Weapons of Minimum Destruction

An American terror expert has a radical theory as to why nobody is using chemical and biological weapons: they aren't much use for killing masses of people.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Believe it or not, what we refer to as “weapons of mass destruction” are actually not very destructive.’

David C Rapoport, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles and editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, has examined what he calls ‘easily available evidence’ relating to the historic use of chemical and biological weapons.

He found something surprising – such weapons do not cause mass destruction. Indeed, whether used by states, terror groups or dispersed in industrial accidents, they tend to be far less destructive than conventional weapons. ‘If we stopped speculating about things that might happen in the future and looked instead at what has happened in the past, we’d see that our fears about WMD are misplaced’, he says.

Yet such fears remain widespread. Post-9/11, American and British leaders have issued dire warnings about terrorists getting hold of WMD and causing mass murder and mayhem. President George W Bush has spoken of terrorists who, ‘if they ever gained weapons of mass destruction’, would ‘kill hundreds of thousands, without hesitation and without mercy’ (1).

The British government has spent £28million on stockpiling millions of smallpox vaccines, even though there’s no evidence that terrorists have got access to smallpox, which was eradicated as a natural disease in the 1970s and now exists only in two high-security labs in America and Russia (2). In 2002, British nurses became the first in the world to get training in how to deal with the victims of bioterrorism (3).

The UK Home Office’s 22-page pamphlet on how to survive a terror attack, published last month, included tips on what to do in the event of a ‘chemical, biological or radiological attack’ (‘Move away from the immediate source of danger’, it usefully advised). Spine-chilling books such as Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, The New Face of Terrorism: Threats From Weapons of Mass Destruction and The Survival Guide: What to Do in a Biological, Chemical or Nuclear Emergency speculate over what kind of horrors WMD might wreak. TV docudramas, meanwhile, explore how Britain might cope with a smallpox assault and what would happen if London were ‘dirty nuked’ (4).

The term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ refers to three types of weapons: nuclear, chemical and biological. A chemical weapon is any weapon that uses a manufactured chemical, such as sarin, mustard gas or hydrogen cyanide, to kill or injure. A biological weapon uses bacteria or viruses, such as smallpox or anthrax, to cause destruction – inducing sickness and disease as a means of undermining enemy forces or inflicting civilian casualties. We find such weapons repulsive, because of the horrible way in which the victims convulse and die – but they appear to be less ‘destructive’ than conventional weapons.

‘We know that nukes are massively destructive, there is a lot of evidence for that’, says Rapoport. But when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, ‘the evidence suggests that we should call them “weapons of minimum destruction”, not mass destruction’, he says.

Chemical weapons have most commonly been used by states, in military warfare. Rapoport explored various state uses of chemicals over the past hundred years: both sides used them in the First World War; Italy deployed chemicals against the Ethiopians in the 1930s; the Japanese used chemicals against the Chinese in the 1930s and again in the Second World War; Egypt and Libya used them in the Yemen and Chad in the postwar period; most recently, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemical weapons, first in the war against Iran (1980-1988) and then against its own Kurdish population at the tail-end of the Iran-Iraq war.

In each instance, says Rapoport, chemical weapons were used more in desperation than from a position of strength or a desire to cause mass destruction. ‘The evidence is that states rarely use them even when they have them’, he has written. ‘Only when a military stalemate has developed, which belligerents who have become desperate want to break, are they used.’ (5) As to whether such use of chemicals was effective, Rapoport says that at best it blunted an offensive – but this very rarely, if ever, translated into a decisive strategic shift in the war, because the original stalemate continued after the chemical weapons had been deployed.

He points to the example of Iraq. The Baathists used chemicals against Iran when that nasty trench-fought war had reached yet another stalemate. As Efraim Karsh argues in his paper ‘The Iran-Iraq War: A Military Analysis’: ‘Iraq employed [chemical weapons] only in vital segments of the front and only when it saw no other way to check Iranian offensives. Chemical weapons had a negligible impact on the war, limited to tactical rather than strategic [effects].’ (6)

According to Rapoport, this ‘negligible’ impact of chemical weapons on the direction of a war is reflected in the disparity between the numbers of casualties caused by chemicals and the numbers caused by conventional weapons. It is estimated that the use of gas in the Iran-Iraq war killed 5,000 – but the Iranian side suffered around 600,000 dead in total, meaning that gas killed less than one per cent.

The deadliest use of gas occurred in the First World War but, as Rapoport points out, it still only accounted for five per cent of casualties. Studying the amount of gas used by both sides from 1914-1918 relative to the number of fatalities gas caused, Rapoport has written: ‘It took a ton of gas in that war to achieve a single enemy fatality. Wind and sun regularly dissipated the lethality of the gases. Furthermore, those gassed were 10 to 12 times as likely to recover than those casualties produced by traditional weapons.’ (7)

Indeed, Rapoport discovered that some earlier documenters of the First World War had a vastly different assessment of chemical weapons than we have today – they considered the use of such weapons to be preferable to bombs and guns, because chemicals caused fewer fatalities. One wrote: ‘Instead of being the most horrible form of warfare, it is the most humane, because it disables far more than it kills, ie, it has a low fatality ratio.’ (8) ‘Imagine that’, says Rapoport, ‘WMD being referred to as more humane’. He says that the contrast between such assessments and today’s fears shows that actually looking at the evidence has benefits, allowing ‘you to see things more rationally’.

