INCREASED CONCERNS ABOUT CHEMICAL WEAPONS
THE ONGOING AND GROWING SCOURGE THAT THREATENS OUR FUTURE PART 2 OF 2
The ongoing and growing scourge that threatens our future; part 2 of 2
This is the second of a two-part series that explains some of the history of the development and deployment of chemical weapons by entities ranging from military units to civilians. It also clues us in on the status of current chemical warfare threats abroad and at home. The first part of this series appeared in the October 2017 issue of American Survival Guide.
INCREASED LETHALITY AND THE BINARY THREAT
Eric Croddy, former senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, highlighted the development of the Soviet nerve gas, “novichok”—a new class of extremely potent binary nerve agents that make civilians thousands of miles from any war front as vulnerable as people in the combat theaters of the Middle East.
It also gives chemical weapons an altogether different dimension that most chemical warfare (CW) specialists, until relatively recently, were only able to speculate about because there was so little known about it.
NOVICHOK IS REAL—AND IT’S BAD
Over the years, I was in regular contact with Croddy—until he was grabbed by PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) and moved to Hawaii. He told me that “for a while, I thought novichok might never have existed; but then, I learned the truth.”
What he discovered was that the Soviets had created a unique, toxic compound that was seven or 10 times more potent than other CW agents, such as VX, sarin and soman. He admits to having been awed by novichok’s remarkable potency.
Early reports spoke of this nerve gas as being able to defy medical treatment; that it could filter through all known Western gas masks; and that CW field detectors were not able to spot it. One of those who had worked with it said that strategically, novichok has another advantage: It can be used in ultra-cold temperatures and won’t freeze on the battlefield like most other chemical warfare agents. Worse, says Croddy, “… novichok binary components were specifically designed to be indistinguishable from civilian pesticide manufacture. It can, or so it is claimed, be made in any fertilizer factory,” he stated.
Significantly, a “binary weapon” is made of two ingredients that become lethal only after they are combined—usually, shortly before detonation—which makes them easily and safely transportable. In contrast, with unitary chemical weapons, such as VX and sarin (which was acquired by Syria, Iran and some other Middle Eastern states, including Iraq—when Saddam Hussein was still around), the ingredients are already combined in the manufacturing process. Unitary weapons, consequently, are lethal from the start.
RUSSIAN SECRET CHEMICAL PROGRAMS EXPOSED
When first disclosures that Moscow had been working on a succession of topsecret binary weapons programs became public, the news could not have come at a worse time for the Russians. It followed the signing of a bilateral agreement between the United States and the
Soviet Union in 1990 for both countries to reduce their respective chemical warfare stockpiles. The end of the Cold War was in sight. In any event, the 1972 tripartite convention among the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union precluded such activity. As a consequence, the revelations were a public relations disaster.
Thus, in 2002, the intelligence community was rocked when it read a report titled “A Poisoned Police” in the weekly, recently uncensored Moscow News. Written by Russian scientist Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, the article disclosed that Russia had been clandestinely building a new class of secret, highly effective binary weapons all along. This program was so successful, he declared, that those involved were actually honored with the Lenin Prize at a Kremlin function.
Dr. Mirzayanov, a 26-year veteran of the Soviet CW program, and his associate, Lev Fedorov, went public about novichok in what they termed were “the interests of humanity.” For his efforts, Mirzayanov was arrested and jailed for revealing state secrets.
Also associated with the exposure was Vladimir Uglev, another Soviet scientist. He said in an interview that he had helped invent the agent. Although he was locked out of his laboratories by the authorities, Uglev warned that unless charges against Mirzayanov and others were dropped, he would publicly disclose the chemical formula of the controversial binary agent.
The ploy worked, even though it had been a bluff. After Yuri Baturin, security advisor to the Russian parliament, convinced him to keep the details secret, Uglev admitted he really didn’t have the information. Meanwhile, Mirzayanov (after his release from prison) immigrated to the United States, where there were Americans who badly wanted to talk to him about those secret weapons programs.
For his part, Fedorov has since written two historical accounts of the Soviet Union’s development of chemical weapons.
Another scandal followed not long afterward. Russian Lieutenant General Anatoly Kuntsevich, a graduate of the (Soviet) Military Academy of Chemical Defense in 1958 and author of more than 200 works, was dismissed from his position as head of the Center of Ecotoximetry at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Chemical Physics.
In a furious exchange with his fellow generals, he was charged with helping smuggle a quantity of CW nerve agent precursors to Syria. Unlike most of his colleagues, who often made no secret of the fact that they despised Arabs, this dissident officer had always maintained close ties with the Syrian president’s advisors.
Kuntsevich’s political sentiments can possibly be gauged from the fact that while all this was unraveling, he tried to win a parliamentary seat in the Duma with Zhirinovsky’s reactionary party (which had been tainted by numerous anti-semitic utterances).
