Terror At Bay

Terror is, by definition, a psychological phenomenon; a state of extreme fear within the psyche of a subject. It is not necessary that an individual be harmed or even be in danger of being harmed. 


All that is required to create a condition of being “terrified” is that the subject be convinced that he/she is in a precarious situation. In fact, those who would employ terror as a weapon may well prefer that their victims remain uninjured. A panic stricken crowd is much more difficult to control than an equal number of uninjured personnel. By the same token the dedicated terrorist would prefer to have his activities result in injuries rather than in fatalities. An injured person may tie up a number of badly needed caregivers to provide aid and assistance to the terrorist’s casualty while a fatality can wait until order is restored and an organized body retrieval operation can be undertaken. Thus the fundamental objective of the terrorist is to instill fear rather than to kill outright. Fear is contagious. Witness the bombing incident at the Boston Marathon two years ago. Relatively few people were injured but the panic that ensued spread throughout the city greatly complicating and, perhaps, hampering the work of EMS, fire and law enforcement officers.


The classic, and often cited, example of a terrorist is that of the man who jumps up and yells ”FIRE” in a crowded theater. He touches no one but the fear he engenders could easily lead to multiple injuries and even deaths caused by the panic stricken crowd as it surges toward the exits in an effort to leave the theater. Terrified crowds are not likely to be very considerate of their fellow citizens.


How does one set about creating a condition of terror in a crowd? All that has to be done is to create an atmosphere which is conducive to fear, or terror. This could be achieved by generating a loud noise, a brilliant flash of light, the presence of smoke or an odor that is associated with a harmful substance.

When I taught HazMat courses at Texas A&M we employed a device to simulate exploding drums; and it worked quite well as I recall. We cut the head out of a fifty-five gallon drum and covered the opening with a sheet of plastic secured by a rubber band (a section of a tractor inner tube) in the wall of the drum. Near the bottom was a fitting threaded to take an automotive spark plug which was connected to a neon sign transformer. A quarter-inch copper tube brazed into the drum wall completed the outfit. We injected oxygen and propane into the drum through the copper tube and when we were ready for the simulated explosion we energized the transformer which provided a spark that ignited the mixture. The explosion was “awesome”. It rattled the windows and created a tremendous amount of noise that was heard throughout the neighborhood but nothing else. There was no shrapnel or flying debris and any concussion was directed straight upward by the drum. It did, however “get the attention” of those involved in the simulated incident.


Now consider what would happen if such a device were set off in a crowded area such as a mall, a theater or a sporting event, not a pleasant scenario to contemplate.


Now, let us consider what was involved in this imaginary incident. Nothing but a fifty-five gallon drum which could be disguised as an ordinary trash barrel, a little bit of propane, a whiff of oxygen and a few electrical odds and ends though there are other ways to initiate the explosion than electrically. None of the parts are especially lethal and all of them are common articles of commerce found throughout our communities. When we built the simulator I got all the parts with one sweep through the local hardware store and no questions were asked.

I once sent a student through Wal-Mart with the assignment to list all the things he found that could be used to make some sort of “terror-genic” device. The list that he came back with surprised even me.


There were of course the usual items that one would expect, the swimming pool chlorine tablets and antifreeze or brake fluid; the bathroom cleaner and “household” ammonia. But what really surprised me was the muriatic (hydrochloric) acid (used to clean masonry) and chopped up coke can along with the used alkaline “D” cells. A coke can -- for some reason, probably the composition of the alloy utilized in the can an actual Coca-Cola can works better – can be chopped into approximately ⅛-inch pieces and inserted into a two or three liter soda bottle containing about 500 mls. of muriatic acid. The bottle is then capped. The resulting explosion , actually a pressure rupture, that follows within a few minutes can be quite disquieting to the uninitiated, to say the least (keep your distance!). An exhausted “D” cell tossed in a burning trash barrel can go off with enough force to split the barrel. This is not, by any means, a complete list of the items that my student came up with but it does serve to illustrate a couple of points. In the first place, the dedicated terrorist can find plenty of material from which to construct his nefarious devices in the local home supply store. In the second place none of the materials listed would be classed as explosives or, in some instances, even as a hazardous material. However, they would serve the terrorist’s purpose.