According to Rapoport, even Saddam’s use of gas against the Kurds of Halabja in 1988 – the most recent use by a state of chemical weapons and the most commonly cited as evidence of the dangers of ‘rogue states’ getting their hands on WMD – does not show that unconventional weapons are more destructive than conventional ones. Of course the attack on Halabja was horrific, but he points out that the circumstances surrounding the assault remain unclear.

‘The estimates of how many were killed vary greatly’, he tells me. ‘Some say 400, others say 5,000, others say more than 5,000. The fighter planes that attacked the civilians used conventional as well as unconventional weapons; I have seen no study which explores how many were killed by chemicals and how many were killed by firepower. We all find these attacks repulsive, but the death toll may actually have been greater if conventional bombs only were used. We know that conventional weapons can be more destructive.’

Rapoport says that terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons is similar to state use – in that it is rare and, in terms of causing mass destruction, not very effective. He cites the work of journalist and author John Parachini, who says that over the past 25 years only four significant attempts by terrorists to use WMD have been recorded. The most effective WMD-attack by a non-state group, from a military perspective, was carried out by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka in 1990. They used chlorine gas against Sri Lankan soldiers guarding a fort, injuring over 60 soldiers but killing none.

The Tamil Tigers’ use of chemicals angered their support base, when some of the chlorine drifted back into Tamil territory – confirming Rapoport’s view that one problem with using unpredictable and unwieldy chemical and biological weapons over conventional weapons is that the cost can be as great ‘to the attacker as to the attacked’. The Tigers have not used WMD since.

The most infamous use of WMD by terrorists was in March 1995, when 10 members of Aum Shinryko, the strange Japanese religious cult, released sarin gas on the Tokyo Underground. The homemade gas was placed in plastic bags wrapped in newspapers. The cult members started the attack by puncturing the bags with umbrellas. Twelve people were killed; over 1,000 were hospitalised, 40 of whom were seriously injured.

The Tokyo gas attack is seen as the most audacious use of WMD by terrorists to date; it is often namechecked as an example of what might happen if al-Qaeda types were to use WMD on the London Underground or on the New York Subway.

Yet, as Rapoport points out, while the Aum Shinryko attack certainly had tragic consequences, it also showed up the limitations of WMD attacks in terms of causing casualties or destruction. He says that even though Aum Shinryko had ‘extraordinary cover for a long time’ – meaning that the Japanese authorities were nervous about monitoring the group on the grounds that it was a religious outfit – and despite the fact that it had ‘20 members with graduate degrees in science, significant laboratories and assets of over a billion dollars’, it still did not succeed in its aim of taking hundreds or thousands of casualties, of causing mass destruction. For Rapoport this shows that such weapons are far from easy to use, especially when the groups using them must move around quickly, ‘as all terrorists must do’.

According to Rapoport, the most striking thing about the Aum Shinryko attack is that no one died from inhaling the sarin gas itself – in every fatal case, the individual had made contact with the liquid. He cites Parachini again, who says that the individuals killed by Aum Shinryko are the only people to have lost their lives as a result of a WMD attack by a terrorist group over the past 25 years. (There were also five deaths as a result of anthrax attacks post-9/11, but Parachini doesn’t include those because the individual responsible and the motivation for those attacks remain unknown.)

‘When you think that fewer than 15 people have been killed by known terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons, and contrast that to the thousands who were killed on 9/11 and in conventional bombings in Madrid or Bali or Istanbul, it’s quite remarkable that we are so obsessed with WMD’, says Rapoport.

So why are we so obsessed with WMD? Why do we continue to fret over weapons which, by all accounts, do not cause as much mass destruction as conventional weapons, which have only rarely been used by terrorists (and not very successfully at that), and which we’re not even certain that today’s terrorists, specifically al-Qaeda, have got access to? Rapoport says that’s a good question – but a difficult one to answer. He thinks the reasons are complex; he argues that it isn’t only government and media who have ratcheted up fear about WMD, but that ‘economic interests’ have, too – those in business, government and research institutions who stand to make financial gain from public concern about WMD and from public demands for more protective measures against such weapons.

No doubt there is some truth in that. But the disparity between the facts about WMD and our fears of WMD also reveals something more about today’s terror-obsession. It shows up the gap between the reality of terrorism – which over the past three years has largely consisted of scrappy bomb attacks by small nihilistic groups – and the fear of terrorism as something that might bring down civilisation as we know it, or, in the words of President Bush, inflict ‘hundreds of thousands of casualties’. It suggests that our concern about terrorism is not entirely shaped by the real threat posed by terrorism, but by a broader sense of fear and insecurity at home. That might explain why so much of the terror discussion, particularly in relation to WMD, is anticipatory and speculative, always conjuring up worst-case scenarios – because it comes from within, from our own nightmares and imaginations, rather than from without.

In this sense, chemical and biological weapons – the nightmare notion of silent, invisible killer poisons being released into our water systems or on to crowded public transport – are the perfect metaphor for the West’s own sense of vulnerability. What we could really do with is a heavy dose of reality.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror
(1) President Bush: Libya Pledges to Dismantle WMD Programmes, The White House, 19 December 2003

(2) See Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) See Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) BBC drama to depict ‘dirty bomb’ in London, Guardian, 28 July 2004

(5) ‘Terrorism and Weapons of the Apocalypse 2’, David C Rapoport

(6) ‘The Iran-Iraq War: A Military Analysis’, Efriam Karsh, Adelphi Papers, ISSS, 1987

(7) Terrorism and Weapons of the Apocalypse 2’, David C Rapoport

(8) ‘Terrorism and Weapons of the Apocalypse 2’, David C Rapoport

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Topics Politics


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