Skip to main content

Public Information Is Key to Countering the New Chemical Weapons Threat

It isn't fear mongering to properly prepare the public.
Armed policemen patrol along Rue Du  Marche Aux Poulets on November 24, 2015, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

Armed policemen patrol along Rue Du Marche Aux Poulets on November 24, 2015, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

On March 16, in the northern Kurdish city of Halabja, Iraq, Iraqi men and women gathered around a monument erected to remind the world of the most devastating chemical weapons attack in modern times. In a single day, at least 5,000 people in Halabja died as a result of exposure to chemical agents sprayed from aircrafts. On the 28th anniversary of this dark event, survivors held faded pictures of dead relatives and cried. Many others died later of cancer and other illnesses, and the legacy of chemical contamination persists.

Unfortunately, the words "never again" could hardly be uttered at this moment of remembrance. Because over the past two years, the use of chemical weapons, including chlorine and mustard gas, has been documented by international observers in Syria and, more recently, on the Iraqi battlefront. They were reportedly used both by the Syrian Regime and by Islamic State fighters.

The latter fact should give us pause. United States and European governments are failing to prepare Western civilians for the possibility of chemical attacks in the near future. Chemical weapons weren't employed in the most recent ISIS attack in Belgium, but we must understand how the infusion of chemical agents could amplify the terrorists' impact. Whereas conventional attacks can kill dozens or hundreds, chemical agents can kill thousands if cunningly deployed. And even when used incompetently, they can stoke panic and complicate access to bombed sites, and thereby sabotage rescue operations, putting the wounded at greater risk of dying.

Governments must level with the public about the reality of this specific type of threat so, if it happens, they are better prepared and less impacted.

Proper preparations, of the kind that Israel has had to undertake ever since the 1991 Gulf War, can make an enormous difference. But preparedness takes time. It involves building dissemination centers for gas masks and circulating manuals for how to isolate one room in a building should the news of a nearby chemical attack break. Western governments have done some preparations, but they have been too discreet to count if the nightmare scenario, that now appears all too realistic, unfolds. And insofar as resources have in fact been deployed, they can only be used if people know how to use them. Keeping people in the dark is no way to prevent panic.

This is not meant to be fear mongering. Quite the opposite. Governments must level with the public about the reality of this specific type of threat so, if it happens, they are better prepared and less impacted. People should not be needlessly frightened. But they should be aware and ready.

At the moment, we are not. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was purportedly to prevent the possibility of "weapons of mass destruction falling in the hands of terrorists," the idea that the U.S. should ever intervene abroad to interdict WMD's has become taboo, because the widely accepted belief is that "no WMDs were found" in Iraq. The latter contention is not entirely true. While not enough WMD's were found to justify a war, the New York Times did report that, "from 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein's rule."

"In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act" the Times further clarified on October 14, 2014. If only a handful of these 5,000 shells were detonated or dispersed in a European or American city, the impact would be catastrophic.

U.S. intelligence claims that ISIS has not only gotten its hands on Syrian and Iraqi chemical weapons, they have also learned to build chemical weapons themselves. We've already seen the images of civilians in Syria and Kurdish troops fighting ISIS with such blistering wounds.

With the immigration crisis continuing unabated, ISIS does not face impossible odds when it comes to infiltrating Europe. Carrying chemical canisters into a large European city is not difficult. It is only a matter of dedication, and to detonate them correctly, training, both of which ISIS members appear to possess. Add to the mix their estimated capability to deploy and use chemical weapons, and we are indeed facing an entirely new reality. The least Western leaders can do is level with the public and engage large-scale efforts to prepare.

To be clear: The likelihood of chemical agents being spread as devastatingly as they were in Halabja is low, as neither ISIS or al-Qaeda is known to have the capability of commandeering planes and equipping them to spray. In truth, most of the shells found were tactical weapons, which only have localized impact and do not pose the same threat as, say, a nuclear warhead on a highly viral biological weapon. But we need to account for the fear factor, the panic that would accompany such an attack. The very point of terrorism as a strategy is to instill fear in civilians. And in not speaking about this for fear of worrying the public, governments are positioning themselves for a much more panicked population.

Any use of a dirty bomb (several instances of nuclear materials disappearing from universities in Iraq have been reported, as recently as this year in Basra) or of a chemical weapon, which we now know ISIS possesses, does not need to create mass casualties in the immediate explosion or dissemination to cause grand calamities. Imagine Paris, New York, or London falling victim to such an attack. Millions would seek to flee. Major economic hubs would be virtually shut down. Panic would grip markets across the globe. Jittery as they already are, it is not impossible that a few chemical shells disseminated in major cities might trigger a global economic meltdown. At a minimum, they would make our societies even more prone to the politics of fear, which have cost us dearly in the years since 9/11.

Preparation is of the essence. Public information is critical. If commemoration of such dark historical events are to have any meaning, they must help us heighten our awareness of the dangers we face and strengthen our readiness.

Fear of "spreading panic" is often a priority for governments that don't understand the line between the plausible and the probable. But the line is there and, this year, it has been crossed. Let the memory of Halabja remind us that information and preparedness are the first line of defense against attacks of the kind that intend to spread disproportionate levels of fear. Such attacks involving chemical agents have a high enough probability of occurring now that our leaders need to tell us how to best prepare for them.


This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.