Time was when one could simply go to the airport, purchase a ticket, stroll to the boarding stairs when the flight was called and get aboard without anyone so much as lifting an eyebrow. Those days are gone forever. Now one must wait in line, then remove various articles of clothing send his luggage through the X-Ray and then go through himself. Anything causing the detectors to alarm will immediately get you a special “inspection” with an electronic wand and if necessary a “pat down.” Metal detectors have a field day with some types of orthopedic implants and wire sutures, if present. Other detectors are in place to sniff out explosives or incendiary devices and prevent them from being carried on the plane. Yet, those who would do us harm still find ways to outwit the detection devices.


A few years ago there was quite a commotion over an attempt to use a compound known as acetone peroxide to create an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) on an in-flight airliner. The operative managed to get the material on board the airplane and very nearly succeeded in his plan to blow up plane or at least create panic. The reason that the material could be clandestinely taken aboard the airplane was to be found in the detectors in use at the airport at the time.


All of the compounds commonly used as explosives contain, in their molecular formulations, nitrogen bonded to one or more oxygen atoms in the “nitro” linkage. The presence of this structure is obvious from the names of the agents i.e. nitroglycerin (glyceryl trinitrate) TNT (trinitrotoluene) Picric acid (trinitrophenol), dynamite (nitroglycerin adsorbed on diatomaceous earth) nitromethane and so on. The commonality is the nitro group and the instrument designers developed a detector sensitive to these compounds by using the nitro-oxygen bond as an identifier. These are also sensitive to the nitrate group as found in black powder (as potassium nitrate or saltpeter) and ammonium nitrate (ntrogen-oxygen bonding, again). There is at least one case on record where one of these “sniffers” zeroed in on an elderly heart patient who was carrying nitroglycerin pills for use in case of an angina attack. Now it must be admitted that these pills can make a substantial “pop” if struck sharply on a hard surface so the “sniffer” did what it was supposed to do but one does wonder about the mental state of the patient when the commotion finally calmed down.


Now if the terrorists can come up with an explosive that contains no nitrogen-oxygen bonds these detectors will not “see” it. Acetone peroxide filled this bill and so would my exploding drum at Texas A&M as well as potassium chlorate and elemental phosphorus dissolved in carbon disulfide or swimming pool chlorine tablets (HTH) and antifreeze or brake fluid since none of these contain the nitro linkage. When this situation became known the designers went to work to produce a screening instrument for non-nitrogen explosives. But since there is no commonality in the chemical formula of the materials we wish to detect, the results have been somewhat less than optimal and research continues. So far the instrumentation that could detect non-nitrogen explosives is too expensive for wide spread use and so complicated that it would take a graduate chemist to operate it. There are, however, instruments that would detect specific agents such as those containing chlorine in its higher oxidation states or hydrocarbons at or near their lower explosive limits. This equipment is of great value in investigating incident scenes but their usefulness for mass screenings is questionable on the basis of practical considerations.

Thus the chemists find themselves in a contest with the operative terrorists. As fast as the terrorists devise an explosive or other nefarious device the chemists and electronics wizards try to develop a way to detect it while the general public has to put up with an increasingly bothersome protocol at the airport boarding gate.


Of course, the easiest way to prevent the use of industrial materials by terrorists for nefarious purposes would be to simply eliminate them. However, the chemical industry makes its living producing compounds that, while in the wrong hands, can be dangerous yet, at the same time, make possible the life style that we all embrace and which would have been unattainable, even unimaginable, a century ago. These materials move us down the highway and through the air, warm and light our homes, cook our food, heal our illnesses and fertilize our fields. Without these entities our lives would deteriorate to a point of bare subsistence. Elimination is not a viable option.


Since we cannot, as a practical matter, eliminate potentially dangerous substances from our environment we must perforce initiate measures to prevent their inappropriate use and safeguard our citizenry. The best place to control any commodity is at its source and this puts the chemical manufacturers on the “front lines” in the war on terror. These parties do a good job of monitoring the destination and ultimate use of their products and we should better utilize this ability. Again however, this can be accomplished but at some cost in time, treasure and convenience for the legitimate user.


