Why terrorists’ use of CBRN is less frequent than you would think

FaceBook has pissed a lot of people off lately. If it is not their use of your data (which, by the way, you gave freely to the company) it is their inability to prevent or take down extremist material from their platform in a timely fashion or sanction those seeking to circumvent the democratic process associated with our elections (hint, hint: Russia). There are even those calling for a boycott of the social media giant which has roped in 2.4 BILLION of us earthlings.

Someone else seems to have a beef with Mark Zuckerberg’s company (NB it is not the Canadian Parliament which he refused to turn up at to testify). No, this person or persons unknown may have sent a package containing the very toxic substance sarin to FaceBook’s offices in Menlo Park, California. Actually, it turned out to be a false alarm, but not before a ‘routine test’ led to the evacuation of four buildings, FBI involvement, and the quarantine of the suspect mailbag .

When I was contacted to do a radio interview on this event (full disclosure: it got cancelled at the last minute), I did my due diligence on the story but only after asking myself “why does FaceBook do routine tests for toxic substances in its mail? Does this happen often?” I also prepared to answer the question I was bound to be asked, i.e. was this a terrorist attack?

As it turned out the whole thing is moot since there was no sarin present (so why did the test say there was? FaceBook might want to recalibrate the test). But I did think about the possible terrorist link and concluded that it was highly unlikely to be a terrorist incident and much more likely to be a disgruntled (former?) employee or civil rights activist.

Why would I draw such a conclusion? After all, I am no expert on sarin or any other CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear) substance. How was I supposed to know how easy it is to acquire sarin and turn it into a weapon?

Well apparently it is quite hard. According to one Web site I found credible it would take a lot to safely get and use sarin, with the greater risk that those seeking to use it in a terrorist attack would poison or kill themselves rather than their targets. Apparently rocket science – or in this case sarin science – really is rocket science and most terrorists are thankfully not rocket scientists.

There was of course one occasion on which a terrorist group did deploy sarin successfully: the 1995 attack by the bizarre Japanese cult/terrorist organisation Aum Shin Rikyo in the Tokyo subway. Twelve people died from exposure to the substance, 40 were seriously injured and over 5,000 were admitted to hospital although a post event analysis showed that 85 percent of the 5,510 people treated at Tokyo hospitals and clinics were simply worried, not harmed. So not an overwhelming success even if a dozen deaths should not be dismissed.

The lesson here is that we have been programmed to see many things as terrorism in the post 9/11 era. When we hear things like what did not happen at FaceBook we leap to the “it’s a terrorist attack!” belief. This is of course not helpful.

I know that terrorists are continuing to experiment with sarin and other equally dangerous stuff. I recall a video in which some Islamist extremist group (I can’t remember which one) put to death a dog that was in a dish with some chemical or other. So yes they are trying and yes a real event would send shockwaves around the world and lead to mass panic. Therefore it is incumbent on our security intelligence and law enforcement protectors to keep up on these efforts and thwart these evil designs.

As for the rest of us, however, let’s maintain a level head. Sarin attacks are unlikely (outside state-initiated ones such as the time Syria used it against its own people) and let’s hope they remain so. Giving terrorists credit for what they cannot do is a bad idea anyway.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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