Chemical Memory

This is an article published in our August/September 2016 Issue.

National Guard’s 5th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team
A member of the Illinois National Guard’s 5th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team (CST) checks her monitoring equipment during a CST external evaluation exercise. (US Army)

The first half of 2016 saw a series of violent acts which were either directed or inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. From three coordinated bombings in Brussels in March to countless person-borne and vehicle-borne suicide bombings in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Libya. 

The Cable News Network television channel reported in March 2016 that, since declaring its ‘caliphate’ in June 2014, ISIS has conducted, or inspired, nearly 75 terrorist attacks in 20 countries other than Iraq and Syria. Those attacks outside Iraq and Syria have killed at least 1280 people and injured more than 1770 others. In Iraq and Syria alone, the attacks have taken a much deadlier toll. In April 2016, the United Nations estimated at least 741 Iraqis, including more than 400 civilians, were killed and 1374 wounded in ISIS bomb attacks. On 3 July, 165 people were killed and at least 225 were injured in a vast truck bomb attack claimed by ISIS in Karrada, Baghdad.

As US-led military operations in Iraq and Syria continue to drive ISIS out from its areas of occupation, Chemical Weapons (CW) are being deployed by the organisation to defend its areas and to slow down opposing forces, chiefly the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas seeking to repulse the organisation from the areas it occupies. The militants are deploying widely spread webs of ‘daisy chain’ Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which involves several connected IEDs or mines buried usually beneath a road, with the first device set off by an approaching vehicle which triggers detonation by driving over a pressure plate in the device. The first detonation in turn sets off all the rest of the buried devices which are connected below the surface, thereby destroying an entire convoy.

Mixed Results

US Army Reserve Soldiers with the 388th CBRN company
US Army Reserve Soldiers with the 388th CBRN company took part in a joint training exercise at the Stevens Point Municipal Airport, Wisconsin, in October 2015 alongside the 409th Area Support Medical Company and local civilians and officials. (US Army)

How many ISIS IEDs incorporate chemicals or other CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) weapons and materials? There have been several dozen unverified reports of ISIS using CW in Iraq, mainly in IEDs and mortars, many of which are aimed at injuring Kurdish forces and often specifically target Iraqi EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams. According to CW expert Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon, who witnessed the after-effects CW attacks in the Iraqi theatre, Peshmerga forces fighting ISIS in Iraq were attacked with mustard gas eight times during a two-week period in February and March. These attacks caused more than 200 casualties, according to senior Peshmerga generals. While making significant technological advances in developing new weapons techniques (the process by which toxic chemicals are utilised in weapons) ISIS CW munitions are still basic, tending towards ground impacts, which disseminate less of the chemical agent than exploding the munitions above its target. The use of CWs by ISIS can slow down the advance of opposing forces, in keeping with their original, historical purpose of area denial; but as ISIS has not co-ordinated most of the CW attacks with infantry assaults, the chlorine and mustard gas is used mainly to harass the enemy and the attacks have not produced significant military advantage for ISIS.

industrial chemicals produced worldwide
Over half of the industrial chemicals produced worldwide rely on the manufacture of chlorine, with some 44 million tonnes produced globally each year. (Maksym Kozlenko)

Weapons of terror

The ISIS use of chlorine in IEDs is classed by many experts as mainly psychological warfare. Peshmerga chief of staff Colonel Srud al-Bazanji was reported by press agencies as having told Col de Bretton Gordon in April that “Normal weapons are better at causing death and injury but if you think chemical weapons are being used you are more afraid.” The injuries caused by these weapons are horrific and in areas with little available medical treatment or CBRN protection, may be long-lasting.

Chemical Access

After occupying areas in Syria and Iraq for their caliphate, ISIS gained access to industrial chemicals such as chlorine, phosphine and vinyltrichlorosilane, all of which form toxic gases, which it has used as CWs. In addition, ISIS began manufacturing its own mustard gas from chemicals it gained access to in Iraq during its conquests of territory. The use of chlorine in their IEDs stems from its ready availability as this chemical is banned by the CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) only if used as a weapon. ISIS found an abundance of the gas in during its conquest of parts of Syria; thus it is chlorine rather than mustard agent that may be most likely used in a civilian setting by ISIS cells operating in Europe.

Whence the Threat?

In February the director of US National Intelligence James Clapper said that ISIS is a concern to the United States “because of the indications are that they would like to use chemical weapons against us.” In early 2015 journalist Adam Withnall reported on the Australian government intelligence assessments that ISIS had “seized enough radioactive material from government facilities (it has captured in Iraq) to suggest it has the capacity to build a large and devastating ‘dirty’ bomb (radiological dispersal device).” This March an ISIS chemical weapons expert was captured by US Special Forces in Iraq. As with many such operatives, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari was once a specialist in chemical and biological weapons for Saddam Hussein. More Special Forces raids are targeting chemical weapons experts, and airstrikes are focusing on ISIS laboratories and equipment in both Iraq and Syria.

