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Biological and Chemical Terror History

Lessons Learned?

The Iran-Iraq War

Iraq attacked Iran in 1980. Soon thereafter, it unleashed chemical weapons: a mustard agent and the nerve agent tabun, delivered in bombs dropped by airplanes.

  • An estimated 5% of Iranian casualties were due to the use of chemical weapons.
  • Soon after the war ended in 1988, Iraq appears to have used chemical weapons in attacks on Kurdish civilians.
  • It was alleged that Libya used chemical weapons -- obtained from Iran -- in attacks on neighboring Chad.
  • In 1991, Allied forces began a ground war in Iraq. There is no evidence that Iraq used its chemical weapons. The commander of the Allied Forces, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, suggested this may have been due to Iraqi fear of retaliation with nuclear weapons.

Lessons learned: Nations that have developed chemical weapons tend to use them during armed conflicts -- unless they fear overwhelming reprisal.

Terrorism

The technology to create chemical and even biological weapons appears to be within the grasp of organized and well-funded groups that use terror to advance their agendas. Some examples:

  • In 1974, acting alone, a Yugoslav immigrant named Muharem Kubergovic warned the Los Angeles Times that he was the chief military officer of a group preparing nerve-gas attacks. Because he said the first target would be "A" for airport, the press dubbed him the Alphabet Bomber. After his arrest, police found chemical weapons hidden in his apartment, including about 20 pounds of cyanide gas.
  • In 1984, federal agents raided an armed camp run by a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic group called The Covenant, The Sword, The Arm of the Lord. The group was alleged to have blown up a natural-gas pipeline and to have committed several other crimes in 1983. After the group's surrender, authorities found 30 gallons of potassium cyanide.
  • In 1984, followers of Bhagwan Shri Rashneesh sprinkled homegrown salmonella bacteria on supermarket produce, door handles, and restaurant salad bars in Oregon. Nobody died, but 751 people became ill. The poisonings were preparation for attacks meant to keep voters home during a local election in which a cult member was running for a county judgeship. Prosecution of cult leaders led to the dispersement of the organization.
  • In 1994, federal authorities charged two members of an anti-government militia, the Minnesota Patriots Council, with planning to use biological weapons for terror attacks. The men were stockpiling ricin, a biological toxin. Both were convicted.
  • In 1994, residents of Matsumoto, Japan, began turning up with symptoms of illness due to nerve gas. There were seven deaths and some 500 injuries. This was a test run for a second attack in 1995 in a Tokyo subway, in which 12 people died and thousands sought medical attention. The attacks came from the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was also trying to develop biological weapons based on botulism and Ebola virus.
  • In October 2001, an editor at the Florida-based tabloid The Sun died of anthrax traced to a letter. A newsroom employee also contracted anthrax but recovered. Meanwhile, anthrax-laden letters turned up at the offices of ABC, CBS, and NBC in New York. Several employees, as well as a New Jersey mail handler and a child that was in the ABC offices, developed cutaneous anthrax. Anthrax also is found in the New York office of Gov. George Pataki. In the same month, letters containing anthrax arrived at the Senate mailroom. Overall, 19 people developed anthrax infections; five died. Some 10,000 U.S. residents took two-month courses of antibiotics after possible anthrax exposures. The perpetrator(s) of these attacks has not yet been identified. Because the anthrax was of weapons grade or near-weapons grade, it appears to have come from a sophisticated laboratory.

Lessons learned: Terror groups find chemical and biological weapons well suited to their purposes. However, the difficulty of obtaining materials, preparing weapons, and delivering attacks has limited the number of casualties. Despite the relatively low number of actual casualties, biological and chemical weapons can clearly terrify large populations.

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