Some experts say that a chemical attack plot on Western public transportation systems such as this one is inevitable: It is 0753 on a Tuesday morning at the busy red line subway station in Washington, D.C. The Islamic State group (IS) just claimed responsibility for a chemical attack that took place there by three IS supporters (two males and one female) about half past the hour. The Metrorail transportation staff and first responders are rushing to care for the victims of what seems to be a sulfur mustard attack.
This is a highly likely scenario according to some experts in the field of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives (CBRNE) preparedness and response. This scenario is feared in the United States and seems to be an imminent threat in Europe. In late October 2017, IntelNews.org stated that the German newspaper Die Welt reported that spies warned European security services of “a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State using chemical weapons.” They were warned that the Sunni militant group might assemble improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using chemicals or toxic gasses. This comes at a critical time as members of the IS head home to their residences in both Europe and the United States.
Reports of the scenario cautioned by the European intelligence agencies should not be underestimated. Such plots are plausible, as was the plot Australian authorities foiled in early August 2017. In that case, CNN reported that two brothers living in Sydney had received IED parts and instructions from a senior IS commander to detonate an explosive on a plane and disseminate a toxic hydrogen sulfide chemical at a public location in Australia.
A Westward Shift for Chemical Threats
As IS continues to lose control of territory in Iraq and Syria, supporters increasingly resort to unconventional means of causing mass disruption. In an interview published on 25 October 2017, Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the U.S. commander of the international military campaign against IS told the New York Times that the terror group currently only controls 5% of territory than it did in Iraq and Syria three years earlier. These claims are to be taken seriously. As the terror group loses physical ground, the West continues to witness a substantial increase in unconventional terror threats by IS through knife attacks and vehicle ramming incidents.
These unconventional means for IS to cause mass terror are only expected to rise as thousands of foreign fighters return home. According to The Soufan Center, a U.S.-based think tank, at least 5,600 IS supporters have returned home (spanning 33 nations) over the past two years as the group loses territory in Iraq and Syria. These findings come as the result of the liberation of Raqqa – the terror group’s de-facto capital for three years – by the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces had uncovered the names of thousands of registered foreign fighters who had joined IS from over 100 different countries, the BBC News reported.
The use of chemical weapons is reprehensible, and the general population who are in direct line of these attacks should be protected. As outlined by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) October 2017 report, there are many accounts of chemical weapons use by state and non-state actors against innocent civilians in both Iraq and Syria, including: the sulfur mustard attack by IS in Um-Housh; and the sarin attack by the Assad regime in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. Given the terror group’s ideology, it appears likely that IS supporters will eventually release such chemicals and toxin gasses – perhaps using drones as their delivery system – in a public location of a Western nation. The use of chemical weapons represents not only a physical threat, but also an act of psychological terrorism.
Never Underestimate the Enemy
In Issue 15 of the Dabiq magazine, IS calls on its jihadists to keep their operations “simple and effective,” use a weapon to “cause the most damage and panic,” and “terrify the disbelievers in their homelands.” Similarly, in Issue 9 of its more recent Rumiyah magazine, IS encourages supporters to lure innocent victims such as college students into their apartments by posting false “For Rent” signs with a contact number, then slaughtering and dismembering them. This is supplemented with their propaganda about using heavyweight trucks to crash into large crowds, thus causing the most casualties. People in the West live in uncertain times with an unpredictably dangerous enemy and a significant amount of threats.
It is important to document the urgency of public and domestic preparedness and provide proper training to first responders and local authorities as the first line of defense in resisting such attacks. Readiness is key when the unthinkable happens, and being prepared not only for responding to a toxic chemical incident, such as the scenario sketched earlier, but also having the proper tools to prevent these types of incidents from ever taking place. Such efforts are easier said than done, but they begin with the public being vigilant and reporting on unusual activities within their vicinities. Reporting anomalies and suspicious activities to local authorities ultimately saves lives and maintains homeland security.
Zamawang F. Almemar is a senior chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives (CBRNE) and non-conventional threat consultant. She is directly involved in counterterrorism efforts that specifically deal with acquisition and manufacturing of chemical and biological weapons, as well as improvised explosive devices. She is finishing her third masters degree in biodefense at George Mason University with emphasis on global terrorism and their use and acquisition of CBRNE threats to national security. She was born and raised in Sulaimanyiah, Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iran-Iraq war. She fled the atrocities of the Saddam regime, seeking asylum in the United States in 1997. Since then, she has achieved two bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry and two masters degrees in chemistry and mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS). At UCCS, she taught graduate courses in biology and mechanical engineering and was a Ph.D. graduate fellow in mechanical engineering conducting research focused on nanobiotechnology. She has numerous publications on spreading awareness about the chemical attacks by IS on the Kurdish population in Iraq and Syria and has conducted countless seminars and briefs to senior leaders and decision makers in the United States and the international community. She recently established her own company advising on CBRNE-related issues in theater.