As well as spreading further into the Middle East and North Africa regions, the Asia-Pacific is in ISIS’ sights. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is a prime candidate for its eastward spread. On 14 January multiple blasts in the capital Jakarta were followed by the discovery of a chlorine-laden IED planted in a supermarket in the city by jihadists returning from fighting with ISIS in Syria. According to the Straits Times of Singapore, there are at least 700 fighters from Indonesia and over 200 from Malaysia fighting in Iraq and Syria. In late June, United States Forces Korea (USFK), which commands all US forces in the Republic of Korea (RoK), said that it stepped up security at its military installations after the RoK National Intelligence Service warned that ISIS had collected information to target 77 USFK military units across the country. The data on the locations of the units had been obtained from its hacking group, the ‘United Cyber Caliphate’. Please see the author’s The Other End of the Line article in this issue for more information on ISIS cyber activities.

Counting the Cost

The main responsibility for CBRN protection is shifting from militaries to local governments and the private sector. This is because non-state CW attacks involve municipalities and businesses as well as government. Local police and ‘hazmat’ (Hazardous Materials) teams now have a new role of securing vulnerable areas and events from CBRN threats and must work with public health and non-governmental agencies to identify and deal with threats; such agencies often do not have large military budgets or staffing resources. The shifting CBRN defence responsibility and the need to save on acquisition and operating costs is leading to the increasing adoption of dual-use protection and detection systems that are easy to use with minimal training.

Much emphasis in CBRN protection has been on systems and technology but, if coupled with a lack of reliable human intelligence on the ground, this may hamper the ability of law enforcement or intelligence organisations to pre-empt attacks. This problem is heightened by the increased risk and incidence of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, where a single individual may execute an attack on behalf of a particular political movement, exemplified by the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on 12 June which killed 49 people. The perpetrator, Omar Mateen who was killed by police during the attack, are ‘on the radar’ of the authorities, who may lack enough evidence to detain such individuals until the deed has been done. Many such lone operators, when not resorting to the bomb and the bullet, may also, or alternatively, have a penchant for trying to make Improvised Chemical Devices (ICDs) using poisons such as ricin neurotoxins which can be concocted from uncontrolled raw materials. Several such cases have reached court in the past two years in the United Kingdom and US.


Fundamental protection from CBRN is provided by an expanding variety of respiratory protection systems. For example, for first-responder use full Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) provides the highest level of respiratory protection to the user. SCBA systems are hence becoming modular, giving the responder an adaptive system for multiple scenarios. Hybrid systems such as those made by Scott Safety, based in the UK, offer a single man-portable ‘backpack’ of adaptable types of respiratory protection for the first responder to switch systems during an operation. Regarding the Scott Patriot 5510 hybrid Air Purifier Respirator, Powered Air Purifier Respirator and SCBA modular system, the power pack supports telemetry which can provide the responder’s location, position (moving, static or prone). The operator’s body temperature, pulse and breathing rate can all be monitored, as well as battery life and oxygen cylinder levels.

Adaptable Detection

Mobile, multi-threat CBRN monitoring systems to detect threats are increasingly used at public events. Environics’ Mobile CBRN Monitoring Systems are intended for temporary CBRN detection at dignitary meetings, sports and cultural events, for monitoring accidental releases of hazardous CBRN material on site by first responders, or safeguarding mobile, civilian or military command and control centres. Meanwhile, the company’s EnVision is a rugged, transportable stand-alone CBRN detection unit. The EnVision HRS is a system of unattended mobile chemical and radiation detection units networked to control centres via a radio link to provide CBRN detection across a wide area. Environics also offers hand-held portable devices and tools for mass-event protection, along with light CBRN reconnaissance vehicles and a specialised vehicle, known as the RanidSONNI (sic), for radiation detection and analysis. The military-grade, mobile Gossamer CBRN surveillance system designed for Special Forces for both military and civilian missions has several sensor fields: one sensor can field up to ten sensor nodes which send back information and analysis of potential threats to a command and control post.

The Environics Mobile ENVI BioSCout unit
The Environics Mobile ENVI BioSCout unit is designed to provide bioaerosol detection for military operations. The company is involved in the provision of a number of systems for CBRN protection. (Environics)

There are several adaptable, economical, self-contained, portable devices for chemical and biological detection on the market for first-responder use. The Aklus Shield J-Model system is such an example that rapidly detects and collects biological agents, and which can be outfitted with chemical and radiological sensors. This makes for a cost effective, single-platform, CBRN sensing solution for local police, hazmat teams, and first responders and can save on costs as the customer does not have to set up multiple sensing networks to cover all CBRN threats. As the architecture is based on an open interface, customers can use their own sensors. Initial user training takes four hours at most and the system can be set up and ready for use in less than five minutes, and the company states that the system has typical operating costs as low as $1 a day. Ideal applications for the Shield-J include perimeter defence and critical infrastructure and building protection, as well as special event surveillance.

