Canaries in Cages: Responding to Chemical/biological Incidents

By Mefford, Larry A. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1996 | Go to article overview

Canaries in Cages: Responding to Chemical/biological Incidents


Mefford, Larry A., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Consider this scenario. Holiday sales have attracted large crowds to the sprawling suburban mall. Suddenly, as shoppers browse or hurry through the mall, a small bomb explodes in the food court, instantly killing 15 people and severely injuring more than a dozen other men, women, and children.

When the first mall security personnel arrive at the scene, they experience tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. Dizziness and nausea ensue, and the officers rapidly begin to lose muscular control of their bodies.

The explosive device exposes responding police, fire, and medical personnel to lethal concentrations of a colorless and odorless vapor. Within minutes, more than 50 additional victims are overcome by the fumes lingering in the air. In total, nearly 100 people die in this attack.

Later that night, a major television news organization receives an anonymous telephone call from a man who states that the bomb was a chemical weapon deployed by a known radical organization. Claiming that the incident serves as a warning, he says that similar chemical weapons containing nerve agents have been hidden in populated areas throughout the United States and will be detonated remotely if the U.S. Government does not respond to the group's demands.

Is such a scenario plausible? More than 10 years ago, two foreign affairs specialists speculated that the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States was not from the use of a nuclear device but from chemical and/or biological warfare.(1) Given the proliferation of the technology and the expanded number of countries capable of manufacturing such weapons worldwide, the specialists' warning rings even more true today.(2)

However, the threat now extends beyond traditional state-sponsored terrorist organizations. The nerve agent attack on March 20, 1995, in the Tokyo, Japan, subway system verifies this threat, and the 12 deaths and 5,500 injured Japanese citizens illustrate the grave danger that chemical and biological weapons pose.

No known domestic or international terrorist elements have signaled a change in tactics from traditional forms of terrorism, such as bombings and kidnappings, to the use of chemical and/or biological (C/B) weapons. Yet, the gravity of the potential use of such weapons, coupled with the capability demonstrated by the perpetrators of the Tokyo subway attack, requires that American law enforcement agencies be prepared for such incidents. This article describes the threat posed by C/B weapons; the response required by local, state, and federal agencies to C/B incidents; and the statutory basis for investigating and prosecuting crimes involving these weapons.

THE THREAT

Initially developed to serve on the battlefield, chemical and biological weapons recently have been incorporated into the arsenals of certain criminal and terrorist organizations. Traditionally, a primary law enforcement concern was the procurement (by theft, purchase, or otherwise) of a stockpiled military C/B weapon by someone with criminal intent. However, the series of seven chemical weapon attacks that occurred in Japan between March 5, 1995, and July 4, 1995, clearly demonstrated the danger associated with the spread of C/B weapon technology.

Today, the traditional criminal motivated by monetary gain, or a psychologically unstable yet technically competent individual, could be capable of manufacturing such weapons, whereas in the past, such individuals had to acquire ready-made weapons. Of special concern should be those well-organized and dedicated groups - especially radical domestic and foreign organizations - that foster secrecy, possess ample financial resources, recruit competently trained individuals, and incorporate doomsday or other drastic beliefs.

Both the Japanese and American news media reported widely that the Japanese incidents were perpetrated to ensure that the predictions of a religious cult leader would come true. …

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Canaries in Cages: Responding to Chemical/biological Incidents
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