For more than a decade, terrorist groups have been demonstrating an increasingly greater interest in using easily obtained chemicals as components of conventional explosive weapons. In Iraq, the first half of 2007 was marked by an alarming escalation of attacks using chemical-based “dirty” bombs. Meanwhile, police and fire services personnel in the United States have on a few occasions faced the ability, and willingness, of home-grown terrorists to mix explosives and chemical agents in attacks that have taken place on the U.S. homeland. Never before, in fact, has there been such widespread interest by terrorists and insurgents to maximize the destructive effectiveness of what are officially described as chemical vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (C-VBIEDs).

Almost two decades ago, in one of the earliest C-VBIED attacks on U.S. soil, Dean Harvey Hicks, a tax protester, loaded his four-door sedan with containers of bleach The Taji attack marked a clear trend by terrorists of leveraging commonly used and locally available chemicals as a weapon component and ammonia that had been combined with an explosive consisting of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil explosives crammed into the shell of a 30-gallon residential water heater.  On 19 September 1988, Hicks parked his C-VBIED in the basement parking lot of the IRS building in Los Angeles and used a delay detonator to make his escape before detonation.  Fortunately, the blast turned out to be very inefficient both as an explosive and as a chemical delivery system, and there were no fatalities.   The first (1993) World Trade Center (WTC) bombing is a more recent and better known example in which the van used to carry the explosives was for all practical purposes a C-VBIED.  The intensity of the 1993 blast was so strong, though, that it made the compressed chemical gas inert.  No casualties resulted from the chemical-agent component of the explosive device. 

Psychological As Well As Physical Damage 

In the 14 years since then, and particularly since the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the WTC’s twin towers, terrorists and insurgents have sought to improve their ability to disperse chemical agents through the use of explosives. In Iraq over the past year alone, in fact, there has been a sharp escalation in the use and refinement of C-VBIED attacks.  In Ramadi on 21 October 2006, for example, terrorists combined twelve 120mm mortar shells and two 100-pound chlorine tanks to fashion a makeshift C-VBIED. Fortunately, there were no target deaths and very few injuries. A second such attack, though, which rocked the city of Ramadi on 28 January 2007, killed 16 Iraqis in a truck C-VBIED detonation.  Both of the Ramadi attacks used suicide bomber tactics to control the delivery and detonation of their mobile chemical weapons. On 27 February, less than a month after the second Ramadi attacks, the town of Taji was racked by a type of detonation unfamiliar to the local population. 

Terrorists had attached an IED to a chlorine tanker truck. When the IED detonated it ruptured the chlorine tank and spewed toxic chlorine gas into the air. The Taji attack, which killed nine Iraqis and sent another 150 people to the hospital with injuries, marked a clear trend by terrorists of leveraging commonly used and locally available chemicals as a weapon component. Although tragic to the individuals and families directly affected, the Taji attack resulted in relatively few direct casualties. However, the psychological impact of the attack was significant.  Because the Saddam Hussein regime used chemical agents routinely against civilians, the Iraqi people have become very sensitive psychologically to the implications of chemical attacks. The terrorists continued to refine and improve their C-VBIED tactics.  

Over the course of the following week, Iraq and other nations were startled by a number of other C-VBIED attacks in that embattled nation. In that context, the Taji attack should perhaps be seen not as an isolated use of chemical weapons but, rather, as a tactical shift by the insurgent terrorists in their choice of weapons.  In one incident, a truck laden with two chlorine canisters detonated in southwestern Baghdad, killing five people and causing about 75 chlorine-related injuries.  A week later, another truck filled with chlorine canisters and explosives detonated in Ramadi – this attack, though, caused no chlorine-related casualties. Through the rest of the spring and into the early part of the summer there were over a dozen more chlorine/C-VBIED attacks – but, according to Iraqi officials, there were no additional deaths resulting from chlorine exposure. 

A Debilitating Strain on the Human Psyche 

The overall death toll from C-VBIED attacks is perhaps not remarkable by general WMD (weapons of mass destruction) attack standards. However, the debilitating effect on the psyche of the Iraqi people has been both cumulative and significant. Moreover, the C-VBIED tactic places greater strain on medical service systems. In addition to the typical injuries resulting from explosive detonations, the use of chemical devices adds contamination complications to the situation as well as the need to deal with inhalation injuries, chemical burns, and large-scale psychosomatic problems. On 16 March of this year, terrorists launched the most devastating series of multi-pronged C-VBIED attacks experienced to date in Iraq.  

