Hamish de Bretton-Gordon: Australian plot suggests an uptick in ambition of terrorists
Chemical weapons new -- but no surprise -- considering use by ISIS of toxic chemicals
Editor’s Note: Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army officer, is director of Doctors Under Fire, a campaign against attacks on hospitals in war zones. He is also the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear adviser to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. The views expressed here are his own.
Last week we learned that Australian security services had managed to disrupt an alleged terrorist plot involving the planting of a bomb aboard a Middle Eastern airliner – as well as the use of deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.
The plotters intended to place an improvised explosive device on board an Etihad Airways flight – many of which can carry more than 500 people. They also planned to release deadly chemicals in a confined space, “potentially on public transport,” authorities said.
Just thinking about an attack like this taking place on a commercial aircraft is horrific enough – the fact that the plotters were allegedly trying to use a chemical weapon as well suggests a significant escalation in the ambition of terrorists.
It is heartening that British and Australian intelligence services, working together, picked up the traces of this potential attack just in time. Chemicals, due to their signature, are usually rather easier to identify than other explosives. However, a small amount of hydrogen sulfide could easily be passed off as an innocuous substance and would need specialist equipment to detect it.
As a frequent air traveler in the US, the Middle East and Australia, I most enjoy the ease and simplicity of domestic travel in Oz, if not the cost.
Sadly, I expect this convenient travel in Australia and elsewhere is likely to become more complex, especially in the short run, to ensure that deadly chemicals cannot be taken onto planes or near large gatherings of people.
Many in the security world were horrified at the ease with which the deadly nerve agent VX was transported to Kuala Lumpa airport and used to assassinate Kim Jung Nam earlier this year. While the chemical weapon component of this plot introduces a new level of terror, it is also not a surprise that the ultimate terror organization is enthusiastic about these ultimate weapons of terror.
ISIS has become adept at using commonly available toxic industrial chemicals – like chlorine and hydrogen sulfide – and can manufacture crude chemical weapons, most successfully sulfur mustard, also known as mustard gas.
Mustard agent, developed in World War I as an incapacitant rather than a WMD, has proved a success for ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, especially against unprotected troops and civilians.
As ISIS is defeated in Iraq and squeezed in Syria, the jihadist’s sleeper cells and lone wolves are being directed to create terror, and the most likely highest priority targets are those democracies – like Australia, the UK and the US – who are responsible for the downfall of the caliphate in the Middle East.
The fact that a poison gas attack could have been the aim of this foiled attack should, in my opinion, not add to the element of terror.
We know the jihadists will look at all types of attack, from the very basic to the very complex. But each time we see a new modus operandi for an attack, we can work on ways of stopping further attempts in the future.
I have some personal experience with chemical weapons and air travel. After one of my trips to Syria in 2013 – where I had been collecting evidence on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in rebel areas – I was apprehended on my return to London on the suspicion I was carrying samples of the nerve agent Sarin. The whys and wherefores of are too bizarre to cover here, but suffice to say I wasn’t carrying any chemical samples. But I was comprehensively and effectively searched – and of course nothing was found.
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Given our knowledge of ISIS and the countermeasures the west has put in place to prevent their attacks, I have absolutely no qualms about traveling on airplanes anywhere in the world, and believe we are now safer than ever from chemical weapon attacks.
But it is crucial that the Five Eyes alliance (made up of the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) and other friendly intelligence services around the globe keep working closely to ensure we stay one step ahead of the terrorists.