Those who actually make chemical commodities are the ones who are most knowledgeable about their properties and the best way to deal with them in the event on an incident. These people are accustomed to thinking of their products in terms of their normal utilization in industrial processes and they prefer not to think about them as “weapons of mass destruction” or agents of terror. Unfortunately, there are among us those who do think about industrial chemicals as means of inciting terror and disrupting the functioning of society and they have been all too successful in adapting these materials to their nefarious purposes.


For example let us consider the case of chlorine. This element is produced in tremendous amounts and transported throughout our nation in tank car quantities. Chlorine is used at some point in almost any commercial chemical operation or process either as a primary ingredient or as a disinfectant in the treatment of potable water and sanitary sewage. Few other elements touch our lives in as many ways as does chlorine.


Continuous chlorination of drinking water was first introduced in Belgium in 1910 after Louis Pasteur validated the germ theory of disease transmission. When one reads the mortality figures for the various epidemics that ravaged the cities of Europe and America during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it would seem that chlorination of drinking water could well be ranked as one of the greatest public health innovations of all time. Chlorine, as a constituent of Dakin’s solution, made possible, for the first time the wide scale antiseptic treatment of wounds during World War I and was responsible for saving many lives through the prevention of gangrene. Unfortunately, on April 22, 1915 during the second battle of Ypres, the darker side of chlorine was revealed. Once again, we see that the “Law of unintended consequences” has not been repealed.

The story is told that a newly minted lieutenant in the German army happened upon a water chlorination facility while inspecting his command and, being both curious and ignorant about what he was seeing, reached in and opened a valve which action rewarded him with a face full of chlorine gas. Unfortunately for humanity he survived and when he returned from the hospital decided that this would be a good trick to play on the Allied troops opposing him (or so the story goes). The Germans chose a day with ideal weather conditions: a very light breeze blowing toward the Allied lines and away from the Germans; they attacked in the early morning so that the humidity would be at its peak and the cool temperature would cause the gas cloud to hug the ground rather than dispersing. The method of attack was nothing “high tech” or exotic. Soldiers simply placed a one-ton cylinder of chlorine in a wagon and moved it to the top of a slight elevation overlooking the Allied lines. They unhitched the horses, knocked off the valve of the cylinder with a sledge hammer and ran like blazes. The result was arguably the most successful gas attack in history. Now this story may or may not be true but it makes fascinating. At least one “official” version states that the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine during the attack. This would mean 150 one-ton cylinders on horse drawn wagons since it is doubtful that chlorine railroad tank cars (if they even existed at the time) could have been positioned on the front battle lines. Another “official” source states that 5,730 ninety pound cylinders were buried in concealment along a six kilometer front. These were opened and released some 160 tons of chlorine when the wind was right. Do we have another discrepancy here? 5,730 90-pound cylinders would release something on the order of 258 tons of chlorine. One cannot help but wonder just how all this was accomplished under the noses of the Allied forces without their knowledge. Then too, just how long would it take to open 5,730 cylinder valves or even to knock them off with a sledge hammer.


The Germans were not stupid but it is a well-established fact that they failed to exploit the results of the gas attack at Ypres. If they had gone to the trouble to get all these chlorine cylinders into position and coordinate the release of this much gas, surely they would have, at some point, considered the question “what do we do if this thing actually works?” Apparently they did not and this argues for a small operation initiated by a local commander who really thought that all he would do would be to make life more miserable for the Allied soldiers. Or, perhaps the attack was much more of a success than the Germans realized or even dreamed of and as a result they were not prepared to exploit their advantage. Whatever the reason, it is obvious that the “Law of unintended consequences” has not been repealed. The “official sources” state that the attack took place around 5:00 PM but statements by some of those who survived place it in the early morning, just after daylight. So much for historical accuracy. Whatever happened, the casualty figures were staggering and the phycological impact i.e.“terror” was devastating.  