It is of note that Kuntsevich (who shared the Lenin Prize for his work in binary chemical weapons with three others) never denied his actions. He justified his contacts with Syria on the basis that it was all part of a deal that had been authorized under a “long-standing contract obligation” with the Assad regime.
(It is worth mentioning that following a visit to several Former Soviet Union [FSU] states, Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times, visited the so-called Chemical Research Institute in Nukus, Uzbekistan. There, Soviet defectors and American officials told her the institute was the site of a major research-and-testing facility for chemical weapons.)
At that stage, the United States and Uzbekistan had quietly negotiated a bilateral agreement to provide 6 million dollars in American aid in decontaminating and dismantling one of the largest of these chemical weapons facilities. In an interview in Tashkent with Uzbeki Deputy Foreign Minister Isan M. Mustafoev, the
… THE SOVIETS HAD CREATED A UNIQUE, TOXIC COMPOUND THAT WAS SEVEN OR 10 TIMES MORE POTENT THAN OTHER CW AGENTS …
comment to Miller was, “We were shocked when we first learned the real picture.”
The Soviet Union was crumbling in 1992, when more than 300 scientists at the plant packed their bags and headed home. Following a refusal by the Russians to disclose what had been going on, Ms. Miller was able to visit the Chemical Research Institute, a closed military complex in Nukus in the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan.
“… in one room stood a large test chamber into which smaller animals were placed for testing … another room contained treadmills for dogs and dozens of testing harnesses to cram dogs’ muzzles into gas masks, leaving their bodies exposed,” she reported. The device enabled scientists to expose either the dogs’ skin or lungs to lethal chemical agents, Uzbeki and American experts told her.
Ms. Miller expressed the view that information had been slowly emerging about hundreds of open-air chemical tests at the Nukus plant and on the neighboring Ustyurt Plateau. She described the plateau as an equally inhospitable desert several hundred miles west of the Aral Sea, which Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan share.
THE MIDDLE EAST IS NOT THE ONLY REGION WHERE CHEMICAL WEAPONS HAVE RECENTLY BEEN USED TO KILL PEOPLE.
CHEMICAL ATTACK CONCERNS IN THE UNITED STATES
With all that said, it is important for Americans to be aware that their country leads the way in hazardous materials response—including potential attacks that might involve chemical weapons—because, simply put, it has to.
The issue was originally encapsulated by Dr. James W. Boone, vice president of the Operation Respond Institute, Inc. in Washington, D.C. His view was that ‘‘ … today’s emergency responders— police, fire and medical—need to help as never before in gauging the correct response to hazardous materials incidents. First responders need to know immediately if hazardous materials are involved and what steps to take. If they do not, they might become the first casualties.”
Issues are compounded by the fact that there is almost as much movement of dangerous materials on U.S. roads, railways, ships and airlines as the rest of the world put together. Accidents involving some of these substances are serious; and the newspapers regularly carry reports of them.
Now, there is another dimension: international terrorism. A wider and more-diverse variety of weapons has become available to insurgent groups. Add to that the threat of biological or chemical weapons (some of which have already been used, such as VX nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995), and the potential for a catastrophe is real.
Europe and parts of Asia are not far behind. Effectively, the management of hazardous materials worldwide has become big business. The responsible authorities have been particularly active in the United States. In recent years, more than 100 cities
have quietly embarked on a series of emergency training programs to counter the threat of this kind of warfare. Mock chemical and biological warfare attacks have been held in San Francisco, Chicago, several New York boroughs, Houston, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Significantly, this activity is secret: The media have been barred from most demonstrations. Exercises have included filtering nonlethal pathogens through New York’s subway system and using the wind to waft simulated chemical agents onshore in the San Francisco area.
Every police force in the country has been circularized by the responsible authorities, and all have been provided with instructions regarding how to react should there be such an attack. Among several best sellers to thousands of municipal, state and government departments is a publication titled Jane’s Chem-bio Handbook, which is available to anyone.
While still living in the United States, I was invited to visit a Federal HAZMAT training installation run by the U.S. Department of Energy. The 120-acre area lies adjacent to the former Hanford nuclear weapons manufacturing facility in eastern Washington (state). This is the Volpentest Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) Training and Education Center on the outskirts of Richland, Washington.
The establishment is one of the biggest in the world and is extensive, hosting specialists involved in these disciplines from all over the United States, as well as from a select range of foreign countries. More recently, it acquired a law enforcement training center that includes 10,000 adjacent acres of shooting ranges and tactical training facilities.
The facility is managed by Fluor Daniel Hanford. Karin Mcginnis, a director of the center, told me that the aim was to serve clients in a variety of federal agencies (including the State Department, FBI and Secret Service), state and tribal governments, labor unions, academic institutions, industry, professional associations and others. Its strength is the astonishing number of realistic props that have been set up in the semi-desert terrain, where realistic reenactments of disasters are performed.