Progeny ResQ
The handheld Progeny ResQ produced by Rigaku Analytical Devices can indicate the overall threat level posed by the presence of multiple individual chemicals. (Rigaku)

Companies are aiming for equipment that can detect multiple threats. Rigaku Analytical Devices, which specialise in handheld detectors based on Raman spectroscopy (please see the ‘How It Works’ box for more information on this process) has produced the Progeny ResQ, which can indicate the overall threat level posed by the presence of multiple individual chemicals. Although the individual chemicals may not pose a threat, their combined presence could indicate the preparation of hazardous or illicit compounds. The Progeny ResQ is designed to save critical time by reducing the first responder’s reliance on off-site expert advice for CBRN analysis, as speed is often of the essence following a suspected attack.

How It Works: Infrared Spectroscopy

In infrared spectroscopy, IR (infrared) radiation is passed through a sample chemical substance. Some of the infrared radiation is absorbed by the sample, and some of it is passed through, or ‘transmitted’. The resulting light spectrum represents the molecular absorption and transmission, creating a molecular fingerprint of the sample. Like a fingerprint, no two unique molecular structures produce the same infrared spectrum, making the technique highly useful for identifying chemicals. 

Raman Spectroscopy works by shining a near IR laser at a chemical sample, and then by analysing the scattering of that light as it strikes the molecules of the sample. There are two types of scatter: elastic and inelastic. Elastic scatter comes off the sample at the same wavelength as the light coming in, whereas inelastic scatter is picked up as a series of peaks of colour, where some of the light energy interacts with the substance’s molecules. This elastic scatter signature can then be matched against a library of known chemicals to identify it.

Chemical surveillance

An increasingly necessary CBRN countermeasure is protecting buildings, public spaces, mass transit stations, and buildings from introduction of Chemical Warfare Agents (CWAs) through air conditioning systems. As a joint effort BPSI and MKS Instruments has launched an ambient air analyser, the MKS AIRGARD, an ultra-sensitive gas analyser based on the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy process to detect rapidly CW agents and other toxic gases (please see the ‘How It Works’ box for more information on this process).

The AIRGARD analyser has undergone tests by the US Department of Defence (DoD) for its sensitivity, specificity, response time, and immunity to false positive alarms. This is vital to prevent unwarranted evacuation of buildings, associated interruptions of business, and emergency notifications when no threat materials are present in the building airflow. According to BPSI president Greg Eiler, “The ultra-low false alarm rates and excellent real world operational up-time make the AIRGARD a perfect addition to our line-up of high performance detection equipment focused on saving human life.”


In the wake of Mr. Brennan’s assessment of ISIS CW capabilities, the US DoD is emphasising training and exercises to enhance CBRN readiness on the domestic front. This involves training emergency responders at the tactical level, who are in the front line of response to attacks, and commanders and government leaders at the operational and strategic levels with CBRN scenario and exercise development, post-drill reviews, and mobile training teams.

Maryland National Guard's 32nd WMD CST
Soldiers and airmen of the Maryland National Guard’s 32nd WMD CST (Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team) train aboard a US Navy display ship at the Washington Navy Yard during an exercise. (US Army)

The US National Guard WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Civil Support Teams (CSTs) would be in the forefront of response to any intentional or unintentional release of CBRN materials. Their training programmes, which are prepared by leading defence company Battelle, have to be of the highest quality for the survivability, safety and sustainment of operations. Federal exercises to practice and assess coordinated emergency responses are frequently conducted, an example being a series from 2010 through 2014 at several nuclear power generating facilities across the United States.

Euro 2016

Closer to current events, fears of further ISIS attacks in France at the Euro 2016 soccer competition staged in June prompted the French security services to stage a simulated chemical attack at the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse, in the southwest of the country. Some 1200 volunteers acting as fans were treated by paramedics while armed police stormed the stadium. One drill simulated a similar scenario to the bomb and gun attack perpetrated by ISIS at the La Stade stadium in northern Paris in November 2015, while another simulated a sarin nerve gas attack. As there was a vast police presence needed to deal with several outbreaks of severe football violence in the first week of the contest, which attracted hundreds of thousands of fans from many countries, this begs the question as to whether the authorities could have dealt with a simultaneous attack at, or near, a stadium while such violence was ongoing? CBRN will always be the wildcard, but preparation for an attack has to continue on many fronts, both military and civilian, despite the cost.

National Guard’s 5th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team
A member of the Illinois National Guard’s 5th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team (CST) checks her monitoring equipment during a CST external evaluation exercise. (US Army)

by Andy Oppenheimer