The success from a military viewpoint of this first use of poison gas or ”chemical warfare” was not due so much to the toxic properties of chlorine as it was to the circumstances surrounding the incident. In the first place the Germans had the advantage of complete surprise; nobody on the Allied side saw the attack coming. No one had ever done such a thing before and therefore no one had any idea of what to expect. No gas masks had been issued to the Allied soldiers since this equipment was still in the developmental stage and that which did exist was very rudimentary and in very short supply to say the least. Repugnant as it may be, one of the best of the early protective devices was simply a cloth pad soaked in urine and secured over the mouth and nose. This lack of effective protective equipment and knowledge of how to deploy it effectively is largely responsible for the tremendous number of casualties which simply overwhelmed the medical facilities in place at the time. There was little knowledge of how to care for the vast number of soldiers who were suffering from the effects of an unidentified (at the time) chemical agent.


This tremendous number of casualties at Ypres, 5000 dead and 10,000 wounded by one “official” account, completely immobilized the Allied medical service for a considerable time, tying up trained personnel and consuming vast amounts of essential medical equipment and facilities thus restricting ability of the medical corps to care for routine casualties from the front. As those who did survive the attack related their experiences, panic began to spread throughout the French and British forces reducing their fighting effectiveness. In other words, this attack engendered fear in the soldiers and that is the basic definition of “terror”. It was accidental, perhaps but the Germans benefited as much, if not more, from the fear i.e. terror factor as they did from the actual damage to the Allied troops. Again the Law of Unintended Consequences is operational.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the Germans were only intending to harass the allied troops and therefore were not prepared to exploit the results of the attack when the opportunity presented itself. Had they been prepared to follow up on their achievement, the outcome of the battle and, in the view of some historians, the entire war, might have been very different; at least it could have lasted a lot longer.  


Chlorine, as an offensive weapon was soon replaced with other more lethal agents such as phosgene and mustard but it is still carried in the United States” armamentarium under the name “Bertholite” and the lessons learned at Ypres were some of the progenitive factors leading to the creation of The Chlorine Institute in the 1920’s.


Unfortunately modern day terrorists can, and apparently do, read History and they have resurrected chlorine for use as a chemical warfare agent in the Middle East. Chlorine bombings in Iraq began as early as October 2006, when insurgents in Al Anbar province started using chlorine gas, obtained from water purification facilities, in conjunction with conventional vehicle-borne explosive devices. On February 19, 2007, a suicide bombing in Ramadi involving chlorine killed two Iraqi security forces and wounded 16 other people. On February 20, 2007, a bomb blew up a tanker carrying chlorine north of Baghdad, killing nine and emitting fumes that made 148 others ill, including 42 women and 52 children.


From the point of view of the terrorist, the ideal weapon would have a number of characteristics, among which are:

1.) On site availability: An “ideal terrorist weapon” would be one that is already on hand at or near the intended point of use. This negates the need to carry explosives or other chemicals and apparatus through airline or DHS check points. Due to its almost universal use as a disinfectant for drinking water, chlorine is widely available in large quantities. It is a common article of commerce, and is easily seized by miscreants. Since security at most storage or utilization sites containing chlorine is minimal, the material can usually be stolen. Any significant water treatment facility will have a stock of chlorine. In at least one of the incidents in the Middle East the terrorists simply raided the local water treatment facility, obtained a tank of chlorine, transported it to the intended release point and blew it up; the device worked as intended.

2.) Ease of activation: All that is required to activate a chlorine device is to open a valve or breach a container; the internal pressure of the gas does the rest. Thus there is no need for “high tech” equipment or personnel. Nothing more sophisticated than a crescent wrench is required. A more crude, but effective method is to puncture the container by means of a round from a high powered rifle. At least this allows the operator to be some distance away from the chlorine tank.

3.) Ease of dispersal: Since chlorine is a gas under normal atmospheric conditions it will spontaneously disperse of its own accord over a wide area upon release.

4.) Effectiveness: If dispersed into a congested area, chlorine will be virtually one hundred percent effective: Those who are not killed outright will suffer long-term effects and will spread fear and cause panic throughout the immediate population which is the purpose of the “drill” in the first place.

