Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Updated: Makeshift Chemical Attack in Iraq

In Iraq today, a chlorine tanker truck exploded in a makeshift chemical attack. Reuters reported:

A bomb destroyed a truck carrying chlorine north of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least five people and spewing out toxic fumes that left nearly 140 others sick, Iraqi police said.

It was not immediately clear if the chlorine truck blast was caused by a roadside bomb that hit the truck or if the vehicle itself was rigged with explosives as a makeshift chemical gas bomb.

One source at police headquarters said the truck was rigged with explosives ... A second police source also said the bomb was on the truck.

The bomb exploded near a restaurant at a rest stop on the main highway in Taji, 20 km (12 miles) north of Baghdad.
Insurgents and jihadists in Iraq have blown up gas trucks and gas stations before, but this is the first I've heard of anybody in Iraq using an IED to release deadly chemicals. If the bombs were in fact on the truck, then there's no question that their intent was to release the chlorine. Iraq is a real-world testing ground for terrorism, so it's worth noting whether this becomes a trend. It's not a good thing for terrorists to develop this capability.

Chlorine is nasty stuff, but it's used in water treatment, so it's loaded into railcars and tanker trucks that crisscross the U.S. every day. It's a vulnerability for sure. An oft-quoted study by the Naval Research Laboratory said that a worst-case chlorine leak from a railcar could kill up to 100,000 people in Washington D.C. (It's worth noting that TSA has proposed new rules for securing railcars, however.)

Update 2007-02-21: One day later, they did it again, with some success. Not good news:
Insurgents exploded a truck carrying chlorine gas canisters Wednesday — the second such "dirty" chemical attack in two days ... a pickup truck carrying chlorine gas cylinders was blown apart, killing at least five people and sending more than 55 to hospitals gasping for breath and rubbing stinging eyes, police said.

Some authorities believe militants could be trying to maximize the panic from their attacks by adding chlorine or other noxious substances.

"It is an indication of maliciousness, a desire to injure and kill innocent people in the vicinity," said [Lt. Col. Christopher] Garver, who also predicted militants may begin to launch similar attacks because of the widespread mayhem caused by this week's chlorine clouds.

Update 2007-03-02: Terrorism Focus looks closely at the trend of insurgent chemical attacks, suggesting that it's unclear if this trend is likely to continue, and that measures may be taken in Iraq to secure large supplies of chlorine:
Fortunately, the potential supply of chlorine suitable for such attacks will not allow groups to employ the agent in significant quantities indefinitely. Although there are numerous potential sources of chlorine in Iraq, future large-scale attacks can be kept at a minimum if bulk access points are kept under proper controls and distributions monitored.
The same precautions need to be ensured here, at all times, by local authorities. The threat of accidental or intentional chemical release is an issue for every community. A chlorine leak is a real possibility for any community that has a water treatment plant, and/or a highway or railroad running through it.

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