In three separate but well synchronized suicide/homicide attacks in al Anbar province, C-VBIEDs were detonated, killing two policemen and sending over 350 other people to hospitals and clinics for treatment for chlorine exposure. If nothing else, the 16 March attacks demonstrated the escalating sophistication of terrorists both in weapon construction and in the tactical applications used. One of the C-VBIEDs was a dump truck packed with explosives and a 200-gallon chlorine tank. Low-yield detonations, strong enough to effectively disperse chemical agents, create fewer injuries from blast pressure waves and fragmentation. The use of too powerful 

The nation’s law-enforcement communities must safeguard the common chemicals that can be stolen or diverted from legitimate uses to become a terrorist weapon an explosive charge, however, results in a thermal reaction with the chemical agent that in many if not all cases renders it partially or wholly ineffective. The 20 February attack, which involved an IED carried on a tanker truck of chlorine, effectively “unzipped” the tank, but failed to create a large cloud of chlorine gas. In contrast, two later attacks produced more chlorine-related injuries (but fewer explosive-related injuries). The two C-VBIED attacks in late February used the suicide/homicide bomber delivery system. 

Precursor, Harbinger, and Warning 

The lesson for U.S. first responders is that the nation’s emergency services personnel across all disciplines need to become much more familiar with the physical characteristics as well as physiological signs and symptoms that result from the presence of chlorine gas.  The combination of explosive-related injuries resulting from blast pressure, fragmentation and dust inhalation, and chemical exposure can generate confusion both in the triage phase of a mass-casualty incident and in the initial on-scene management of first-responder units.  

A failure to quickly recognize the indicators of a chemical attack, therefore, may easily lead first responders to erroneously assume that the incident scene is the result of a “simple” explosive detonation event. When that happens, the first responders themselves are likely to become additional casualties, causing even greater chaos at the scene of a mass-casualty event. Chlorine is a chemical that is most commonly used in treating and purifying water; it also is a relatively low-tech chemical warfare agent that was widely used as a weapon in World War I. In the catalogue of chemical agents, chlorine is described as a choking agent.  

The release of chlorine gas often produces a greenish-yellow vapor cloud. Chlorine gas concentration is greater in low-lying areas. Its odor is pungent and distinctive, and spells something like bleach.  Exposure results in respiratory distress caused by irritation and often damage to the victim’s lungs and nostrils.   Among the most common symptoms caused by chlorine gas are coughing, gasping, shortness of breath, and pain in the mucous membranes and lungs.  Victims often complain of feeling like they are suffocating.  

Depending on the length and concentration of exposure, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) may result.  Extreme exposure can lead to death.  Airborne concentrations of as little as two parts per million can be fatal in less than a minute. The first and most important treatment measure is to remove the patient from the chlorine-contaminated environment.  Decontamination procedures coupled with oxygen therapy are the standard care prerequisites for the stabilization of patients prior to their transport to a medical facility.  Long-term complications are rare in victims surviving acute exposure to chlorine inhalation. 

The Indicators of Armageddon 

Pre-C-VBIED attack indicators are similar to those postulated when other explosive devices are used.  Surveillance operations, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, and attack “rehearsals” of some type are among the possible indicators to watch for.  Attacks using chemical agents are less effective in an outdoors environment, where the agent is more easily dispersed and large concentrations are rapidly reduced. Terrorists also must consider many additional factors in planning an effective chemical-based attack (as compared to a conventional bombing incident).  However, the chemical attack, although often less effective in producing casualties, does pose a greater impact on the psychology of the target population. As emergency-services and homeland-security personnel, U.S. first responders must recognize that the steady increase in the use of chemical-based weapons in terrorist attacks overseas is a likely precursor of similar attacks throughout the United States as well.  

As a proactive measure that would make it more difficult for terrorists to acquire the raw materials they need to build chemical-based weapons, the nation’s law-enforcement and first-responder communities must safeguard the common industrial chemicals that can be stolen or diverted from legitimate uses to become a terrorist weapon.  Increased training on chemical threat response and on personal protective measures, in both the public and private sectors, also is needed.  

Emergency services personnel should personally commit themselves to maintaining their personal protective equipment, and to training while wearing it, in a broad range of possible attack situations. Realizing the nature and destructive potential of chemical-based attacks, communities across the country also should participate in emergency exercises simulating real-world attack scenarios such as multiple C-VBIED attacks carried out almost simultaneously in the same community. Those exercises should include governmental and non-governmental participants appropriate both to the locality and to the exercise scenario.  Even discussion-formatted exercises on such attacks not only would greatly benefit business and commercial districts but also improve community-based interaction with the governmental emergency services community. 

To summarize: the steadily increasing threat of chemical-based attacks on U.S. soil is now a real and present danger. Most of the “solutions” needed for preventing, defeating, mitigating, and managing these threats are locally based.  At the local level, American citizens themselves can and must strive to deny terrorists access to weapon components, disrupt their planning, prevent or defeat any attacks launched, mitigate the destructive and psychological effects of the attacks, and, as rapidly as possible, restore their community’s sense of stability and continuity.

Joseph Steger

Joseph Steger is the pseudonym of a senior law-enforcement commander whose undergraduate background in a pre-medical program led to initial certification as an EMT in 1981. He retained that level of certification for eight years and across three states while serving as a federal law-enforcement officer. Over the years, Steger has worked closely with CONTOMS-trained tactical medics and physicians in numerous situations.

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