Chlorine Attack Reflects Ongoing Militant Strategy in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 3

For at least the third time this year, insurgents in Iraq have incorporated canisters of liquefied chlorine into vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. The latest of these attacks came on February 21, and left several dead and scores suffering from exposure to the dispersed chlorine in an area of Baghdad (Gulf Daily News, February 23). These are not the first instances of fighters exploring the use of chemicals in explosive devices, but they may be distinguished by their employment methods which can act as potential windows into the tactical and strategic thinking of such insurgents.

Several scientific experts have commented on the efficiency of the attacks, taking the position that the attacks were poorly executed. It is true that in each incident, insurgents introduced varying quantities of the chemical agent into an attack where explosives ruptured the chlorine tanks and dispersed the chemical agent. Such a dispersal method is inherently inefficient since much of the potential agent is burned or left oxidized in the ensuing explosion. Nevertheless, the less efficient method currently employed caused a significant number of casualties even if the number killed was not optimal given the quantities of agent present. Furthermore, low-tech chemical, biological, radiological (CBR) attacks—such as those employed by almost all non-state actors to date—are thought to be much more effective in terms of psychological damage than physical damage when staged against a target audience.

Insurgent groups have consistently innovated their tactics over the course of the conflict to achieve their desired objective in the face of equally persistent counter-insurgency innovations. New counter-insurgency/counter-sectarian violence initiatives have had little effect on the militants’ ability to inflict terror on the populations through “conventional” means. Thus, the selection of employing chlorine in a series of bombings in Iraq raises several questions not likely to be immediately answered. Are the insurgents preempting an anticipated or actual perceived desensitization of their target audiences and thus feel the need to resort to novel means to keep pace with the elevated threshold of tolerance? Or were these attacks simply continued experimentation to assess the technical capabilities of the weapons and the corresponding effects on the target populations with little expectations for the necessity of such advancements? Although it is only possible to hypothesize on the strategic motivations, it is far from certain that such attacks will either become commonplace or that they would even achieve a significantly elevated level of psychological pressure on the target populations if they are employed in a concerted campaign (Gulf Times, February 23).

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. Moreover, if needed, the Iraqi government could also disseminate basic information to the public as how to quickly identify and mitigate the effects of such attacks. At the very least, the most recent attacks show a continued desire on the part of militants to expand their capabilities beyond conventional means. Considering Iraq’s dismantled al-Abud network that attempted to acquire chemical weapons, claims of attacks with chemical munitions and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir’s call for scientists to engage in nuclear and biological experimentation, it is clear that insurgent groups continue to be enticed by the potential capabilities of such weapons and the trend remains unbroken (Terrorism Focus, October 10, 2006; Arab News, February 24).