Biological and Chemical Terror History
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
- 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
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.