Chlorine met these requirements in 1915 and it continues to do so at the present time.


1915 was within the “golden age” of public health medicine. Louis Pasteur had proven the validity of the germ theory of disease and the chlorination of water supplies had eradicated or at least vastly reduced the incidence of water borne diseases such as typhoid fever, undulant fever and cholera to name but a few. Chlorine was, with some justification, hailed as a “boon to civilization”. No one thought of it as a weapon, not until 1915. The fellows at I.G. Farben had no idea that the chlorine they were producing to improve and protect the health of the world’s population would also be used to destroy a large segment of it. By some accounts the wife of Fritz Haber, an I.G. Farben engineer who worked on the chlorine production program, was driven to suicide upon learning of the horrors of gas warfare.


The same potential outcome are also true of the folks at Boeing who built the 767s that crashed into the World Trade Center and those at other companies who manufacture ammonium nitrate to fertilize our crops or propane to heat or homes or cook our meals. It is true of those who manufacture gasoline to move our society and countless other products with which we come in daily contact. All these are examples of the prostitution of legitimate commodities, produced or manufactured for the good of society, to serve nefarious purposes.

In the event of a spill or other incident involving a particular commodity American manufacturers have been in the forefront of cleanup efforts. This is, I think, as it should be. Who else knows more (or even as much) about a product and the proper procedures for cleanup and remediation than the people who made it? Who else has the equipment and the specialized workforce to deal with those really bad actors such as anhydrous ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen chloride or hydrofluoric acid? The answer is, of course the manufacturer.

When we have a train derailment the cleanup and response is exactly the same whether the crash was the result of an IED (improvised explosive device) or a burned out wheel bearing. When terrorists struck the World Trade Center the emergency services were confronted with a building collapse; one of gargantuan proportions to be sure, but a building collapse none the less. If the collapse had been the result of an earthquake rather than a deliberate plane crash the response protocol would have been the same. The apprehension and capture of the perpetrator(s) is a matter for law enforcement, not emergency response and is therefore outside the area of concern for those responding to the incident per se. 


The advent of terrorist attacks or the possibility of such actions initiated by by terrorists has, unfortunately become very real has been a “game changer” for the emergency response community and as a result Issues of liability arise and become somewhat convoluted: If a terrorist blows up a train or hacks into a computer data base is a private party who goes in and mitigates the incident now liable for damages? If so it is doubtful that there will be much inclination on the part of the chemical community to get involved. Who will pay the bill? Emergency response efforts are expensive and private companies will, understandably, be reluctant to assume financial obligations incurred in the process of mitigating an incident involving someone else’s product that was initiated by some third party with the intent to cause harm to our communities. Yet the possibility that these incidents can happen is very real and, like it or not, it must be delt with.


There are at least two things that need to happen with regard to this issue. First, industry needs to sit down with civil government and work out an agreement with regard to the role of private industry in the emergency response to deliberately instigated i.e. terrorist-initiated incidents and the protocols to be employed. These agreements need to be in place before an incident occurs.


Second, each manufacturer should examine each and every one of their products to see just how this material could be used by a terrorist or other hostile party to create mayhem. For example the reaction of chlorine with real turpentine in the presence of ultra violet light to start a fire. Or the mixing of ammonia water or “household ammonia” with a chlorine containing cleanser such as “Comet” or “Ajax” to produce a toxic gas. Every company should have a file of possible “dirty tricks” that could be used to create a disturbance and would (or could) involve the company’s products. Such things are not restricted to those commodities which we designate as “HazMats” (Hazardous Materials) either. For instance, bags of flour dumped into an air conditioning duct would, when the unit was activated fill the room with a finely divided flammable dust. An ignition source such as a candle on the refreshment table, could cause an explosion of no small proportions. Any flammable dust would do, wood, grain, fiber or even some metals (magnesium, for example) and there have been enough explosions in grain elevators, wood mils and the like to prove that the technique does work.