Last word on this topic goes to Dr. Jane Orient, who published what is regarded today as a seminal article on the subject in The Journal of the American Medical Association: “Chemical and Biological Warfare: Should Defenses be Researched and Deployed?”
I quote: “Dr. Orient made observations that were strident at a time when such matters were regarded by the medical world as arcane; especially where they concerned Third World nations and their relationships to the West.”
NEWS OF THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS IN SEVERAL MODERN-DAY CONFLICTS HAS BEEN COMING TO LIGHT ON AN ALMOST REGULAR BASIS.
She pointed out that against civilian populations, chemical and biological weapons were extremely attractive because of simple economics. Casualties might cost $2,000 per square mile with conventional weapons, $800 with nerve gas—and a single dollar with biological weapons. This was a groundbreaking prognosis, and her peers acknowledged it accordingly.
RECENT CHEMICAL ATTACKS
News of the use of chemical weapons in several modern-day conflicts has been coming to light on an almost regular basis.
Russian and Syrian warplanes attacked the small, but strategic, rebel town of Khan Sheikhoun (located about 30 miles south of the city of Idlib in northern Syria) early on April 4, 2017, killing dozens of people, almost all of whom had been asleep when nerve gases were dispersed.
Six weeks later, Washington disclosed that the Islamic State (IS) terror group has formed a chemical weapons cell situated in Syria along the Euphrates River Valley, not far from the embattled city of Mosul.
The ongoing scenario is horrific and hardly isolated. Apart from threatening to use clandestine IS agents to move some of these weapons onto American soil, there were two chemical attacks by the Islamic State on Kurdish Peshmerga forces last December and January.
Reports have since emerged that Syria’s President Assad—having declared that all his chemical weapons assets had been handed over to United Nations inspectors—actually retained enormous supplies of nerve gases. These include sarin, VX and tabun. A single drop of any one of them on a human’s skin will result in death within minutes.
All that was underscored by newspaper reports in Britain and Israel (following leaks by the Mossad) that Assad had retained hundreds of tons of chemical weapons after he had assured United Nations weapons inspectors that everything had either been destroyed or handed over. Specific details came from Syrian Brigadier General Zaher al-sakat, who had defected to the West.
Sakat, formerly head of Assad’s chemical warfare program in the
Syrian army’s Fifth Division, told London’s Daily Telegraph in a report dated April 14, 2017, that Assad’s regime failed to declare large amounts of sarin precursor chemicals and other toxic materials that had been held back. He added that these chemicals and toxic materials have since been used in WMD attacks on suspected rebel towns.
However, the Middle East is not the only region where chemical weapons have recently been used to kill people.
Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, was murdered by one of Un’s spy agencies at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13, 2017. He was discreetly accosted by two women at the airport terminal while on his way to board a plane to the Chinese territory of Macau. Both were later exposed as agents of North Korea’s secret intelligence service. Nam died on his way to the hospital fewer than 20 minutes later, according to Malaysian investigators, who said the women had surreptitiously pricked him in the back with a needle laced with a VX nerve agent.
It is notable that in a recent video released in May 2017 by the Islamic State featuring a purportedly American fighter using the handle “Abu Hamza al-amriki,” photos of various locations for future attacks in the United States were displayed. These included the Las Vegas Strip, New York’s Times Square and several banks in Washington, D.C., along with some major baseball and NFL sports centers.
In the past, chemical warfare attacks on civilians were perceived as threats other countries had to deal with. Unfortunately, as motivation and audacity among America’s enemies increase, and the barriers to acquisition and deployment recede, it makes more sense than ever to learn as much as possible about this range of threats and plan—to the degree it’s possible—to defend yourself from this insidious menace.
A Malaysian HAZMAT team conducts a decontamination operation at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport almost two weeks after Kim Jong Nam was assassinated there with a lethal dose of VX nerve agent.
A man carries a child following a suspected chemical weapons attack of a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province. (Photo: Syria Picture Files)
Turkish experts carry a victim of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syrian city of Idlib at a local hospital in Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey. (Photo: Wiki Photo)
Syria denies using chemical weapons— despite these pictures (and autopsies on dead children). (Photo: Human Rights Watch)
Left: The body of a victim of a Syrian chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus is moved out of the killing zone.
Below: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley shows pictures of Syrian victims of chemical attacks as she addresses a meeting of the Security Council on Syria at United Nations headquarters. (Photo: United Nations)
Above: This was a chemical weapons installation in Libya that was eventually destroyed by NATO attacks. (Photo: NATO Headquarters)
Right: Men search for their relatives among the bodies of Syrian civilians who were executed.
Below: U.S. Air Force airmen from the 437th Airlift Wing carry a simulated casualty to a secure location during a mock gas attack as part of an expeditionary combat skills training.
Right: The chemical warfare symbol is used to identify weapons, agents, work areas or contaminated locations where these toxins might be present.