News reports in recent weeks have been filled with stories of chemical weapons attacks by ISIS fighters. On numerous occasions tanks of chlorine have been added to vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED's) and detonated. Most recently, ISIS forces have begun to use mortar shells filled with mustard gas in attacks against Kurdish forces. Chemical weapons appear, in fact, to have become a standard part of the arsenal for ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. While these actions have attracted a great deal of attention, however, they have not been particularly effective and casualties caused by chemical exposure have been light.
Perhaps we ought to be paying less attention then to these crude and small-scale efforts and more to what is happening right now in China in the city of Tianjin. What we are seeing there gives us a much more accurate picture of the true future of terrorist chemical warfare.
Several days ago a massive blast in Tianjin tore apart a large portion of the city. The exact cause of the blast remains unclear at this time, but it apparently occurred in a warehouse belonging to a Chinese company, which deals in a wide variety of toxic industrial chemicals. At least 104 people were killed and many hundreds injured.
The danger to the public as a whole, however, may only just now be beginning. A number of fires at the blast site are now reported to have reignited. A toxic cloud, heavily laced with deadly cyanide, is drifting well beyond the original site of the explosion and into heavily populated areas. Chinese authorities, which originally tried to downplay the danger, have now ordered the evacuation of everyone living within a two-mile radius of the blast site. Chinese military chemical units including troops in HAZMAT suits have been sent to the scene in an attempt to get the threat under control.
All indications are that this incident in China was the result of some sort of industrial accident, possibly made worse by the initial response of firefighting personnel who may have pumped water onto a blaze involving chemicals, which react violently to H2O. This could just as easily have been a terrorist attack, however, and it could just as easily have happened here.
More than 80 million Americans live within range of a catastrophic chemical release from the top 100 most hazardous chemical facilities in the United States. Four of the fifteen National Planning Scenarios, which are used by the federal government in rehearsals for mass casualty attacks, involve some sort of terrorist chemical attack. The danger from a terrorist action against a chemical plant is so great, in fact, that in 2007 Congress passed legislation creating a program to secure these plants against sabotage.
Pursuant to that legislation regulations were created, called the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), which were supposed to result in the implementation of security plans at the nations chemical facilities. Unfortunately, as with so many things in Washington what was supposed to happen and what has happened are two very different things.
To date, under CFATS, the federal government has completed an initial review of the danger posed by a total of 3,468 chemical sites. Only about 40 site security plans have actually been approved and found by the government to have been properly implemented in compliance with applicable standards. Current estimates are that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CFATS, will take close to another 10 years to finish reviewing and implementing security plans for the rest of the chemical facilities in the country.
In short, 14 years after 9/11 and 8 years after the passage of legislation designed to ensure the chemical industry was protected from terrorist attack almost nothing of consequence has been done. A lot of paper has been processed. A lot of forms have been completed. Over $600 million has been spent. Many thousands of man-years of effort have been expended, but whether or not anything more than incremental progress has been made in actually securing the American chemical industry is highly doubtful.
Terrorist interest in chemical plants and chemical warfare is not theoretical. Virtually every terrorist group on the planet is in possession of manuals and materials related to chemical weapons. In 2002 I took a team into the border area between Iraq and Iran in pursuit of Al Qaida terrorists working to create functional chemical and biological weapons for use against the United States. Most of the work then underway at that location was focused on the use of cyanide, precisely what is threatening the citizens of Tianjin now, because it is both deadly and readily available through industrial suppliers.
Earlier this year, in fact, an attack on a chemical facility in France occurred. While that attack, on a plant owned by the American company Air Products, failed to create a catastrophic release of toxic chemicals, it did demonstrate the ease with which such facilities can be penetrated. The attack was carried out by a single individual who succeeded in getting into the site, killing one individual and detonating an explosive device in his van. Security at most American chemical facilities is roughly comparable, which is to say non-existent in terms of anything that will stop a determined attacker willing to use lethal force.
ISIS and other Islamic groups have demonstrated repeatedly their ability to recruit individuals via social media and, in effect, to activate them in place. Numerous attacks perpetrated by these so-called "self-radicalizing" terrorists have already happened on our soil. It is only a matter of time before the focus of these attacks begins to shift from individuals and recruiting stations to targets that will produce true mass casualties. We have wasted too much time already. We need to pick up the pace and secure our vulnerable chemical facilities. If we don't, the next deadly toxic cloud may be drifting over an American city.