Appliances that we use daily can also be utilized for mischief. It has been noted that the older models of the hot air hand dryers that are often found in public restrooms had a nozzle that could be swiveled upward to direct the warm air to the face. Somebody figured out that if a bit of flammable material (gasoline or lighter fluid for example) was put in the nozzle when the heating element was energized the user would receive a blast of flame in the face. Newer appliances of this type do not include a movable nozzle.

Another trick much favored by the drug runners involves the sabotage of a refrigerator containing incriminating evidence. For this trap one unplugs the refrigerator and then unscrews the bulb from the interior light. The glass envelope is carefully broken and removed leaving the filament intact and attached to the base. The remains of the bulb are screwed back into the socket. Right below the socket one places a beaker containing a good amount of ether (a common reagent in drug labs) or if this is not available motor starting fluid will do. Saturate a pad with the spray and insert the pad in the beaker or other container. Shut the door to turn off the light and plug in the refrigerator. The cold temperature will slow the evaporation of the ether but the food compartment will shortly fill with vapor. When any unauthorized person (one who does not know about the “booby trap”) opens the door of the refrigerator the lamp is turned on, the filament burns and ignites the vapors in the refrigerator and the whole room (and sometimes the building) goes up. I saw a demonstration of this one time and the flash destroyed a two bedroom house.

Ammonium nitrate (as in fertilizer) when mixed with about 3 percent diesel oil makes a very good explosive known as ANFO, as all Texans know. If you want a little more “bang” for your buck add just a pinch of powdered aluminum from the auto paint store to the mixture. This will convert the ANFO from a low order explosive into a high order explosive. The mixture can be packed into the paper cores from toilet paper rolls or paper towels and held in place by a plug made by pouring a small amount of melted paraffin onto the top of each “stick”. When teamed up with a “data-prime” booster and a #8 cap these things are impressive. There are other ways of setting this stuff off (lead styphnate, lead azide and potassium chlorate and ammonium triiodide come to mind) but the #8 cap is the most dependable and most convenient.

Now note that with the exception of the ammonium nitrate none of these materials are nitrogen based so that they will not trigger most airport detection devices. They are widely available in fairly large quantities at moderate cost and they are all articles of everyday commerce.  They are, in short, excellent agents for the spread of terror.


In view of the foregoing it would seem only prudent that industry take stock of its products and try to determine how they could be used to “play dirty tricks”. Legitimate users should be made aware of this and encouraged to maintain adequate security at facilities where these substances are stored or utilized. Good inventory records should be maintained both by supplier and customer; any discrepancies should be investigated and the records reconciled.


Because this material is sold by the ton when utilized as fertilizer the trailers hauling it are weighed at the start of each trip and at the end to forestall pilferage along the route. To prevent the removal of small amounts (100 lbs or so) of ammonium nitrate (a pure white crystalline material) and replacing it with an equal weight of sugar the trailers are often sealed. The system seems to work, the amount shipped equals the amount received by the farmer match within reasonable tolerances.


The situation with regard to anhydrous ammonia is similar but the fact that the material is a liquefied gas (similar to LPG) makes it more difficult to steal. Anhydrous ammonia has a legitimate use as a nitrogen fertilizer but it is also used in the manufacture of illegal drugs.  Thieves often try to use bottles designed for LPG to contain anhydrous ammonia, totally unaware that red metals (brass, copper bronze etc.) do not mix with ammonia. When they come in contact  as in a brass valve designed for LPG, they corrode rapidly and form a blue or blue green salt that is explosive when struck or compressed (as with a wrench).  As a result, incidents of small explosions or valve failures are not unknown in neighborhoods in which drug labs are known to exist.


In short, these examples serve to illustrate the need for manufacturers, distributors and customers to serve not only as suppliers as monitors to keep track of products that have the potential of being used to disrupt our lives and the capacity to cause death or injury. It takes teamwork and only a collective effort can be effective. We can no longer simply turn the issue over to law enforcement and let them handle the problem. Industry has a stake in the matter as well as the legitimate customer. If we don’t get control of the problem before it gets more serious we are likely to find ourselves mired down in red tape and regulations to the extent that commerce as we know it will be seriously impeded or even cease to exist.                 

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