producing and dispersing large quantities of chemical agent such as sarin is complex and expensive, a determined terrorist organization can obtain such weapons. In Syria, there are two likely situations through which such agents can be acquired. The first is the pilfering of chemical agents from an ammunition depot by Syrian rebels, which include terrorist groups within their fold. Second is the supplying of chemical agents to Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group who are strong allies of the Assad government.
While such scenarios cannot be discounted, such risk stills need to put into perspective. Even with the chemical agents easily available, the technological hurdle involved in perpetrating a mass chemical attack remains significant. Obtaining the chemical agent is merely the first step in the development of a chemical weapon.
A terrorist group still requires the technical expertise in order to "weaponize" and deploy the agent to its target. Information discerned from various jihadist publication posted online clearly illustrate that such groups are still very weak in technical acumen when it comes down to actually assemble and construct such chemical weapons. Instead, these publications merely focus on simple poisons and the possibilities of terrorist attacks on industrial infrastructure that may cause a chemical or radiological contamination.
Supplying chemical weapons to a terrorist group by a state entity, as is in the case of providing a chemical weapon to Hezbollah, would be of greater concern and risk. However, it is unlikely that national governments would supply chemical weapons to such terrorist groups, as the government would not have complete control over the terrorists' use of such potent weapons. While Hezbollah enjoys significant autonomy, it operates firmly within the strategic influence of their Iranian patrons. In addition, giving a terrorist group a chemical agent to orchestrate a mass casualty attack exposes the donor state to a massive retaliation once the operation is executed. Similarly, just as states will not provide CBRN agents to any terrorist organization, they are highly unlikely to sell them either.
In conclusion, the threat of Assad's chemical arsenal falling into the hands of a terrorist group is a cause of concern, but the risk remains limited due to the complexity of implementing and using such weapons, and the unwillingness of countries to supply them to terrorist groups.
Weimeng Yeo is a lead modeler on the Model Development team at Risk Management Solutions (RMS), and is a key member of the team responsible for the development of RMS' terrorism modeling solutions. Prior to his tenure at RMS, Weimeng worked at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He received his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Colby College in Maine and a Master's degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University in Washington DC at the School of Foreign Service.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.